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How Fit are We?
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 trouble.

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 and strength.

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 meet.

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:
http://www.sealfitnesschallenge.com/index.html

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.

Resources:

www.sealfitnesschallenge.com
www.fitnesswithjoe.com
www.crossfit.com

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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