The Evolutionary Instinct to Efficiency
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on February 15th, 2014

What’s the connection between evolution, snow-shoveling, and swimming-improvement?

The past few days brought a snow-storm of historic proportions–18 to 24 inches, atop 10 inches from a week earlier. For me, that meant opportunity for my own ‘Winter Games.’

I’ve been skiing on a rail trail for the past week, and was anxious yesterday to get out on the fresh snow, but couldn’t. We have a long driveway and, when the snow gets deeper than about 6 inches, can’t get anywhere until Joe Lupinacci, our plow guy reaches us.

After an overnight snow, though we’re near the end of his route, Joe’s usually here by first light. But this snow was so deep and heavy that his rounds took much longer. Though the snow had stopped by 6am, noon came and went and no Joe.  He called at 1pm to say he was stuck in deep snow and had called a tow truck for help.

But even while homebound I could still enjoy physical activity. There was plenty of shoveling to do. I needed to clear paths to the driveway, bird feeder, compost pile, and our lower-level Swim Studio. And most urgently to let our elderly dog get out and do his business without struggling through deep drifts.

Shoveled Path

I estimate I shoveled as much as 60 cubic yards of fairly heavy snow—the snow was powdery at first then turned wet and heavy as temperatures rose. That’s far more snow from a single storm than I ever had to shovel while growing up in suburban Long Island. I feel good that, in my 60s, I can still handle that as well or better than I did in my teens.

Bliz of 2014 front walk

The main reason is that decades of shoveling have steadily increased my efficiency. And while I shoveled heedlessly in my youth, these days every bout of shoveling becomes a conscious improvement exercise—experiments in how much snow to pick up, then move it elsewhere with better ‘physics’ and using leg, butt, and core muscles.

My time spent shoveling also became a ‘meditation’ on the roles of effort and efficiency in shoveling, skiing, and swimming.

As an athlete I think of every physical activity as an occasion for ‘training.’ Some days it’s swimming, other days skiing; yesterday it was shoveling. And one effect of 20 years of TI practice is that I unfailingly turn every physical activity into an improvement exercise—how can I get more done with less effort.

A certain amount of snow must be moved. Why work any harder than absolutely necessary to do it–not least because I still hoped Joe might dig us out in time for me to get in a short ski.  There’s nothing unique about that instinct. Anyone who shovels snow probably has the same idea. But how many of us consider the evolutionary origins of that instinct?

Homo sapiens has spent less than a century in organized sports training—the only activity in which it may be a goal to push ourselves, to work as hard as possible.

But for a million years of evolutionary history, our very survival depended on exactly the opposite tendency: Expend as few calories as possible while seeking additional sustaining calories, or shelter, or a mating opportunity.

Over the past 10 days, I’d gone skiing six or seven times, while swimming only once. I had to consider two factors: I could budget only about 45 minutes to being on the trail, and my skills were rusty from disuse.

ski trail

But I also had a goal: I wanted to make it to a bridge over a culvert where the woods opened to reveal a panoramic view of the Shawangunk Ridge. To enjoy that view I had to make it there in 22 minutes or less.


On Day One, I was 200 meters short of the bridge when it came time to turn around. And my underlayers were sweat-soaked when I returned to my starting point. I knew why: My balance and timing were off. Consequently I could feel my skis slipping on the trail, made uneven by the tracks of walkers and animals.

It wasn’t an option to make it to the bridge by working harder. I couldn’t gain ‘skiing fitness’ in a matter of days. My focus had to be just the opposite: Go farther . . . faster–by working less.

I did it the same way I do in swimming—mindfulness. I tuned into sensations that signal inefficiency.

A consequence of poor balance is leaning too far to the side as I shift my weight onto my ski. I feel that in my body, but also in my hands. When you ski in balance, you pole with light flicks. When you lose balance, you lean heavily on the pole to catch yourself.

On Day Two, I began counting light flicks. Initially I could only reach 20 to 30 consecutive flicks, but by paying attention, I got to 60, 80 then 100, inside of 20 minutes.

My reward for paying attention was that I made it to the bridge, albeit with little time to enjoy the view. And I was still sweat-soaked when I finished. But I’d gone about 400 meters farther in the same 45 minutes, by skiing more efficiently.

Each day, by continuing to focus on efficiency-related sensations, I was able to spend a little more time taking in the view, and finish with slightly drier clothes.

The irony in this is that nordic skiing is considered the most aerobically demanding of all sports. Yet my ‘work less’ approach to skiing over the past week was remarkably similar to what I’ve observed of high-level skiers when I’ve skied at Mount Van Hoevenburg in Lake Placid, site of the 1980 Olympic races.

‘Van Ho’ has a broad flat field where races start and finish. I’ve noticed two things while skiing there. The better the skier the easier they make it look. And the more time they spend doing tuneup drills on that field, before heading out to the steep and winding trails. It’s the ungainly plodders who strap on their skis then head straight out to make their inefficiency more permanent.

In swimming, a sport with lesser aerobic demands, the culture seems diametrically different—constant timed interval repeats. These lead to a sense we Must. Go. Faster. And because faster is harder, we feel constant pressure to work harder.

Why are nordic skiing and other endurance sports—as well as activity we think of as chores—strikingly aligned with our inherent evolutionary nature, while swimming seems to stand alone in running counter to it?

In subsequent blogs, I’ll examine how a culture that celebrates effort over efficiency developed in swimming and how you can chart your own course, one more aligned with evolution and human nature.

One Response to “The Evolutionary Instinct to Efficiency”

  1. Steve Howard says:


    Great article – I applaud your excellent TI approach to a meaningful outdoor snow shoveling workout exercise encounter. A valuable lesson in taking advantage of health and wellness opportunities. I weedeat 2 acres – takes about 45 mins – I use as active recovery\upper body strength – turned what used to be a chore into a planned and beneficial workout each week.

    Great job Terry!

    Steve Howard

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