Published on October 16th, 2014 | by Richard Hunt0
Even a glimpse of the back of my head makes it impossible to confuse this title with anything related to shampooing. As my father used to say, he combed his hair “with a washcloth.” At the age of 56, perhaps the only physical challenge that I concede is the contest with my hairline racing…backwards.
But there are precious few other tests that I will relinquish without the old college try. And this is precisely where the title comes in.
In life, there are many areas in which we have no say. But fitness is not one of those. At least in my experience, there’s no reason not to fight the good fight when it comes to finding and maintaining that physical edge.
Conditioning is just one name for conscientious, regular exercise intended to strop one’s physical capabilities, which in turn support and enhance one’s mental, experimental, and occasionally spiritual endurance and acuity. Training, goal-directed benchmarks, and no-pain, no-gain are other labels applied to the process of pushing ourselves to better ourselves.
The biggest challenge in our time-strapped-tiny but to-do-list-large world is to exercise as efficiently and effectively as possible because, frankly, there’s a ton of other good things to do, some of which can become a reward for this building work, and others which can be pathways and pursuits which can enhance the human experience.
The foundation for growth, be it literal or metaphoric, is fitness. Conditioning is somewhat like the scene in “The Princess Bride” where Dread Pirate Roberts defeated Vizzini, the character played by Wallace Shawn, because every day he had sipped a little more poison in preparation for their showdown. Or in workout terms, today you struggle and grunt and focus to do five push-ups, tomorrow you do six, and seven the day after, so that in six month’s time when the bully at the gym challenges you to a push-up contest – and the loser has to scrub the locker room floor – you will emerge victorious after doing 180 push-ups vs. his paltry 50.
It is precisely the little bit more every day that propels us forward. But the key seems to be that the little bit more needs to be done with a lot more exertion.
A historical footnote so you can see how we got to this point of “intensity.” Back in the 70s, when the running boom was just beginning, the salvation for novices was LSD which stood for Long Slow Distance. Joe Henderson, editor of Runner’s World, led the charge, although it was really a bit of a plodding enterprise. The approach was democratic and universal; as along as you kept putting one foot in front of the other, mile after mile, good things would come your way.
And indeed, there was a benefit for all those miles, hour after hour, and the primarily one was not speed, nor even overall fitness, but the conditioning effect was that your knees and ankles and quads got used to pounding the pavement. The same is true for cycling, although therein its called base miles, and while your knees and quads and glutes get some value, the primary benefit is that your butt gets used to being balanced on the saddle. But in both sports, this route takes a long while to see improvement.
What got everyone’s attention was when relative newbies to marathoning starting passing those folks who were religiously putting in 100+ miles per week, which seemed to be the gold standard at the time. There were even a number of notable instances where runners who had never before raced longer than a half-marathon victoriously crossed the finish lane well ahead of the favorites. The other big plus is that doing quarter-mile repeats at max effort also seemed to guard against over-use injuries. And, to underline the point of all this, they completed their workout in an hour or less, whereas those on the LSD diet were out there for 2, 3, 4 or more hours, pounding, plodding, laboriously and very, very slowly getting faster and stronger.
Within the last decade, it’s become clear that there is a better way than spending all that time on the road: interval training. In simplistic terms, in a concentrated period of time, across a select (but varying) set of exercises, you push yourself as hard as you possibly can, recover/rest in an even shorter amount of time, and then do it again, pushing your heart rate up and up, your resistance weight and reps up and up, and you do it until exhaustion… which thankfully comes quickly with this sort of approach. There’s a science to this all, but it can wait for the time being.
The hardest part to embrace is willing yourself up to max out, to empty yourself in terms of reps and effort, to break like an egg. It’s one thing to work hard, but another thing all together to work the hardest you can. Every time. It saps and taps your spirit, depletes your strength, and quickly wipes out your reserve…but just as quickly, it builds up your strength and your spirit and your reserve, in part because of the chemistry of exercise and in the other part, because you’ll carry in your mind the knowledge that even though it hurt tremendously, you survived and you know you’ll survive again. You’ll condition your core and your concentration and your commitment virtually every time you blast through a half-hour tabata cycle or do hill repeats until your vision clouds and your breath sounds torn.
Trust that there will be release and renewal when you reach the bottom of your reserve. You’ll come to see that the cliché about the double-edged sword cutting both ways can represent both the start and the finish. Each will be equally hard to confront, but as the mind is conditioned to relish the test, the body is captivated by the endorphins that buoy your mood thereafter. Just like writing, where the first line is all inertia capable of creating doubt and undue deliberation, the first chin-up always feels most difficult, even though by definition, it is the last chin-up that exhausts and depletes you completely. But in short order, that struggle will deliver the good(s). Write on, ride on.