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Thermodynamics, by Mick Napier

This entry plays with the connections between 1) Newton's Second Law of Thermodynamics, 2) dead poodles, 3) improvisation, and 4) triathlon training. Sound convoluted? Maybe a tad, but hang around for the laughs.

Introducing the founder of the Annoyance Theater in Chicago, creator of the longest running musical in history, "Co-Ed Prison Sluts," award-winning Second City director, and unwilling heir to the Fuck-Utterly-Off-Del-Close-Guru Award... Mick Napier.

In his book, "Improvise. scene from inside out," Chapter 10 on "Improvisation and the Second Law of Thermodynamics" he makes an eight page analogy between scenic energy and Newtonian principles. It's a funny and insightful book and this particular chapter reads like a senior thesis. If the author was the dark love child of Charles Bukowski and NASA. Goes like this:

First Law of Thermodynamics: Energy can never be created or destroyed, only transformed.

Second Law of Thermodynamics: In a closed system, entropy will always increase over time.

His example for Work = Force x Distance: "Throwing a poodle off a cliff is work. You apply a force to the poodle and it travels a distance. In a moment, gravity, another force, takes over and pulls the poodle to the earth, another distance, shattering its manicured body."

Explaining an open vs closed system: "The Earth itself would be considered an open system because the sun greatly affects it, yet is outside of it. [Here we can define smaller systems, never perfectly closed but enough so for our discussion.] An egg, an engine, a cup of hot coffee, a car...a system that can operate in and of itself, without any outside energy source...once the gas is in the car, the car becomes a closed system."

Clarifying the term entropy: "...often equated with chaos. Entropy is not chaos; chaos is often the result of entropy. Entropy, quite literally, is waste heat. Heat is a form of energy, and entropy is waste heat. Waste heat is heat that is emitted into the universe, never to be used on the closed system that it was emitted from again."

Thermodynamics of Improv, summarized: The theater in which a scene is being improvised is a closed system. Improvising a scene requires energy while tending always toward entropy. The improvisers' jobs are to reduce entropy as much as possible by knowing what the scene is about.

A pretty smart analogy between seemingly random artistic chaos of improvisation and objectively provable, ironclad Newtonian laws. For an overthinker like me (as well as many heady improvisers and heck, let's be honest, most triathletes), this was super helpful. Especially in deciding how to start a scene, when and how to join (and just as importantly, NOT join) a scene, and when to edit a scene.

Great. Where and how does this connect to triathlon? Well most directly and obviously, this applies to every process in the human body. Breathing. Digestion. Creation/depletion of energy substrates. Everything is governed DIRECTLY by chemistry, physics, and thermodynamics. Yeah, no duh.

It should also be obvious that Newton's laws of motion apply directly. Inertia. Force = mass x acceleration... Work = Force x Displacement... Power = Work / Time. Then you got your hydrodynamics... wetsuit buoyancy... musculoskeletal levers... bike fit... aerodynamics... tire pressure... wheels... FTP... run shoes... run form... gait mechanics... and so on and so forth.

So many systems! And equations. Overlapping factors. Not to mention the conceptual question of whether any system smaller than the universe itself is ever perfectly closed. Too much for the average triathlete to keep in mind, and definitely too much for the average blog post.

For our purposes, the human body is an open system. Energy (air, food, water) is input (eating and breathing), processed (osmosis and digestion), transformed (muscles glycolyzed and oxygenated), dispersed (ATP to ADP and sweat), and replaced with additional input. Conversely, IRONMAN races and most triathlons generally are closed systems insomuch as rules prohibit any outside help to the athlete. A really great recent example would be the 2020 Challenge Daytona Championship.

Okaayyy... but, triathlon training an open or closed system?

Back to Napier: "No matter what the system, a percentage of energy will always be given off, tending toward that system's disorder. It takes energy to maintain order, but the universe doesn't prefer it... a dead poodle will decompose at the bottom of a cliff, never to recapture its lost energy and become that poodle again."

Roger that. Yes, triathlon training is a closed system. Wait. Not always. It depends on how energy is managed. Here's the last sentence of Chapter 10:

"...anytime there is an energy exchange in this universe, the laws of thermodynamics are lurking in the shadows. The second law is just waiting...dispersing waste energy into the universe at random, never again to be recaptured in that particular form."

Got. It. Closed system. Here are just some of the ways the Second Law wastes your potential training energy and disperses your kinetic energy into the universe, never to be captured again:

  • Spending $159.99 on a pre-written 12-week training plan, only to miss four workouts in week three and dropping another $59.99 on an 8-week training plan.

  • Getting to the pool to hang out on the wall adjusting cap, goggles, ear plugs, checking the clock to start at the top whoops! missed it go at the bottom wait now these stupid goggles are fogged.

  • Swimming non-stop all the time to prove you can.

  • Doing too many FTP tests in a year. Or too few.

  • Focusing on the watch during training

  • Obsessing over HR and pace data during workout

  • Feeling guilty while training because work, spouse, kids, friends, chores.

  • Feeling guilty for missing training because work, spouse, kids, friends, chores.

  • Going too hard too often because Zwift or Trainer Road or EgoRide2.0 says so.

  • Going too easy all the time because ugh it's too hard!

  • Doing the same vague workouts from high school month after month but not seeing improvements

But wait! The human body is an open system. What the heck!? Simple. Training is a closed system that directly affects the open system human body.

One of the best ways to reduce (remember complete elimination is impossible) the effects of the Second Law is to hire a coach. A good coach may never think or care about any of the tortured analogies laid out in this post or blog and still reduce entropy.

Because a good coach minimizes waste. A good coach can help you train properly, imposing specific demands to which the body adapts. A good coach understands that plans can change without losing sight of the goal; adjusts training to conserve or increase energy, not shed it. A good coach knows how work, spouse, kids, friends, chores fit into the equations. (Seriously, life stuff can and should generate training energy.) A good coach helps you work efficiently.

Which brings us back to throwing a poodle off a cliff. As an analogy. For understanding entropy. Not actually throwing a poodle off a cliff. Especially not miniature poodles. Off cliffs. Throwing a miniature poodle off a cliff leads to its death and decomposition. Entropy. Death. To miniature poodles.

Just as Mick Napier advises performers to improvise without wasting time or energy to avoid boring scenes, find a coach to help conserve your training time and energy... to avoid murdering poodles.

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