Girevoy Sport (Pt. 3): The Jerk

The jerk rewards a lot of Gumby-like flexibility in the hip flexors and shoulder girdle. Each of these bells weighs 32kg (70lbs.), and during the 10-minute, your only chance to rest is in this position, but you need flexiblity. (battlebell.ru)

Whereas the snatch is a pulling exercise—you feel it most in your back and grip—the jerk uses the pushing muscles: the triceps, shoulders, chest, and most of all the quads.

The jerk also demands a more exotic technique. Sure, the snatch also improves enormously when you cultivate better technique, but you’ll probably find the process pretty intuitive. You’re just doing two simple things, absorbing the momentum of the falling bell and lofting it back upward gracefully, and your body gets the feel quickly. But the jerk demands things that feel terribly unnatural.

On the right, look at his hand and arm position. It’s awesome. He’s resting the handles across his wrist bones, so he can relax his grip. And he’s balanced the bells directly over his shoulders, again supporting the weight as much as possible with his skeleton, not tense muscles. In girevoy sport, you have to take your rest wherever you can get it. (Source: V.F. Tikhonov, Osnovy Girevovo Sporta [Basics of Girevoy Sport], 2009)
Textbook form. The athlete holds the bells’ center of gravity over his elbows, which are lodged firmly on top of his hip bone, which is over his feet atop straight legs. He’s not arching his low back but instead is stretched out at the hip flexors. And look how far he’s stretched his traps and shoulders down to get his elbow on his hips. (Source: V.F. Tikhonov, Osnovy Girevovo Sporta [Basics of Girevoy Sport], 2009)

First, you have kettlebells constricting your rib-box almost non-stop. You can’t breathe normally, and instinctively that is uncomfortable and frightening. (This is a big reason why people dislike long sets of barbell squats. And surf torture, too. In my experience, we don’t hate the cold as much as we think. What we hate more is actually how we instinctively tense up in cold water and breath in choppy, panicky gasps.)

Second, you bend backwards at the hips. Note that I say the hips, not the back. Only bend back at the hip flexors. That’s hard. And it doesn’t make breathing any easier. You’ve stretched your abdomen taught, loaded kettlebells onto your chest, and jammed your elbows into your belly. So what’s left to breathe with? Your upper back! To quote my old taiji teacher, “Suck in your chest and spread out your [upper] back” (含胸拨背). That way you can breathe into your back, so to speak, with your upper back rising and falling instead of your chest or belly.

You’ll need to relax your trapezius muscles. The more you relax them, the easier it all gets. You relieve some of the prolonged muscular tension, and better still, you can slide your elbows down your trunk to your hip bones and rest them there while you catch your breath. People who are really flexible and have good proportions—which is not me—report that they can relax fully in this position. Damn them!

The more you master this technique, the more the jerk becomes a leg exercise. In effect, you jump in place, bucking the bell straight up, and you only use your arms to catch them. Then you jump a second time to meet the falling bells in mid-air. Relax (if you can), breath, and repeat.

Even in an endurance-focused sport like GS, sometimes you find jerk specialists like Ivan Denisov who are beefcakes. (Source: Girevoy Sport magazine)

More than the snatch, the jerk builds muscle. The reason might be “time under tension” (TUT). Many coaches and researchers treat muscle growth as a function of “time under tension”—how long you’re under a heavy load without setting it down. Certainly people grow lots of muscle from heavy high-rep barbell squats and Javorek complexes, which are two very different things, but in both cases you stay under great tension for a vomitously long time. Jerks do the same. You spend 10 minutes under an awkward pair of cannonballs totaling 32kg to 64kg (70-140 lbs). (Imagine front squatting or back squatting one of those poundages to a high box for 10 minutes. Now, don’t actually do that (!!)—you’d lose form, making it unsafe AF. But you can imagine what a metabolic supercharger that would be.)

Girevoy Sport (Pt. 2): The Snatch, “Tsar of Kettlebell Exercises”

In the snatch, if you’re going to last the full 10 minutes, you must spare your grip. How? Use your legs. After you “pull” the bell up, bend at the knees and dip down. That way you won’t have to pull as high. Even more importantly, when you drop the bell back down, rise up on your toes and use your legs as shock absorbers. Tip your body back from the knees so that your arm falls across your chest and belly early in the drop—that will absorb more shock and slow down the bell’s fall.

This illustration isn’t perfect, because it leaves out some things like rising up on the toes. But you can see the athlete canting his body back a little (frame 3) and letting his arm press against the chest and belly (frames 4-6) to absorb shock and slow the bell’s fall. And you can see him bend the knees the first time, for more shock absorption (frames 5-7) and then the second time for the big “alley-oop” (frame 8). (Source: http://giri-narodu.ru/index.php?com=simplepage&elemId=18)
My first meet in 2002 or 2003, using an obsolete technique where you only bent your knees once and went into a low squat. This belongs in the dustbin of history, along with the thick-handled, cast-iron kettlebell I was using.

As the bell falls to the bottom of its arc, “give” at the knees a little to spare your grip muscles from sudden, abrupt wrenching. Then straighten your legs. When the bell pendulums forward again, bend your legs a second time so they can help “alley-oop” the bell upward. You’ll accelerate the bell more smoothly, and that way you’ll spare your grip even more. 

You can spare your grip further by how you hold the bell’s handle. When holding it overhead, let the handle rest diagonally down your palm. Go ahead and insert your hand as deep as you can. That way you can relax your grip. (Expect some growing pains as you get accustomed to steel pressing against unyielding, bony places. That only lasts a few weeks.)

When dropping the bell, do your best to hold it with just the first two fingers and thumb. Try not to grip the handle tightly. Just make a firm ring with those three fingers and let the handle rotate somewhat loosely within it. We don’t want a lot of muscle tension from over-gripping the bell, nor do we want torn callouses. This is one of the reasons that you will progress faster if you err on the side of lighter weights for higher (50+) reps. Master that, and you will progress to heavier bells naturally and swiftly.

Over-gripping is also a reason that you should use competition-style bells if possible, rather than the cast-iron ones. With their more slender handles, you can snatch them for much higher reps without a death-grip that will tear up your palms and cost you training time. Nor are they so very expensive, and since you will have these for the rest of your life (hell, your grandchildren’s lives!), you might as well get the good ones.

With some experimenting, you’ll feel most comfortable and efficient when dropping the bell if you hold the handle at the corner, not the middle. (See picture above.) And on the backswing, when you relax your arm, the bell will rotate on its own so that your thumb is pointing back (or at your bottom). Let it do that. 

These handsome old pugs would look callow and dorky if they had a bright, glossy paint job.

And if you’ll permit me a moment’s snobbery, for heaven’s sake, don’t pay more for “chip-resistant enamel coating.” Kettlebells are not fine china or ladies’ silk undergarments. They are like blue jeans—when new they look weird and a little embarrassing; when battered and worn, they look legit.

Want to learn more? Start ransacking the archives at Dr. Smet’s site, Girevoy Sport After 40. He’s been experimenting for years and translating materials from his native Russian about the evolving state of the sport. Girevoy sport is still fairly young and people are still making advances in technique and training methods. (If you follow martial arts, just compare the karate of the 80s with the early UFC of the 90s and then the far more advanced state of MMA today. It’s like three different geological ages.)

In particular, check out of two of Smet’s recent translations with commentary of snatch tutorials by Sergey Rudnev, five-time champion of the world. A small-framed man, Rudnev was competing with bells that weighed half his own bodyweight (!), and he developed a snatch technique that is exquisitely efficient. As Rudnev and other champs advise, whatever care and attention you invest in efficient technique, you will be repaid for amply.

Selouyanov on Endurance (Pt. 2): More Russian Sports Science from Dr. Smet

Guest author “Dr. Smet” finishes his insider’s tour of the Russian sports science underlying Pavel Tsatsouline’s long-awaited endurance training manifesto, The Quick and the Dead. I follow Dr. Smet’s blog Girevoy Sport After 40 to read about top-dog Russian coaching and research from a medical scientist who also practices what he reports on.

Before we start I have to make a disclaimer of sorts. Soviet sport scientists then and Russian scientists now often have fragmented interest and education in the field. Throughout his lectures Selouyanov makes statements that are debatable, to say the least, even though he doesn’t seem to have experience in the subject. For example, his view is tht the only way to increase the strength of the glycolytic muscle fibers is to lift maximal weights to failure. Therefore, if some powerlifters don’t follow that rule and still get strong – that must be steroids, no other explanation is possible. I am not qualified to argue the subject and am only conveying Selouyanov’s work, so take it or leave it. 

So let’s get to the most relevant parts of Selouyanov’s teachings. 

Muscle fibers 
Muscle fibers are loosely divided into three types, depending on the activity of the enzymes, in poarticular ATP-ase. Oxydative muscle fibers (type I) have slow ATP-ase, their speed of contraction is slow and they are resistant to fatigue. Glycolytic muscle fibers (type II) have fast ATP-ase, contract quickly and can be either resistant to fatigue (Type IIA) or not (Type IIB). 
For the purpoose of training muscle fibers can be looked at in the following way:
Oxidative fibers – have mitochindrial mass that cannot be developed further. Each myofibril is surrounded by a layer of mitochondria. These fibers use fatty acids in the active state. 
Intermediate fibers – have lower number of mitochondria. As the result two processes occur during activity: aerobic glycolysis and anaerobic glycolysis. During activity lactate and hydrogen ions are accumulated, so these fibers develiop fatigue, but not as fast as purely glycolytic type. 
Glycolytic fibers – have no or little motochondria, so that anaerobic glycolysis predominates, with the resulting accumulation of hydrogen ions and lactate. 

Factors that determine endurance

According to Selouyanov the difference in endurance can be fully explained by several factors. 
1) First, the development of the oxidative muscle fibers. Among well trained endurance athletes oxydative muscle fibers comprise 90 – 100% of the total muscle mass, therefore they don’t produce lactic acid in excessive quantities that cause significant acidosis and the resulting decline oin performance. To the contrary, among untrained individuals 50% of muscle consists of intermediate muscle fibers which, during their progressive recruitment during exercise, accumulate lactate. 
2) The second reason for better endurance among trained individuals is that their aerobic system switches on earlier, mostly because they have more oxidative fibers, so that the initial production of lactate is lower. 
3) Trained individuals utilize lactate more efficiently. Mitochondria are capable of utilising piruvate, and in the oxidative fibers piruvate is produced from lactate. 
 Fourth reason for better endurance – increased volume of the circulating blood. This, in turn, results in the reduced concentration of produced lactate.
The role of the heart. 
Endurance training leads to the dilatation of cardiac ventricles. This, in turn, makes cardiovascular system more efficient, in the way that the same cardiac output – the amount of blood the heart is capable of pushing though per minute – is achieved by fewer contractions. Training of the heart is a separate topic and will not be discussed here. 

Three types of exercises
All types of exercises utilised for the training of grapplers can be divided into three types. 

Effective exercises. 

  • Dynamic, maximal anaerobic power, to failure – facilitate the development of myofibrills in glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers
  • Stato-dynamic, of maximal anaerobic power (100%), to failure (pain) – develop myofibrills in the oxidative and intermediate muscle fibers
  • Dynamic and stato-dynamic, of maximal alactic power, done to less than ½ of the limit, performed the light local muscular fatigue, repeated after normalisation of acidosis – facilitate some increase of the myofibrills and mitochondria in the glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers
  • Dynamic exercises of near maximal power (90%), done to less than ½ of the limit, performed till light local muscular fatigue, repeated after the elimination of acidosis – facilitate some increase of the myofibrills and mitochondria in the glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers
  • Dynamic exercises of submaximal (60 – 80%) power, done to less than ½ of the limit, performed till light local muscular fatigue and repeated after the elimination of excessive acidosis – facilitate some increase of the myofibrills and mitochondria in the glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers

Harmful exercises.

  • All exercises of near or sub-maximal anaerobic power, as well as those of maximal aerobic power performed to the limit and causing excessive acidosis (pH < 7.1, lactate > 15 nMoll/L).

All other types of exercises have little useful effect for the development of endurance among grapplers. 
According to Selouyanov there are two ways to increase endurance and strength in skeletal muscle: increase the number of myofibrills and increase the number of mitochondria. Both are achieved differently in glycolytic (and intermediate) and oxidative muscle fibers, therefore we are left with four training modalities. 
In order to increase myofibrillar mass four factors must be present. 

  • Reserve of amino acids in the muscle cell (provided by consuming protein)
  • Increased concentration of anabolic hormones as the result of mental strain
  • Increased concentration of free creatine in muscle fibers
  • Increased concentration of hydrogen ions

Increasing the number of myofibrills in the glycolytic muscle fibers.
I suspect this part will make quite a few of us cringe. However, the goal of this post is to convey Selouyanov’s opinion on optimal training, so bear with me here. [Editor’s note: In effect, Selouyanov is about to ignore a core doctrine of Pavel Tsatsouline’s, namely the taboo against training to failure.] Glycolytic muscle fibers are activated when maximal muscular effort is required and no earlier. Therefore (according to the good professor), the growth of glycolytic muscle fibers can be achieved only by utilising weights of of maximal or near maximal intensity. The following conditions have to be present:

  • Intensity of maximal or near maximal intensity – more than 70% of 1RM
  • Exercise is performed to failure, i.e. to full exhaustion of CPn and achievement of high concentration of free creatine
  • Number of repetitions – 8 – 12. Last couple of reps have to be forced (with the help of a partner)
  • Rest – 5 minutes. Should be active, aerobic activity at HR of 100 – 120/min, this helps to utilise lactic acid
  • Number of sets: 7 – 9 if the goal is growth, 1 – 4 for tonic effect
  • Number of training sessions per day – one or two, depending on the intensity and athlete’s condition
  • Number of sessions per week – synthesis of myofibrills takes about 7 days, this is how long the athlete should rest after a training session done to the limit.

Myofibrillar hyperplasia in the oxidative muscle fibers
The method for developing myofibrills in oxidative fibers is similar to that for glycolytic muscle cells. With the exception that exercises are performed without relaxation. In that case the capillaries in the muscle are compressed, limiting circulation and leading to the hypoxia of the muscle fibers and the accumulation of lactate and hydrogen ions. 
I suspect this works similar to the occlusion (Kaatsu) training that became somewhat popular in the recent years. Selouyanov believes that mostly slow/oxidative muscle fibers grow under these conditions – Smet. 
To get the idea of this method imagine a barbell squat. Except that it is performed in the way that doesn’t allow for the pause at the top, with incomplete range. This way the muscles are continuously contracted to one degree or another, and after 20 – 30 seconds you get the burn, which is the desired effect. 
The conditions for the efficiency of this method are as follows: 

  • Intensity – medium: 20 – 40% of 1RM
  • No relaxation pohase during exercise, the muscles are continupusly contracted
  • Tempo and duration – slect the weight so that the athlete can perform 25 repetitions in 30 seconds. Last few repetitions should cause significant pain.
  • Rest – 30 seconds (active)
  • This exercise is performed in series of 3 – 5 sets. 25 reps in 30 seconds equals one set.
  • Number of series in one session: 1 – 2 for the tonic effect, 3 and more for growth.
  • Number of sessions per week – exercise is repeated in 3 – 5 days.

There is no mention of rest between series. I suppose it is several minutes, until the muscles feel relatively fresh.
Selouyanov recommends doing exercises aimed at growing muscle fibers at the end of the training session and better in the evening. If other types of training is done after this the reduction of glycogen can negatively interfere with the protein synthesis and impair growth. 
Development of mitochondria in skeletal muscle
Formation of mitochondria is controlled according to the principle of the functional criteria. According to this criterion, mitochondria that cannot properly function are eliminated. 
One of the natural factors leading to the destructurisation of mitochondria is hypoxia (e.g. being at altitude) and accompanying anaerobic metabolism. Similar processes occur during anaerobic training. 
Several generalisations can be made in regards to mitochondria: 

  • Mitochondria are energy stations of the cell and supply ATP by aerobic metabolism
  • Mitochondrial synthesis exceeds the destruction during conditions of their intensive functioning (oxidative phosphorilation)
  • Mitochondria tend to appear in the areas of the cells where the delivery of ATP is required
  • Intensive destructurisation of mitochondria occurs when the cell is functioning at high intensity in the presence of anaerobic metabolism which leads to the excessive and prolonged accumulation of ydrogen ions in the cell

Based on the above it is possible to develop methods of aerobic development of the cell. Every skeletal cell contains three types of muscle fibers. 

  • Those that are activated regularly during every day activity (oxidative)
  • Those activated only during training requiring moderate muscular activity (intermediate fibers)
  • Those that are seldom activated – only during maximal or near maximal effort, such as jumps, sprints etc. (glycolytic fibers)

In well trained individuals oxidative muscle fibers are maximally adapted. In other words, the number of mitochiondria in these muscles cannot be developed any more. It has been demonstrated that aerobic training at the level below anaerobic threshold in well trained athletes has zero value. 


Therefore, in order to increase aerobic potential of the muscle fiber it is necessary to build structural basis – new myofibrills. New mitochondria will then develop around these myofibrills. There is a special methodology which has been tested: interval training using two exercises. For example, pushups and pullups from low bar (unloaded, so that the feet are resting on the ground). 


General principles of such training are as follows: 

  • Exercises are performed at low intensity, i.e. 10 – 20% 1RM
  • Exercise is performed at medium or fast tempo
  • Full ROM is utilised
  • Duration – until early signs of local muscular fatigue
  • The template – 5 – 8 repetition of one exercise is followed by 5 – 8 repetitions of another without rest – that is 1 set
  • No pauses between sets
  • Number of sets – 5 – 10 (determined by the degree of fatigue) – that’s 1 circle
  • Number of circles in a session – 1 – 5 (fatigue and is determined by the glycogen stores in muscle tissue)
  • Session done at maximal volume can be repeated after 2 – 3 days, after glycogen stores are restored

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

“A Mere Tourist on Planet Ultra”: D-Day Goruck Heavy AAR, Pt. 1

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Goruck Heavy (May 31 – June 1) commemorating D-Day. San Francisco. Thirteen entered (eight men, five women), ten finished. These are the lessons I learned, first about individual performance (part 1), then about us as a team (part 2), then about my gear choices (part 3).

Absolute Strength and Strength-Endurance

Absolute strength is essentially one-rep max strength, as opposed to relative strength (i.e. relative to your bodyweight) or strength-endurance, the capacity to do a lot of reps.

I confirmed my impression from last year that GORUCK events reward absolute strength. Strictly speaking, it might not seem like a “reward,” because you carry more and heavier weights for your team, but you receive the elemental joy of being able to do that for them. For the heaviest coupons, some teammates will lack the strength even to budge them, and others will be able to pitch in bravely but at an unsustainable cost. Ultimately, those top-end coupons must devolve onto a bull-necked, big-thighed few who have large enough reserves of absolute strength that they can spend pretty heedlessly without wrecking themselves.  

That is a good time to be strong. If you are strong, you can give your teammates a gift that really means something: you can take on pain for them. No one can walk for them, no one can do their pushups for them, but big weights are different. If you are strong, you can take the sandbag from the small person and the exhausted person and spare them the punishment because it will cost you far less than it will cost them.

Absolute strength at Goruck is like carrying a gun: “Seldom do you need it, but when you do, you need it very badly.”

Granted, GORUCK events are not strength events, so there are few times when anyone needs to lift something at 90+% of 1RM. But I’d still classify them as trials of strength-endurance. That is, they test your ability to display sub-maximal strength over and over with limited rest. In my approach to strength-endurance, as in many other things, I follow Pavel Tsatsouline’s strategy: if you bump up your absolute strength through high volume, you’ll improve your strength-endurance too. As you raise your one-rep max in weighted pullups, for example, you need less and less effort for each bodyweight pullup and can crank out more reps when you need to.

Speaking of pullups, here alone among bodyweight exercises did I not tire out. For the PT test we cranked out 12 sets of 6 pullups, and to my surprise I found these easy. Three cheers for the “lazy strength” approach of high volume with low intensity!! Unfortunately, we did a lot more pushups (including burpees) than pullups, and I sucked. I’d like to whine about how, with my injury, I was reduced to three weeks of pushup training, but there’s a larger issue: I have always neglected pushups. Had I valued them like pullups and kettlebells, I would have put in a few hundred thousand reps over the years and developed a pushup foundation of granite. With kettlebells I’ve accumulated a million reps, so even if you imprisoned me without a single kettlebell—oh cruel fate!—as soon as I was liberated, in two weeks I’d have my groove back and once more make the 32kg bell my plaything. To a lesser extent, that’s true of pullups too. But I don’t have that kind of foundation with pushups, so I paid for it. If the cadres had wanted to smoke us in PT, and if they had “performance dropped” people who couldn’t keep up, I would have been in serious trouble. So guess what’s never going to happen again!

Aerobic base

Speaking of pushups, Cadre Edge taught us some funky breathwork out of the Wim Hof method that involved deep rhythmic breathing followed by all-out pushups on a breath hold. I had never tried this, or heard of it, but it works and I’m incorporating it into my morning Wim Hof routine of breathing and cold water.

And speaking of breathing, I had no trouble doing it! For the first time in my life, this former chubby kid wasn’t near the back of the pack in aerobic endurance. This was a wonderful thing, because for all the strength-endurance challenges, this activity is called “rucking” for a reason, and you need a big aerobic gas tank to do anythingfor 24 hours, so I felt wonderful being able to burn along at close to 14 minutes/mile and experience that as active rest. 

I’m still no endurance athlete, but I’ve graduated from being an awkward “exchange student” from strength sports to what Goggins calls at least “a tourist on planet ultra.”

So three more cheers for low intensity and high volume! As with “lazy strength,” not only do I thrive on LSD (long, slow distance), I really enjoy it. I probably put in 300 miles in the last three months, and I loved (almost) every moment of it. It’s a time for solitude and meditative quiet, with the moderately elevated heart rate and rhythmic breathing that naturally inclines us to flow and trance states.

Spirit and psyche

I was more composed this year than last. There was no repeat of last year’s surf torture experience of existential horror at the wind’s shrieking, freezing hands pulling me into a tomb of pitiless entropy. Of course I knew that I was safe and not going to die, but I was a quivering wreck and I felt a lonely understanding that nature was prepared to annihilate me with as little notice as it would give a bug who drowns in a swimming pool. This year, there was none of that.

Nor was I tormented by a horrible inner soundtrack. I’m tragically susceptible to songs getting stuck in my head, and last time it was a Rod Stewart song and a Russian rap whose title roughly means, “Fuck you, biyotch.” It was terrible, a true torment. I’m not joking. Stop snickering. So this year I took drastic measures and stayed away from all music for a couple of days and ran a mantra in my head. Once we reached go-time, the mantra ran on an infinite loop all night and all day. Much better!

Not quite who I expected to show up at a GORUCK challenge.

Strangely, I also had a couple of … “experiences.” It would be a stretch to call them visions, but during Cadre Edge’s first breath session I lost all sense of time and finitude for awhile and woke up (for lack of a better word) to an image of Shiva Nataraja dancing behind a very, very thin curtain. During the second session, which felt head-splitting (in a constructive way), I saw what I interpreted as Krishna in his cosmic form standing in front of the sun disk.

Fuel and hydration

I had the right idea but screwed up the execution by not drinking enough. As far as I can remember, the whole time I only drank 10L, even though I had access to more. That is about 25% less than I thought I would drink, and since my electrolytes were in my water, I wasn’t getting enough. Two or three times I cramped up suddenly and had to mooch some powder off of Mike the generous forester, who is no stranger to outdoor work and had electrolytes up the wazoo.

Nor was that the first time I have wound up short of electrolytes, so that is another item for my Never Again List.

Fueling went alright. Normally low-carb or downright keto, I planned to eat 25g of simple sugars per hour during the event. The idea is that because as a keto athlete you are fat-adapted, you can get away with eating half the carbs of a sugar-burner during a race and avoid GI trouble. And that worked perfectly. I got most of my calories from Tailwind powder dissolved in my water, supplemented with some caffeine additive and about ten tubes of GU. (Hint: Try the French toast flavor! I owe Lean Solid Girl big time for turning me on to those.)

In all, I ate about 3500 calories during the race, a little more than planned but with no ill effect at all. And according to my awesome Tanita scale, I used up a little under half of my body’s supply of fat and dropped from 12% to 7.5% body fat. That is instructive, because when camping I seldom take much food, instead subsisting mostly on bodyfat because it’s just so convenient to eliminate a lot of weight and bulk from my pack. That is one of the rewards of eating keto that compensate for the inconvenience. However, I can see that I’m not leaving myself much margin for safety in remote country. Since I like to camp far from human contact, where a broken leg could mean real trouble, I shouldn’t be quite so cavalier about relying on what turns out to be just a two-day supply of fat.

Heat and Cold

“Weather more than any other variable can break a motherfucker down fast.” –

Goggins

This time I handled the weather much better, thanks again to Lean Solid Girl, who introduced me to the indispensability of a polypro base layer. On a couple of our misadventures, I ended the day soaked, cold, and even jackhammering while she stayed dry and happy. The difference? Polypro and Goretex. So I’ve made a standing rule that I must always have both in my pack.

That was good, because the oceanside wind was outrageous. If I had dressed as usual in short shorts and a cotton shirt, I would have been in trouble. I even got to see what would have been my fate. One of our teammates was very lightly dressed, and though he started the night as a top-level performer, come daylight I watched him drained of strength and awareness hourly as his body relegated him to “survival mode” and burned more and more of his precious energy just trying to keep his temperate stable. In the final half hour, I legitimately wondered if I was seeing a man swirling the drain into serious medical trouble. He had unbreakable mental fortitude and didn’t quit even when I thought he might pass out, but I was pleased not to be confronted with that choice.

Part 2. Part 3.