At the GORUCK Heavy Challenge, after some refreshing PT, you start the 24 hours with a twelve-mile timed ruck. You need to walk it in 3½ hours or you can be disqualified.
Lauren Four Boots and I were discussing this menacing prospect in the middle of a hike in the foothills. Already tired and a little footsore, I supposed we must have already traveled a long way. So I was crestfallen when Ms. Multiboots checked her GPS and found that, in two hours, we’d only moved three miles as the crow flies.
I wondered aloud whether this meant I was destined to flunk the Heavy Challenge before the sky was even dark.
So I did a full-dress rehearsal that night, a 12-mile out-and-back with the regulation 35# plus water.
Fortune smiled on me and I made it with 8 minutes to spare without any sense of hurry. The night’s takeaways were:
I’ve been helped by doing “LSD” (long, slow distance). I managed to stay well under 65% of my theoretical max heart rate.
Since I do my training hikes in extra-heavy boots and/or ankle weights, in my light boots I felt like my feet had wings.
Ditto for logs, sleds, and kettlebells. I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to carry just a pack, without also holding a stone or a sandbag. This was like a vacation, at least for a few miles…
However, my feet were the limiting factor. After just 7 miles, my toes were feeling squished and uncomfortable.
After that, my second biggest limiting factor was my legs. They felt a little rubbery by Mile 9.
I used a minimalist hip belt (just a 1” canvas strip) and an ill-fitting sternum strap, but I wouldn’t try to forego those features. When one part of my back tires out, I appreciate being able to tweak the straps and belt and shift the load to fresh muscles.
I didn’t use The German Caffeine Chocolate on this outing—I’m saving it for game day, when my teammates and I need a special boost—but I did eat dates and they were almost as good.
Our fifteenth and final installment on Russian physical culturist Alexey Faleev. Please find links to the whole series here.
If you follow Faleev’s program, you will be a happy camper for quite some time.
First, if you were looking to gain weight, you are probably already doing so. When I followed his 5×5 system, I ate like a lumberjack and over several months I gained about 25#.
Not that it was all muscle! That does not happen in the real world. In fact, I will assume that your appetite will soar like mine did and caution you that, because you will begin eating so much, you should commit to eating the “cleanest” diet you can. Do not think that you have stoked your metabolic furnace so hot that you will not plump up if you start eating Oreos and milk. (That may, possibly, be a real-life example from my own past.)
Remember, you control how lean you are almost entirely by how you eat. Exercise has little to do with it. This is not a popular truth but anyone in the fitness industry can tell you this IF they are being honest.
Second, you should have plenty of energy. Powerlifting can become a harsh mistress and consume a lot of your time and physical “oomph.” And though Faleev has you working out often–five days a week! I hope you train at home–he keeps your workouts short. Above all, he is a master of recovery and motivation. When I am faithful to his “applied yoga” (my word, not his)–when I stretch after lifting, reinforce myself with little rewards, drink kvass, sleep plentifully, and train not for the sake of exerting myself but enjoying the relaxation of heavy, thick, spent limbs afterward–I LOVELOVE LOVE to train. It is a truly spiritual joy. (As it had better be, if I have to apply burning horse liniment to my groin!)
Third, you will get strong. According to much better powerlifters than I, on a minimalist program like Faleev’s, with only three exercises, you can reliably progress up to the threshold of advanced powerlifting, where you can bench 1.5 times your bodyweight, squat double your bodyweight, and deadlift 2.5 times your bodyweight. (That fits with my experience also.)
But after that, you might need a different program. (Just keep the recovery techniques!!) Different people are built to excel in different lifts and lag in others. Me, I am a natural deadlifter because I have long arms, but I am also a lousy bencher because I am forced by my long forearms to press farther than guys with short “T-rex arms.” As a rule of thumb, if you are built for a particular lift, you can benefit from a minimalist program in which you practice just that lift with no extras. I built my deadlift just by deadlifting, nothing more. But the opposite is also true: if you were born with bad leverages for a certain lift, then once you are sufficiently advanced, if you want to keep getting stronger you will need to judiciously add certain “assistance” exercises. So for example, to build enough momentum to bench press the bar through my extra-long range of motion, I personally need extra work on my shoulders and triceps.
Except for a few genetic freaks, most of us will need that more complicated program one day. With his own trainees, Faleev accomplishes this in part by prescribing special isometric exercises. (For example, I would be assigned to press against an immovable stick belted firmly to my own torso, to mimic the “off the chest” phase of the bench press which is my weak point.)
But most American powerlifters today solve this problem by a different strategy, called the “Westside” method, that employs a panoply of assistance exercises. Some might say that, compared with the monotony of Faleev’s system, this is typical of an American temperament that prizes variety. The modern American style also uses much shorter cycles than Faleev’s long, regimented, 10-week plans. For an advanced lifter this is valuable because progress becomes ever more difficult and finicky and you routinely incur small but consequential injuries. And when you do, it can become impossible to adhere to the complex, coordinated plan two-month plan because you have to work around the injuries.
In a future series we will learn about one very successful Russian coach, Konstantin Rogozhnikov, and his own home-grown solution to problems of how to train a powerlifter who has outgrown minimalism like Faleev’s.
Part 6 on the physical culture teachings of Alexey Faleev. See here for Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.
Faleev treats recovery almost as a religion. Sleep is sacred, he writes, and any athlete must make it a top priority.
Visit the Russian bath once a week. (I guess most of us will have to make do with a steam room.)
Like every Russian physical culturist, he likes “tempering” with cold water. Traditionally this is done by standing outside, with bare feet on bare earth, and pouring a bucket of ice water over oneself. I’ve done this before and it really does feel great. But he insists that you begin and end with heat, either a steam room, a sauna, or a hot shower. (A simpler alternative is the “contrast shower”: hot water, then cold, then hot and cold and hot again. It’s very invigorating.)
And no ice-cold beverages. Go for hot drinks instead. He also strongly recommends pickled and fermented foods, pine nuts, raw honey, and—my favorite!—kvass.
Faleev praises kvass for its vitamin content and effect on our gut biome, and he claims it speeds recovery from exertion and even has saved the lives of many a zek (prisoner) in the death traps that are Russian prisons:
“We all have heard what Russian prisons are like. The reality is that our prisons are not aimed at reforming people but mainly at destroying them. … Death in prison can be violent, of course, but more often it comes from exhaustion, lack of vitamins, and disease … The zeki are beaten and use any tiny opportunity to stay alive. The most experienced zeki make kvass in secret and thus are able to maintain their health. They get a spoonful of sugar and a piece of bread daily, and they can scrounge a jar [to hold the sugar, bread, and water] and bury it so that no one will inform the authorities. In ten days, the kvass is ready. If there is no bread, they make it with tree bark, especially aspen bark. Kvass lets you ward off sickness and maintain strength.”
As Faleev notes, you can make kvass from most any vegetable matter: traditional kvasses include those made from rye bread, berries, watermelon rinds, or beets. For athletes he particularly recommends kvass made with herbs, including sage, foxglove, lily of the valley, eucalyptus, and pine needles.
This is the second installment in a series on the physical culture system of Russian powerlifter Alexey Faleev. Read Part 1 here.
Why am I so charmed by Faleev’s system? Aside from how effective it is, what I love is his holistic “sports spiritualism” (my word, not his). Who else would write a guide to powerlifting with sections on Buddhism, the Gospels, how to talk to your spouse to ensure marital harmony, and the use of poetry for max attempts in the clean and jerk?
Then again, that is not so unusual among Russian “physical culturists.” In his book on breath training for combat sports, martial artist Vlad Vasiliev quotes the Bible in most chapters and talks as much about Hesychastic prayer as walking and jogging. In a typical passage Vasiliev remarks:
I have noticed, especially in the West, that many … close up when they are asked to pray to God in training. If this is a problem for you … try it just a few times. Take yourself to the breaking point in one of the breath-holding exercises and start saying ‘Lord have mercy’ in your mind. Do not let pride prevent you from doing this, you will be glad you tried.
Faleev for his part mixes a traditionalist respect for Russian Orthodox mysticism and old-time Russian foodways and health practices with a strong interest in Russian experimental psychology and what we could call “applied yoga.”
In the West, we had a related “physical culture” movement a century ago centered around exercise, healthy living, and human thriving for a population that was beginning to live in cities, eat an industrialized diet, work at desks, and get less exercise and fresh air. In these novel, urbanized lives, they were less physically vigorous and close to the land than their grandparents had been and some sensed that they were making trade-offs in health and happiness.
“Physical culturists” taught ways to hang on to some of the old-time physicality and grit that they thought we moderns would still need to feel healthy and fulfilled. Think of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Victorian strongmen with waxed moustaches, the modern Olympiad, the YMCA, “muscular Christianity,” Theodore Roosevelt, the Victorian vegetarian movement, German fruitarians and nudists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and anti-masturbation foods like Kellogg’s cereals and Graham crackers. It was an extremely broad movement, a diverse three-ring circus of eccentrics and visionaries, but they had this in common: they saw people as embodied souls who require physical vigor to be spiritually fulfilled. Phrasing it differently, they were a holistic health cult.
In the West, we stopped talking about “physical culture” much after the 1940s. The movement branched off into independent specialties and governing bodies—academic medicine and nutritional science, psychoanalysis, sanctioning federations for organized sports, sports media companies—and the adorably zany and heterogeneous old holistic health cult evolved and specialized itself out of existence.
In strength training, the old-time strongman was replaced by distinct sports: first weightlifting was standardized as an Olympic event, then bodybuilding declared its independence in the 1950s, followed by powerlifting in the 1960s. The new sports were not obsessed with psycho-physical health nearly as much as with rankings, records, and titles and there were also organizational politics to navigate and publishing industries and supplement businesses to build. The competitors also had access to steroids for the first time, and increasingly they had to choose between staying natural and winning.
Granted, after the old “physical culture” model broke apart in the post-war West, there remained a minority of people intrigued by holistic health practices. But instead of weightlifting, wrestling, gymnastics, and the like, they now gravitated toward yoga, vegetarianism, novel practices drawn from dance, and New Age psychotherapies. For quick-and-dirty heuristic purposes, I’d describe their new home as more feminine than masculine, more pacifist than martial, and more Gandhi than Charles Atlas.
It was in the Russified world where physical culture (физкультура) stayed relatively intact and kept closer to the old holistic model. Yes, it too was permeated and changed by drugs and competitive pressures. But the Soviet fizkul’turniki stayed close to their roots in rough-and-tumble sports and they kept using herbs, folk medicine, ice baths, and saunas, and their sports scientists plundered yoga for breath control disciplines, relaxation techniques, and other Jedi mind tricks that athletes could use to lift, run, wrestle, box, or throw better.
In our next installment, we will learn the “how to” of Faleev’s holistic sports spiritualism.
The Goofy Yoga Shorts. Never mind what the smart-alecks say [looking sideways at Lee], these were SOOOOO practical. They didn’t bind my legs and, when wet, they drip-dried in no time.
Caffeine and Sugar. I drank the equivalent of six or seven cups of coffee. I only regret not drinking twice that. And on Ultra Scott’s advice, I broke out of ketosis during the event and inhaled a pound and a half of chocolate. He was so very right about this: I did get momentarily tired, but I never got exhausted.
Kettlebells: More than ever, I think that if you have only one conditioning tool in your toolbox, it should be a kettlebell. If someone asks, “What is the single thing you could do to prepare for ten different physical challenges, chosen at random by a smiling, demonic taskmaster?” you should answer, “Kettlebells.”
The glasses strap: They look dorky, but one poor sod lost his glasses in the surf.
2. Terrible Ideas: Four of the Many
Boonie hat: If it wasn’t getting sucked off my head in the surf, it was obstructing my vision. It’s perfect in the climate where I live, but for these events, it’s a wool beanie or nothing.
Not layering: I knew we’d get wet and cold, so why didn’t I pack some kind of underlayer? After Surf Horror™, other people changed into something dry and looked very happy, whereas I was a trembling wreck.
To prep for the all-night ruck, I’m going out for a couple of days again in the Marijuana Highlands to conduct Official Scientific Inquiry.
Here are today’s dumb experiments Highly Dignified Research Questions.
1) How little food can I get away with? When I’m ketotic, I can go a long time comfortably without eating. This is really liberating, because it frees up time in my day, and space in my rucksack too.
On my last trip, I relied on an ad hoc mixture of peanut butter, berries, and a little protein powder, all blended into a paste. Sounds awesome, right? Surprise! It was disgusting, especially served warm. I brought 3500 calories’ worth of the stuff, but I could only make myself eat about half of it. Whoever said “Hunger is the best sauce” definitely had a good insight, but that doesn’t mean it makes anything palatable. At least not after only one day.
But I didn’t feel hungry at all, and when I got home my Tanita scale seemed to think that I’d tapped right into stored bodyfat to make up the difference. On this trip I’ll try to repeat the trick and make note of my “before” and “after” bodyfat %. Instead of the peanut butter mixture—sorry, my friends, not even for Science—I’ve got sardines and jerky (1700 cal, 575g).
2) Am I dressing right? The event is two weeks away, and I’ve been warned to road-test every single piece of equipment I’ll bring, from boots and socks on up. On this trip, I’ll “interview” the Big Black Boots, my wool socks and sock-liners, and my best candidates for shirt and pants.
Quiv the Gear Sage has told me of an advanced phase of gearwhoredom in which one has tried everything possible and dialed in one’s preferences. I’m still far from that, but I’m showing a clear pattern: so far the stuff I like best is often German. Maybe they just happen to cut their trousers right for my Stumpy Wrestler Body, which is half Alsatian. (D-Zazzle, you opened my eyes about trousers with a nice, high waist.) And maybe the Germans really understand my northern European genes, because I’ve tried every kind of shirt I own for carrying heavy stuff through hot weather and I’ve found nothing that protects me from a killer sun as well as the Bundeswehr’s tropical shirt. So these days, my starting hypothesis is always “Bundeswehr.”
This time I’m trying to pack more judiciously and save weight, but it’s hard to get persnickety about 2 oz. here or there when I’m bringing 8L of water. That’s almost 18 pounds, amigos! However, after last time I resolved to always bring enough that I wouldn’t have to consider, comment disez, “recycling” water.
If you were ever hectored about your posture, you were probably told to “stand up straight” and maybe to turn your chest out or pull your shoulders back. Those are good cues, but nobody mentions the most important thing: “elbow pits forward.”
To stand up straight up with your chest out, you only need to move your spine, but most of us have another problem too, with how our upper arms are rotated. Freeze right now and look down to see where your elbow pits are facing. (If you aren’t sure, just curl your forearm up to your bicep and back without moving anywhere except at your elbow. Whatever plane your arm is moving in, that’s where your elbow pit is facing.) Almost everyone I know has their elbow pits turned inward most of the time, toward the body’s centerline. That’s because we sit a lot and constantly use keyboards, pens, and other tools centered in front of our bodies, and to touch them we have to angle our hands inward in what’s called “internal rotation.”
Strength athletes suffer terrible internal rotation, especially in America where we fetishize the bench press, and that gives us a familiar “Neanderthal” look: thick in the pecs, wide in the lats, and short-necked and slope-shouldered. Once I was asked by a dancer I had only just met whether I’d once wrestled. My answer was, “Yes, very badly” and I was amazed at her clairvoyance. She explained that she could usually spot wrestling types by “the way they move.” I have a hunch (get it?) that she is tipped off largely by that caveman-like internal rotation.
Contrast dancers: they are easy to spot, at least when assuming their stage presence, by that distinctive upright carriage. They are taught to imagine a string gently pulling the crown of the head upward, drawing them erect with necks long. But I think that a lot of what we recognize as “dancer posture” is that they aren’t internally rotated like the rest of us.
For us, probably the only place where we unlearn this deformity is in a yoga class. Often teachers don’t emphasize it or articulate the lesson well, but in effect they are trying to train your elbow pits forward when they cue you to “draw your shoulders down away from your ears” and “broaden the back.” (Unfortunately those aren’t great cues because you can follow them even when your elbow pits are still turned inward just by engaging your lats.) In my experience, this is the magic of a pose like downward dog or upward dog. If you follow all the directions (spread your fingers, pronate the palms fully, “lengthen” the collarbones, fire the lats hard) to “broaden the back and pull the shoulders away from the ears,” you are definitely turning those elbow pits forward.
And that is a wonderful thing. You get stronger (e.g. deadlifts, pull-ups, and all the presses), you avoid a lot of joint problems and injuries, and you look healthier too. In fact, what people see as “big pecs” or “well-defined shoulders” is largely about the shoulder joint being rotated out to a healthy position. Men and women both look fitter instantly, without gaining any muscle or losing any fat, just by turning those elbow pits forward. And for me, it even affects my mood: when I’m rotated out, I also feel more buoyant and cheerful.
Why am I getting all didactic about elbow pits today? Because they were so hard for me to control on my walk! For some active recovery, I carried the jerry can (45#) up the Rock of Faeries and it was much harder than a kettlebell. The wider, clunkier shape tries to make you hold it farther out to your side. That’s a little more tiring and so instinctively you try to inch the can fractionally closer by turning your elbow in. And soon you’re a Neanderthal again. (Look at the picture on the right that Skadisdottir took of me carrying the archery target at my birthday party. You can see how stooped I am.)
So today I did my feeble best to treat carrying the can as a kind of yoga asana, focusing less on moving the implement than on keeping good position. On game day I won’t fuss overly much about form–the point will just be to move the f****** can, not to look like a ballerina–but on training days it’s much more important to reinforce good habits than squeeze out a little extra performance by cheating on fundamentals.