Exercise: Lethal or Life-Enhancing?
Recently the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “One Running Shoe in the Grave” about the deleterious effects of high-exertion and/or high-mileage running. While the article addressed running specifically, it can be interpreted to include any form of prolonged high-intensity exercise.
The triathlete community has been discussing this article extensively on social media. My good friend John McGovern – who, in his prime, stood on the podium of a few World Championship Duathlons – posted this response to the article:
“This is what I’ve always suspected and often said – exercise is healthy; racing is not. Athletes often use the phrase "killing oneself" with regards to hard training and racing. It appears that’s not hyperbole.”
“…for years I destroyed myself at that altar, but I’ve got my wife and daughters to think about. For me, losing Chris Gleason was a real wake up call. Be well.”
(Note: At age 40, our friend Chris Gleason was on pace for a sub-3-hour marathon when he collapsed and died 400 meters from the finish line of the Philadelphia Marathon in 2011. Enter his name in any search engine to find out more.)
I responded to John’s Facebook posting:
“I feel that intent has a tremendous bearing on how our training and racing affect the quality of our lives and those around us. If it’s done with the war cry of "me-against-you, winner-take-all", then it ain’t healthy. However aerobic fitness is a powerful avenue towards spiritual fitness. This message was the true motivation of my 2012 Triple Ultra.”
“I agree with you Shane Eversfield. My intent, for many years, was to win, so I buried myself under endless high intensity workouts. My mantra was "If it’s hurting me, it’s killing my competition".
There’s more than a touch of sadism in racing; a perverse pleasure exists in achieving the level of fitness where others must turn themselves inside out just trying to keep up. Not to mention the masochism required to put yourself through all the pain.
I’m not indicting racing or its culture; it’s an excellent substitution for the competitions that our ancestors conducted not too many generations ago just to survive. I can only speak for myself when I say that I know my body, and I know I’ve been hurting it for years. For me, its time to strike a balance.”
John has taken up the playing the bagpipes and brewing fine traditional beer. His athletic training is now recreational (and his piping and brewing are admirable.)
What About Lance?
Another topic that has generated quite a bit of social media response is the Lance Armstrong debacle. I am not going to debate his guilt or innocence. Nor will I discuss the relevance and impact (positive or negative) of the investigation and prosecution to the current state of sport or to Lance’s altruistic endeavors through Livestrong.
However, there is an obvious connection between these two topics: For me, it brings up the following questions:
Who is “The Winner”?
- What is the true nature of “winning”?
- Does winning justify compromising one’s health – be it through legal or illegal means? If so, to what degree?
- If winning at any cost isn’t all that glorious and healthy, is there still a positive element to racing?
Let’s start by considering this tidbit of irony: After Lance Armstrong was stripped of his 7 Yellow Jerseys, UCI declined to recognize an alternative “winner” for any one of those 7 Tour de France races. (With the prevalence of doping in pro cycling during that era, it might have been just too damn complicated to find a clean, legitimate winner.) Let it be.
So let me get this straight: After millions of dollars of investment, with more than a hundred of the finest male cyclists in the world each of those 7 years giving their all, no one is recognized as the winner? Does that diminish the incredible feats of those athletes? Does the absence of a declared Grand Champion for each of those years make the event lesser of a crown in the sport?
When I watch the coverage of TdF, I am swept up in the excitement of the speed, the beauty of the course, the exuberance of the spectators along that course, and the strategies of the teams and individuals. The specific winner does not enhance or diminish the spectacle for me.
The Tour de France as an entity is far greater than any single individual – be s/he an athlete, volunteer, race official, spectator or media personnel. (I would miss commentators Phil Ligget and Bob Roll more than any single athlete.)
Can we bring health assurance back into endurance sports? Is it possible to eliminate doping, cheating and even the legal health risks from our love of endurance training and racing?
I feel that it is possible. And the remedy is simple, profound… and yet profoundly difficult.
We must transform our globally-held notions of “competition” and create a new paradigm of what winning is. It has always been (as I stated above) “me-against-you” and “winner-take-all”. As long as this is what we hold to be true, some athletes will do anything to win. And most serious athletes will go to some legal extreme – even if it diminishes the quality of their lives. (Can anybody say "Overtrained?"
Let’s re-define “competition” as: A petition for the empowerment of companionship. It is in the presence of others that we are inspired to perform at our best, to demonstrate excellence.
What is athletic excellence for you? Is it getting to the finish line as fast as possible – without ever noticing the scenery or enjoying the company of others? Is it putting your head down, gritting your teeth and “beating” others? Is it war paint and weapons?
Lessons for Life
Racing can be a powerful and beneficial tool – when we embrace it as a metaphor for life: Are we hell-bent to make it to the finish line (of life) as quickly as possible with more gold than anybody else? Or, are we traversing that journey of life with grace and efficiency – embracing the challenge with humility, while supporting and encouraging all the other “competitors” and “spectators” we encounter along the way? Are we beholding of the beauty of the landscape and grateful for the experience?
I Am No Saint
When I race, I genuinely appreciate and enjoy the empowering companionship and the celebration. I love the empowerment and inspiration I experience in the presence of others. And I absolutely love racing in beautiful places – Hawaii, the Alps in Europe, the mountainous US northeast, the Rockies, the prairies of the Midwest.
I love to perform – to do my very best. For me, that includes grace, efficiency and stealth. (Maybe that comes from my background as a dancer.)
However, the desire to “win” (in the conventional sense) is also strong for me. I confess that I am motivated by the podium and the recognition it brings. I have trained hard enough to compromise my health – having experienced Chronic Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome three times. (None of those times led to the podium.)
And I regularly use a performance enhancing drug when I race and sometimes when I train – one that is legal in every sport. It’s called caffeine – and it can compromise my health. It contributed to my chronic adrenal fatigue.
I do seek many legal advantages – superior equipment, healthy nutrition, efficient technique, and effective training among them. I am willing to sacrifice other activities in my life to maximize my athletic performance.
I am also an aerobic junkie. I want to get my chemical fix of dopamine and endorphins everyday. That is a high priority for me. Thankfully, I have learned (the hard way) how to make my addiction sustainable and pretty damn healthy.
The value our culture and our media place on winning in sports is intoxicating and very powerful. While it may inspire some to rise up from the couch and get active, it is also a dangerous illusion that affects and deceives just about all of us to some degree. Does that mean we should give up racing and striving to do our best?
Returning to the metaphor of racing and life: Living a full and satisfying life (with or without sport) that benefits others is always fraught with risks and danger. So: “Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”
And, as Jim Morrison said, “None of us gets out of here alive.” If we are born, we also die. Death is no reason not to live. Life is the opportunity for growth, and the growth cycle must include stress.
Orchestrating the Growth/Fitness Cycle
In life – as in sport – we can only progress and grow through the cycle of stress-recovery-adaptation. Too much stress can be fatal. Too little stress can also be fatal. And health is more than creating just the right amount of stress.
In life – as in sport – we can only progress and grow by orchestrating the cycle of stress-recovery-adaptation. Obviously repeated doses of high stress can be fatal. However, continuous low levels of stress – without any recovery or adaptation – can also be fatal.
It’s not the degree of stress that is dangerous: Appropriate bouts of high-intensity stress with well orchestrated recovery and adaptation can result in robust growth – in sport and in life.
As athletes, our endurance training provides us with the opportunity to hone our skills at the orchestration of stress-recovery-adaptation. Here is one of the most significant elements of this: Choice. We are clear about choosing the stress every time we train athletically. We eagerly accept it with the knowledge that (with recovery and adaptation) we will gain fitness. We “exercise” choice.
Here’s the clincher: Can we be just as clear about our choice in everyday life?
When we encounter a stressful situation or relationship outside of training, are we more inclined to place blame and see ourselves as victims? This victimization short-circuits the Fitness Cycle, so we never get to the recovery and adaptation.
We don’t have to “enjoy” the everyday stresses we encounter in the same way we enjoy the stress of a great run or swim session. However, as aerobic athletes – and as spiritual athletes – we must stay centered enough in our daily lives to exercise choice and orchestrate the cycle of stress-recovery-adaptation in the most ordinary situations – even when they do not offer the glory of a finisher’s medal.
When we carry those skills of orchestration over into all areas of our life, we can really enjoy the benefits of training – beyond aerobic fitness. Now we are transforming aerobic fitness into spiritual fitness or life fitness.
Our approach to training and racing determines the success of this carry-over into life. (Use the link to read more about approach.)
Just getting out of bed in the morning can be dangerous. Driving a car is fraught with danger – but the last time I checked, that does not seem to deter people from driving!!
Endurance training is not the source of the danger documented in the article – it’s our relationship with winning and our addiction to stress that can be lethal. Our addiction to stress can extend beyond a simple chemical addiction satisfied through exercise. Stress patterns in everyday life – even if they are unpleasant – can be addictive.
We all have the opportunity in every moment to become the Conductors of our individual Life Symphonies by orchestrating the cycle of stress-recovery-adaptation. For each of us, its a symphony in three movements!
Shane is Founder and Head Coach of Zendurance Cycling – having developed a "TI-approach" and methodology to cycling technique. For more information on Shane’s approach to training and racing, as well as Zendurance Cycling products, visit his website: www.zendurancecycling.com.