By Tom Demerly.
In the grand scheme of things triathletes and
cyclists are frail specialists of the fitness world. We’re
tuned to swim, ride and run long distances but poorly prepared
for anything else. If we found ourselves in a jam that required
overall physical fitness to survive we’d probably be in
I learned this reality while writing our recent
features on the U.S. Navy SEALs and triathlon. The SEALs we
met at the Naval Special Warfare Center were able to compete
at the top levels of a difficult half Ironman triathlon but
also had impressive upper body strength, amazing resistance
to cold and the ability to think clearly under stress with little
sleep and poor food. They practice this in training. We saw
small inflatable boats with tired, cold, hungry SEALs skimming
across San Diego bay before dark as they headed out on long
training missions. The SEALs were light hearted and full of
humor despite wearing soaking clothes in biting wind on an empty
stomach. When they reached their objectives they shouldered
35-pound loads with incredible speed scampering over soft sand.
A couple days later those very same men were winning a national
class half Ironman triathlon.
I can put in a credible performance at a local
triathlon but I can’t do more than one pull up, only a
few push ups and I doubt I can bench press my own body weight.
Across the spectrum of physical fitness, I’m woefully
lacking in many areas despite finishing more than 200 triathlons.
In a round-about way the television writer’s
strike also got me thinking about my fitness shortcomings. One
television show that has benefited from the writer’s strike
is the G4 Network’s quirky show, Ninja Warriors.
The show is a syndicated, subtitled play back of the wildly
popular Japanese show Sasuke on the Tokyo Broadcasting
System. GQ Magazine said Ninja Warriors is, “…One
of the 10 best reasons for TV…” The show features
an unlikely combination of comical characters and real athletes
such as Olympic gymnasts along with an impressive cadre of citizen
athletes with fanatical devotion to Sasuke. The disciples must
negotiate a series of increasingly difficult obstacle courses
while an animated announcer delivers commentary in staccato
Japanese (is there any other kind?) If you haven’t seen
it here is a sample on youtube.com: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJmCem8qbTE
This disjointed amalgam of Navy SEALs and Japanese
TV characters got me thinking: I can’t do any of that
stuff. I’m too old to be a SEAL and abhor cold water.
I’m not likely to appear on a Japanese sports show. But
the thought of lacking the most basic fitness attributes galls
me. I tried doing a pull-up the other day and could barely manage
one. My wife can do 15 pull-ups in perfect form. She’s
a dance instructor, former gymnast, swimmer and diver and an
active triathlete. She has that eclectic mix of strength, flexibility
and balance that few triathletes have, especially us older ones.
Sure, I did Ironman and about a half dozen other triathlons
last year, but I probably couldn’t pass the old President’s
Council on Physical Fitness test they used to administer in
high school phys-ed class. There is something wrong with that:
An Ironman who can't pass a high school phys ed. test.
This calls into question the functionality of
our fitness. What if our car broke down and we had to walk a
distance, climb a wall, lift a heavy tire and operate a tire
jack? What if we had to assist a heavy person who was in an
accident? If hefting a lightweight bicycle onto a roof rack
seems like work after a long bike ride something is out of balance.
Have you ever been as sore the day after shoveling snow as you
were after completing Ironman?
The question of who is the "fittest"
athlete lies at the very origin of our sport. Common lore describes
the first Ironman as a contest to determine if a cyclist, runner
or swimmer is the "fittest" athlete. The contest was
proposed by Navy Commander John Collins and combined a 112 mile
bike ride around Oahu after a 2.4 rough water ocean swim capped
off by doing the Honolulu Marathn course. The idea was the athlete
who faired the best had the greatest overall fittness.
Because of my own fitness imbalance and this enduring
question of who is the fittest athlete I did some research.
In Coronado I noticed a SEAL was wearing a T-shirt that said
“CrossFit: Forging Elite Fitness”. As part of my
research I Googled “CrossFit”.
What I discovered was an eclectic, functional
approach to fitness, athletics and the physical culture. In
Crossfit’s own vernacular;
“The CrossFit Program
was developed to enhance an individual’s competency at
all physical tasks.”
That simple philosophy is appealing to me.
CrossFit doesn’t sell anything per se’.
If you visit their website at www.crossfit.com
you will find interesting reading, videos, photos and the odd
T-shirt or newsletter for sale. It isn’t a machine, a
pill, a gadget or a book. It is an approach to fitness, health
CrossFit is rooted in versatility and functional
fitness. It is a broader approach to fitness than swimming,
cycling running, watching power meters, riding the Computrainer,
using your heart rate monitor. It is in this broader spectrum
that there are opportunities for us cyclist/triathletes. According
to Crossfit’s website, their specialty is not specializing.
While Crossfit’s approach will expand a specialty athlete’s
range of capabilities it also may improve our performance in
our core sport.
I know there are debates surrounding the idea
of using free weights, resistance training, calisthenics and
basically anything other than good ‘ole swimming, biking
and running. If you are trying to win Ironman overall there
isn’t much time left over for supplementing your training
with a more complete approach to fitness. An Ironman overall
champion has to be a specialist. You and I aren’t trying
to win Ironman though, and we hopefully are dedicated to fitness
as a part of our lifestyle. In the same way we try to manage
our finances and careers with an eye toward the future we also
need to evaluate the long term effects of our fitness program.
What kind of condition will we be in when we are 50? 60? 70?
Is our training now going to establish a good strength and fitness
base for the back half of our lives? How are we planning to
remain active as we age? Most financial planners will tell you
your spending habits don’t change much when you retire.
If we extrapolate that same idea to our physical habits how
can we exercise now to insure maintenance of our physical abilities
when we are older?
I met a man two years ago named Joe Sparks. Joe’s
last name is fitting since he sparks with enthusiasm and vitality.
A week or two ago Joe placed his upper shoulders on the seat
portion of a plastic chair on an unstable floor and proceeded
to demonstrate a gravity defying “sit-up” that he
executed from his chest- elevating his entire lower body from
the chest down up toward the ceiling at ninety degrees. He completed
several repetitions of this gravity defying exercise that looked
more like an unlikely move from Cirque de Soleil. After that
he gave a demonstration using a 50-pound kettlebell making it
look like he was maneuvering a tennis ball.
Joe Sparks is a massage therapist, Yoga teacher,
Pose Method running coach and a trained Russian Kettlebell Instructor.
He also invented a novel device for training run form that emphasizes
form and tempo. His approach to fitness is broad and balanced.
As a result he is skilled at myriad difficult physical tasks
from triathlons to gymnastics and flexibility. Joe Sparks may
be the most complete athlete and most fit athlete you’ll
I was skeptical of some of Joe’s ideas and
methods at first. The Kettlebell thing smacked of the turn-of-the-century
strongman and the exercises appeared convoluted and difficult.
The more I listened to Joe and the more I got sore and creaky
from doing the same old things the more sense he made and more
fit he began to appear. Joe’s approach to fitness, including
his yoga and massage practice to promote active recovery, forms
a complete set of physical capabilities that most of us are
missing. I wager Joe will be going strong well in to his eighties.
He is in his fifties now, although you couldn’t tell from
his incredible physical abilities.
Another person I had the pleasure of chatting
with during my investigation into functional fitness was a Navy
SEAL named Capt. Duncan Smith. Capt. Smith has founded a new
event to bring fitness awareness to the civilian population
through the Navy SEAL Fitness Challenge. You may have seen his
photo in the center spread feature article on the SEALs in Outside
magazine last summer along with SEALs Dave Goggins and Superfrog
Triathlon Champion Mitch Hall. The Navy SEAL Fitness Challenge
is a series of four physical fitness events around the U.S.
challenging athletes to measure their performance in individual
tests of strength and endurance. It is based on the initial
physical screening test given to anyone trying to join the SEALs.
Capt. Smith’s event is not a recruiting drive. It is a
competitive event open to everyone designed to provide a broad
test of your physical fitness. If you’re a triathlete,
cyclist or runner this event will be very interesting. How fit
are you really? What is the depth and extent of your
physical fitness? How versatile of an athlete are you? A guy
like Joe Sparks would likely do well at the Navy SEAL Fitness
Challenge as would the top competitors from Japan’s wacky
Ninja Warrior television show with their versatile
strength, balance and agility- provided they could swim too.
I’m wondering how the rank-and-file local age group triathlete
will do in the SEAL Fitness Challenge. You can check out the
official website for the Navy SEAL Fitness Challenge Here:
We were delighted to learn that one of the four
nationwide Navy SEAL Fitness Challenge events will be here in
Dearborn, Michigan near our store on Saturday, May 10, 2008.
That has created quite a buzz among the athletes here who are
suddenly doing push-ups and sit-ups and watching videos of the
unusual Navy SEAL swim stroke that is one of two strokes permitted
for the swim portion of the event (the other is common breaststroke).
I think we’ll learn a lot about how fit (or unfit) we
really are on May 10 when the Navy SEALs come to town to administer
the SEAL Fitness Challenge.
Between now and May 10 I am going to try to shore
up the many gaps in my physical fitness portfolio by doing some
push-ups, sit-ups and trying to use this new chining bar we
just installed at the shop. I wager it will make me a better
triathlete, swimmer, runner and cyclist too.
I’m looking forward to the Navy SEAL Fitness
Challenge on May 10 here in Dearborn. I think it will be an
interesting insight into how fit we really are and how we stack
up against one of the toughest, most eclectic physical fitness
standards in the world.