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Athlete, Strengthen Thyself! Making the (Running) Body

I am in my tenth week of an intens(iv)e training program to run a half marathon in November. Perhaps running the race is wishful thinking, but the training is keeping me focused during the pandemic. The training is based on Stacy Sims’ book, Roar: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to your Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life.

Sims’ claim based on her own research as an exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist is that people who have more estrogen and progesterone and other hormones we have traditionally called “female” cannot be trained as small men as they have been for decades. During the high hormone phase of the menstrual cycle for those who menstruate, the body has a harder time taking up protein. If you don’t get significant protein within 30 minutes of a workout, the body recovers by taking protein out of muscles — basically eating the muscles instead of building them. In addition to the different needs brought about by different hormones, the different physiology, specifically for example broad pelvic bones, lead to less stability in the knees and thus more of a likelihood to be knock-kneed — and in running to have less stability and a tendency for knees to collapse in — unless glutes are significantly strengthened. Even really strong women athletes can have strong quadriceps and still buckle their knees when they jump if they aren’t working on building all three gluteus muscles.

So this training program, unlike any running program I have done in the past, includes a pretty serious mobility and strength-training program with a focus on the areas in which women have commonly been weaker. On top of that, for the first time in my life, I went to a physical therapist. The PT told me that I do indeed have a weak gluteus medeus and this causes my knees to collapse inward. If running is just a series of single leg squats, then I’m a pretty wobbly runner, even if I’m strong in the bigger muscles.

The physical therapist sent me home with a series of exercises: single leg squats, single leg glute bridges, clam shells, the like. I’ve been doing the exercises pretty religiously. For the first time, I feel like I am working out not to be fit or thin or attractive, but to mold my body into what I need it to be in order to better do what I want to do with it. Working on my body in this way has me thinking again about the enduring questions of my professional life: what is the relationship of nature to artifice, of physis – that which grows or comes forth on its own – and technē – that which comes about through human know-how. Aristotle refers to the doctor doctoring herself to think about how the body that heals is related to the work of healing when that occurs in the same natural being. Training the athletic body is a similar process: know-how intervenes but does not make the body an object of artifice but works on ushering in the natural capacities of the body even though such capacities would not have been cultivated without the intervention of various know-hows — from Sims to my physical therapists to my own.

When I was redoing the deck a couple summers ago as I was finishing up my last book project on the robust power of material and form’s interdependence on it, I started thinking about how the material resists in the work of making. Material resists in projects of artifice the way that nature resists because it has its own principle or archē that governs its being. The body can resist efforts to form it as well. It can hide the reasons for how it moves but it can also reveal them when someone with the right know-how like the physical therapist knows where to look. Working on my body to make it better capable of doing the work I want it to do — to run faster and more efficiently, to recover better, to build and said of cannibalize muscle — has me thinking of the body less as a machine or tool that I as a mind use, following the more modern reification of the distinction between mind and body, and more of the body like the patient that the doctor can take herself to be. At some point the body has to take over from the doctor the work of becoming healthy. The body can’t be fully understood as an object to the doctor’s subject. Nature is not the mere matter of technē’s work.

I keep returning to and reconsidering Aristotle’s account of nature as what aims toward itself by contrast to technē whose aim is outside of itself. The acorn aims to become the oak tree because the form of oak tree in the acorn aims to fulfill itself in the oak tree. The tadpole aims to become a frog because the form of from in the tadpole aims at being a frog. The doctor by contrast aims toward health which is beyond and outside the doctor. Technē does not aim at its own increase. This is why the case of the doctor treating herself as a patient is so interesting because here physis and technē are joined in the same being. The doctor’s know-how about health aim to heal themselves as a patient. But the patient heals and becomes healthy in a joining of the natural fulfillment of being a healthy body with the doctor’s knowledge of what constitutes health. Similarly in the athlete, the knowledge of what exercises and routines, what training, is required to produce strength and endurance joins the natural work of the athletic body to become strong and enduring. The athletic body is both working and being worked upon. I think some Aristotle scholars would say that the knowledge is working on the body rather than the body is working and being worked upon, but in my experience of single leg squats and clam shells, my body feels like it is working on itself. My body has to do the work to make my body.

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