Selouyanov on Endurance (Pt. 1): A Guest Post by Dr. Smet

Russian training methods and Russian sports science. Raise your hand if you (a) love these things but (b) don’t read Russian. Then you probably owe almost everything you know to Pavel Tsatsouline, THE great interpreter of that subject and almost the most influential voice in American exercise. Pavel created an appetite for English-language popularizations of Russian training research much greater than any one man can satisfy, even a pedagogical genius like Pavel. Today guest author “Dr. Smet,” a Russian-educated physician practicing abroad, takes us behind the curtain of Pavel’s latest book for a direct look at some of its source material. Dr. Smet’s blog Girevoy Sport After 40 is required reading for lean solid dogs, lazy badasses, and grapplers and kettlebell competitors. He has graciously allowed me to cross-post his original piece. -Dog in Chief

Pavel Tsatsouline has finally published his long-awaited book on endurance training, the Quick and the Dead. Despite the hype, in the end I was underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong: the book has useful information but, as it makes clear on the last page, it is a long infomercial for the StrongFirst Strong Endurance seminar.

Victor Nikolaevich Selouyanov (1946-2017)

The material in the book is based on the research of a few Russian sport scientists and coaches, most notably Victor Selouyanov, previously mentioned in my blog [Girevoy Sport After 40 -ed.] in the post “The Heart is not a Machine.” Selouyanov was a bit of a renegade, and because of disagreements with the science establishment he never completed his doctorate. Nevertheless, his contribution to the understanding of training endurance was invaluable, and Russian sports science is still bitterly divided between his followers and opponents.

Selouyanov wrote several books, among them two that are of interest to me: Physical Preparation of Grapplers and The Development of Local Muscular Endurance in Cyclical Sports. Both deal with endurance, and Selouyanov’s concepts allow a systematic approach to training endurance in pretty much any sport. I will briefly and loosely summarize the most relevant parts of the book for grapplers (my current love).

Muscle fibers

From practical point of view Selouyanov was talking about two distinct groups of muscle fibers: glycolytic and oxidative. Glycolitic muscles are capable of producing great force, but because they are not very good users of oxygen they get tired quickly – in a few seconds – and are not very useful for activity that requires endurance. Oxidative fibers, on the other hand, do not produce as much force, but are virtually impossible to fatigue in aerobic conditions. Their power production drops from maximal to about 80% and stays there for a long time.

What gets oxidative muscle fibers at the end is the accumulation of lactic acid and, more precisely, hydrogen ions and the resulting acidosis. It happens if the production of lactate exceeds its elimination, which happens when you demand too much work from your muscles.

Oxidative muscles are good users of oxygen because of large number of mitochondria in them. Mitochondria are “power stations” of the cell where oxidation – the reaction between various substrates and oxygen – occurs, which results in the regeneration of ATP, the fuel that feeds the muscle fiber and allows it to contract.

Therefore, in order to develop endurance you have to do two things: build myofibrills (units of which muscle fibers are composed) and build mitochondria around them.

Classification of training loads based on long term adaptation

Methods of training are aimed at changing the structure of muscle fibers in the skeletal and myocardial muscle, as well as other systems (endocrine, for example). Every method is determined by several parameters that reflect the external features of a given activity: intensity of contraction, intensity of exercise, duration (repetition, series of the actual duration of exercise), rest interval and the number of sets or series (explained later). Each method activates internal processes which reflect immediate biochemical and physiological effects of a given training method. The final result is long term adaptation, which is the actual goal of using a particular training method.

For the sake of brevity I won’t spend much time on the internal processes elicited by each training method. I assume everyone reading this is a practitioner and is more interested in the description of the method and the long term adaptation it causes.

And so the methods are classified as follows.

1. EXERCISES OF MAXIMAL POWER

External features:

  • Intensity of contraction – 90 – 100%
  • Intensity of exercise – 10 – 100%. 

Barbell squats and bench press, for example, are activities with low intensity of exercise, but high intensity of muscle contraction. Throws performed with the wrestling dummy in high tempo and low rest intervals is the example of high intensity of both muscular contraction and exercise. 

  • Duration – usually short
    • Strength exercises are usually done for 1 – 4 repetitions
    • Speed-strength activity – up to 10 reps
    • Speed exercises – 4 – 10 seconds
  • Rest intervals – depends:
    • For strength exercises – 3 – 5 minutes
    • Speed-strength exercises – 2 – 3 minutes
    • Speed exercises – 45 – 60 seconds
  • Number of series/sets depends on the goals. 
    • So called “developing” sessions use 10 – 40 sets
  • Weekly frequency depends on the goals. 
    • If the goal is to develop myofibrills in the muscle fiber the series is performed to failure
    • If the goal is to develop mitochondria the series are performed to light fatigue

You just witnessed a fairly common phenomenon seen in Russian literature: the discordance of content and the title. This is exactly how it is in the text: weekly frequency – to failure or not, depending etc. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but we will have to forgive the good professor. – Smet.

Long term adaptation. 

  • If performed to failure, this method leads to the increase of myofibrills in glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers
  • If done to mild fatigue – leads to the increased phosphorylation in glycolytic and intermediate fibers, eventually leading to the increase in mitochondria

2. EXERCISES OF NEAR MAXIMAL POWER


External features:

  • intensity of muscular contraction – 70 – 90%
  • intensity of exercise – 10 – 90%
  • Example – barbell squat or bench press done for more than 12 repetitions
  • If you increase the tempo of exercise and reduce the periods of contraction and relaxation of muscles, you turn these exercises into speed-strength type. Examples include jumping and throwing wrestling dummies

Duration:

  • generally 20 – 50 seconds
  • strength exercise are performed for more than 12 reps
  • speed strength exercises – 10 – 20 reps
  • speed exercises – 10 – 50 seconds

Rest intervals:

  • for strength exercises – more than 5 minutes
  • speed-strength activities – 2 – 3 minutes
  • speed activities – 2 – 9 minutes

Weekly frequency:

  • This method is aimed at increasing the power of anaerobic glycolysis
  • Currently there are no publications that demonstrate positive effect of near maximal exercises performed to failure.
  • However, numerous studies show deleterious effects from this type of exercise.

Long term adaptation:

  • most effective for increasing myofibrilles in glycolytic muscle fibers
  • no increase in mitochondria
  • If terminated well before failure or performed with pauses, this method leads to the development of mitochondria in glycolitic and intermediate fibers: there is no excessive acidosis in the muscle cell, and lactic acid is eliminated during rest. 

There is a method used by Russian athletes, called 10×10. An example in the video below:

Grigor Chilingaryan, one of the specialists from the laboratory of sports adaptology that was founded by Prof. Selouyanov. Start at 3:00

The session consists of three exercises: pushups, jumps and pullups, all done for 10 reps in a circuit, for ten rounds, the intensity –  about 80%. As you can see, the athlete never comes close to failure, and each rep is follower by a short rest – which gives the muscles a chance to get rid of lactic acid and avoid acidosis. This is the example of near maximal training without destroying the body. The coach recommends starting with lower rounds and building up gradually. 

To be continued

Assistance

Part 4 in our series on the training methods of Russian powerlifting coach Konstantin Rogozhnikov.

Rogozhnikov prescribes a standard regimen of “assistance” work every day for his athletes. But is it right for you? Probably not.

Powerlifters label “assistance work” any lifting outside of the three “main lifts”: the squat, bench, and deadlift. That includes anything from curls to pressing weights overhead to those silly Nautilus leg thingies to dumbbells to pushing and pulling a tire sled. Powerlifters don’t compete in those lifts, but they use them instrumentally to help build their main lifts. They do their assistance work after the main lifting of the day and in a low-key way. Usually it’s all light weights, high reps, and no psyching up or going for personal records.

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American lifter Ed Coan, the greatest pound-for-pound champion for generations, devoted most of his training to assistance work. (Incidentally, the coolest moment in my own uneventful powerlifting career was to get upbraided at a meet by The Man Himself for giving up on a deadlift attempt too early.)

American powerlifters tend to do a lot of assistance work. Partly they are looking to strengthen whatever muscles they think are their “weak links.” For example, lifters who feel limited in the deadlift by their grip muscles might row a dumbbell for high reps. They also might use assistance work to grow certain muscles larger after the low-rep strength work, which believe it or not does not swell you up very much. With some extra size in well-chosen locations, you can make it easier to press or squat a barbell by using your own body as launching pad or a cushion. For example, you can boost your bench a lot just by growing bigger lats and biceps. At the bottom of the press, when your upper arms are mashed against your sides, you can help bump the bar up a couple of inches just by flexing your arms and flaring your lats. They give you a sort of “hydraulic lift” that helps you start the press.

But like a lot of Eastern European coaches, Rogozhnikov spares his athletes the plentiful assistance work favored by their American counterparts. Above all things, he wants you to rest and recover. Only do as much work as you must! So he prescribes a very limited regimen of assistance, which his athletes use as a sort of cool-down. Their only aim is to pump fresh blood and nutrients through the muscles they have just worked to kick off the recovery process. In this too he is typical of coaches from the former Eastern Bloc: they prize recovery, study it, and use disciplined methods to speed it up.

Rogozhnikov and crew follow the same assistance regimen that scarcely varies.

Unlike you, they compete in maximal supportive “gear,” and therefore they are using somewhat different sets of muscles than you. In their bench shirts, for example, they get a lot of help at the bottom of the lift for their pecs and shoulders. Where they struggle is in the middle of the lift, when the relatively small and weak triceps must extend the arms all alone under a load that nature never intended, from 700# to over a thousand.

In short, Rogozhnikov and his “geared” benchers rely most of all on their triceps. They also need extra strong lats because, owing to their powerful bench shirts, they have to use those big back muscles to pull the bar downward against the resistance of the bench shirt just to be able to touch the bar to their chests!

So would you be surprised to learn that, on bench day, Rogozhnikov tells his lifters to do a little extra work for their triceps and lats? For the triceps they do two sets of 12-15 or one set of 25 or so in an exercise of their choice, the object being to pump the tris through with blood. For lats they do two sets of 12-15 and add very light biceps work in the form of one set of curls or hammer curls and another set of reverse curls for 20-30.

But you are different. You are benching in just an ordinary cotton t-shirt, so you are mainly concerned with the start of the lift and whether you can move the bar off your chest quickly. That means you are really worried about your pecs and shoulders, not your triceps. Those are strong enough.

So maybe you will follow the lead of other raw benchers. For assistance they favor things like close-grip bench presses, dumbbell presses (on a flat bench or straight overhead or in between), or pause-benches, where you lower the bar to your chest and hold it there motionless for 1-3 seconds. But Rogozhnikov would enjoin you not to go crazy with these! These exercises are purely secondary, so don’t blow a lot of precious energy on them. Just pump the muscles up using light weights and high (but leisurely) reps to bring them blood and nutrients. Then stop.

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Reverse-hyper machines are expensive and rare outside of specialized powerlifting gyms, so jerry-rig something in your garage, if you decide to do them at all.

On leg and back day, Rogozhnikov follow their squats and deadlifts with 20-25 reps of the “hyper” and “reverse-hyper” to move blood through their low backs and hamstrings, followed by a little something for abs and calves. Listen, I’m nobody, but unless you are a seasoned powerlifter and you know your recovery capacities well, I’d say you should maybe skip the low back and hamstring stuff. Why? You’ve just put those muscles through a lot and, in my humble experience, it’s easy to get carried away on hypers and reverse-hypers and tire yourself out on them. That’s just the opposite effect of what Rogozhnikov wants here. Just go for a brisk walk instead.

In our next installment, Rogozhnikov turns up the heat with his “medium” workouts.

Rogozhnikov: Post-Soviet Hero of Anti-Labor

Why do I like Russian coach Konstantin Rogozhnikov so much? One reason is that his name looks cool in Russian italics: “Константин Витальевич Рогожников.”

But more importantly, I like him because I am lazy. If you visit us regularly here at Lean, Solid Dogs, then (1) I weep for you, and (2) you know that I prize happiness, good cheer, pleasure, and rest, so I gravitate toward forms of training that are more fun and relaxing than stoic and Stakhanovite.

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Sure, in Stalin’s Russia, Com. Stakhanov could get his name on a poster by exceeding his coal shoveling quotas. Hurray! But in powerlifting, no one cares if you busted your hump in the gym. Save yourself for competition. Throttle back and exert yourself as little as you can get away with.

Rogozhnikov is my kind of guy. He accomplishes great things as coach of one of Russia’s national teams but he obsessively reins his lifters in, rests them, rests them some more, and allows them only the bare minimum of exertion needed to do freakish feats like squat 1000 pounds. When his athletes feel beat up or lack enthusiasm for training, he sends them for a 10-day vacation from the gym. “Go on nature hikes,” he recommends, writes Pavel, “take a Russian steam bath, get a massage, even physical therapy. He stops short of recommending manicures, thankfully.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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Make no mistake: despite their moderation, Konstantin Vitalyevich and his crew clean up big in competition. The old goat himself still benches over 450, deadlifts 600, and squats an eye-popping 770.

Rogozhnikov is also honest. His athletes use drugs and he says so. And in his writings, he distinguishes clearly between how drug-assisted athletes should train and how “clean” lifters should. This is wonderful, because the correct answer is “very differently.” In countries where juiced lifters need to be coy about their “restorative measures,” many unsuspecting clean athletes waste years of training trying naively to ape the training methods of the drug-using elite. Rogozhnikov tells it straight: if you use “Russian supplements,” he gives you one plan, and if you don’t take “Vitamin S,” he gives you a different one.

In this series, we will tell you about Rogozhnikov’s “clean” plan–and also enough about the “dirty” plan to show how the two differ and give you a peek at the crazier corners of the powerlifting world.

So put on your “power pants” and buckle up your lifting belts. We’re on our way!

Of Sapogi and Sixguns

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“我不下地獄,誰下地獄?” (“If I do not descend into hell, who will?”)

During the Buddhist Backpack Pilgrimage, I acted as your personal bodhisattva, dear readers, and compassionately offered myself as a sacrifice for your welfare. How? By venturing out to do the whole 34 miles in jackboots (sapogi) and footwraps. In our previous field test we’d shown their value in wet conditions, but we still didn’t know how they would compete with hiking boots on hard, dry roads and rocky moonscapes. And who else would be lunatic enough to do so?

Hyperbole aside, I really was a little leery about this. It’s one thing to don strange footwear for a walk in the park, it’s another commit to them irrevocably for two days of hard walking.

Bundeswehr_Knobelbecher_OriginalThe boots I chose were surplus West German “Knobelbecher” (“dice-cups”). They’re heavy (1.1kg each), older than I am, and I bought them for $20.

My feet I wrapped in my homemade Russian-style portyanki. (In the world of footwraps, there is a Russian style and a very different German style called Fußlappen. Don’t worry, we’ll experiment with those too in due time!)

What did we learn? First, jackboots are awesome on roads, hardpack, and the forest floor. I’ve remarked before on how they make me walk by swinging my foot from the knee instead of from the hip. For whatever reason, on flat surfaces I sometimes felt like the jackboots were walking me or like I was a Bionic Marching Man. Not for nothing do Germans call them Marschstiefel, “marching boots!”

The jackboots also performed nearly as well as hiking boots on loose gravel and decaying roads. The only time I really wished I could change into hiking boots was on certain stretches of Mad Max-level rubble where your ankle rolled a different way with each step. With hiking boots you can plow straight over the rocks, if the ground is stable, as if you had little ATVs on your feet. With jackboots, you have to do a little extra work with your own foot and leg muscles, and I have to think that over time your knees absorb more torque.

The footwraps were positively delightful. They stayed put on every kind of terrain, and it was nice to refresh my feet by sitting down every few miles, turning the portyanki around, and rewrapping them. I also tried out wearing a pair of wool socks with the footwraps over them, something common in winter, and found that very comfortable too.

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You know how I treasure revolvers, but this is too ugly even to be Russian. And yet now I can see the genius of it.

A final thought on trail guns. I’d always wondered why someone would buy the Ruger LCRx, a misshapen 5-shot airweight .357 with a 3” barrel. It seemed like an overpowered pocket rocket that won’t even fit in your pocket! But after my close encounter with the bears, when I’d almost been too lazy to carry a gun at all, I saw the LCRx in a whole different light. It looks like a perfect “just in case” backwoods beater gun for when you’re weighing the annoyance of a real belt gun against the pathos of your family getting your remains back in a wet, 2-quart Ziploc bag.

US Soil Literally Ground Under Heel of Communist Jackboots

Since our posts on footwraps and jackboots, Lean Solid Dogs has been flooded with queries from peace-loving people of all fraternal nations. In response, I conducted harsh field trials on the Russian-style jackboots and footwraps, equipment worth over $20.05, assuming a value of one nickel for the remnants of my old pillowcase. Nothing but the best for you, dear readers!

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To me they still look like I should be rounding up Polish hostages.

I’d been told that where jackboots and footwraps excel is in water and damp. However, I had doubts. Sure, jackboots have high sides, and no doubt some of them are well sealed too. But it seemed like once they did flood, you would be doomed and your feet stuck for your whole walk in knee-high water buckets. At the recent GORUCK challenge, I’d chosen exactly the opposite strategy, wearing a second-hand pair of “Moab Ventilators,” so named because of the mesh sides intended to let water drain out like from scuppers on a ship’s deck. But whatever the designers’ intended, the Moabs stayed wet all night, encrusted on the outside with a thin cement of caked-on sand and moistened from the inside by my waterlogged wool socks.

20180815_121935And just as Krushchev predicted, the Communist jackboots buried their pricey, effete capitalist counterparts. I tried to flood them all the way and could not! First I stood in a creek up to my ankles, patiently waiting for water to find its way through the seal, but it never did. Impressed, I knelt down in the creek hoping that water would rush over the boot tops like Soviet tanks through the Fulda Gap. Still no joy. As I have mentioned before, the portyanki are so long (90cm/36”) that you wind half the fabric around your calves, and to my amazement this sealed the boot tops so thickly that water could not cascade in. I had to wiggle and fishtail around, trying to coax water into the jackboots, til after about 30 seconds I had to be satisfied with getting my feet about 40% soaked.

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See the ring of creek filth around the calf? The portyanki created a thick cloth seal there that kept out the dirt, and most of the water too.

I walked the next mile that way and found it perfectly satisfactory. I had wondered whether water would continue to drip down my calf and slowly make a sopping, sucking fishbowl around my feet, but this never happened. Either the footwraps pack up all the loose space around your feet and leave little room for water to gather, or as Lars from Survival Russia suggests, maybe the footwraps really do wick it up and out.

Certainly I was amazed at how well the wraps dried out. After a mile, I stopped to turn the wraps around. This is something that portyanki fans like Lars are always try to sell you on: “Instead of changing into dry socks,” they’ll say, “you can turn portyanki around and wrap your feet from the other, drier end. The wet end will get a chance to dry out, now being wrapped around your calf or even sticking out your boot top. It’s like having a dry pair of socks built right in.” Without impugning Lars’ integrity, I must confess I thought that sounded almost as fishy as Lenin’s “democratic centralism,” but he was right. After a mile, not only had the top end of my footwraps dried enough to be comfortable, they were also drier than my pant legs, which were directly exposed to the air!

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Turned around, re-wrapped, and almost as good as dry socks. The wet end is now poking out the top.

Score one for East then. No, the footwraps did not dry out completely until I took them off at home and hung them up, but now I was inspired to try some serious Marxist science. I soaked the portyanki and my favorite wool socks and hung them in the sun, side by side to make a fair trial, but the outcome was never in doubt. Unsurprisingly the thin, single-ply footwraps with their huge surface area dried in half the time.

So will I seriously wear these things in place of hiking boots? I certainly would in wet muck. I might even wear them on other terrain just for the fun of doing things the old-fashioned way, just like I prefer to shoot revolvers. Loyal readers of this blog know that I am a sucker for the seductions of kludgy but ingeniously designed Communist gear, and friends know that I suffer from Ostalgie, an aesthetic nostalgia for the lost world of the socialist Eastern Bloc. The city of my young adulthood was an actual Stalinist metropole, and it left me with a sentimental fondness for the blocky, heavy, dim, cheap, kitschy material culture and aesthetic that—as far as I can tell—originated in Moscow and was exported to all corners of the Second World as part of what might be called the “Stalinist cultural package.”

Jokes aside, let me be clear: Lenin, Stalin, and the state they made were evil, an evil unsurpassed in the 20thcentury, and it’s bizarre that they get a pass from so many bien-pensants in the West. I’m just saying that if (Heaven forbid) I were going to conquer and enslave half the peoples of Europe, I would definitely consider doing it in actual Communist jackboots.

What Did We Learn, Class?

1. Things That Worked

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It’s also fun to see onlookers wonder whether one is even wearing anything on bottom.

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.

 

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The best one-stop shopping I know for GPP (general physical preparedness).    Photo from calorie bee.com

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.

Not finding a cold place to train: I trained in 100° temperatures, and though I tried a couple of short night hikes in wet clothes, around here we only get nightly lows of about 70°. I figured, “What difference will 15 or 20 degrees make?” For the answer, see “Shivering Horror”© above.

Not avoiding cramps: Sgt. D-Zazzy warned me I needed more salt or my legs might stop working. Did I listen? By morning even my hands cramped up.

 

3. Insights Into Myself

I’m a “smiler”: I respond to exertion with irrational gaiety and buoyance.

I throw more F-bombs than almost anyone I know who doesn’t seem to me somewhat evil.

Lazy Fitness

If you are a Lean, Solid Dog, you need a lot of rest.

By a quirk of history, Americans took much of what we “know” about fitness from a terrible source, bodybuilders. Why terrible? Because since the Seventies, bodybuilding has been transformed a few times over by steroids, and if you are training with “Vitamin S,” then you are operating with a whole different physiology than the rest of us. Therefore you don’t have much training advice that can apply to people not using mind-blowing “Russian supplements.” * Think of drug-assisted athletes (and they are now the norm) as almost a different species from yourself, and taking your ideas about training from them is like following the nutrition plan of a zebra.

It is from bodybuilding that Americans got most of our counterproductive “no pain, no gain” illusions about fitness. If you were juicing, you could get some use from that approach, just like the Incredible Hulk can perform great even without a rubdown and a nap. But you, dear friend, unless you are a professional hardman hardperson, you probably don’t need more than one challenging strength and aerobic session every week or so. What you do need a lot of is “active recovery.”

Clarence Bass by Guy Appelman age 50
Clarence Bass, father of the “ripped” look, does strength and cardio once every 5-10 days. The other days he just walks in the hills. (Apparently in bikini briefs.)

It’s a cliché of training that “You don’t get fitter from exercise, you get fitter by recovering from exercise.” And it’s a cliché because it’s true. Your muscles don’t grow while lifting weights, for example. They grow afterward by taking in nutrition and thickening in case they get worked hard again.

That is how steroids work too. They are not exactly performance-enhancing drugs, they are recovery-enhancing drugs. They make you bounce back from training faster and higher, and that’s how they improve your performance indirectly.

For a lazy person like me, it’s wonderful to know that I can limit serious exertion to one or two weekly bouts and then use the rest of my “training” time on rest and recovery. Yes, it’s true that we really should get exercise every day. But what we’re looking for is “active recovery.”

You rest better and quicker through active recovery than passive recovery, i.e. sitting on the couch. You just do light activity that makes you breathe a little harder and get some blood and endorphins flowing, but that’s all! As a rule of thumb, you are doing it right if you are breathing a little more deeply but you could hold a conversation or sing a song without feeling short of breath. This could be just walking or riding your bike for transportation. Similarly for light (!) hiking.

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The late mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev was way ahead of his time in the West about preaching active over passive recovery. Here as in so much of exercise science, the former Communist bloc really had the edge over us.

For fairly serious athletes in any discipline, I think the king of active recovery is yoga. You go for the active recovery and in the bargain you also get invaluable prehab and rehab, which no one gets enough of, in an environment that is also a huge serotonin factory AND full of lithe, beaming people.

 

* Note: I don’t necessarily poo-poo drug-assisted training as morally inferior or easier. On the first point, I exercise because it makes me so happy, not so I can imagine myself as someone else’s better (as if anyone cares anyway). Second, drugs don’t exactly make training easier. If you think that, start squatting under a bar that’s 200# heavier than you use now—do it however you have to, I don’t care—and then get in touch to tell me about how easy your training has become.

Actually a Thing: Jackboots

Backpacking brings to life a lot of dead metaphors. When someone drives past you on a dry dirt road, you literally eat their dust, and on day two of a long hike, you really do have to tighten your belt.

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But “jackboots?” To me, “jackboot” is just a metonymy for fascists, as in “jackbooted thugs” and “Europe can go from zero to jackboot in no time.” George Orwell derided it as a hackneyed Comintern pejorative that held zero literal meaning for English speakers: “Ask a journalist what a jackboot is, and you will find that he does not know. Yet he goes on talking about jackboots.” I’d bet that Orwell was right and we got the viral “jackbooted Nazi” trope from the Russian language. But curiously, the Soviets themselves
also wore jackboots! In fact, whereas the German army traded in jackboots for laced boots halfway through the war, the Russian army wore them right up to 2008! (In fact, if I’m not mistaken, the usual Russian word for boots, sapogi, specifically refers to jackboots.)

Here in America, actual jackboots are a weird sight, known mostly from black-and-white photos of our dead enemies. Even in China they were rare. I used to deal with a lot of Chinese soldiers, who were organized and equipped along Soviet lines—like the Finns, the PLA would study Soviet designs and then improve them—but instead of sapogi they wore green canvas sneakers. It was only the ceremonial detail (礼兵) who raised the flag in Tiananmen Square each morning who would goose-step across Chang’an Boulevard in actual huge gleaming jackboots.

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Friend to friend, guys, if you’re serious about image-building, we need to get you new boots. How about some Uggs? Wouldn’t those be cute?

I must be a true ‘Murican, because I am turned off by jackboots, both the word and the real thing. For me, they call to mind all the adjectives that I associate with Mussolini: “preening,” “cocksure,” “buffoonish,” “swaggering,” “ridiculous,” “vainglorious,” and so on.

So I was surprised to find that in 2018 jackboots are still being chosen for daily wear by actual, nice, non-evil people! Exhibit A is Lars Grebnev, a Danish expatriate who creates the “Survival Russia” YouTube channel from the homestead he shares with his Russian wife and daughter in BFE, Siberia. (Hmm, I guess it shouldn’t be BFE but “БФЗ.”) A woodsman and hunter, Lars prefers jackboots to lace-ups for general wear because the jackboots keep moisture out, dry quickly when wet, and keep a healthy circulation of blood and air in and around the foot.

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images-15 At most, one of these two Danes has committed crimes against humanity, and it’s not the guy in the jackboots.

I had to keep reminding myself that a considered preference for jackboots is not necessarily the same as choosing despotism over freedom. “Besides,” I assured myself, “Grebnev can’t be an evil blood-stained fascist hyena. He’s Danish, and since Viking times no Dane has visited atrocities on other countries. Unless you count the films of Lars von Trier.”

So for the sake of Science, I acquired a pair of East German jackboots from—literally—a dust-covered shelf in a dark corner of a cavernous surplus store. They were so unloved that I had to convince the store owner to charge me $20 for them. “Perhaps,” I thought, “as a true American she’s ashamed even to have them in her store and just wants them gone.”

And then (deep breath) I wore the jackboots. Yes, outside of my house. In daylight. On a long hike. Granted, I did roll my pant legs down over the distinctively mitteleuropäischen boot tops so that people wouldn’t look at me and think, “Wow, I bet that guy kills for sport.” And there is NFW I am taking a picture of myself in tall jackboots and putting it on the internet. I probably wouldn’t be crucified unless I also wore balloon-like cavalry trousers and carried a swagger stick. But these days you can’t be too careful. People get condemned as Nazis for less. Honestly, sometimes I wonder whether you people adequately appreciate the things I do for you.

When you change into a completely different kind of clothing, you change your posture and movement too. Not just because you are conscious of a different social role but because of how the clothes physically touch, cue, constrain, or free you. If you’re like me, if you wear a kilt for a few hours, you walk and stand wider just because you can. Your thighs get to do whatever they want for once and you can give more room to … whatever needs room.

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The jackboots seem to prompt you to lock your knees when standing, because they push gently backward on your shins and coax you to put more weight on your heels. You tuck your pelvis under too—most Americans stand with our pelvises tilted forward—and then when I walk in the jackboots, I swing my feet more from the knees.

In the field, the jackboots were much more comfortable than I thought. I am pretty certain that the Russian army chose jackboots not to please the soldiers but because they made the supply officers’ job easier. One advantage to the jackboots was that correct sizes are not so important (more on this later), so your soldiers could get boots that were too big and still make do. Also, if I understand correctly, jackboots are easier to manufacture than ankle boots. Yes, they use up more leather, which is why the Germans abandoned them mid-war, but in some cases the Soviets had plenty of raw materials and labor but not enough of the specialized tooling and production experience needed for fancier items.

A classic example was the early AK-47. As originally designed, it was supposed to use light, cheap metal stampings, an emerging technology used to great effect by German engineers when they ran low on raw materials. But the Soviets found they suffered a different kind of scarcity than the Germans: their enemies had run short of steel and factory workers but they still had world-class production engineering. In contrast, the Soviets had enough steel and manufacturing capacity, but they didn’t have engineers who were experienced in the new field of metal stamping. So they purposely took a technological step backward and abandoned stampings for AK-47s, instead going back to the old-fashioned technique of carving the guns out of blocks of metal. (They also enslaved the German engineers and made them fix the metal-stamping problems. How’s that for thinking outside the box?) They chose something clunkier that used more material because that was the thing they could mass-produce using the skills they were good at. I suspect that jackboots were like that too: no eyelets or grommets or hooks, no tongue, not so much precise fitting, just a basic pattern that the Russian workforce was already good at making.

As promised, my jackboots kept my feet dry. I was pleased that for once I could clomp boldly through the stream instead of picking my way across stepping stones with a backpack and a clumsy jerry can–and maybe falling in anyway. And the jackboots were amazingly light, lighter than any boots I own, being made from some kind of imitation leather (possibly kirza).

What I worried about was footing. As noted, jackboots by themselves do not fit you very closely. Saying nothing of the ankle, which has no laces, the boots’ “lasts” (the foot-shaped part) can’t tighten around your feet. Instead they are like little boxes and your feet bang around inside fairly loosely. Even wearing two pairs of woolen socks, my feet did not feel snug enough.

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That was the whole problem. These boots are not made with socks in mind. Instead you’re assumed to be wearing footwraps (portyanki). So I did it, friends! As promised, I cut up an old flannel bedsheet into strips of 40 x 90cm (16 x 36”) and learned how to wrap my feet the Russian way. (One more item off the bucket list!)

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Let me tell you, comrades, like so much of life, there is a right way to wrap your feet and there are also lots of wrong ways. I know this because I tried all of them. Finally I got it right (thanks, Lars!), and what resulted looks like a foot that’s mummified in soft, poofy cotton cloth. Tactilely, it felt really luxurious and cozy, like a thick, sturdy sheaf of cotton candy from my calf down to my toes. And miraculously, when I slid my mummified foot deep into the boot, I got a nice, snug fit. Instead of my feet banging around the inside of loose leather cases, they were like a pair of earrings cushioned by cotton inside a gift box. Whereas laced boots tighten the boot down around the foot, the portyanki bulk the foot out to fill up the boot.

This seems to be why jackboots are forgiving of imprecise sizing. If you have a pair of boots that gives you a lot of toe room, you can tweak your wrappings slightly to fill in the empty space. Problem solved! The same thing happens at the ankle. The portyanki are super-long—a full yard!—and most of that cloth ends up wrapped around your ankle and calf. It acts as “internal boot laces,” if you will, and gives you a firm fit. When you walk, your heels get to rise and fall a little but you are held gently but firmly at your toes, instep, ankle, and calf.

On my walk, the only problem occurred when I walked down a long, steep, rough slope under heavy load. My toes were superbly cushioned, whereas hiking boots would grind them if the boots didn’t have generous toe room and the right tension in the laces. But after a time, the downward angle was slowly bunching up the footwraps in the boots’ toes, and after half a mile of that I needed to rewrap my feet so that I blister them against the wrinkles forming underneath them. I don’t yet know whether this is an inherent problem or my fault as a neophyte foot-wrapper.

In any case, at that point I had the opportunity to try out one of the virtues of portyanki that Lars and others praise the most: they make it easy to keep your feet dry of sweat because they are like several pairs of spare socks in one. Your sweaty foot is only in contact with one corner of the footwrap at a time, and the opposite end is wound around your calf or even poking out the top of your boot, where it is gradually drying. So if your foot would benefit from some dry “socks,” you just turn the portyanki around and wrap from the other side. Later you can dunk them in water, wring them out, and hang them up, and the thin cloth will air-dry in no time. I tried this out at the Pool of Heaven and it worked just as advertised.

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We are DEFINITELY trying this again, guys!

Портянки

What is archaic, rustic, cheap … and Russian?

It’s a trick question! The answer is, “Whatever it may be, you know damn well that now Jason will insist on trying it!”

Today it’s portyanki, the traditional Russian foot wrap that some hunters still prefer with heavy boots instead of socks. In fact, the Russian army only phased out foot wraps in 2008. Even though portyanki are notoriously stinky–“traditional Russian chemical weapons,” according to the old joke–loyalists insist they are better for foot health than socks because they dry very quickly.

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If you leave a wrinkle in the wrong place, you can get a nasty hot spot. Ask me how I know.

Of course, I think the army was actually more impressed that portyanki obeyed what I take to be the Prime Directive of Soviet equipment: Unburden the supply chain. Soviet industry scarcely needed to “manufacture” foot wraps–all they are is strips of cloth, and most any kind of cloth will do. The wraps bulk up the foot, so they make it less important to have boots that fit well. And they last nearly forever, unlike socks, but even if you do damage them, you can make do by wrapping them a little differently, or you can just make yourself a new pair with some discarded cloth.

Or that’s what they tell me, anyway. I aim to find out for myself. I have sacrificed an old flannel pillowcase on the altar of Soviet Gear Science and will report back. You may send any concerns about cultural appropriation to your local Communist Party branch office, where you will be sent to the gulag for re-education.

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The author consulted no Cossacks in connection with this post. He remains defiant.