“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.

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The Tao of the Lazy Badass

“Like water, volume is soft and yielding. But volume will wear away rock, and it beats the crap out of excess fatigue. As a rule, volume wins over fatigue. This is another paradox: what is soft and voluminous is strong.”

from the lost training manual of Laozi (Lao-Tzu)
A difficult book, but the most important one I know.

In the most original book on training in decades, Pavel Tsatsouline describes a certifiable badass, a special operations ninja-type whom he pseudonymously calls “Victor.” Victor combines a pair of already-extraordinary feats into an extra-extraordinary combination: he runs ultra-marathons of up to 100 miles AND he does pullups with an extra 160# hanging from his waist. That’s a freakish level of endurance and world-class strength, a combination so rare as to seem impossible. (As we have said before, strength and endurance are rivals.) That is what makes Victor an elite among the elite, a certifiable badass.

To reach those heights, Victor trains in a very special way: lazily. Or to be more precise, with low fatigue. From his amazing accomplishments, you might suppose that he spends all day exercising and puking his guts out. Nope. Most days he works out for all of 30 minutes, much of it with a 24kg kettlebell, which is strictly a “Joe Average” weight, and some pushups and pull-ups and yoga. He left behind even low-key barbell training long ago, explaining that when he deadlifted, “I felt my ego pushing me harder and faster than my body wanted to go. So I decided to limit myself to one kettlebell and two [steel exercise] clubs …”

As the core of his lethargic-looking super-routine, Victor runs … sloooooowly. Slowly enough to breath only through his nose, with rhythm and relaxation. He writes:

“The key is … the LOW INTENSITY. I use a heart rate monitor, and I stay at 60% to 65% of my [max heart rate]. This means that I am often walking on the hills. If I ran [faster], my recovery time would be much longer.”

Allyson Felix knows the Tao of the lazy badass. Her coach, Barry Ross, keeps his athletes fresh and unfatigued in training. See Easy Strength.

Pavel and Victor are insistent: Victor is not succeeding in spite of his low-key training but precisely because he throttles back. Victor has perfected one way of applying the near-magical formula for productive and happy training: do as much work as possible while staying as fresh as possible.

Are those twelve words too much to remember? Then stencil this on your kettlebells, barbells, and running shoes: Volume Without Fatigue. That is the red thread that runs through many of the successful training philosophies out there, connecting disparate-looking approaches whose only apparent link is that they work well, and it is the subject of our next series, “Farewell to Fatigue: The Way of the Lazy Badass.”

Your author. Not a badass, but I make up for it in laziness.

Loopsided

This morning’s game was called “Loopsided”: three mismatched weights all carried off-center, starring the Leaden Loop.

People don’t like one-arm or one-legged lifts very much, including me, because they take more time and tire the core muscles. But you need to work in the transverse (side-to-side) somehow, and you can check that box with weighted carries, or even by lifting mismatched dumbells. You’ll feel challenged and kinesthetically interested, but it won’t suck up a lot of time or smoke your abs so much that it becomes just an elaborate core exercise.

See the unusual indented look of Pat McNamara’s waist. That’s how you tell someone with pro-grade one-arm and rotational strength. Don’t casually challenge such a person to a tug of war or a wrestling match.

Enter the Deadlift

Part 6 in our series “20 Years of Pavel Tsatsouline”

Before Pavel came along, we did not deadlift. By “we” I mean young ironheads who wanted big muscles and got our (mis)information from dime store bodybuilding magazines.

“[T]he deadlift is THE exercise of choice for anyone.” In 1999 Pavel sounded so radical to me that I wondered if he was a crackpot.

When I began lifting weights as a teenager, I absorbed the prevailing leeriness about the deadlift. We imitated bodybuilders, and the bodybuilders said deadlifts were risky. 

Perhaps it was natural that they would be wary. Bodybuilders normally train with high reps (10+), and that really is too much for an exercise that demands perfect form like the deadlift, where even five reps is a lot. Also, bodybuilders grow best on very modest poundages, so many of them lack experience with big weights like those involved in deadlifting. After all, even a (male) beginner soon deadlifts a massive-looking three “wheels.”

Nevertheless, mostly we were intimidated by the deadlift because of ingrained superstition. In modern America we are as paranoid about straining our backs as medieval villagers were about vampires or bathing. I do not know how we aspiring bodybuilders supposed that powerlifters got away with pulling triple bodyweight in such a supposedly dangerous lift. In those days, powerlifters seemed like leprechauns, rare and mysterious creatures in a faraway land, and you stood little chance of even meeting one, much less learning his ways.

Bodybuilders also did not know how deadlifts would fit into their peculiar kind of training schedule. Most bodybuilders practice what they call a “split.” They divide the body into two or three areas, such as “chest, back, and legs” or “upper and lower body,” and train a different area each day in isolation. But you cannot cram the deadlift into those pigeon-holes because it is a whole-body lift: the deadlift does not care if today is supposed to be “leg day” or “back day,” it uses both hard.

Bob Peoples, patron saint of deadlifters, pulled more than anyone alive but he still weighed less than my T-ball coach. Not exactly what my teenage self was going for.

Finally, bodybuilders noticed that the deadlift builds little bulk. You can pull well over 800# and still be much too small for even a Division III linebacker.

For all these reasons, bodybuilders much prefer to squat. Squats add far more meat to your bones than the deadlift. They fit easily into a bodybuilding split, since they are unambiguously a lower-body exercise, even though they add muscle to the whole body. (Fun fact: if you want bigger biceps, do squats.) And you can recover much faster from squats than from deadlifts, especially when you squat with the moderate poundages and high reps that bodybuilders favor. 

… But teenagers like me wanted to look like “the quadfather,” Tom Platz, so we squatted til our legs turned to jelly.

So I did as I was taught. I specialized in the squat, which did indeed inflate my legs so much that I looked like I was wearing football thigh pads even if I wasn’t, and I avoided deadlifts in favor of—and this is crazy—stiff-legged deadlifts. That was standard practice at that time. We used the stiff-leg to develop our hamstrings, which it certainly did, and luckily it also taught many of the same important lessons as real, bent-legged deadlifts, like cinching the lats and abs to stiffen the trunk. The mystery is why we thought it was safer than deadlifts. True, you were limited to a lower poundage, but not much lower: I was routinely stiff-legging 275# as a medium-sized teenager. And furthermore we were putting much greater shear forces on our spines, especially with the exaggerated ranges of motion that we practiced for (supposedly) better muscle-building effect.

Stiff-legged deadlifts, an old classic. Do not try these at home. Stick to real (i.e. bent-legged) deadlifts.

We could and should have been doing real deadlifts instead, but we were captive to bodybuilding folklore. 

Pavel changed that in Power to the People (1999). “Call me biased,” he wrote, “but the deadlift is THE exercise of choice for anyone, from a computer geek to an Olympic athlete! It lends itself to tremendous weights [and] teaches you some useful habits for everyday life … Hardcore metal heads usually praise the squat as the numero uno exercise … I disagree. The squat is a very technical lift. A beginner needs a few months of instruction by a powerlifter before he can do a decent squat. 99% of the squats I have witnessed at health clubs, even by seasoned gym rats, were atrocious in form. Besides, you need reliable spotters and/or a safety rack unless you want to get squashed like a bug if you make a wrong move. The deadlift can simply be dropped which makes it a lot more user friendly. And the deadlift works a lot more muscles than the squat because you must hold on to the bar instead of letting it ride on your shoulders. Any way you look at it the deadlift wins hands down! … Squat fans, please send your hate mail directly to the round file.” In later years, when Pavel had made his name, he would be even more blunt: “If you are not deadlifting, you are not training.” (Easy Strength, 2011)

He was absolutely right about the deadlift. Of course, it took a few years for the message to catch on, and students of Pavel’s methods could recognize each other because we were usually the only people in weight room deadlifting. In 2000, I visited a new gym and, as I started to deadlift, I noticed a stranger who kept looking my way. It wasn’t a disconcerting look, just the sort of studying gaze you might give someone who seems oddly familiar. I stripped the bar down after just two sets of five deadlifts—fewer sets and fewer reps than you normally saw in those days—and this was a dead giveaway. I saw the man nod to himself and march over to greet me like strangers who meet in a foreign land and recognize each other as fellow countrymen. “You’ve been reading Power to the People, haven’t you? Me too!”

Why did two sets of five reps alert this man to my membership in “the Party” as surely as a secret Masonic handshake? This will be the subject of our next installment.

Medium Days: Get Your Bodybuilder On

Part 5 in our series on the methods of Russian powerlifting coach Konstantin Rogozhnikov.

Rogozhnikov designs his medium days as “bodybuilding” days. You “pump the muscles up with blood” with 3 sets of 8 using “a weight that you couldn’t just easily cruise through 8 reps with.” Timur Andreev, a former champion from Rogozhnikov’s stables, makes this more concrete: On medium day, you pick a weight that you could do nine reps with and do just 8, leaving one rep “in the tank.” Experienced powerlifters, you can choose to do eight speed triples instead if you wish. (Note: Rogozhnikov uses triples for speed squats.)

On medium days you get a lot of choice. On medium bench days, you are not just limited to competition benches. You can try dumbbell benches or pause benches or close-grip benches too. On leg and back day, you can squat to boxes of various heights if you like, or maybe do pause squats (where you pause for a couple of seconds in “the hole”).

Power Slang: “The hole.” In the squat, the very bottom part of the lift, where your hips are sunk lower than the tops of your knees.

deep-squat-2
Anatoly Pisarenko down in the hole.

For your deadlifts, do them after your squats, with 2 sets of 6-8 from the floor. (Eight reps would best, since the recovery-conscious Rogozhnikov is worried about taxing the body with too much weight when it comes to pulls from the floor). And if you deadlift sumo, Rogozhnikov suggests that you alternate conventional and sumo stances on your light and medium days.

taylor-atwood
A “sumo” deadlift, where the feet are wider than the hands.

In our next installment, Rogozhnikov’s unique “heavy days,” which can be all-in death marches but are also strangely conservative.

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.

ed-coan-sumo
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.

reversehyper2
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.