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Race Start Logistics – Chaos, Flow and Entropy

Should you really be up front in the crowd at the start line?

Have you ever run one of the big races in India like the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) or the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) and had varying experiences about the ‘flow of crowd of runners’? As the number of racers has grown and the increased focus on logistics for handling them has tried to avoid making a mess and avoid a human catastrophe, I have been curious about the flow of runners at the start and its subsequent impact along the route. Today’s conversation, with some interesting pictures, is about that. Takeaway lessons for you, racer, pacer or race organizer, will come soon.


I will first talk about the distribution of runners and how it transitions from start line to finish line. I then introduce you to my idea of ‘disorder’ in a race, with a measure that I call the Race Entropy, and show how that beautifully captures the flavour of the ease of flow within a race. I use the case of the Mumbai races (SCMM) to show how start-enclosures have helped with achieving less disorder (but significant room for improvement exists). I also show what impact the extreme pollution scares in New Delhi last winter had on the race that was held at that time (ADHM2016).

Gross Time, Net Time, Mat Crossing Time

I have shown you numerous graphs in the past of race finish times. These are typically histograms of ‘net finish times’ that show how many runners cross the finish line within each time bucket, where each bucket might be just a few seconds wide. What you will have probably never seen until today is a similar picture of what happens at the starting line.

How do we spread ourselves out over time?

Because not everyone crosses the starting line at the same time, there is a ‘spreading out’ or ‘distribution’ over time of runners crossing the starting line. This distribution is what leads to the need for recording gross finish time and net finish time.
The gross time is based on the natural clock time – the same clock for all the runners.
The net time is the specific time taken for each individual runner measured as, starting at their specific start line crossing (time = 0) and ending at their crossing the finish line.
Many races have RFID timing sensors placed under mats over which runners pass at the start/finish line, and so we often use the terms ‘starting line’ and ‘starting mat’ interchangeably.

Easing Flow

If your race’s logistics are handled smoothly, the fastest runners would be placed right up front at the start line and the slowest runners placed towards the back of the crowd. In the extreme scenario of the runners being released in descending order of their speed, in the hypothetical situation of constant speed for each runner, the number of ‘overtakings’ would be 0. No one would overtake anyone despite everyone running at their race pace. This would ensure a smooth flow of humans across the starting line and thereafter.

Smooth flow of runners ranked in order of speed

In practice, although it ‘feels good’ to overtake other runners, the truth is that it always involves some risk. Besides the physical risk (of impact) if the runner being overtaken sends you negative thoughts as you try to glide past him, that cannot be good for your soul.

Consider now, the worst situation for race start ordering, the slowest runner being placed right up front and the fastest runner at the back of the pack. In the extreme situation of N runners placed in such a reverse order of their speed, the fastest runner would have to overtake N-1 other runners to finish 1st. The runner who comes in second would have to overtake N-2 runners to come in 2nd. And so on for all the other runners… And, therefore, {ignoring the school maths proof}, the total number of ‘overtakings’ for all N runners would be ½*N*(N-1). Let us call that measure MaxPossibleOvertakings – e.g. for 10,000 participants placed in this reverse order MaxPossibleOvertakings will be 49,995,000.

Flow disrupted when runners not ranked in order of speed

For any given race with an actual ordering at the start line, we can also easily add up the minimum number of ‘overtakings’ that would have led to the actual finish ranking observed. Let us call this MinPossibleOvertakings.

Having defined a measure for the actual starting/finishing rankings of runners and the theoretical measure with maximum disorder, let me now tell you about what I call the ‘Race Entropy’ of an event. If numbers or equations faze you, hang in there, there’s nothing particularly complicated in what follows.


Borrowing from Thermodynamics, I define the measure of disorder in a race as being the ratio

Entropy – a measure of disorder in your race

If the runners are released in the perfect ranking of their eventual times, so that there will be no overtaking, the Race Entropy will be 0.
If the runners are released in the perfectly reverse order, the Race Entropy will be 1.
If the ordering is purely random chance, the Race Entropy will be approximately ½.
We hope that the Race Entropy for any race will be less than ½ and closer to 0.

Start-End Ranking Plot

We can also visualize this order and disorder with what I call a Start-End Ranking Plot – a rank for crossing the finish line plotted against the rank for crossing the start line. This example plot shows the two ends of [1] perfect order and [2] perfect disorder as well as [3] the case of purely random start ordering.

Start-End Ranking Plot: Avoiding disorder or wrong order is a worthy effort

Start-End Ranking Plot: Avoiding disorder or wrong order is a worthy effort

With this distilled single measure of disorder, Race Entropy, and the Start-End Ranking Plot, let us now examine a couple of interesting stories from the Indian recreational marathon scene.

Case 1 – Chaos to Order: Introduction of Enclosures for SCMM

The first year that I happened to run a distance race, quite by chance, was the flagship Mumbai Marathon in 2010 (SCMM2010). I remember being at the start line and witnessing the undignified pushing and jostling. It was pretty much ‘law of the jungle’ up there akin to the local trains I took to work daily. It was a free-for-all, first-come-first-serve type start, so everyone pushed up ahead, with no real attention to ordering themselves naturally by expected finish time.

Race Start Enclosures

Race start enclosures or ‘holding areas’ were first introduced to the Indian running scene in January 2012, at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. These enclosures, now common in the races with large numbers of participants, are set up with the philosophy that the fastest runners are kept together and typically go past the start line first, the slowest ones last, and the ones in-between following the same principle. In order to decide which start-enclosure you wait in before you start the race, race organizers request a recent race timing certificate from you at the time of registration. Based on this ‘previous timing certificate’ you, the customer, are allocated a start enclosure, specified visibly on your racing bib.

Pre/Post Enclosures

Start Enclosures help ensure reduced Race Entropy (disorder) despite an increase in competitors

If we examine the difference between 2010 & 2011 compared with 2016 & 2017 there is a noticeable reduction in Race Entropy despite the number of participants rising. Having seen the Race Entropy drop between 2010 to 2017 despite the massive increase in participation, we can see the Start-End Ranking Plot which corresponds to those numbers and the picture tells us the same story.

Comparing the Start-End Ranking Plot for 2010 with that from 2017 indicates a clear move away from high disorder towards greater order.

Population increase need not be a problem if mismanagement is replaced by better management!

Case 2 – Pollution Reduces Race Participation: Massive Reduction in Delhi Disorder

The flagship race of New Delhi, soon after the worldwide scares in the media about the city’s air pollution levels at the end of 2016, saw a massive reduction in actual participation on race day (ADHM2016). My simple but sensible estimation method tells me that 40% of those who had paid and were registered to race did not show up on race day. This is almost always fortunate for the race organizers and those who do show up to run. The race experience is always better for such large races when the turnout is lower {fewer people chasing the same resources including, quite literally, air, water and land}.

What did the fearless who turned up experience?

What is interesting is that the Race Entropy was so much lower (20.3%) than in 2012 (32.0%) when the ADHM first introduced start enclosures. It was also considerably lower than the previous year where in ADHM2015 the Race Entropy was 26.8%. Perhaps, the general time trend in Race Entropy shows that the running population itself is becoming slightly mature and sensible as a group about the race start. For ADHM2016, it is possible that a predominance of experienced runners showed up and many of the newer runners stayed away. Or, perhaps, managing fewer runners with arrangements for many more (who did not show up) induces lower Race Entropy (lower disorder). All my friends who ran ADHM2016 had a fantastic experience. As luck would have it the weather was (described by a mentee who ran) ‘absolutely perfect’ and my guess is that the reduced disorder added to a better overall experience.

Pollution Scares: Did the drop in crowding make humans more relaxed and reduce irrational crowding?

Once again, comparing the Start-End Ranking Plot for 2017 with that from 2012 when the number of participants was similar and start-enclosures had just been introduced indicates a clear move away from high disorder towards greater order.

Did the reduced crowd density encourage more orderly behaviour?

Summary and Way Forward

I introduced the concept of ‘disorder’ or Race Entropy to characterize the (lack of) ease of flow within a race. I showed how the introduction of start-enclosures based on ‘expected finish time’ helps reduce this Race Entropy (disorder). So, besides features such as aid stations, route marshaling, medal quality, pricing of race entry tickets, and post-race refreshments Race Entropy serves as a superb single measure to capture the overall race experience for those who turned up.

I will write again soon and provide guidance to you the racer, race pacer or race organizer based on this dimension of analysis.

Until then, try to not bump into anyone 🙂


Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.

Competing & Comparing – Targeting Happiness Maximization

Eyeing your competition, how can you make the comparisons happy?

Eyeing your competition, how can you make the comparisons happy?

Happiness warning: This conversation pertains to all aspects of your life, not just physical fitness.

It has been a while since I chatted with you about Why I don’t care about your Podium Finish (or Mine). Since then it has been one of my most widely read articles. Those who know me well, know that I am extremely competitive, but I would like to think they have always thought it to be an appropriately targeted style of competitive spirit. At the same time, one of the terms and conditions I set in place early when I mentor anyone is “you will not compare your performance (e.g. running times) or attributes (e.g. body fat %) with that of any other person”. So, if that’s the case, do I think it is good for you to compete? Yes. And, do I think it is good for you to compare? Yes. So then, is there a catch? What is the framework within which competing and comparing can be life-enhancing?


I will speak swiftly about competing, comparing, benchmarking, competition and control, and then make recommendations around compassion, detachment and improvement. In a few minutes, I hope you will have a happier and clearer path to follow.

About Competing

Researchers in the area of happiness and social psychology have demonstrated that in order to enjoy an activity and derive happiness from it, the level of difficulty has to be just slightly higher than what you are currently capable of. Have you noticed that when you take up something like badminton or squash, those who are a lot better than you do not really want to play against you if they can help it. Or have you noticed how you do not want to always train for a race with someone who is much slower than you?

About Comparing

Comparisons within a population

Researchers have also shown that comparing yourself with others does not lead to truly sustainable happiness. Comparisons with those much better than us can be demoralizing. Comparisons with those much worse than us can lead to arrogance. At the same time, comparisons are inherent to the survival of living things. Even single-cell organisms compare the immediate environment to what is ideal for their proliferation to decide what their next move should be.

Comparing and Competing

So, if you are to compete, and you are to compare, then how do you do this in a way that leads to greater happiness and fulfilment? You probably know the answer to this already having heard it often – and even in my previous article. Do not compare with and compete against others, compare with and compete against yourself. Now, let us examine this more closely and try to understand why it works.

GPF – Genetic Potential Fitness

Who is a hero by moving towards their GPF?

Who is a hero by moving towards their GPF?

In Why I don’t care about your Podium Finish I had described how the very slow lady who was getting faster was developing herself as a person, whereas the complacent lady with better genes for that domain who was winning races was, perhaps, not. It was in this earlier news article that I first publicly mentioned what I call GPF or Genetic Potential Fitness. Although, at first sight it appears that I am talking about physical fitness, in fact, I think of this as being applicable to any domain of your life that interests you. From running to sleep (yes, you can train yourself to sleep in the best way possible), from body strength to singing (do you know someone who has a lovely voice but never makes it to a performance stage because they are too lazy to practice?), from calisthenics to cooking (isn’t it amazing to come across a teenager who can knock your socks off with an amazing dessert?).

You and I both have immense potential in each of the areas of life that interests us but we rarely get close to that potential. We allow ourselves to wallow in the middle of our abilities, far from our genetic potential.

Benchmarking vs The Competition

Once we leave school and college education, unless we are professional athletes most of us have no formal competitive benchmark placed before us to beat. Sure, a sales professional has to beat his competitor’s sales in the next quarter, a housewife feels the pressure to cook her husband’s favourite dish better than his mother does, and a fund investment manager attempts to beat the industry benchmark agreed with her client. The rest of us tend to find some path through the various constraints we face while trying to produce better results, whether in the kitchen, office, boardroom or bedroom.

Cross-sectional vs Time-series

Time-Series vs Cross-sectional

When we compare with others we are typically doing a “cross-sectional comparison” – an observation of many people at a given point in time. Although that has value in some settings, and perhaps can even be one form of short-term motivation, I prefer to think of “time-series comparisons” where I am the only subject in the data set and observe progression through time. Why do I do this and what is the special strategic advantage in doing this?


Transform yourself by working to be closer to your GPF

Transform yourself by working to be closer to your GPF

Whenever we announce the result of some study, typically of an activity and its effect, there is always the implied question “what control group did you use as a benchmark?”. Unless you can study yourself along with clones of yourself for a cross-sectional self-study, it is really not possible to fully and precisely understand the effect of an activity on only you as a specific individual – be it the effect of regular exercise on your health, giving up sweetened drinks, or the introduction of meditation into your life. However, you can do something almost equivalent to that in a manner that will lead to greater happiness.

Although you can’t do a cross-sectional comparative study of you with your clones, you can do a time-series study of yourself. The DNA is held fixed at least! Besides keeping track of your actions (the ‘process’), we can also keep track of your outcomes (the ‘goals’) over time.

Comparing Happily

The beauty of this approach of ‘self-comparison’ is that if you approach the dimension being pursued (e.g. your speed with Sudoku) with ‘self-compassion‘ (which, incidentally, is the other attribute that increases happiness) there is unlikely to be jealousy or even envy. After all, when was the last time you were jealous of your recent self? So, comparing with yourself will not produce negative happiness outcomes. (Of course, we might all look back much further with nostalgia or yearning at our more youthful days.)

Competing Happily

If you set your personal targets wisely to be just slightly better than what you think you are currently capable of, then the competition is also healthy! Often, we set unrealistic targets and then are not happy with the outcomes. Perhaps, one day soon I will speak about target-setting specifically.

Conditioning for Happiness

Whenever we have an outcome that is better or worse than what we hoped for, we can explain the difference between what we expected and what transpired with some obvious factors. And, often some of the difference remains unaccounted for given the information we possess. [I did something along those lines at a population level when I made this assertion.]

Now, think about the following – when you compare with others in daily life, you really have no clue about all the factors that lead to their performance. (You almost always don’t know what constraints or opportunities the other person had.) So, then, the comparison with them leads to very little value add to yourself. When you compare against your own (recent or distant) past, however, you have so much more information and there can be a lot more value captured (in the form of actual learning and progress, or even plain-and-simple ‘satisfaction’).

Performance Attribution

If you record information about yourself then understanding why your performance was better or worse than expected is easy to do in a dispassionate manner. The more information and the richer the information you record, the more you will be able to understand yourself, your processes and your performances. For example, “I swam slower today because of a slight cold and blocked nose”. The positive feedback loop also serves as a wonderful tool for self-motivation.

Inward Looking is Forward Looking

A key distinction between comparing and competing with others rather than with yourself is that of the target view being outward versus inward. The more you look inward, with or without explicit recording of data, the less you will find the need to be emotionally affected by the performance of others. Never mind what everyone else is up to, focus on your own growth towards being a more intelligent soul. The more you try to improve by controlling yourself, the less you will find the need to control other people or events [a surefire way of being unhappy in the short, medium and long run].

Making Outward Looking also Forward Looking

When you are observing others, make it about process observation along with performance observation. Observe the changes in process that lead to differences in performance for that person. That will allow you to learn without comparing yourself with that person – you are comparing that person with that same person for your own self-improvement! There is, however, no competition with that person!

Final Wisdom – Interested in Outcome, Unemotional about Result

When you work hard, you are interested in the result. However, it is important to develop a habit of being unemotional about the result that transpires- you are not your result. This form of ‘detached attachment’ is good yogic wisdom and can be made easier if you can attribute your performance to various documented factors, and attribute the (tiny) balance i.e. what you cannot explain to ‘luck’ or ‘chance’. Perhaps data can help you transcend!

I wish you happy comparing and happy competing for your personal growth and fulfillment!


Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.

Process for Performance

Let us focus on Process

Let us focus on Process

Physicist and Performance

While chatting with a physicist who reads my varied conversations with you, he asked me about my interest and focus on distance running in the general population. I clarified without hesitation that my interest is not in running as much as it is in performance. Whether as a consultant to organisations, a wellness mentor to individuals globally, or a performance coach for business leaders, my focus is on improvement. Running just happens to be one area of technical expertise within that. (To the extent that I even tell you why you need not run!)

When we speak about performance our focus often, quite naturally, goes to the headline number. Who won Wimbledon and in how many sets? What was the new world record set for the butterfly stroke in the Rio Olympics on day 1? How many goals has Cristiano Ronaldo scored? Unfortunately, our expressions of awe at the superhuman outcomes are rarely followed by useful questioning about process. My own interest is almost never in these outcome (I have no clue about the answers to any of the questions above) but, instead, very much in the process that one might follow to achieve them.

Never Mind the Olympics

Unless you are in Rio at the moment, you are probably not very different from the lady you walked past on the street outside. But you too are probably looking to excel at one or more things in your life. And, this could be anything, earth-shattering or trivial – embroidery, cancer-research, tennis, baking, swimming, teaching or dancing the salsa! And, if you remember from when I talked about why I don’t care much about your podium finish, it doesn’t really matter if that lady you crossed on the street is better at that than you are. What matters is if you are performing as close to your potential as you could. I appreciate that that might not be the only thing you have in life to focus on. There are the many constraints of daily life like putting bread on the table, or literally baking bread for the family table! So, how good is your performance given those constraints? Could you be performing better? As I have said before, what matters is the detail. Have you thought through the processes you are following and could you be doing things differently? Could you be doing them better?

Am I lost or am I even following some defined process in the first place?

Am I lost or am I even following some defined process in the first place?

What Could Better Performance Mean for You?

Time = Money = Time

Time = Money = Time

Whether it is Warren Buffet or that lady you walked past, time is money. Given that you probably want to enjoy your waking hours, and I’m assuming you are sleeping well every night, what changes could you make to the many processes or sub-processes you follow that might be improved on, so that you could:
(a) get the same result in less time?
(b) get a better result in the same time?
c) get a better result in less time?
(d) get a better result in less time and save money?
More importantly, how often do you even ask yourself these questions? In other words…
    …how often do you question whether you are questioning your processes?

Are You Missing Out?

If you are not asking yourself these questions about most of the things you do in your daily life, you are probably missing out on a lot in life. How so? For a start, if you had more time, you could spend it doing more things or more enjoyable things – sleep, for example! If you improved your performance that would bring intrinsic satisfaction and perhaps more money too!  And, saving money, well, that’s like saving time!

What Could You Do Next?

So, can you give up 10 minutes of TV time today, or invest some of that time spent watching the Olympics, on this style of questioning? Then use that time today asking yourself questions related to the processes you follow and whether they could be made better. (Hint: the answer is almost always “yes”!) Ask yourself, “is this really getting me closer to my goal efficiently?” (Hint: the answer is often “no”!) Then ask yourself, “how would someone who is doing really well at this be doing things differently from how I am?” (Tip: there’s almost always something you will think of!). For instance, even simply mastering the pushup, or improving the long-term impact of making smart decisions regarding food can be mastered if we focus on improving the processes we follow for them.

You might be thinking, “hey, I’m happy with life, I don’t think I really want to struggle to improve anything” and if that is really you, great! But if you think you do want to do better at one or more things in your life, then, believe me, you can! Never mind the performance of Olympians, focus on your own processes to be a winner!


Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.

I am not a fitness freak

Very average good living

Very average good living

False Accusations

A few years ago, at a dinner with school friends, the wife of an old friend who was complaining about being overweight responded to my simple generous offer to help with “No thanks, you’re just a freak”. Rather than create a scene, I played gentleman (heh!) and shut up politely (yes, just like one can speak impolitely, one can also shut up politely!).

It struck me that evening, and then whenever someone else says to me, “you’re a fitness freak”, that they are so out of touch with a harmonious existence. Of course, I am NOT a fitness freak. Perhaps, the one who proclaims that I am, is the fitness freak! I will now tell you why I think so.

Freaky Definitions

A general definition of ‘freak’ alludes to an ‘aberration’. An ‘outlier’. If you look at this approximate ‘distribution of people’s characteristics in the general population’ you can see that most people are ‘kinda average’ and that there are some people who are outliers (at either end). This is true for most natural characteristics that you might look at, for example, “the weights of boys aged 20 in a college”.

Outliers -- Normal -- Outliers

Outliers — Normal — Outliers

Sometimes, to be an outlier is a good thing – it’s always nice to be one of the top performers in class, to be a high earner within your profession, or to win a race against many other participants. Of course, by definition, we can’t all be outliers. And, more importantly, those are examples of being an outlier in terms of outcome. For instance, I have also told you earlier why I don’t care much about your podium finish (or mine). That outcome is a combination of effort (what you did) and luck (who else turned up at the start line). So, let’s not think about that now. But let’s, instead, think about process rather than outcome.

Ancestor Worship

I have talked about our ancestors numerous times in the past (see here, here and here) and the topic I typically address when I bring them to the present, from the distant past, is about how we have advanced significantly in the area of technology (a good thing) but not in terms of basic biology (perhaps not a good thing). What that means is that…

if you don’t respect the laws of biology your body follows you will end up being punished by the same laws.

When I talked about the accidental wisdom of pain seekers, I referred to this.

Not so long ago our ancestors were more aware that food was their daily medicine, the physically demanding activities of daily life did not require extra time to be made for ‘working out’, and darkness hours were typically for contemplation, rest and sleep.

Your body was designed like that of your ancestors

Your body was designed like that of your ancestors

Anthropologists have confirmed that, for the majority of history, humans lived a life of austerity. Food was not available 24/7. A fairly rigorous daily workout was mandatory for survival – either to hunt and gather or to escape predators or bad weather or tough terrains. Relatively long periods of daily rest were built into night life.

Lack of Harmony is Freaky

We do not need advanced scientific studies to tell us what is plainly obvious – our bodies are still pretty much like those of our distant ancestors. Our bodies have not yet evolved such that we can all have good quality long lives despite not being physically active, eating unmindfully, and sleeping in patterns that are not conducive to healthy physiological balances.

We have shifted our behaviour away from original design

So, who is a fitness freak?

So, if, like me, you too are someone who, no matter what be your primary activity (homemaker, industrialist, professional etc) eat sensibly, try to be active on a daily basis and ensure that you sleep appropriately, then you are definitely not a ‘fitness freak’. You are doing what you are meant to. You have the wisdom and discipline to seek harmony. Perhaps you are also mindful that the details matter in driving results – be it in food and drink, exercise or rest. But that does not make you a freak! You are doing what is naturally good.  You are normal!

On the other hand, someone who thinks that your lifestyle is unusual because their own waking hours are sedentary, they engage in mindless eating and drinking, and regularly have nights with low priority given to quality sleep in order to keep up with social appearances, then you can be sure that that person is a ‘fitness freak’. They are not doing what is naturally good. They are not normal!

Be a fitness enthusiast. Be a health focused human being. Be someone who lives life as per original design!  Don’t be a fitness freak!


Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.

The Accidental Wisdom of Pain Seekers

Wisdom in pain seekers?

Wisdom in pain seekers?

Is Pain your Enemy?
When you Google for its meaning, whether it’s Google’s own dictionary definition or that from medical and scientific websites, ‘pain’ is described as something terrible and best avoided as much as possible. There is a vast amount of literature out there on how we can avoid pain or alleviate pain in those who are victims of it. Almost all of it treats pain as a formidable enemy. An enemy to be avoided, an enemy to be fought, and enemy to be defeated.

I am going to chat with you now about how I look at pain and how you can think about pain with a greater sense of peace and harmony. Peace and harmony? With pain? Yes, peace and harmony with pain. And then, we can think about how you can treat pain as an enabler to achieve more than you ever thought possible.

“Avoidance” should NOT be the Standard Approach to Pain
I’ve been married to a dental surgeon who often mentioned gadgets like ceiling mounted TV screens and special video goggles for patients to watch movies while undergoing treatment in private practice. More recently, a beautiful lady dentist whom I mentor (and is training to trek up to the Everest Base Camp in a few months) was exploring ways to distract herself from the pain and anguish that she experiences when she’s out on a training run. The voices that tell her to ‘stop running’ long before she has really hit her limits clearly needed addressing. She wanted to set herself up to be distracted away from that pain. Professionally, she is being exposed to pain (in others’ mouths) perhaps 10-20 times in a day. The general approach with those patients is to try to alleviate pain by distraction, or to remove the sensation of pain through the use of local anesthetic, or even general anesthesia. She was surprised, at first, when I told her that she needs to do exactly the opposite with her running experience – she needs to embrace the pain.

I do empathize with those who are actually suffering from disease, illness or accident. But, other than those sources of pain, how could you use pain for your benefit?

The Time Dimension of Pain

The Time Dimension of Pain

The Time Dimension of Pain

As with just about everything in life, (see examples regarding nutrition, discipline, fitness) I like to think about the dimension of time when it comes to pain too. Sometimes pain stays with us for a short period of time (medically termed ‘acute pain’) and sometimes it stays with us for a long period of time (‘chronic pain’).

Besides the time duration that pain stays with us, I also consciously think about pain more constructively as ‘pain that I can control the arrival of and pain that I cannot control the arrival time of’. Correspondingly, I also think of the departure time of pain, and being able to (fortunately) control when it leaves me. And, then there’s pain that (unfortunately) I cannot control the departure time of.

Controlled and Uncontrolled Arrival/Departure of Pain

Controlled and Uncontrolled Arrival/Departure of Pain


Should you bring pain forward?

Should you bring pain forward?

Two Types of Human Choices
Keeping the dimension of time very much in mind, let us think about human choices with regards to pain. Much like the marshmallow experiment which focused on human choice and delayed gratification, I see the world being made up of two types of human choices with regards to pain. There are contexts where we can see gratification as something we can delay, in order to obtain more after the proposed delay. The definition of financial investment is a good example – a deferral of consumption with the hope of consuming more later. Correspondingly, you can think of pain as being similar to gratification but its converse.

Pain = negative gratification, negative reward, negative return.
Instead of delaying pain, we can consciously bring it forward in time in a controlled manner. Eh, what? Bring pain forward? Why on earth? And, why is Puru making this odd connection?

Not just Physical Pain
If you look around you in any society, there will be those who try to avoid physical effort when it would benefit them. This effort is painful for them. The most common and beneficial form of perceived pain is exercise. (But you can also consider the example of avoiding unhealthy but tasty food.) For instance, the thought of going to the gym or for a cycle ride is one associated with pain.  Well, you have a choice in life, and I state it very clearly here and now…

“You can go to pain regularly at various times of the week that YOU decide, welcome it, embrace it, make it your friend, and then thank it for staying with you for the short while you interacted with it…
YOU can try to stay away from pain, dislike it, be in fear of it, and be guaranteed of its arrival unwanted, unannounced, suffer its presence and perhaps never have it leave you, until you leave it forever.”

Choices about Interacting with Pain

Choices about Interacting with Pain

Perhaps all this sounds a bit abstract…. What do I really mean by this?

Pain Seekers and their Accidental Wisdom

Invite, befriend and embrace pain

Invite, befriend and embrace pain

My friends, mentees and others around the world who make time to exercise when their day-to-day lives are otherwise quite sedentary are the ‘pain seekers’ I refer to. If you too live an active healthy lifestyle, you are making that conscious decision to befriend pain so that the likelihood of pain becoming your enemy at any point in the future is much reduced. You might not specifically focus on the pain when you are making a plan to go out for a run tomorrow, or visit the gym in the evening. But, there is wisdom that you are expressing accidentally that will stand you in good stead. As an economist I call it the intertemporal substitution of pain.

You might have understood from seeing others around you that intelligence and wisdom are not strongly related so please do not expect that all your intelligent friends will have the wisdom to understand (implicitly or explicitly) this beautiful relationship that you can have with pain. The intelligent might want to keep their enemy, pain, away. The wise will want to keep their enemies closer.

Be wise!


Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.

What about that dessert?

Homemade Desserts can be Healthy

Homemade Desserts can be Healthy

Originally published here on 23-May-2014 at www.Enerzal.me
This is a re-print of that article.

Dessert Desire
If you are like me, “dessert” conjures up positive happy thoughts, feelings and emotions of pleasure and satisfaction. However, it is not unlikely that these feelings are also accompanied by feelings of guilt, in the short term, and regret, in the longer term. Guilt and regret are probably the two most self-destructive emotions we can have. So, what might you do to create a healthier physical and emotional life with dessert? Here are my structured thoughts about dessert and how I interact with it, and I suggest ways for you to have your cake and eat it too!

Why do you want dessert?
The reasons you feel pleasure from dessert are simple – carbohydrates and fat! Your brain needs a steady stream of fuel to stay alive and function.  And your body still thinks you are a caveman or cavewoman and its natural instinct is to store every bit of fat and carbohydrate you feed it. This primal survival mechanism is good but only within reason. We saw in a previous blog why things go awry when you eat too many carbs at the wrong time.

OK, so that was a simple biological perspective. But, what about cultural anthropology? Dessert has become an important part of many cultures. As we have transitioned from being agricultural to sitting around in office chairs, while our bodies are basically still like that of cavedwellers, instead of dessert becoming extinct like the use of spears and hunting clubs, sweet and fattening desserts have become more elaborate, more dangerous, and more avoidable.

Sugar hidden in this savoury daal!

Sugar hidden in this savoury daal!

And, never mind dessert, I have heard sedentary office workers in Mumbai protest when I am aghast to find sugar or jaggery in their daal (lentils) and vegetable curries – “it’s part of my culture, what can I do?”. So, while I can only shudder at the thought of what they call “dessert” (perhaps, “more sugar with less daal”?), I can appreciate why Mumbai is the diabetes capital of the diabetes capital [sic] of the world.

What can you do about dessert?
The first layer of choices are usually quite general! For example, if it’s dinner with friends, you might be presented with the following set of choices.
Broad choices about dessert
Even to overcome what you cannot control, you can be better prepared by simply following the rule “make/order/buy less than you think you need”. The key power of dessert that you must seek to leverage off is that “less is more”. Even if there’s less per person to dish out, the likely lasting memory of those that dined will be “that dessert was amazing, if only we could have had more”. And anyway no one actually goes home hungry!

Getting slightly more detailed, we could tackle the who, where, when, why, what questions!

I can be a little extreme at times and specifically try to avoid eating out with friends who clearly make unhealthy food choices. I don’t avoid the friends, just eating with them! I talked about learning to say no in an earlier blog.

When there’s a choice between eating out and eating at home, I always prefer home cooked food – whether at my own home or that of a friend.  Although it’s not easy to avoid dessert made by a friend, the way to proceed might be to take a tiny serving happily (reduces the threat response in them) saying “it looks yummy, I’m stuffed, but I’d love to try it”.  If you make sure that the first serving is tiny, you could take a second similar sized serving without doing any damage to yourself and at the same time pleasing your host!
When might it be OK to eat dessert?When should you say NO?

My desserts are in harmony with my lifestyle

My desserts are in harmony with my lifestyle of a mostly sedentary 47 year old

Other than emotional reasons, a special event, a childhood favourite, there may be other times when it might be OK to eat dessert.  It’s usually not when you’ve just had a heavy meal. My wife stopped offering me dessert after dinner.

She was more likely to ask, “Puru, I’ve kept some of that chocolate tart in the fridge for you to have in the morning after your run, would you like one slice or two?”.

If you’ve been mindful when eating dessert, you will have noticed that there’s a decreasing returns to scale with dessert consumption. The marginal pleasure from each additional bite goes to zero fairly quickly. The momentum of our greed takes a little longer to slow down. And, in general, it is good for you to be very aware of the fact that there’s about a 20 minute lag between you actually being full and your brain telling you that you are. It’s the main reason that children or adults who eat slowly, are rarely overweight.
How much should you eat?If too much of a good thing is bad, things that are bad don’t get better the more you get of them. Remembering the idea of the jigsaw puzzle in a previous blog, it should be clear that sizes of dessert servings should be kept small in order to get the right balance of the various nutrient groups.
How often should you eat dessert?

What should you eat?
All you need to do is Google “healthy dessert recipes” to come up with a range of possible desserts that will vary in their true healthiness. It is up to you to be intelligent about the dessert you pick. (One simple example off a supermarket shelf might be the bold marketing line “fat free fruit yoghurt”.  Yes, it may have 0% fat. But, it’s likely to be extremely heavy in sugar (which is a carbohydrate, not a fat). Choose intelligently!)

A sensible sized slice of Quinoa flour cake, baked by a client, devoured before I hit the gym

A sensible sized slice of Quinoa flour cake, baked by a client, devoured before I hit the gym

If the key dangers of desserts are sugar, butter and refined flour, look for (or invent) recipes that have healthier replacements. For instance, fruit/dates instead of sugar, almond butter instead of butter, or quinoa flour instead of refined wheat flour.

If you are diabetic, or pre-diabetic, or suffer from other lifestyle diseases like hypertension, you will need special attention from your healthcare professional. One of the things to do to ensure that you don’t reach that stage in the first place is to think harder when faced with the question – what about that dessert? Then, you can have your cake, and eat it too!



Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.

Inclusion and Exclusion!

Think about Inclusion and Exclusion

Think about Inclusion and Exclusion

Originally published here on 27-Apr-2014 at www.Enerzal.me
This is a re-print of that article.

Don’t Go with the Flow of Mass Hysteria

Election fever has hit India, and in Mumbai, where I live most of the year, the turnout to vote was not particularly high. I am not eligible to vote, but that does not bother me – even where I am eligible, I prefer to be a free rider. But when it comes to what I eat and drink, I do my best to ensure that the ‘intelligence of the masses’ does not determine what I decide to consume. I prefer to rely on science and I think you should too.

What interests me about the Indian elections is the ferocity of arguments in the media. And one of the prominent angles that always appears as an important part of debates is about the economic inclusion and exclusion of this group or that – grouping by gender, age, religion, region, wealth… the list is long. In my earliest blogs I spoke to you about food nutrition groups. Today I am going to talk about inclusion and exclusion in food – something you can actually have a 100% impact on!

Unlike the election process, where the bulk of the population participates, when it comes to tests of excess or deficiency in nutrients, it is often difficult to say much about the population, and even less about you specifically. You only know what you are taking too much of or not getting enough of when you are put through tests yourself for some reason – perhaps when you are unwell, or if you are going through an annual checkup. Research studies on samples of the population do not capture the specific idiosyncratic composition of your food and drink and its impact on your health.  So, I would like to first speak to you about how you could think about the issue and then what to do about it.

How to think about the issue

Conceptually, you could think of an “ideal you”, someone getting just the right proportions of every nutrient.  Remember, this doesn’t just apply to the fuel substrates (protein, carbs, fat) we spoke about in the previous blogs, but to all the other micronutrients too. In fact, deficiencies in, or excesses of, the micronutrients are often more insidious. Excesses in the macro nutrients are easy to spot – fat gain is an easy one. As are macronutrient deficiencies – more often fat gain than fat loss is a visual result.  It is the micronutrients – vitamins, minerals and salts that will create problems that are not always easy to track down or pinpoint.
Ideal nutrient intake

Being Aware is Part (not Half) the Problem Solved

Like with most problems in life, if you are aware of the fact that the real you is some surmountable distance from the ideal you, then your work is half done. To cover the remaining distance you need to take action, of course.

Yeah, Sure, Weight Loss is Great but…

A client of mine whose primary focus is total body strength and adjusting her body composition to lower fat levels has the following weight drop in the last few months.
Drop in weight does NOT mean ideal nutrition
At first sight that all sounds great. However, as someone who is extremely finicky about what she will eat or drink, the likelihood of being close to ideal nutrition is always low. Fortunately, she need not think about exclusion as she has rarely eaten unhealthy food. Instead, her problem is that of inclusion, ensuring that she is including important nutrients into daily consumption. Ensuring that inclusion would reduce the likelihood of numerous major or minor illnesses over time.

There’s a Lot, not just Food, that You could be Missing Out On

Of course, without tests, neither she nor you would know if there are digressions from ideal nutrition intake. And on a daily basis, all this would vary anyway.  So what should you do in practice? Eating a well-balanced meal, not just in the macro nutrients but also in terms of vitamins, minerals and salts is important. The path to ideal consumption will be a function of one’s lifestyle too. Being vegan, vegetarian, diabetic, athletic (or all of them!) will matter.  Being a school child rather than a menopausal woman will make a difference. Old aged pensioners will have a different path to tread compared to competitive body builders! And, it’s not just through food that we follow this path. For instance, those posh Mumbai ladies who lunch and are afraid to look Indian (brown) are invariably deficient in Vitamin D because they avoid the sun.  Vitamin D in turn affects the absorption of Calcium. Calcium is important not just for bones and teeth, but also for muscle function. Muscles around our spine need to have high endurance (as opposed to strength) or our posture is adversely affected. Thus avoiding sun exposure can invariably turn them into ladies who hunch!

The Problem is Time-Varying and Dynamic but Don’t Give Up!

It is also important to remember that the problem is dynamic. No matter what you do, over time, the distance from the the “real you” to the “ideal you” will vary and so will the route to take you closer to the “ideal you”. A reliable source once told me that almost every member of the Indian Olympic team (comprised of some of the fittest voters of the country) has some deficiency or the other. You too will rarely be at your ideal, but attempting to be so is what makes the engagement with food an interesting adventure. That also pushes up your life expectancy and the proportion of it spent free of pain and disease.
Excesses or Deficiencies over Time

A professional nutritionist skilled in their science and with a proven track record will be able to give very detailed guidance on what you should eat, when, and how much, but whether you have access to one or not, thinking about this inclusion and exclusion is always primarily your responsibility. Whether Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, or the yogis of India or the intellectuals of Chinese medicine said “food is your medicine”, the important thing for you to do is to get the dosage right! No matter who wins the elections!



Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.