Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science), CSCS, PES
One of the key physiological adaptations of endurance training for the Ironman athlete (and for the fitness athlete who wants to ‘lose a few pounds’ is improving their ability to generate energy from fat. I wanted to devote a short article to the ‘whys’ of the importance of improving this ability in athletes along with the practical ‘hows’ of doing so from both a training and a nutritional perspective.
The last blog that I wrote implied that genetic determinism was an ‘unpleasantry’. I have been thinking about that a lot this past week and have come to the conclusion that the line between genetic determinism and a spiritual calling is a fine one.
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Through my athletic journey, I learned lessons that that made me a better man in the "real world".
Being a coach is an incredibly satisfying job because I can help people use athletic goals to break patterns/habits that have been limiting their success in other fields. There is no "magic" from the coach, rather, the desire of the athlete... to get to Kona, to win their agegroup, or to finish their race... provides that little extra motivation to keep going when they might have stopped in the past.
What are these fundamental lessons?
More than getting what we deserve, we get what we expect.
In this clip, I run through:
We had an interesting discussion going on on the EC web site this past week on the tail of some 2009 training volume totals that I posted from some of my guys (with some additions from other EC members). I’ve reposted these below:
Gordo provides an update on:
“Why should I practice running slow? I already know how to be slow. I want to learn how to be fast”
- Emil Zatopek
Welcome to EC!! Have a look around while you’re here. Lots of good info in the library. But first, I want to chat a little about one of the most confusing aspects of training for the Endurance Athlete: Speedwork.
Over the last few years, I have prepared my annual "to do" list of goals and tactics. Being achievement oriented, I have found that stating my game plan helps me stick to getting it done.
Of course, one does need to be aware that publicly falling short can be painful... but nowhere near as painful as regret, or the haunting feeling when we know we let ourselves down.
EnduranceCorner.Com has two components:
“Planning training sessions appropriately within a week is like playing beautiful music. If the right keys are played at the right time, it creates a masterpiece. If the right keys are played at the wrong time, nothing but noise”
In this post, I’m going to complete the trilogy of training cycles by taking a look at some structural considerations in planning the fundamental microcycle - the Basic Week.
This week I am going to share some ideas that will, hopefully, save you from a large financial loss at some stage in your life. Over the course of your life people will steal from, mislead and generally attempt to swindle you -- if you hit 50 and think that this has never happened to you then you might not have been paying attention!
Skill-based, achievable, wealth creation stems from two principles:
If you do those two points consistently then your net worth will rise over time. Sounds easy but it is seldom done effectively. There are always temptations to cut corners.
In my last blog, I gave some perspective to the relative merits of adopting a periodized structure when planning a mesocycle. I concluded that while there is benefit to using a ‘staircase’ structure in planning the weeks within a given training month, in general, the practical limitations of a fixed work schedule and life schedule outweigh the potential 3-5% that can come from using this structure.
So, what about the training season (macrocycle)? Should we adopt a flat loading pattern, where all weeks are the same or are there key points within the season that should have a higher or lower volume than the athlete’s basic week?
Travel isn't all bad. A ten-day business trip removes a lot of distractions and long flights are excellent for extended periods of uninterrupted time. Both editions of Going Long had their final proofs reviewed on a long haul flight.
“There’s more to being a model than just being really, really good looking”
- Derek Zoolander
Wise, wise words from Derek Zoolander. As many of you know, I have been really into models lately – training models that is. I have received some great feedback from you all, including a number of elite athletes that validates some of the theoretical constructs I presented in my last piece on the off-season. My buddy, Mat wrote a great ‘real world’ piece on his experiences with the off-season on his blog.
This week I thought that I would share some ideas about how fatherhood is going as well as how I have been managing my expectations over the last seven weeks. As you can see above, my daughter wears her trousers just like daddy -- she's a High Rider.
I was a little concerned through the pregnancy about how I was going to cope with having a baby in the house. My track record of tolerance with little people is pretty limited. Even as a camp counsellor, I was never given kids under 10 years old to manage.
This week I am going to use the answers to your marathon questions to help explain how the fat guy on the right of the photo became the blazing triathlete on the left. Not many people run 2:46 off the bike in an Ironman -- even fewer starting from a very comfortable 200+ lbs.
“Resuming training too early is much like pulling an onion out of the garden and realizing it is not yet fully grown. One cannot put it back in and expect more growth!”
- Peter Coe (Coach of middle distance legend Sebastian Coe)
The opening picture for today’s post was put together by one of the athletes that I work with at the end of his season for 2009. I think it pretty eloquently describes how many of us feel at the end of a tough season. I know I’m certainly ready for a break after my own 2008 A-Race, Ironman Arizona. Before I get into the ‘whys’ and the ‘hows’ of planning an appropriate off season, a quick summary race report of my AZ experience:
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”
So, being in the middle of an Ironman taper for the past couple of weeks seriously got me thinking about the role of fatigue in the training process. Dropping a significant amount of load over the past couple of weeks has me feeling like Superman, running my 200’s almost 5s faster than what I do in a normal training week, swimming times that I haven’t seen in a long while and feeling an unfamiliar pep throughout the day.
These sensations got me seriously asking the question, what if I was to throw down a training block right now? What sort of quantity/quality could I accomplish? Of course, it’s purely speculative, but I do know that I have energy and motivation for training that has been missing over the last couple of months while I have been pitching my tent in the valley of fatigue.
I guess all of this extra energy devoted to firing a few more neurons brought me full circle, back to that undying question: When it comes to fatigue, how much is too much?
With the mood (near universally) negative, I've been trying to figure out my long term strategy for savings and investment. As I mentioned a few weeks back, I'm currently projecting a cash flow deficit for 2009. I suspect that I'm not alone in being in that position! Frankly, being able to absorb an unexpected set back is why I've been conservative over the last twenty years. I have been reminding myself that the world isn't ending but human psychology can be tough to counter.
“Ignorant people see life as either existence or non-existence, but wise men see it beyond both existence and non-existence to something that transcends them both; this is an observation of the Middle Way.”
From the times of Zatopek and Lydiard, there have remained 2 basic schools to endurance training – the ‘far before fast’ school (Lydiard, Viren, Seiko etc) and the ‘fast before far’ school (Zatopek, Peters, Pirie etc).
Advocates of the latter school have often claimed that the athlete who is most successful at the shorter distances will ultimately prove most successful at the longer distances. With the recent marathon success of athletes such as Haile Gebresellassie (an athlete with a sub 3:50mile best), it is hard to argue with this perspective.
This is going to be a two-part series on marathon training. Part One will share some concepts which I believe impact all endurance sports, but especially, marathon training (stand alone and Ironman). Part Two will pick up the questions from last week, as well as, any from this week.
It has been a hectic week for me in Europe and I am now in Asia for a few days before returning to the US. Sorry that I missed the Friday deadline but I was busy growing grey hairs! No announcements this week, we will roll straight into Part One.
I had a look at average results for all marathons in the US in 2005 -- the results didn't surprise me, but they might surprise you. Average male finish time was about 4.5 hours, with the ladies just over 5.0 hours. That is for stand-alone marathons -- not running after 2.4 miles of swimming and 112 miles of running.
Hey gang, with the sunny season coming to a close and the legs getting over our last race effort enough for us to contemplate doing it all again, I thought I would throw out a quick reminder of the camps that Endurance Corner will be offering as a winter escape in 2009.
Last year’s two camps in Tucson were definitely a highlight of my year and I’m pretty psyched to have the opportunity to log some miles in the Arizona sun with some of you fine folks in 2009.
I’ve included a summary of what’s in store, along with some of my own impressions from last years camps (lifted directly from my training log) for your consideration. If my brand of good clean family fun sounds a lot like yours, be sure to drop Justin Daerr an email at Justin “at” endurancecorner “dot” com and sign up.
Endurance Corner Tucson Camp 2009
Endurance Corner, out of Boulder, Colorado, will be hosting two triathlon camps in 2009.
“Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, let it grow, be like water”
- Bruce Lee
I was tempted, this week, to write an article on one of the remaining principles of training, the principle of specificity. But, I am forced to admit that I don’t buy into that principle to the extent that I once did. I, like Matt Fitzgerald and other coach/athletes who place a high importance on sensory acuity, have found now, on a couple of occasions, that my bike load does influence my running performance, that my strength training does influence my bike performance and vice versa. There are a couple of preliminary performance and dose-response modelling studies that also support this notion, but in a broader sense, the jury is still out. So, under the old adage that it is better to be presumed a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt, I’ll keep my mouth closed on that one…..for now :-)
Instead, I wanted to write a follow up piece on a principle that I DO believe in 100% - the principle of individuality. This piece was inspired by two things. First of all, I picked up a copy of Brad Hudson’s book “Run Faster”. This is, unequivocally, the best book that I have read on training theory in a very long time. Speaking from the vantage point of someone who is looking at 2 book shelves full of over 200 books on swim, bike and run training, hopefully that statement carries some weight. Do yourself a favour and buy a copy.
The second thing that inspired this piece was a discussion with one of the well-known coaches who espouses cookie-cutter programs as the cost-effective solution for the majority of triathletes looking for some guidance with their training program. I have a number of issues with this approach and the way that triathlon coaching seems to be going that I will address below, not the least of which is that it fails to acknowledge the physiological, psychological and socio-cultural realities of individuality as athletes and as human beings, that contribute to the fact that, when it comes to creating an effective, appropriate training program for the individual, one size does NOT fit all.
In fact, as you will see below, I would go so far to say than an athlete would be far better starting their journey with no schedule and a blank log book in hand than a generic schedule that is not tailored to them.
If you were to take a look at the 200+ books on my bookshelf, you would notice an interesting pattern. The older, more tattered books are much more practical in content (Triathletes Training Bible, Serious Training for Serious Athletes, Road Running for Serious Runners, etc.) . It used to be the case that if I didn’t see immediately practical schedules, routines, workouts when flipping through the pages of the new entries in the sports and fitness section, I deemed the book worthless and moved on. Now, I am much more likely to deem it worthless if it does contain schedules supposed to fit various age or ability groups because, after experimenting with various schedules & programs on myself and in earlier years, my athletes I have come to the conclusion that it is both preposterous & frustrating to think for a second that you can forecast with any degree of accuracy how quickly any individual will adapt to a given workload or even what physiological changes a given weekly schedule will create. It is a truth and certainly not a negative comment that, in a lot of ways, the very best coaches are ‘making it up as they go along’.
Bruce Lee is an athlete and an individual that I respect very deeply. His art of Jeet Kune Do was largely based on ‘formlessness’. An extension of Krishnamurti’s concept that ‘truth is a pathless land’, in a practical sense, formlessness simply means adapting a resolve to not hold to one form or one theory, but rather to have an open mind and use whatever works. While there are certain core concepts that have proven common to the great endurance athletes of the past, e.g. relatively high volume training, multi-pace training, some form of periodization, hard-easy training, etc. there is also room for a lot of grey. Some things have proven to work for some athletes, some for others.
However, this is not to say that there are 100 best ways to achieve your athletic potential. For every one athlete, there is one best way, specific to your own physiology, psychology and life circumstances. The real art, and perhaps joy, in training comes from discovering your Way
One of the more interesting things that I have done as an exercise physiology student is to look under the microscope and examine various muscle biopsy samples. It is very easy for the human mind, in a search for uniformity and schemata to forget just how physically different and unique that we all are. When your gaze is shifted from common faces to the foreign environment of a microscope slide, you are given a startling reminder of the fact that we are all completely unique. Even letting go of all the quantitative differences of muscle fiber type, # of cytochromes, mitochondria etc, it is clear, even to the layman that one guy’s muscle ‘looks’ very different to another’s. It is a logical extension then, that with different capacities, the ‘right’ way to train one person will be very different from another, even if the individuals are of similar fitness and training for similar events.
While most coaches will acknowledge these differences, the complexity of creating truly individual training programs tailored to each individual’s physiological peculiarities leads many to simply give up and adopt a ‘best fit’ approach, which works out fine if you’re one of the athletes who fits within the parameters of the best fit, but not so well if you’re one of the unlucky who lacks the adaptive potential or the optimal physiology to benefit from the fixed training plan. I will tell you from experience, that it is very easy to rationalize the success of a particular training method based on 1 or 2 athletes, of a squad of 20 or more being very successful on it. (I am honestly sorry to those 18/20 that didn’t make it. If only I knew then what I know now).
The good news is that you don’t have to perform daily blood analysis and muscle biopsies to determine the optimal training program for each athlete. A little flexibility, a little responsiveness is all that is required. Bruce Lee hit the nail on the head when he penned that quote 40 years ago. There is much to be admired about a single drop of water. From the day that it is deposited on an alpine slope and it begins thawing, it has only one mission, one way to use the potential energy that it has been given, and that is to find a path that leads it to the sea. However, like you on your athletic journey, the eventual path is undetermined at this point. The water droplet must be responsive. When times are good, the water will flow quickly. When times are tough, and the tributaries shallow, the water must slow down. When the water hits an obstacle and stops moving forward, it must quickly and subtly change course. If the hand of man comes in and attempts to hurry the water beyond it’s natural rate of flow it will spill over the sides and be removed (at least temporarily) from it’s forward path of progress.
This metaphor describes, quite succinctly, the way that I coach and train as an athlete. While the mission may be set in stone, the path & the rate of progress are not. The smart athlete rather than adhering to a particular schedule ‘no matter what’, will:
1. Pay attention to his/her body on a daily basis to determine if they are ready for a particular workout. If not, they will do an easier workout or rest without hesitation, irrespective of what the schedule says. In addition, they will make note of what they are able to absorb and plan the next training cycle accordingly.
2. Pay attention to the physiological adaptations that are occurring and once one plateaus, will move their focus to another, all with the aim of becoming an appropriately balanced athlete. I discuss the practicalities of this in my previous blog on complex training. In this way, a schedule forecasted forward more than 3 or 4 weeks is worthless because no one can guess the rates at which each physiological capacity will improve for each individual.
Ultimately, training responsively will prove to be the quickest route to your goals. It is true that nature does a poor job of anything when hurried. The water learned this a long time ago. Maybe, as athletes, we can too.
Couple of announcements before we kick off.
Tucson -- we have ten slots left for our Spring Camp in Tucson. Dates are March 29th to April 5th. Six days of training, $2,350 includes everything but your airfares. The camp is appropriate for sub-13 hour IMers (and sub-6 hours Half IMers). For more info drop me a line.
Over on Endurance Corner Radio you will find three new podcasts -- Greg Bennett; Going Fast in Kona; and Chris Baldwin. If you want then you can subscribe to the podcasts through iTunes -- we are listed under Endurance Corner Radio. Jonas Colting will be live on Monday!
On October 14th, Monica gave birth to our daughter Alexandra (she's the one in the photo above). Seeing as I'm the writer in the family, I will share some observations across the last ten months.
We have all heard stories about massive weight gain during pregnancy. I've heard stories of women gaining up to 80 pounds across their pregnancies. Listening to these tales, many women must wonder if large amounts of baby weight are the norm. Do I have to become huge, to have a healthy baby? Monica's experience might be relevant to you.
Before we start with the pregnancy, I want to mention a little bit about the year before the pregnancy. When you look at the athletes racing in Kona, or ITU Worlds, you will see that most participants are optimized for performance, rather than personal health. In fact, I'd guess that many very fast elite athletes (male and female) would have trouble conceiving when they are peak athletic condition.
So my first recommendation for athletes seeking to conceive is to get a medical check-up and shift the basis of your athletics from performance, to health. That is something that Monica and I did across last winter. Although I continued to ride my bike, my overall training stress was low enough that I had sufficient energy to devote to fatherly duties...
Monica didn't ride and focused her training on swimming, running and yoga. She was in excellent health and physical condition. While we were trying to conceive, she kept both the volume, and intensity, of her program. She didn't do much fast running but she would swim fast three times per week.
Monica's main worries prior to getting pregnant:
I can relate to those concerns -- I share many of them every October and November!
The good news is you can maintain your body, your health and, most surprisingly, your fitness. Here's how she did it.
No Zeros -- Monica did some form of physical activity every single day, for her entire pregnancy - even the day her water broke. This performance was a lot better than Dad's record!
While our medical advice was not to commence a fitness program when you get pregnant, all our doctors said that it was OK to maintain a fitness program through pregnancy. Monica's doc also noted that there isn't much practical knowledge about pregnancy and the endurance athlete.
The warnings boiled down to:
Monica read the blogs of athletic moms like Bree Wee and Paula Radcliffe -- seeking to learn from their experience. She also consulted with coaches of elite female triathletes to learn from their experience. Something that came out of that research is the risk of stress fractures that result when moms come back too quickly. We received a lot of warnings about late term and postpartum running.
While most people talk about trimesters, looking from the outside, I noticed shifts closer to ten week blocks within M's 40-week pregnancy.
First ten weeks -- hormonal changes, mainly impacted mood and appetite. Monica was lucky in that her cravings were fresh fruit (rather than sugar/starch) related.
Second ten weeks -- feeling much better, moderated volume and intensity with attitude of baby-comes-first.
Third ten weeks -- pregnancy starts to show, pubic bone discomfort at 26 weeks, stopped running at 30 weeks, shifted to the elliptical trainer 2x per week.
Final ten weeks -- months of high frequency swimming left her very economical in the water, some high volume swim weeks, hiking started around 34 weeks, elliptical reduced to 1x per week.
Here's a great stat... total swim distance across the pregnancy... 908,600 meters. Average weekly volume was 14 hours and 45 minutes (includes yoga & cross training but not mellow walks with me). That average volume was down from 19-23 hours per week before conception.
The most surprising thing for me was that across her third trimester, Monica had returned to a level of aerobic swim economy that was on-par with where she was preconception.
To sum up Monica's focus:
The biggest mental challenges Monica faced were:
There will be days where you feel like everyone wants you to get huge, slow down and be uncomfortable. Those feelings are normal and it helps to know that all pregnant ladies are dealing with them.
If she had to give you one piece of advice with your pregnancy then she would encourage you to remain active, moderately, every day. Also remember that if you plan on breast feeding you'll burn off your baby weight safely and gradually.
The birth experience was intense and nothing like either of us expected. We went to "baby school" this summer but nothing can prepare you for the real thing.
All you experienced moms out there... you certainly downplayed the extreme nature of childbirth!
6:45pm Sunday (Zero Hour) -- water breaks, contractions start shortly thereafter
+6 hrs -- at the hospital, told cervix is 1-2 cm dilated
+15 hrs -- Monica's OB/Gyn gives an exam and notes that cervix is 1 cm dilated -- previous exam was incorrect; drug inserted to help cervix along
+18 hrs -- full blown labour gets going, strong contractions happening up to 2:30 min apart
+23 hrs -- another exam; disappointing news; uterus is ahead of cervix; only 2cm dilated; facing another 12 hrs of labour M opts for epidural
+24 hrs -- epidural kicks in with three hours of pain relief and relative comfort
+29 hrs -- pain relief gone; M feeling pretty strung out and ragged; doctor recommends sleeping pill to enable M to sleep; doesn't force it but strongly recommends
+30 hrs -- M waives off sleeping pill; gets anaesthetist to refresh the epidural;
+31 hrs -- another three hours of pain relief; a couple of short naps; makes a huge difference
+34 hrs -- pain relief wanes; good news that M is 8.5 cm dilated (one needs to get to 10 cm)
+35 hrs -- pretty extreme pain through transition; M starts pushing; has to pause because she nearly pushes the baby out before the doctor can get to the room
+35:30 hrs -- childbirth!
Things that surprised us:
The extreme amounts of pain -- likely magnified by duration of labour and lack of sleep. Picture the most despair your have ever seen in an athlete... this didn't even come close! I'm guessing that you'd only see close having to watch young people die or see people broken via torture. It's a good thing that babies are so cute!
The main thing that surprised me (M didn't see) was the large amount of blood that came out after the birth -- between the placenta and the blood, there was a bucket full of post-baby-bits. Didn't freak me out but it certainly got my attention.
Tips for the guys:
Being in the room, and supportive, provides a HUGE opportunity to strengthen your marriage. In life, we only get a few opportunities to demonstrate character. Child-birth is a total-body experience for your wife, being able to share that can create a deep bond. She will always remember if you were there for her.
Besides, after you watch, you'll spend the rest of your life grateful that your wife is handling the birthing part of the relationship. Blew my mind!
Back next week,
In my last article on ‘Exercise Physiology 101: The Basics’, I outlined some of the key critical transitions that occur within the body when faced with an increasing exercise demand. In the name of practical applicability, coaches have used various methods to approximate these critical points and a variety of terms to describe the range that encompasses the transitions between these points.
The mixed use of terms like Zone 2, Compensation Training, Maximal Aerobic Function Training, Reps, Intervals, ½ Paced Efforts, Tempo Training etc etc. can leave 2 intelligent coaches speaking 2 totally separate languages, the equivalent of Swahili and Japanese, if you will. To make things worse, the Swahili definition of ‘Tempo’ is completely different from the Japanese definition, so even those words that are common to both languages or systems can have definitions that are completely distinct and different. No wonder athletes get confused!!
In this article, I will present our own Endurance Corner terminology and will outline how it relates to the concepts outlined in the last exercise physiology article and also to the many and varied terms used by some of the more popular coaching systems.
Let’s begin by defining the terms that you’re likely to hear at Endurance Corner:
Easy Training (AeT-10 to AeT) – Improves your ability to generate energy from fat (especially for Novice athletes), enhances mitochondrial proliferation and capillary density (although less so than steady training). For the advanced athlete, enhances recovery between sessions.
Steady Training (AeT to AeT+10) – Improves your ability to generate energy from fat (intermediate athlete), enhances mitochondrial proliferation and capillary density in FOG fibers (these points are VERY important for aerobic energy production at all aerobic intensities above this zone), creates biomechanical adaptations that allow training at more intense levels. Training above this level places increasing risks for overuse injuries, especially in the novice athlete.
Moderately-Hard Training (AeT+10 to VT1/LT) – Improves the ability of your FOG fibers to produce energy from fat, enabling you to include more intense main sets in your longer races and your basic week.
Hard/Threshold Training (VT1/LT to OBLA/FT) – Develop the ability of your fast twitch fibers to produce energy aerobically. At the upper reaches, this intensity also enhances cardiac stroke volume and VO2max.
Very Hard/VO2max Training (OBLA/FT to Max)– Maximally develops the ability of your cardiovascular system to deliver oxygen to your working muscles.
Now, comparing our definitions with some of the more well-known systems we come up with the following table:
We offer this table as an approximation of the way that the various definitions ‘fit together’ so that we may almost speak the same language as athletes who use other systems. I say almost because, rather than being based on independent physiological markers such as aerobic threshold, VT1 etc, the bulk of systems are based on somewhat arbitrary percentages of one point, e.g. Max heart rate, threshold heart rate or functional threshold power. In these cases, the computations will not always line up with the physiological markers. For this reason, I am a big advocate of defining each point separately via lactate, VO2/VCO2 or, when lab testing is unavailable, simple breath markers.
I suppose a lot of us are talking about Wall Street, greed, CEOs, bankers, bonuses... much of the discussion that I read, and hear, centers around a lack of ethics on the part of people in positions of leadership. With crisis comes opportunity. We have a unique opportunity to improve our financial system.
I am going to write about business but this could just as easily be a piece on doping.
A lot of poor decisions are rationalized by a belief that the action was justified by the actor being a good person. Given that we each have to live with ourselves, it is reasonable to believe that nearly every poor decision is followed by a post-fact rationalization.
Once we start living a lie, even a small one, we can find ourselves on a slippery slope that eventually leads to moral ambiguity. Far easier to stay a mile away from "the line" then risk the public humiliation that comes from high profile ethical lapses.
During times like these, one can easily see the costs from ethical lapses but it important to remember that our current situation started with a series of small decisions where the benefits appeared to out-weigh the costs. Step by step, the situation progressed until we have a crisis caused by lack of enforcement, excessive leverage and skewed incentives.
So now society, as a whole, pays the price. People are upset and human nature will seek vengeance. I suppose this article is my attempt to help channel that vengeance towards productive progress.
I like to remind myself that we win (individually, and collectively) by maintaining high ethics. Over a lifetime, there is much financial gain to be had by being reliable and extremely trustworthy. Greater than finances alone, there is much love and friendship to be received. There can appear to be short term trade-offs but there is no long-term cost to avoiding false gods (easy money, sex, alcohol, pride, false performance...).
As humans, we need to be wary of situations that screw up our ability to think clearly:
As citizens (coaches, managers, leaders), we also need to consider the incentives that we are putting in place. Are we creating systems that reward cheating? When we experience a lot of undesirable outcomes then it is more effective to change the incentive structure, rather than punish a never ending line of cheaters.
It's for this reason that you'll never get the drugs out of a big money sport, until the money starts to leave because of the drugs. The money is the incentive and sport rewards performance. Speaking from experience, Investment Banking faces a similar challenge.
It is also why draconian penalties don't work all that well to clean up a corrupt culture. The people on the inside have spent years justifying their actions and likely see the rules as the problem. You don't need a code of silence to enforce a corrupt culture because human nature does the enforcement for you. By increasing the all-or-nothing nature of the outcome, massive penalties can make it more difficult, not less, to break the chain.
To really change a dysfunctional culture, one needs to change the incentives.
So what were the incentives that appear to have created our financial crisis:
Top of my list is leverage -- we had plenty of warning that allowing companies, and investment vehicles, massive amounts of debt was systemically risky. We tolerated laws and investment structures that created a massive shadow banking system. LTCM happened about ten years ago. However, we didn't recognize the need to change back in 1998. You'd have be be a fool not to see it now.
The regulations are going to come. If your livelihood, or business model, depends on plentiful leverage then you had better start thinking about your back-up plan. Industries that rely on easy leverage are going to be decimated. I wouldn't be surprised to see laws making hedgefunds illegal. There is going to be coordinated global re-regulation.
Once you reduce the leverage in a system, you immediately reduce the profits available from gaming the system.
I also suspect that we will see laws banning many unregulated financial instruments as well as statutory limits on personal and corporate leverage.
Next is lack of transparency and disclosure. The act of telling the whole world (or at least your board of directors, bankers, employees and shareholders) what you are doing can help clear the mind. Disclosure needs to be compelled because human nature works to keep most of us pretty quiet in group situations.
Compelling disclosure can protect highly motivated people from themselves. Make it a crime (punishable by fine) for a company to have off balance sheet vehicles. If you are not willing to hold an asset on your main balance sheet... then should you be holding it at all?
In the UK, it is a crime (punishable by fine) not to share conflict of interest information with fellow directors. The law goes even further in that one needs to share the conflicts of other directors, if one has knowledge. I suspect that the US has similar laws on the books. So I don't think that a bunch of new laws are required. Rather, I think that consistent application of a straightforward code of conduct is required.
Next is enforcement. How much money does a white collar crime need to involve before there is a legal obligation to call the cops? I asked that question the other day and a lawyer couldn't tell me. A manager could misallocate hundreds of thousands of dollars and there isn't any obligation to call the police. I was amazed.
There is too much judgement given to directors in how they handle ethical issues. The upper echelon of any industry (or pro sport) is a club, the key players know each other and many outsiders are keen to get a seat at the table. If society has a problem with the culture of that club then we need to provide incentives for insiders to clean it up.
Which brings me to public humiliation, the single best deterrent available. While it might be fun to "win" -- letting down our peers and being disgraced... human nature sees that as HIGHLY unattractive. Elites pay attention when those around them are caught in ethical violations. Imagine how Eliot Spitzer's kids felt -- one really needs to be drunk on hubris not to think through how that situation had to end up.
Forgiveness and rehabilitation -- I'm not from the ban-them-for-life school of ethical punishment. My preference is to disclose; criminally convict (where appropriate); fine; ban for a reasonable period; and log the information on the public record.
Coming back to where we started this article, good people can make bad decisions and a lot of good can flow from a crisis that resulted from ethical lapses. Some examples:
Campaign finance reform -- McCain's actions on reform appeared to flow from the Savings & Loan crisis. Regardless of one's politics, you have to admit that John McCain has achieved tremendous good for his country. Did you watch the video? They should open each session of Congress by having the legislature watch the Obama campaign's "documentary". The 13 minute clip scared the crap out of me and I'm not even a politician.
Cycling reform -- David Millar (our photo this week) has become an advocate for cycling reform. He was caught, he did his time, his actions are on the public record -- now he appears driven to change the direction of his sport.
There are many more examples of good people getting caught (or not caught), coming clean then becoming a positive force for change (via personal foundations or crusades).
I suspect there are many CEOs and bankers that want to do the right thing for themselves, and their country. What we need to do is reduce the leverage they have available; limit their ability to sell unregulated products; enforce existing regulations; and publicly pursue/ban those that choose the break the rules.
Finally a few specific items that have been swirling in my head.
Mark to market accounting waivers -- John Mauldin is calling for the government to waive the obligation for companies to mark asset values to market. He is making his case by selecting certain assets that are clearly trading below long term value. We are in this mess because of a culture of non-disclosure, hiding bad assets and moral hazard from companies not having to live with the results of their decisions.
Advocating changing the rules, hiding the problem, giving banks time... that is how we got into the mess in the first place. John is a great writer, I read his letter every week, he has most things right, but I think he's got this one wrong. If you don't want to mark assets to market then don't buy those assets.
Compel full, and open, disclosure to create trust. If banks are allowed to hide their problems then we will never get the interbank market going again. Get everything out in the open and, where necessary, grant short-term waivers for capital adequacy ratios.
Government investments in bank equity -- our governments are shortly going to guaranty all our banking deposits as well as invest massive sums of capital into the balance sheets of our banks. I was amazed when Secretary Paulson said that the government wasn't going to seek board representation, or other rights. Would Goldman Sachs invest $700 billion without board representation, veto rights and disclosure requirements?
I suspect that the government is going to get taken to the cleaners on its investments. I couldn't invest $700,000 effectively if I had to rush -- $700 billion? It is likely to be a mess either way.
The money is the incentive, we must drive change at the same time as investment. As an investor, your power is strongest the moment before you invest. Once you've got a couple billion in a company, human nature creates massive inertia. This is a unique opportunity. There will be zero change if not driven by the governments that are saving these institutions. I take a lot more comfort in the British approach, so far.
Next week, I'm going to change direction and talk about Fit Pregnancy! Monica says that she really appreciated reading articles that athletic women wrote about their baby experiences. She's not a writer (but she makes really nice handmade cards...) so you'll have to read the story second-hand from Papa G.