Friday, December 30, 2011

Is the entire fitness industry BS? Everything you know is a lie. Part 1 (Personal Trainers)

Super Hans from Peep Show sums up most of the fitness industry in one phrase

Or as my ol' Pa used to say 'Bullshit baffles brains'

This is a three part series, part 1 will cover personal trainers or more specifically an 'in-house' PT conference I went to, part 2 will cover the concept of 'master trainers' and a review of Les Mills cxworx program, part 3 will cover fitness qualifications and courses.

I haven't got time to cover everything that is wrong with the fitness industry and personal trainers, so I will have to focus on some specific examples. Before I start it goes without saying that there are some very good personal trainers and fitness coaches out there, and if you're looking for a decent trainer I hope you find one. There just happens to be a lot of bell-ends as well.

Full disclosure: I don't do that much PT anymore, I think it doesn't work for most people, and small group training works better for more people. I think even writing a decent program and walking your clients through it and them training by themselves works better in most cases.

PT Conference - cigarettes & crisps

I work mostly for a company that is now reasonably big (I also work for myself as well) and it held an in-house PT conference. I took a couple of my trainers to it, hoping to meet some like minded trainers, exchange ideas, and hopefully learn some new things. Boy, were we in for a surprise.

There were about 20-30 people at the conference, including a couple of trainers I know and respect and quite a few I'd never met before.

As we entered the building, we saw a couple of PT's having a last minute cigarette before entering the conference. That's what I like to see, PT role models living the fitness dream. One of the PTs having a fag later turned out to be one of those people, one who has the confidence of a much smarter person.

Later at lunch checking out what some of the PTs were eating was also enlightening - crisps, the usual soft drinks crap. Bear in mind this was in an actual gym, where some of them will train clients, and some of them were wearing their PT polo shirts at the time. Now if you're in the fitness industry I don't expect you to be a saint, I myself have eating my own bodyweight in cheese over the festive season and drunk enough beer to knock out a honey badger. However, most of the time I'm pretty good, and please don't be doing this stuff in front of potential clients, people who will ultimately pay your wages and will ask you about nutrition.

Sales - it's all about the shirt

We kicked off with some of the usual stuff about sales, what is PT, we don't know how to market it, do you want to make more money, hey the product is you, blah blah. Personally I don't buy into this concept that PT is all about the individual trainers strengths, so we can't really market it. I would subscribe more to Alwyn Cosgrove's idea, in a large organisation you have to a model you can replicate; otherwise when your best PT leaves, all your clients go with them.

At this point one of the PTs handily pointed out that when she was wearing her fleecy jumper no one could see her ever so stylish polo shirt that has 'personal trainer' stamped on the back in big letters, and what we needed was fully branded fleeces as well. WTF?! Even the sales guy looked dumbfounded. Hey, if no one can see your polo shirt how about taking your fleece off. And here's a thought, if you are out on the floor actually training people, then people might actually think your a personal trainer and not just an overweight person wearing a fleece standing next to someone on a treadmill.

Then things got worse - the secret

You may not be aware that many gyms follow quite a simple model for PT. They normally get a PT or fitness instructor to do a standard gym induction, and by standard I mean awful. The idea is to give the client the most basic, machine based program that doesn't work. You then tell the bemused client who thought you were to help them, that yes, you can show them the secrets, the special exercises, but its gonna cost them, PT is the skeleton key to success.

I thought this still only occurred in the most backward globo-gym big box commercial heartless facilities, where the PTs pay £900 for rent and are on the breadline. After all, nearly all commercial health clubs require a monthly fee, and they all big up there individualised one to one program and there exclusive caring 'induction process'. Of course, they don't tell you that there individualised program consists of showing you three machines and a static stretch.

Due to this my personal training and fitness team have always worked on the premise of writing the best programs for people even if it isn't a PT session, but a session that is included in their membership. This way, they can sleep at night with a clear conscience, and hopefully the client will be impressed enough to get some PT after the 'free' sessions are done (doesn't always work out, people take the piss, but we all feel better about our profession and some of our gym members actually achieve their goals).

This rambling section, brings me to the actual point. In some 'break-out' groups we discussed programming and what we do. It then became clear that many of the PTs were following the crap induction model outlined above.

I was explaining that in a first session we might do some functional movement screening, and then might show the person some goblet squats or bodyweight squats. One of the trainers then looked at me as if I was punching clients in the face with a kettlebell. He actually said 'sounds like your over programming', another one chimed in 'kettlebells on the first session? There's no way they are going to be ready for that.' Other comments included, 'you can't be showing people power exercises like the swing', and that things like movement screening would be 'too confusing for clients'. And lastly, you're giving too much away.

Can't coach, won't coach

At this point my bullshit meter hit critical.

Never take one of these into a room full of personal trainers

In response to the squat question. If you can't coach a squat to a normal health person I don't know what to tell you. I use chair squats/ bench squats with clients with chronic back pain, people after hip replacements and stroke survivors. Yes, the evidence base recommends chair squats and eventually squats hovering above the chair for people after stroke. If I can get a stroke client to squat to a step built up with some risers while wearing an AFO (ankle foot orthosis), and you're telling me this movement is too complicated for a person who want to lose weight and tone up, I don't know what to tell you. If you can't coach a squat to normal healthy person in their first session, you either can't coach or you are too lazy too coach; sitting down and getting out of a chair everyday is a fundamental movement pattern that millions of people do everyday. So I asked what they would show people, they said leg press, you're freakin' kidding me right?!

In answer to the movement screen being too confusing and too complicated for clients: Obviously you don't necessarily use the verbage 'functional movement screen' with clients, and I'll leave it to Gray Cook to explain why you should screen clients. I probably train more injured people than the average PT (back pain, GP referral, stroke clients) and I employ some form of movement screen with them all (though I don't think I've ever done the entire official FMS with anyone), it might be the selective functional movement assessment (SFMA) seated compression test for back pain clients etc. And as far as I'm aware no one got confused, and the whole thing takes about 5mins.

I then proffered the idea to the assembled PT chumps, that you don't even have to do a movement screen, surely you will see if they can do a squat or if they have limitations in the mobility warm up, some scapula wall slides, bodyweight squats and cat camels are going to tell you quite a lot. At this point some tumble weed blew past. It seems most PTs don't know what a mobility warm up is either, 5 mins on the cross trainer anyone?

The conversation went on for a bit, where me and the PTs who work for me said things like 'why would you give someone an exercise program you know doesn't work?' And, of course, you would make sure someone could hip hinge before getting them to do a swing'. And yes, we do kettlebells with people who can use them within the first or second session. But it seems we are in the minority. It seems a program that consists of squats or step ups is too complicated or 'over-programming', yes somewhere, Rippetoe is crying with laughter. And more importantly giving clients crap exercise in the first session is an income generator later on, when it turns out they didn't lose weight or achieve anything with the half arsed 'program' they were given.

It seems the average PT has such little faith in their clients or the public, that they will only show them a leg press, because obviously they are too dumb to grasp anything else. Even though, they are injury free and have most probably used gyms countless times before. Even though I can start a back pain client on the road to hip hinging in session 1, for a female weight loss client this is obviously too dangerous. I concede there is a place for machines for certain people in certain situations, but these PTs blanket dumbing down of exercise for everyone is pure laziness.

Whining & Moaning

After this me and my team were ready to return back to base, and continue training clients in the awesome way they had become accustomed too, safe in the knowledge that most of industry rivals had never read a book. But there was more to come.

All PTs in this company get free access to PTontheNet, personally I've looked at it twice as I'm too busy reading fitness books, text books, DVDs, research articles, other fitness website & blogs & journals; but it's there if you want it. One PT then claimed she didn't have time to read it as she was too busy at work and wasn't going to look it out of work. Once again me and the rest of my team were dumbstruck. WTF?! This is your career, your life, how about turning off the TV. I do all my reading outside of work, as do my team. I personally manage at least 1-2 hours everyday minimum, because this is what I do, I want to be expert in this field. Her unwillingness to invest anytime or effort in her chosen field was astounding.

To top it all off, we got onto the subject of training courses. To be fair to this particular company, they are pretty good at sending their staff on training courses. But for one particular PT this wasn't good enough, she wanted to do some kids fitness course, which her manager wouldn't send her on and she said she couldn't afford to pay for it herself. And thus she managed to miss the entire point of the conference, which was to make more money from PT. Here's a clue, if you were a better PT, you would actually have some clients, which means you would actually have some money and you could pay for the course. And here's another hint, if you really wanted to do it, you would find a way, we're not talking £1000's, but a few hundred pounds.

I often wonder why people become PTs, it seems many of them have no training background and have as much interest in fitness and health as Jabba The Hut. Maybe they couldn't think of anything else to do, maybe its just a reflection of society, where superficial understanding and qualifications with guaranteed pass rates are par for the course.

Meanwhile, they make the rest of us look bad, they make the industry look amateurish, and the ones with real passion and knowledge are lost in the flood.

In part 2 I will review the cxworx program which I took part in at the same conference, and rant about master trainers

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Futile Search For The Magic Exercise. (Gestalt Training)

While flicking through Verkhoshansky's Special Strength Training Manual For Coaches, I came across this line in the preface which struck me as fundamentally important:

"In the past, the coaches were searching for the 'best exercise' which could assure an easy way in achieving the higher increase in athlete's performance. Later, it was understood that the single exercise cannot assure by itself the best increase in specific performance, but that it can be achieved by a group of different exercises integrated into a system."
This is an issue that reverberates throughout commercial fitness facilities, people want you to show them the magic, secret exercise that will change everything. To a lesser extent you still see this mentality in strength coaches as well, all we need to do is the Olympic lifts and everything will be fine regardless of the individual, their background or their sport.

Often times I will write a program for someone, and when they look at it, there is a sense of disappointment. Where are the secret exercises that will transform their body, where is the secret special ops bullshit that will make them throw up and therefore feel like they've had a real workout. Instead they see deadlifts, squats, presses, pull ups etc blah etc, all that stuff that has worked for thousands of people for at least a hundred years.

The point is not necessarily the individual exercises, however good they may be. The point is the accumulated effect of doing all these exercises together over several weeks, months & years. The workout is not just a list of exercises on a piece of paper, it's the effort you put into every single rep, every single hill sprint, the sessions you blast through when you don't feel like training, the focus, the tenacity, the push outside of your comfort zone. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Not technically gestalt, but you get the idea

"Boring stories mister"

These are all examples of real world conversations I have had, some happen on such a regular basis, as to become generic, some are recent specific examples.

The bicep guy: "I'm looking for an exercise to hit the outer head of my biceps brachii, I've heard that semi supine 135 degree partial rep band curls are the answer, I was thinking of adding them onto my bicep day?"
Me: "How many chin ups can you do? And how big are your biceps now?"
Bicep Guy: "I don't do them. About 9 inches pumped"
Me: "You don't need a  bicep day, you need to do some chin ups and total body training, and stop drinking freakin lucozade while working out"

A real conversation I had a couple of weeks ago when someone walked into the gym
Woman: "I'm on holiday for 10 days, which one of these is the best machine to lose weight and get rid of this (pointing to stomach)."
Me: "Only 10 days, hmmm, none of them, eat less" (okay, I padded that out with some blah talk about nutrition and long term exercise, but you get the drift).
Also bear in mind that this woman wasn't a pre contest figure athlete in need of Lyle McDonalds stubborn fat loss protocol and a shipment of yohimbine, she was the standard fat loss client.

Six pack guy or gal: "Whats the best exercise for this? (pointing at stomach). At this point they want you to tell them about some secret ab-curl variation, do 100 of these and you will get a six pack, instead you ask

"Do you want to get your core stronger or you want to see your abs?"

Nine times of of ten, they want to see there abs. So you tell them its about nutrition really. But if they like, you could show them some total body training that's going to hit the core, as well as everything else and burn more calories than sitting on the recline bike. No, no, no! They don't want that, they want the easy answer, they want the magic exercise.

Magic functional core exercise - this will give you a 6 pack in 6 days: Or just do some squats, asymmetrical carries and buy an ab wheel

Or the person who thinks Pilates is a panacea for all their woes - back pain, posture, lose weight, get that stomach they always dreamed of while lying down, with this secret set of exercises (but that's a whole other blog post).

Last example, Running guy came into the gym because he wanted to work on his upper body and because of some long term intermittent non specific back pain. So I give him the SFMA, Mcgill, full assessment screen (included in his membership, no extra charge!), then take him through cat camels, bird dogs, glute activation drills, body weight squats, goblet squats, one arm DB press,the works. Next time he comes in he tells me he wants to only use machines because there safer and he thinks he hurt his back doing the other stuff. So I tell him all the downsides of machines, and the one or two that are the exception & may be worth him using, and then take him through hip hinges & golfers lift. And the next time he almost believes me, but he can't quite bring himself too, because I'm just a guy in the gym and not his physio, and he tells me he wants to use the leg press machine for his legs, so I tell him about the lumbar spine flexion on the leg press, and how the goblet squat is superior and safer, as is all the unilateral leg stuff we've been through, and how more functional it is to his needs blah blah. And how Dean Karnazes and Scott Jurek both lift weights etc etc.

And he looks at me like I've started speaking Vogon and the babel fish has fallen out of his ear. Because all he wanted to do was come to the gym and use some of those magic upper body machines and core machines and not have to think, and not really change the way he is moving at all. And carry on being a kyphotic runner with upper crossed syndrome and spindly legs who is forward flexion intolerant.

Did you not hear me when I said the Leg Press is not good for your back. Am I speaking Vogon or something?!

"I don't believe you, you're a liar". Magic machines.

Some people think they've joined a gym or facility and the money they pay is for the machines. Its not. You're paying for the expertise of the trainers. I think it was Stuart McGill who said you can tell how good a facility is by how few machines it has. A cable column, some kettlebells, power rack, barbells & prowler is the sign of a good gym.

Now I realise there is a sub-set of gym goers, or more specifically health club users who specifically pay for the machines and the exclusive environment. They don't care that the poor sap minimum wage gym instructor doesn't know anything about training because they come to the gym to tell people they go to the gym. For them staying fat & unfit is not an issue, they can have their post workout caramel latte in the cafe afterwards and get the fat lipo-sucked out at a later date.

Some people look genuinely disappointed when you don't put any machines in their program. They don't believe that the floor exercise you gave them for their core is the best one they can do, they don't believe that those bodyweight exercises are really what is going to get their legs in shape, or that dumbbell exercise the best thing for their arms. No, one of those shiny machines must do the job better, they look so new and expensive, why would someone go to the trouble of building those machines if bodyweight & free weight exercises were all that was needed?! There must be something I can sit down on, some kind of vibrating platform that will do this for me? No, there isn't. Welcome to the lie of the fitness industry my friend. Trust me, your membership fee should have nothing to do with the amount of machines in the gym, it should be about the results the trainer can get for you.

Bang for your buck exercises (note to all American trainers and coaches, stop using this phrase in your writing and work, it's worn out and trite)

Some exercises achieve so much that they are worth a thousand machines. There is an exchange in the DVD secrets of the shoulder between Gray Cook and Bret Jones which goes something along the lines of: so what do you do for you posterior chain? Swings. And your cardio? Swings. And explosive power? Swings. And shoulder rehab? Swings.

So I guess somethings do border on magic exercises. The swing is a gestalt exercise, so much more than it first appears. There is more going on than most of your clients will ever know.

Cue perfect opportunity to have a Neghar Fonooni video clip of some kettlebell swings. (After the few reps it looks like Neghar is even doing some neck packing - good work & technique!)

Yes, the hip hinge, goblet squat and bird dog may look simple. But you have no idea how much more beneficial they are going to be than the adductor and ab crunch machine. Yes, not only are you paying me for the stuff I show you, you are also paying me for all the useless crap I don't make you do.

You are not a snowflake, but you are an individual

Copying other peoples training can be a mistake. They are not you, you may have specific needs, injuries and time constraints. You should have an assessment, or at least honestly ask yourself what you need to really work on. This doesn't mean, however, that in general there aren't some commonalities in training that work for everyone. Yes, its a worn out phrase but success does leave clues. For example, with running, intervals, hills and sprints all work. This doesn't mean you need to go and sprint up a hill on your day 1 session, but what it does mean is walking for 10 minutes on the treadmill is never going to get you to that 10k run.

The same with weight training, you might think you are the only drug free individual in history who needs a bicep day, and a tricep day and fifteen different pec exercises. The reason we know time travel isn't possible, is because if it was Arthur Saxon and Eugene Sandow would be here now, hitting every wannabe bodybuilder over the head with a weighted sandbag.

Sandow: Back when men could wear leopard skin pants, while sporting a moustache when it wasn't movember and somehow managed to build a physique without access to a smith machine

Now this doesn't mean training has to be boring. Go ahead try new things, have crazy sessions where you do random stuff, drink NOS explode until you pass out. But never lose sight of the basics, because they work. Basic heavy compound movements, explosive lifts, intervals all work, but they don't sell products on the Internet.

"We didn't start the fire, its been burning since the worlds been turning"

I guess people want an easy life and quick results. Why stand up when I can sit down. Why put effort in, if there is possibly an easier way. Why bother changing, its too hard. The comfort zone is warm and cosy and people don't want to come out of it (see I did learn something on the 10 min gym training,  bridge model course: in joke).

If you are training for 5k or 10k and you've never run before, at some point you have to stop walking and running. And it will hurt, not in an existential way, but in a real 'my chest is going to explode' way because you body likes homeostasis.

There isn't some secret running schedule that no ones told you about, there's not some special barefoot shoes that will help you. At some point you have to go and run further than you've run before, and then run faster, and those individually sessions will build up into something magical, greater than one mere training session or method could achieve.The whole program gets results not the individual days

And sometimes you have to break out of your mental comfort zone. Tell a guy who has been doing 3 x10 on all his weights exercises for years that maybe he should try 10 x 3, or 8 x 2 or 5 x 5  and he will look at you like you just set fire to Arnies Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding. But why not try it, what the hell have you got to lose.

Will a deadlift alone change you? Probably not. The back squat? Maybe. However, put them together with presses, some kettlebell conditioning, pull ups, bodyweight exercises & a few hill sprints and 'you will become more powerful than you could possibly imagine'.

So stop searching for the magic exercise, or the magic programme. Its already here, you just haven't done it properly yet.

You gotta have a system, go and find one that works for you.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Where Are All The British Coaches? (Why are all the strength & conditioning coaches American?)

Just a bit of fun, I don't want any irate nationalists or geographers emailing me

What do the following all have in common: Eric Cressey, Mike Boyle, Tony Gentilcore, Chad Waterbury, Glenn Pendlay, John Broz, Dean Somerset, Mike Roberston, Ross Enamait, Joe De Franco, Jim Wendler, Dave Tate, Paul Chek, Vern Gambetta, Nick Tuminello, Jason Feruggia, Dan John, Mike Mahler, Mark Rippetoe and Bret Contreras?

Yes, they are all American, if you are in strength & conditioning in anyway you probably know who all these people are; most probably from the internet.

Want some famous ones who aren't American? How about Charles Poliquin & Christian Thibaudeau from Canada.

How about some Russians - Verkhoshansky, Pavel Tsatsouline.

How about some physiotherapists/ physical therapists: Charlie Weingroff, Gray Cook, Bill Hartman, Shirley Sahrmann - all American.

How about some sports scientists. South Africa got Mel Siff and Tim Noakes.

Quick, name a famous British coach or sports scientists... come on... (crickets chirping)? That's right, South Africa got Mel Siff and Tim Noakes and we got fuckin' Matt Roberts. On the flip side, the USA has Traci Anderson, so they have their own cross to bear.

(In fact, I can think of one, Alwyn Cosgrove, who is Scottish but lives in California).

In the world of bodyworkers and manual therapists we fair slightly better as does Europe. The Europeans gave us Janda, Pavel Kolar, Ida Rolf, Feldenkrais (ok, he was from Israel, but they're in the Eurovision song contest so it counts), and we can muster Leon Chaitow as the British entry. The Americans have Thomas Myers, who came up with Anatomy Trains.

Nutrition wise the USA got Lyle McDonald, Alan Aragon and John Berardi, oh and we got... Pete Cohen. Hmm.

The under representation of European strength coaches can be put down to a language barrier, but Britain doesn't have that excuse and nor does Australia, the only antipodean coach I can think of is Ian King; so they're doing as well as we are.

Internet Marketeers

There is a good chance you have heard of most the above coaches cos they are on interwebz innit. And most of them got there first exposure via T-Nation. Of course, some of them did it without t-nation, Paul Chek for example. Charles Poliquin was well known before he appeared on t-nation, and Ross Enamait is well known for being freakin' awesome. The other exception is Charlie Weingroff who holds a unique position of being a former NBA strength coach, a powerlifter, physical therapist and FMS genius; who grew a base of support because of his knowledge and experience. There is no British equivalent of t-nation, and there is no British equivalent of Charlie Weingroff either.

Had you heard of Bret Contreras before he appeared on t-nation? No, me neither. He was just some guy training people in his garage who used to have a small personal training facility and had an obsession with glutes. And because he had come up with an exercise that went against much of the perceived wisdom, most of the initial comments about him on the forums portrayed him as some kind of chump just because he didn't coach an elite team or Olympic athletes. Personally, I think Bret Contreras has a great website with loads of info, and I couldn't care less if he never coached a team to the 'state championship' or whatever ( though he is still slightly obsessed with horizontal load vector glute exercises!). However, without the internet I never would have got to access or the great info he put out, and the same goes for Eric Cressey, Dan John and all the rest. Also they know how to promote themselves, but know what they offer is a quality product with lots of top notch info given for free as well.

You can blame American cultural hegemony, but half these guys started out training people in their garage, they're not exactly the Disney corporation.

A while back Mike Boyle took umbrage at a list of influential strength coaches because some were just 'internet coaches' training at their own facility or in a garage and many of the great coaches weren't on the internet, so no one had heard of them. Of course, the internet is full of chump coaches (yes, I''ve used the word chump twice), but then again so is professional sport. For example, premier league football and the leagues below abound with knucklehead strength coaches and archaic ideas about resistance training. But having said that, there must be some good coaches working in Britain with elite athletes, or in their own facility with 'ordinary' members of the public, that no one has heard of.

Maybe it's a British reticence to promote ourselves and market ourselves. (But the world wide web was invented by a British guy, just sayin'). Maybe like Mike Boyle intimated, our best coaches are out there coaching people and don't have time for websites, self promotion and to sell products.

Come to think of it I can't think of one strength & conditioning book, DVD, ebook or e-product that I have purchased that was produced by someone who was British. It's a sad state of affairs.


Whatever you think of them Paul Chek & Charles Poliquin are well known if somewhat 'eccentric'. A few years ago doing the Paul Chek certification was all the rage in the UK, this is before Chek went completely 'up river'. Then in recent years the Poliquin PICP became the certification de jour, and Charles garnered packed audiences at the fit pro conference. I've never done either course, I'm sure they have some quality content. The point is no British coaches had developed their own certification or had the marketing nouse to make it a success. We had the YMCA and Premier and few other small players but no one like Poliquin.

Could it be there is no one?

I can't bring myself to consider the fact that may be we don't have any great coaches. We have a history in strength sports, in bodybuilding we had Dorian Yates, in powerlifting we've got Andy Bolton - the first man to deadlift 1000Ibs, in strong man competitions we have Terry Hollands and in the past we had Geoff Capes and Jamie 'keeping the dream alive' Reeves. Not only that, but the first man to run a sub 4 minute mile and we invented ping pong goddammit!

In the world of Olympic lifting Brian Hamill wrote the seminal paper on weight training and injury in children, and if he was American he'd probably have a facility like California Strength and would have written books like Greg Everett instead of training people in a cupboard in a leisure centre in Woking. As far as I am aware BWLA was almost bankrupt a few years ago, and despite the recent explosion in Olympic weightlifting it doesn't seemed to have capitalised on it the way it should have. Again, maybe it's a British reluctance to ask people for money or have faith in their product, or market ourselves. I know I suffer from it, we feel bad about asking people for money and end up giving it away. (Up till a point, there is an inverse relationship here, the more of a douche bag a personal trainer is, the more money he will ask for).

In the world of athletics we have some world class athletes - Jess Ennis and Mo Farah for example. Though, of course Mo Farahs coach is Alberto Salazar, who is American. Can you name another running coach apart from Alberto Salazar? Me neither. Okay, Brad Hudson, but he's American too. In th world of ultrarunning Scott Jurek and Dean Karnazes are well known, however British world record holder Lizzi Hawker is not.

Ideal opportunity for a Jess Ennis picture!


The other thing about all the American strength coaches is they all reference each other. If you look at Ben Bruno's good fitness reads for the week, it tends to be the same people mentioned every week. And even though its interesting, we can end up with a small pool of information, and a small cabal of people providing most of the content. Even though there is a lot of great content it can end up seeming like a small group of coaches all promoting each others products. (quick you've only got 48 hours before the price goes back up to $197!).

The elephant in the room

There is one other glaring omission from the lists of fitness professionals above. A lack of women. In general there is a lack of women strength & conditioning coaches on the internet, and even fewer with actual products like books and DVDs available, and even fewer published in research journals.

Once again the Americans are leading the field in overcoming this. The Girls Gone Strong group has recently got some good internet coverage, and they are nearly all American - Alli Mckee, Neghar Fonooni, Nia Shanks, Molly Galbraith, Jen Comas Keck et al. The point to mention here is that many of these women already have connections to many of the male strength coaches mentioned above, training at their facilities and more. And again, looking at the internet videos, best views for the week from Ben Bruno mainly features these women, again it can feel a bit like a closed knit love in. You could get the impression that no other women in the world were lifting weights from the video links of most male coaches. (except of course Zuzanna at bodyrock tv!)

There must be a British equivalent of Neghar Fonooni, for the love of all that is right there must be!

Now I know, there are loads of British women who are strong, lifting proper weights, training hard, but they just ain't on the internet or they aren't getting mentioned on the well know fitness blogs and websites.

And finally most of the figure athletes are, of course, American.

Alli McKee has competed in figure, oh, and is not British

There is hope

So we've established that the Brits maybe just aren't as good at internet marketing. And we don't have the internships or college sports scene that the USA has, so opportunities are limited. But...

We could lead the world on professionalism and innovation. As far as I am aware to be a member of the American National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA) you only have to do a multiple choice exam. Whereas to be a member of the United Kingdom Strength & Conditioning Association (UKSCA) you have to actually demonstrate weightlifting technique, plyometrics, do an exam and put a program together for an athlete and justify your choices. I haven't done the accreditation myself yet, but by all accounts unlike nearly every other fitness certification there is actually a failure rate, passing is a not a fore gone conclusion. Setting tough professional standards means we could set a bench mark for quality coaching.

This is a call to arms for all British fitness professionals. If you know what you're doing get out there and shout about it. If you don't, some chump with a Vipr in one hand and Zumba weight in the other will!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

On Mindful Training

The classic mindless training picture: In some gyms you pay £70 a month for this

How to spot a liar in 0.01 secs in the gym

I work in a gym where people can just turn up and pay for a session, all they have to do is sign an indemnity form to say they're experienced in using gyms and with gym equipment and away they go. Sometimes I ask them how long they've been training and what they normally do. They normally tell me they've been training for years and they don't need any help; if it's a guy the first clue that they may not know what they're talking about is 1) When they mention a day dedicated to biceps or forearms except they don't look like Dorian Yates 2) They ask where the Smith machine is. If it's a woman it's when they say they usually just use the x-trainer and ask where the Adductor machine is.

Dorian Yates: didn't have a dedicated forearm day, didn't spend his time arsing around in the gym

I'm not ready to write them off just yet. Normally in about 90% of cases I can guess what the guys first exercise will be. Will it be a mobility warm up? No. Will it be some foam roller? No. Will it be some warm up squats with an empty bar? No. Nine times out of ten, it will an alternating bicep curl, standing as close to dumbbell rack as possible so no one can get close to it, making sure that the actual bicep curl is not full range of movement. As we all know the alternating bicep curl is the gold standard in warm up exercises and nervous system activation.

From this point onwards it normally goes downhill,  a random selection of exercises follows, Smith machine quarter squats using the knees only, bench press with feet up of course, hang on, they've just spotted the pec fly, time for some partial reps with as much weight as possible, need some more biceps, quick to preacher curl and if they've brought a friend with them some partner assisted reps should help those guns really get under stimulated. And so it goes on, until you feel the need to palm strike them out of their training stupor. Maybe in everyday life they aren't a douche bag, but in the gym the mixture of arrogance combines with complete training ignorance makes them one.

It turns out in most cases, they don't actually know what they're doing. Yes, they've trained for years, but they've been training half arsed, never actually following any type of program or structure, no intensity, no progress, no point. Now, I'm all for cybernetic periodization and intuitive training, but these guys aren't doing that, they've never trained with any intensity or plan; you need to know the basic rules before you start to break them. In a nutshell, they are training mindlessly.

Of course this phenomenon is not limited to guys trying to get big in the gym. Women fall into the same trap. Recently, I heard a women who goes to classes say that she didn't come here to think, when the studio instructor added in some exercises she was unfamiliar with. And that's the crux, a good many people want to stay in their comfort zone, switch off, plug in the ipod, do the same class over and over again with the same exercises and the same weights, go and get a coffee afterwards, stay fat, still not be able to do a plank for 30 seconds, complain that their body shape never changes and exercise doesn't work. And the whole industry pandered to this group over the last 20 years, gave them machines that required no thought or co-ordination, gave them 'workouts' that achieved nothing, made it easy to keep their business. But maybe, just maybe things are changing... a bit.

Mindful training  - stop working out

In the DVD club swinging essentials and the accompanying manual Dr Ed Thomas talks about mindful movement. Gray Cook, Brett Jones & Dr Thomas ask

"Why do we go to the Gym? "To get in a workout" is the common answer, but breaking a sweat or working through the latest extreme program are poor reasons. What if going to the gym meant learning.?"
 Dr Thomas states that in the past people went to the gym to learn a skill, to realise the full potential of the human body.

These days we are re-discovering kettlebells, Olympic weightlifting, Indian clubs, body weight exercises and more. But people are enamoured by machines. I was working out in a commercial gym last week and one of the instructors was showing a lady some floor exercises for the back, her question was "Is there a machine that does this?". She didn't want to believe that a simple body weight exercise could be the most effective exercise, she wanted to believe that one of those expensive machines must be better and could somehow do the work for her.

Some of it is misinformation and fitness myth, and sometimes it's difficult to see where it all comes from. The research on strength training and interval training has been pretty much consistent in its findings over the last 20 to 30 years. However, the average member of the public is still fearful of weights and non steady state cardio. I was training a marathon runner a few weeks ago, I did the usual movement screen, mobility warm up and eventually had him doing some goblet squats with 8kg (yes, bear in mind this was only an 8kg kettlebell) and some presses as well. In the next session he told me he only wanted to use machine weights as he thought that the free weights would hurt his back, he perceived that the machines would be safer. Eventually I persuaded him otherwise, but in his mind an 8kg kettlebell was causing more impact than the 1500 foot strikes per mile in a marathon. Now I'm not talking about people with chronic back pain, with all the yellow flags and a genuine fear of making their pain worse until you show them what they can do, I'm talking about people who are essentially 'fit' and 'exercising' in some fashion already.

So what should it be

Joseph Campbell says in the TV series The Power of Myth

"A life evokes our character. Put yourself in a situation that evokes your higher nature rather than your lower."
 This applies to the way you exercise as well.Do something that makes you grow mentally and physically, something that challenges you, that results in the aquisition of a new skill. Campbell again

"All of life is a meditation, most of it unintentional."
 There are certain exercises that require focus and stillness, what Campbell refers to as one pointed meditation. This is a common way of meditating, where you focus on one object, for example, the light from one candle flame until everything else falls away. Exercise examples of this would be Olympic lifting, trail running (not road running, but trail running where you have to focus on the ground all the time to avoid falling over), and even more so running at night. If you've ever run at night with just a head torch for light on a trail then you know what the meaning of one pointed meditation is. You are focusing on that tunnel of light, unaware of everything else but also acutely aware at the same time, so you don't fall in a ditch or go the wrong way.

Olympic weightlifting: an exercise in one pointed meditation

Night running. Now make it pitch black, put yourself deep in the forest and turn your head torch on - that's one pointed meditation

 The quiet centre

Joseph Campbell talks about that quiet centre in athletics when everything just flows.

"When you find that burning flame within yourself, action becomes facilitated in athletics.. or performance of any kind. If you can hold to that still place within yourself while engaged in the field, your performance will be masterly. That's what the Samurai does. And the real athlete."

 However paradoxically mindful training like this takes practice. This is where learning the skill comes in, getting those neural connections to fire, getting those myelin pathways to thicken. But it can't be mindless practice. In the book Bounce Matthew Syed makes an analogy with driving. Nearly all of us who have been driving for years can do it automatically, you switch off and drive without thinking, you might have even done the 10,000 hours that should make you an expert. But it has been mindless practice, you've been on autopilot, you haven't been increasing your skill limit, you haven't been deliberately doing the same complicated manoeuvres over and over again until you get them right. You've got your 10,000 hours but you don't stand a chance in a formula one race, or even a standard track day event.

In the gym and classes you see it all the time, 10,000 hours in the treadmill and xtrainer but still can't run 10k, 10,000 hours of toning classes but still can't do a press up. You've been training mindlessly.

The same in sport, for example, with rock climbing, the beginner is too busy panicking about death and dealing with the pain in their hands, they can't switch off, there is no quiet centre.

Rock climbing: an exercise in moving meditation, a quiet centre and a self limiting exercise. And if hot women do it, I really should take it up.
But the experienced climber or athlete knows their craft, knows their weak points, is always trying to improve

 The eventual paradox in mindful training: the expert is looking for beginners mind. Absorb everything and then forget everything. Where there is no thought, everything is unconscious. Winning, losing and everything in between become unimportant.

"Anything you do has a still point. When you are in that still point, you can perform maximally." - Joseph Campbell
 So train with a intensity, train like you mean it, train mindfully. And most of all don't be that dufus who turns up in the gym and thinks he knows everything, and ends up learning nothing. The best of the best are always willing to learn.


Diane K Olsen(1991) Reflections on the Art of Living. A Joseph Campbell Companion.

Joseph Campbell The Power Of Myth DVD

Matthew Syed (2011) The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice

Gray Cook, Brett Jones, Ed Thomas Club Swinging Essentials DVD.

Friday, October 14, 2011

On Wasting Time

This is how I know time is passing. I'll be in a shop checking out DVDs and then I'll see one that I intended on seeing at the cinema and it's already out on DVD. Even worse, I'll be watching TV and a film will come on TV that I was going to see at the cinema. That means I missed it at the cinema, missed on DVD release, missed the subsequent special box set release and if its on terrestrial TV it means about 2 years of my life have passed. I'm never going to see all the films I wanted to see. From cinema to terrestrial TV like a timeline of a life passing by.

How much time have you wasted commuting?

I'm never going to watch all those films, I'm never going to read all those books, I'm never going to meet all those people. Neither are you. Prioritise.

I've done my 10,000 hours of fitness, coaching, teaching, reading, writing, learning. But I could have done more, I've wasted time. So have you, probably.

Wasted Time: Could have been more, could have done more - don't be that guy

Time running out and the fools still asking what his life is about*

Hours of pointless TV. Switch it off. Hours and hours of a job that drifts like a daydream, punch the clock. Be more focused.The inane daily conversations, I'm talking, you're not listening, you're talking, I'm not listening, blah, blah. Wasted breath. The time dealing with things that you have no interest in, the politics of work, the feined interest. Wasted hours. Internet surfing, hours stuck in upper crossed syndrome with muscles getting tighter while reading about fitness, oh the irony.

And the hours of wasted training. No intensity, no plan, no goal in mind. Do a set, have a chat, do a set, wander off, do a set, a bicep curl here, an abdominal crunch there, go home. Another day, another PB opportunity lost. Go for a run, do the same run, do it again, don't push yourself. Get bored, go home, justify the choices.

Limit distractions. I have a confession, I need to turn the TV off, need to stop searching for the perfect training plan on the internet. May be you do too. Sometimes I wonder, if Charles Dickens or Shakespeare had been born now would they have written anything or wasted their time in internet forums or writing reviews or buying books on Amazon. To be original in the age of internet noise sure is hard.

Eugene Sandow, Arthur Saxon, and all the great strongmen of the past, what would they do, spend their time on internet forums critiquing other peoples programs or would they have just got one with it.

If we choose a goal, cut out distractions, train, cut out the fluff, be consistent, don't be swayed by trends, don't buy our own excuses, stay on track, stick to the basics, have laser like focus, don't set limits what could we achieve? I think of all the wasted unfocused training time I've lost, if I'd been consistent over twenty years I could be far beyond where I am now. Is that what separates Olympic champions, is that what makes the best the best in whatever field they choose?

We get caught up in our past experiences. What Carole Dweck calls a fixed mindset, this is who we are, this is what we're good at. But its an illusion, a lie we tell ourselves to stay in our comfort zone. The growth mindset is the antipode, if you practice, if you try, if you put in the hours, something magical could happen.

There are those still showing the way, clear, simplify, the road to success doesn't change. Jim Wendler, Scott Jurek, Donny Shankle, Dan John, Lizzy Hawker. Put the hours in, accept no limit, take your own path, kick ass on a daily basis.

Accept that you can't do everything, choose one path and then burn down it, machete through that fucker until its clear. Clear away all those weeds of confusion; simplify, focus. This is it.

Have faith in yourself.

Find a coach.

If there is no coach, keep going, you haven't got time to wait for the teacher to appear.

If there is something you want to do, why aren't you doing it now. Fuck fear, and do it.

Life is short and the time of death is uncertain; so apply yourself to meditation. Avoid doing evil, and acquire merit, to the best of your ability, even at the cost of life itself. In short: Act so that you have no cause to be ashamed of yourselves and hold fast to this rule"
                                                                                 -Milarepa (some Tibetan Buddhist fella)

And if you ain't going to apply yourself to meditation , apply yourself to something, be the best that you can. Lift that weight, run that sprint, bin that junk and go and buy some decent food.

What could you have already achieved if you hadn't wasted all that time. I know personally that if I hadn't wasted time looking for DVDs  I'm never going to watch, sleepwalking through hours of TV, I could have achieved a lot more.

What the hell have you got to lose?

If you spend your weekend cruising DIY shops and window shopping in shopping malls of vacuous consumerism you've only got yourself to blame.

Now stop reading this and go and do something.

*line stolen from Jackson Browne song

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."
                                                                                     -Samuel Beckett

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Find A Place

(The inspiration for this post is Joseph Campbells The Power of Myth DVD - a series of interviews with Joseph Campbell that took place back in the late 1980's - which I highly recommend watching)

It's easy to lose track of yourself, you can end playing a role and if you play that role long enough it becomes who you are. But that part you play at work or in society may not be the real you, its something you developed over time.

In the chaotic melee of life you can lose who you are. Suddenly you've become your job, you've become the labels people put on you, but this wasn't how it was meant to be, this isn't you. It's time to re-connect with yourself, it's time to find a place.

"Most of our actions are economically or socially determined" - Joseph Campbell
If you work for 40 plus hours a week and then outside of that you have certain social and financial responsibilities you may not have time to be yourself. It's a persona you end up projecting for most of  your waking hours to allow you to make money and function in society.

That's why its important to find a place to be you. A sacred place, where its 'just you experiencing who you are'. Campbell suggests finding a place where you can seal yourself off for one hour a day, or once a week or whatever it takes, where you become a 'self contained entity' and have an inner life. It should be a place with no demands, no newspapers, no thoughts of who owes you and who you owe.

"A sacred space is any space that is set apart from the usual context of life" - Joseph Campbell
This space should have no connection with how you earn a living or your reputation. It's a place where you can find yourself again and again.

And what you do for an hour should be something you enjoy, maybe listening to music, maybe reading a book (non work related), maybe playing guitar badly, whatever it is. However, you may not have such a space available where you live, maybe you can't seal yourself off. This is where training, the gym and running come in.

If you work in a gym, then the gym where you work definitely isn't going to be your sacred space, because as soon as you turn up someones bound to say 'I know your not working but... my shoulder hurts, why isn't the sauna working etc etc'. The other problem with the gym as a space is that there are too many other people around. If you have your own gym space in a garage or basement or in your garden then this would be ideal. If your one hour training time is what you enjoy and gives you a chance to re-connect with yourself then this is your sacred space.

Henry Rollins states that he always weight trains alone

"I prefer to work out alone. It enables me to concentrate on the lessons
that the Iron has for me. Learning about what you're made of is always
time well spent, and I have found no better teacher. The Iron has taught me how to live." -Henry Rollins
 If you don't have a space to train at home then go to the park, or even better trail running. If you have no choice but to run in the city, then do this, at least it is sacred time. But if you can, try and head out into the wilderness, find the trail and run it or walk it. The therapeutic value of being in nature cannot be underestimated, 'the environment becomes a metaphor'.

In his famous quote about weight training Henry Rollins says

"The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all
kinds of talk, get told that you're a god or a total bastard. The Iron
will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference
point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in
the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It
never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two
hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds."
The iron never lies to you. The gym tis a sacred place!

With a few modifications this quote can be applied to running as well. The trail never lies to you, its always there like a beacon calling you, even when you've lost your way and it seems so long ago that you were there and you know the first time you go back and and try and run it will be hard and it will kick your ass. Friends may come and go but 10 miles is 10 miles. The trail knows.

Find a place. The trail never lies to you. Brecon Beacons in rare blue sky moment

If you don't know what your sacred place should be, if its been so long since you've been yourself and you don't even know what you enjoy anymore then take the advice of Carl Jung and look back to when you were a kid, 'what were the games I enjoyed as a child'. If you enjoyed drawing or painting or writing or cycling or whatever, then do it, it doesn't matter, remember you are not doing this to prove to anyone else how good you are at it or for financial gain; you're doing it to reconnect with yourself.

If you don't enjoy it, if its not fun then quit

"Work begins when you don't like what you're doing" - Joseph Campbell
 Campbell suggests that you should be alone in your sacred space away from other people. Sometimes this is not always possible, but it is possible to get out of your usual surroundings, work space and home space. Coffee shops are perfect for this, you don't have to meet anyone there, just take time out for yourself, grab a coffee, take a book or magazine or just hang out and people watch. Plus you'll be getting all the health benefits of coffee - bonus! (unless of course, you work in a coffee shop, then don't do this).

So find that place and find that time, could be watching a dvd by yourself, could be going into your garden to do some kettlebell swings or driving to the nearest trail and running it.

Find a place. A sacred place.

"As an adult you must rediscover the moving power of your life. Tension, a lack of honesty, and a sense of unreality come from following the wrong force in your life."

 (All quotes are from Joseph Campbell unless stated otherwise)


Osbon DK (1991) Reflections on the Art of Living. A Jospeh Campbell Companion. New York. Harper Collins

Sunday, September 25, 2011

An Evening With Caballo Blanco (You know, the bloke from Born To Run)

Firstly if you don't know who Caballo Blanco, aka Micah True, is, then you need to go and read Born To Run now.

The talk took place in the Barbican area of London. Forget the Copper Canyon in Mexico, if you can navigate your way to the Barbican you never have to prove yourself again.

The talk was arranged by a guy called Kester. He read Born To Run the same time as me, when it was first released, unlike me he then headed out to Mexico to meet Caballo and see the Tarahumara people for himself .

In real life Caballo comes across as more easy going and humorous than he does in the book.

Caballo Blanco - the man, the myth. Managed to find his way to the Barbican in London so will never have to prove himself again.

The Early Years

Caballo started by giving an overview of how he started in ultra running. In the 1970's he was mainly involved in martial arts, then about 1980, '81 he started long distance running. In the mid 1980's he went to Guatemala, where he continued to run, including running across volcanoes. It was in Guatemala that the locals gave him the name Caballo Blanco (white horse). He takes this sobriquet with good humour, for anyone who thinks he gave himself the name in an over serious way, the opposite is true. As he himself says, the name has been 'good medicine for me' and it is a cool name to be given.

Around about this time he entered a 50 mile ultra in Wyoming, which he won. In typical self effacing style Caballo points out this was back when no one had really heard of ultra running, hardly anyone did it and there weren't the number of events there are now.

It seems in America it is still possible to disappear, tramp up and down the country and wander. May be its something to do with the frontier mindset and the myth of the west and the wilderness. Its possible for someone to go to Central America and then return  Colorado and get seasonal work and then go again. The same themes appear in books like Into The Wild and Ghost Riders. In the UK this just isn't possible, its too small, living outside of any system is almost impossible.


In the late 80's Caballo started entering the Leadville 100 miler in his local area of Colorado. You could turn up and run back then, no need to enter 8 months before hand.

In 1993 he had a mountain bike accident. I believe this is the first year the Tarahumara entered the race, and Caballo recounts the story of getting passed by an old guy wearing a skirt who gave the traditional Tarahumara greeting of 'we are one' as he overtook Caballo. The person who overtook him was 55 year old Victor Churro, and he won the race.

In '94 Caballo crashed his truck in Guatemala on the 1st January and missed the entry for Leadville. He was invited to be a pace maker for one of the Tarahumara that year, and paced him through the last 50 miles. Caballos fascination with the Tarahumara had begun.

Copper Canyon

Caballo then went to the Copper Canyon to see the Raramuri (what the local Indians call themselves, Tarahumara is a name given to them by the Spanish) in action.

The rest is history as they say. Caballo living down in the canyon and then starting the Copper Canyon ultra, a run of approximately 50 miles. The run made famous by Chris McDougall in Born To Run.

During the talk Caballo showed a video of the run and the copper canyon. As it says in the video, if you finish you win, enjoy it and you win, wake up the next day and you win. He emphasises the Raramuri concept of 'Korima' which means sharing or gift. The idea that running is part of the community, part of who they are and who we are. Also the idea that the winners win quite a few tonnes of donated corn as well as some prize money, which all non Raramuri winners always give back.

You get the sense that when Caballo started the event, the Raramuri had lost much of their running culture, with many working away from the area and more used to pick up trucks than sandals. And as we know from Born To Run, quite a few of the Copper Canyons ultras were won by North Americans.

In recent years though the Tarahumara have won the last three Copper Canyon ultras. They are running and practicing again. I think this is very much to do with the concept of Ignition as explained by Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code. Are the Raramui any better genetically designed to run than we are, probably not, but if you see someone from your village out their winning the race, getting respect, winning money and corn and re-igniting a tradition; you are much more likely to go out there and start engaging in some deep practice.

Q & A

At the end of the talk Caballo took questions. I wont list all the questions but the ones relevant to running.

Firstly, what does he think of barefoot running? It's not a panacea for everything, sometimes you need to wear running shoes. He especially likes it if the trainers are free! There's a risk that barefoot running moves away from what it was to just another of selling you expensive (minimalist) footwear. Theres nothing wrong with people making money from it, but it can become a cult. His views on this are sensible and pretty much what I think as well. (See my blog here).

Nature vs Nurture debate? Are the Raramuri genetically designed to run? Not so much that they are designed to run but they are closer to the land and their genetic memory of what it means to run.  I would go along with the concepts outlined in The Talent Code and Bounce - if you come from a culture of running, you probably spend a lot of time practicing to run, like the traditional Tarahumara ball and stick running game. Then part of that culture was lost but re-ignited with Copper Canyon ultra and media interest.

When do you hit the wall in an ultra? I imagine the person who asked this has never run one. As Caballo says, it can happen at anytime. In my experience it can happened at 1km or the whole run can feel like you're running along the wall with someone throwing stones at you.

Again his advice is common sense, if you're running and injured then stop. Better to be able to run in a few days time and not be permanently injured.

Can anyone run 100 miles? Yes, he thinks anyone can do it.. If you want to. The cut of times are generous, you've just got to keep moving. Try, if you fail, try again. His love of running really comes across, anyone can do it, for the love of the trail and the experience, its not about elite runners and winning.

We Are The Zen Runners

In the Q&A Caballo made the point that we are the zen runners. The Raramuri didn't understand why someone would be out running just to run, if there is no prize money at the end and someones not paying you to do it, then why do it. This is a very similar response that you get from Kenyan and Ethiopian runners, they do it to make a living, they can't understand running for the sake of it, they don't have that luxury. This is probably why there are no East Africans running ultras unlike the big city marathons, no prize= no point.

It will be interesting to see if as ultras become more popular and semi professional with prize money and sponsorship if the East Africans start entering and destroy everyone.

For the rest of us though, trail running and ultra running have nothing to do with sponsorship, or winning. If it all becomes too popular and you can't enter events with a 2 year waiting list, you do what Caballo did and what humans have always done - head out into the wilderness and run.

As Caballo says we are the zen runners, the one running just to run. We are the ones paying hundreds of dollars to enter events to see if we can do them, to push ourselves, to see what's possible.

The Man The Myth

Caballo comes across as the type of guy who never intended to be famous. He was living the life he wanted to and his path happen to intersect with that of Christopher McDougall. It makes you think of all those non famous people out there living extra-ordinary lives, doing what they do with no media attention.

Of course, Caballo just gave us a brief sketch of his life in the hour or so he was talking. Compressing a lifetime into 60 minutes is near on impossible. There must be more to the story, he intimated that he is writing a biography, and if it comes out I will certainly buy it. There is a whole other story there somewhere, the martial arts that were hinted at, the back story, the childhood, the motivations.

The truth is the back ground could be extra-ordinary or it could be plain old average. Like all of us the choices you make and the life you lead is ultimately up to you.

I worked out that he must be about 58 or 59 years old, though he doesn't look that age. He has that look, that zen monk timeless look, a lifetime on the road look but not haggard. Relaxed and at ease with himself. If you're on the road enough these are the type of guys you meet. Always good to talk to, have a story or two hidden but honest ('to live outside the law you must be honest'). These guys are always out there, I've met them in the Nepalese Himalayas and the desert bars of Nevada. You cross paths and then never see them again. They're not running just moving. The past is not hidden just obscured by a lifetime of movement.


Thanks to Kester for bringing Caballo over to the UK to this talk and a few others.

Much of this I wrote from memory as I was too busy listening to Caballo to take too many notes, any mistakes or omissions are my own.

I never got to ask Caballo my question, maybe next time.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Running And The Damage Done. (The dark side of ultrarunning).

"Because there's a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil; and good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have one. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane." - General Corman, Apocalypse Now

General Corman - Apocalypse Now

Three days in, the pain is taking hold. Not a normal everyday day DOMs pain, but deep down pain, and that old nagging injury is back screaming at you. Your body wants you to stop, you take the pill. The pain is still there, but now it's manageable, a background noise that you can live with. And you keep on taking the pills until you finish. Then you stop and your body kicks into inflammation overdrive, everything swells up. That old nagging injury, now its permanent damage.

Somewhere, you crossed the line from exercise as health and fitness and enjoyment to obsession and finishing at all costs. I've covered some aspects of the courage aspects of this in previous blog posts, here, here and here. However, there is a flip side to this, when you ignore constant pain signals from your body and mask them with drugs it can only go one way eventually. If that's the price your willing to pay then that's fine. But sometimes in the heat of the moment our judgment is clouded.

'I caught you knocking at my cellar door'

To be clear I'm not talking about illegal or performance enhancing drugs, this is no professional cyclists EPO commentary or class A drugs to mask pain in professional sports scenario. Ultra running as they say is the last true sport, about as pure as it's going to get. No prize money, no sponsorship, no recognition. One day this will probably change, but for the moment not.

This is about pain killers and anti-inflammatories and to a certain extent nutrition.  If you can buy something over the counter, this doesn't mean it's safe or doesn't have side effects, especially if taken in large quantities over a long period of time.

The use of pain killers in ultra running is well known, and it happens at all levels. Once I was running along next to a woman who was leading the womens section of the race, she said something along the lines of 'time to take some more paracetamol' and popped a couple of pills as we ran along. A story told to me by a competitor in one of the multi day desert races; at night when the medical tent was closed two plastic carrier bags of pills were left outside of the tent, with a note saying 'if you're in pain take these' and 'if you're really in pain take these' above each bag. Another story told to me about one of the top mountain marathoners, when asked what he ate for two days he replied 'Ibuprofen'. Yes, use of the old marine candy is rife, and of course, I've done it myself.

Moonlight Mile - Why it may not be a good idea

When you exercise and there is significant DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness) there is an inflammation response. This response is part of the healing process, substances like prostaglandins and histamines are being produced, helping to repair the area and remove damaged parts of you. In the case of actual injury, the pain is telling you something more, it's telling you that you are injured and you should stop doing what you are doing or you are going to damage yourself even more.

This is beyond the pain that all endurance athletes are familiar with, the pain of pushing to the limit, this is the pain of injury and possible permanent damage.

Anti-inflamatories and pain killers are interfering with the healing process. Tucker & Dugas (2009:238) list the following problems with non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) like Ibuprofen and Aspirin

  1. Ulcers - long term use of NSAIDs can cause stomach ulcers to develop
  2. Kidney damage
  3. Joint cartilage damage. Long term use of some NSAIDs can cause joint cartilage degeneration
  4. Slower muscle protein synthesis after exercise. Both Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen (Tylenol, Paracetamol) have been shown to slow the process
  5. Impaired healing process
So not only are you taking part in an event that may be damaging your cartilage and reducing muscle protein synthesis anyway, the pain killers you are taking are probably making it worse!

The British National Formulary. (BNF click here) lists every medication in use, what it's used for and what its known side effects are. Here are a few of the most common anti-inflammatories and pain killers and their side effects as listed in the BNF.

NSAIDs ( Ibuprofen, Aspirin, Diclofenac) side effects listed include:

"Gastro-intestinal disturbances including discomfort, nausea, diarrhoea, and occasionally bleeding and ulceration occur. Other side-effects include hypersensitivity reactions (particularly rashes, angioedema, and bronchospasm), headache, dizziness, nervousness, depression, drowsiness, insomnia, vertigo, hearing disturbances such as tinnitus, photosensitivity, and haematuria. Blood disorders have also occurred. Fluid retention may occur (rarely precipitating congestive heart failure); blood pressure may be raised. Renal failure may be provoked by NSAIDs, especially in patients with pre-existing renal impairment. Hepatic damage, alveolitis, pulmonary eosinophilia, pancreatitis, visual disturbances, Stevens-Johnson syndrome, and toxic epidermal necrolysis are other rare side-effects. Induction of or exacerbation of colitis or Crohn’s disease has been reported"


"Side-effects rare, but rashes, blood disorders (including thrombocytopenia, leucopenia, neutropenia) reported; hypotension, flushing, and tachycardia also reported on infusion; important: liver damage (and less frequently renal damage) following overdosage."


"Side-effects: nausea and vomiting (particularly in initial stages), constipation, dry mouth, and biliary spasm; larger doses produce respiratory depression, hypotension, and muscle rigidity; other side-effects include abdominal pain, anorexia, bradycardia, tachycardia, palpitation, oedema, postural hypotension, seizures, malaise, hypothermia; hallucinations, vertigo, euphoria, dysphoria, mood changes, dependence, dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, sleep disturbances, headache; sexual dysfunction, difficulty with micturition, urinary retention, ureteric spasm, muscle fasciculation; blood disorders (including thrombocytopenia, leucopenia, neutropenia), miosis, visual disturbances, flushing, sweating, rashes, urticaria and pruritus; pancreatitis also reported; important: liver damage (and less frequently renal damage) following overdosage with paracetamol."


"Produces analgesia by two mechanisms: an opioid effect and an enhancement of serotonergic and adrenergic pathways. It has fewer of the typical opioid side-effects (notably, less respiratory depression, less constipation and less addiction potential); psychiatric reactions have been reported.diarrhoea; fatigue; less commonly retching, gastritis, and flatulence; rarely anorexia, syncope, hypertension, bronchospasm, dyspnoea, wheezing, seizures, paraesthesia, and muscle weakness; blood disorders also reported."

Okay it's probably not that bad

Yeah, I don't know what half those side effects are either, but they don't sound good. Granted, many of these side effects are rare and happen with long term use, and it wont happen to your right? Except, you'll be taking them in a state of exhaustion and dehydration and after days of eating mostly crap. If you take them for a couple of days, fair enough. But, what if you use them to get through your training runs, and you enter a couple of events a year. Before you know it, you're taking a whole lotta pills, and your pursuit of health and fitness went out the window.

Supernoodles and Superfood

The other key point when running multi day ultras is the food you eat. By its very nature it has to be calorific, portable and non perishable. You are not going to be running along with your five a day fruit and veg in your backpack unless you want to end the day eating mush.

With single day events this may not be an issue, as you can have fresh food on you or at aid stations. However on  multi days its going to be dehydrated foods and powders unless you're bush tucker man foraging for food('little did they know, there was food all around them').

On an extreme event the body is in extreme oxidation, free radicals are running around your body like freight trains. As we know these free radicals cause damage and inflammation,and it could be inflammation of the systemic kind, the type that leads to heart disease, stroke and diabetes. We now know that the relationship between free radicals and anti-oxidants is more complicated than first thought. However, there is a good chance on an ultra run you aren't really eating any anti-oxidants, and all those beneficial phytochemicals found in fruit and vegetables, you aren't eating those either.

I've seen some European runners with vacuumed pack 'real' food, no dehydrated camping food for them. I've also seen a French guy live on nothing but powder for 6 days, powdered meal replacements and energy drinks for 6 days; and he was a doctor! I can only hope the French paradox of heart disease will help him when he gets back to the standard French diet of cheese, bread and wine. I didn't ask him if eating no fibre for 6 days had an effect!

I have used supernoodles a fair amount. As you can see from the nutrition profile here, one pack contains over 500 kcals,  and it only weights 85grams, and some of the supermarket own brands are even better, with 600kcals in a packet! Now, a pack of supernoodles in themselves aren't inherently bad, the first ingredient is noodles, and depending on the brand they may also contain MSG, several types of flavouring and maltodextrin (why buy expensive sports supplements when these have the same stuff in!). On a side note, two people have told me that supernoodles are on the weight watchers list for foods that are okay to eat, presumably because they are low fat. Obviously, no one at weight watchers thought to look at the calorie content, the irony, ultra runners are eating them because of the calories and weight watchers are telling people to eat them on a weight loss plan. They do however, contain nothing really apart from starch, sugar and fat. The more expensive expedition meals aren't really any better. And to be fair, they aren't designed to be, they're designed to give you energy.

Ultra runners best friend and the reason people on weight watchers don't lose weight

However, we know that diets high in starch, sugars, saturated fats and trans fats increase systemic inflammation (Tucker & Dugas 2009). Whereas diets consisting of mainly fruits, vegetables and omega 3 fats with moderate amounts of alcohol and caffeine reduce inflammation. Don't forget when you're running to the extreme, DOMs and injury have caused inflammation, free radicals are attacking you at every corner, and at the same time you may be eating foods that are pro inflammatory, lacking in anti-oxidants and natural anti inflammatory substances, while at the same time you could be taking pain medication.

If it's a one off event for you and you only intend eating like this for a few days, then the damage will probably be negligible. But, if you are training at high intensity and mainly taking sports drinks containing maltodextrin and various sugars and are always loading up on junk carbs to get you through to the end of the run then this may be affecting your long term health. Not to mention, most endurance athletes have diets low in protein.

What can be done

During the event you can take some supplements that may help. For example, omega 3 fish oil capsules can help with the inflammation, plus the omega 3 essential fatty acids are needed by your body for a whole host of functions. Tumeric (see here) contains curcumin which is a natural anit-inflammatory, as well as an anit-oxidant, it's as safe as it gets supplement wise. You can get it in tablet or capsule form, make sure you get the standardised extract of curcumin not just  tumeric powder. (I just noticed tumeric is on the ingredient list for supernoodles, probably not enough to negate the noodles). Vitamin C supplementation of at least 1g per day when competing in events is probably a good idea as well.

When running, try to get some protein in, some good quality whey for example, and try to use foods that are as natural as possible. I like the bars from , good quality ingredients, and unlike many natural energy and protein bars they don't taste like shoe polish. I managed to eat these for 6 days no problem.

It may seem obvious, but when you're not racing eat natural whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean meats, oily fish, carbohydrates like sweet potatoes and quinoa and try not to rely on supplements and sugar.

With regards to injury, injury proof yourself with appropriate training, including strength training, interval training, mobility drills and soft tissue work. And field test all your equipment.

And lastly, know how far to push yourself and when to stop. This blog post is not meant to be judgemental, as I've done everything mentioned above, I've taken the painkillers to keep going, I've eaten the crap, I've run through the injury.  But sometimes you have to take a step back and think what this is doing for your long term health. There may be a better way, or even a few tweaks you can employ which will not only mean you ingest less toxins but improve your performance and health as well. The ultimate aim is to enjoy the activity, to immerse yourself in the run and not become sidetracked into destructive behaviours.

If none of this works then listen to the words of Percy Cercutty, Australian running coach (quoted in Tucker & Dugas, 2009;42)

"Pain is the purifier. Love pain. Embrace pain."
 Last word to Johnny Cash. The ultrarunning anthem. 'I hurt myself today, I focus on the pain, the only thing that's real'


Tucker R & Dugas D (2009) The Runner's Body. Rodale. New York