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Running Fads and the Role of Closure: Are You a Fanatic?

Posted by on Jul 4, 2012 | 11 Comments

Spend enough time in the running world and you begin to notice some patterns. New ideas, concepts, or training methods come up, bounce around in obscurity for awhile, then catch on like wildfire. They persist for a period of time, then eventually get replaced by some new idea. This pattern applies to pretty much any aspect of human social interactions, but we’ll stick to running for this discussion.

Some examples of this phenomenon include ideas like:

  • Running long, slow distance training,
  • Paleo diet
  • High intensity interval training,
  • Barefoot running,
  • Vegan diet,
  • Motion control shoes,
  • Moisture-wicking clothing,
  • Yasso 800’s,
  • Foam rollers,
  • Hokas,
  • Low heart rate training,
  • Couch to 5k programs,
  • High mileage training,
  • Low mileage training,
  • Dynamic stretching,
  • Ice baths,
  • Use of orthotics,
  • Compression gear

All of these things, at one time or another, captured a large audience within the running community. Some have been backed by science. Some are the product of anecdotal evidence. Most of us will experiment with these ideas. If they work, we continue using them. If not, we abandon them.

Some of us, however, tend to latch on to one idea and hang on to it. We build a defensive barrier around the idea to reject any information that runs counter to the idea. We seek out just enough information to confirm our belief, then we shut out any and all conflicting information. This psychological mechanism results in a distinctly black and white view of the world. The thought that our ideas may be wrong causes us a great deal of stress. We need definitive answers. This leads us to assume a “fanatic” persona.

Psychologists refer to this as a need for closure. Popular media and pop psychology likes to refer to the term as a means of tying loose ends. This is more or less correct, but a better explanation is closure as a need to eliminate ambiguity. We need to have a clear, obvious path to follow.

Let’s use barefoot running as an example. It’s clear barefoot running is some benefit for some people some of the time. It’s also clear barefoot running is not applicable to all people in all situations. However, some people that start barefoot running believe just that. They will believe barefoot running is the lone key to success (however they define success) and all other options or variations are invalid. Furthermore, they extend this idea to all people in the population.These individuals have a strong need for closure. Ambiguity cannot be tolerated.

This strong need for closure causes problems because it insulates us from advancing. We start with a question:

  • How can we run better?

We find an answer to the question:

  • Barefoot running

We find some evidence to support the idea:

  • One or two empirical studies indirectly supporting barefoot running, maybe a few anecdotal success stories, or maybe some initial personal success.

Which satisfies our need to validate (and rationalize) our belief, which then leads us to ignore or blankly refute contrary evidence, such as:

  • There are some conditions where barefoot running is impossible, some people may not have adequate physiological requirements, wearing shoes may allow you to perform better, etc.

I spend a fair amount of time perusing various forums and blogs. I love hearing other people’s opinions… mostly because it gives me fuel to question my own beliefs. It’s common to come across people that have an obviously high need for closure and equally obvious low need for closure.

The high closure people talk in absolutes. They only cite evidence that supports their argument. They seemingly have no ability to see a different perspective.

The low closure people hem and haw. Their ambiguity is often perceived as a lack of conviction. Their thoughts and opinions change with new evidence, and they never firmly commit to any one thing.

Want a good test to see where you probably fall? Answer this question:

What happens when you die?

High closure people will have an answer (Heaven/Hell, reincarnation, worm food, etc.)

Low closure people will not have an answer, or answer “I don’t know.”

So… Now What?

As much as I would like to say all of us need to be low closure people, I’m going to resist. I DO prefer communicating with others with low need for closure because I like the open-mindedness. Two of my favorite bloggers, Christian Peterson and Pete Larson, are excellent example of running bloggers that keep a healthy skepticism in their discussions on all things related to running.

I occasionally like communication with high closure people, but more because I like to be antagonistic. ;-)

There’s utility in both conditions. The low closure folks tend to be innovators. The high closure people give us a degree of stability. It’s probably a moot point anyway, all of us probably meet some criteria of both conditions depending on the specific belief.

What about you? Do you think you’re a high or low closure person? How do you think this affects you as a runner? How do you treat new running “fads?”

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11 Comments

  1. Lalit bhatia
    July 9, 2012

    Wanted to add to the list – Chi Running. Even though I haven’t read too much about it, I sounds in the same hokey category as tantric sex or ‘newer’ versions of yoga that stick an arcane sanskrit adjective to yoga that people tend to latch on to. Chi-running? really? Is this the Atkin’s diet of running?

  2. Angie Bee
    July 7, 2012

    I strive to be low closure. Change is what will keep life fresh. I don’t want to stagnate.

  3. Tess
    July 5, 2012

    I’m going to call myself “stubborn low closure”.

    I am always open to new ideas, but I am VERY opposed to taking in other people’s input if THEY are convinced about it. I can be hopelessly stubborn, but then completely flexible when *I* discover something new and cool which changes my view of things.

    Okay, the less polite terms are probably “control freak” and “pig-headed” (not to insult my porcine friends).

  4. Trish Reeves
    July 5, 2012

    Well said. But, I dunno if I believe any of that. :P

  5. BF in AZ
    July 5, 2012

    I am a low closure person, and I will accept no evidence to the contrary.

  6. Paul Wallis
    July 4, 2012

    Jason, respectfully I’m not sure that barefoot running qualifies as a “fad”. After all an activity that has helped define the human species for the last 1.5 million years hardly should be counted as a “fad”. At least this is from the evidence that I was led to believe by Lieberman’s research.

    • Jason
      July 4, 2012

      I just tossed it in as an example, Paul. I actually have an entire section of my book explaining why BFR isn’t a fad. ;-)

      • Paul Wallis
        July 5, 2012

        Thanks for the clairification, I was a little confused.

  7. Shane D.
    July 4, 2012

    Being that I am open minded and willing to try everything once would make me low closure. However once I find something that works for me, I stick with it. The difference is I dont try and enforce my beliefs on everyone. I get that what works for some wont work for everyone. I guess in some situations I am low and high closure-is that possible?

  8. Tony S
    July 4, 2012

    Low closure. I listen to what my body tells me, while continuously being cautious and skeptical. I’m all for trying new things since I have a pretty good baseline of how I feel.

    I used to run, followed the standard carbo loading and dealt with bouncing blood glucose levels and what I thought was a higher amount of insulin dosages than I should really need. Not to mention higher HbA1c tests than I would have liked. Shook things up, did strict Paleo for 30days & never felt better. Over the course of 5 months I’ve cut my insulin dosages in half and my HbA1c is in range of a non-diabetic.

    I am still experimenting with different foods but this diet works for me (& my fiancé) and we’ll stick with it until it doesn’t.

    I’ve stopped looking at myself as a runner and started seeing myself as someone who enjoys running. I used to focus on running and now I focus on everything I do athletically as one. Adding in CrossFit to my running program has made me a much healthier and stronger runner. It has also made me stronger for whatever life throws at me mentally and physically. Again it works for me and I’ll continue with it until my body tells me otherwise.

  9. The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy
    July 4, 2012

    I believe nothing you just said. Even the true parts