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Summer Reading: The Siren Call of the Ocean

Right about now, you might find your mind (or VRBO search) drifting toward the beach. But where does our obsession with the sea come from? Sure, there are obvious recreational draws—big surf, small bathing suits—but why, Darwin might ask, do we pay a fortune to flock to an environment we can’t drink or inhabit? That’s the question driving a new field of research—and two of the summer’s more prominent books.

Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols’s answer: “Water provides the most profound shortcut to happiness out there.” Nichols has spent years recruiting brain scientists, biologists, surfers, and artists to build a movement he calls neuroconservation. The idea is that if we can figure out why the sea makes us happier, we can save it. Nichols has an annual conference, Blue Mind; a branded personality (he has graced the cover of this magazine); and now a major publisher backing him. Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do (Little, Brown; $27) is as ambitious as its subtitle—part neuroscience treatise and part self-help manifesto. In one chapter, Nichols relays cutting-edge science on neuroplasticity; then it’s on to an analysis of coastal real estate costs and anecdotes from PTSD-afflicted soldiers who find solace in surfing. All that skipping around can leave the reader wanting some literary Dramamine, but the book’s lynchpin is important. We lose ourselves, Nichols suggests, in mechanized repetition, an overworked blur he calls “gray mind.” The ocean’s constant flux offers a cure. “Unlike all of the other suggested means of reaching mindful clarity,” he writes, “water can do the work for you.”

In Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves (Houghton Mifflin, $27), Outside contributor James Nestor throws himself into wild and inhospitable territory. At the French island of Réunion, he accompanies scientists trying to tag man-eating bull sharks. Off Roatán, in Honduras, he rides a creaky homemade sub to the seafloor at 2,500 feet. But the book’s heart lies in Nestor’s quest to learn the sport of free-diving, which he hopes will reveal something essential about our relationship with the sea. The first lesson seem to be that we’re not welcome: Nestor witnesses three near deaths. “My nightmares featured bloated necks and dead eyes,” he writes. But he’s determined to suss out if, as one evangelist tells him, “you are born to do this!” Nestor’s tutorial is a fun and bumpy ride, taking him from Sri Lanka to coastal Japan, where he gets schooled by the ama, legendary freediving fisherwomen. Eventually he catches on, experiencing some blue mindfulness while diving with sperm whales. Freediving, he writes, is “a spiritual practice, a way of using the human body as a vessel to explore the wonders in the earth’s inner space.”

Does all this sound, as Nestor puts it, a little “woo-woo”? Maybe. But if you’re like me, you’ll come away ready for a dip.

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Live Chat: Everest's Deadliest Season

Outside senior editor Grayson Schaffer will be hosting a discussion today on the true story of Everest's most horrific day, the Sherpas who paid the price, and the aftershocks that will change the mountain forever. Schaffer's recent feature, Black Year, can be read online or in Outside's August 2014 issue. 

Please join us between 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. MT. Grayson will be responding to your questions in the comment section below.

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A Man's Best Surfing Friend

My friend Crystal and I were cruising around, shooting lifestyle photos on the North Shore of Oahu. We asked Bailey what he was up to and he was like, "Pau hana, brah, going to check surf."

Well, someone has to do it, and I couldn't have asked for a better subject.

TOOLS: Canon 5D Mark II, 24-70mm f/2.8L, 1/20 second, f/13, ISO 200

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The Radical New Guard of Fitness

Today's fitness disrupters are a bit of a mixed bag. There's an ex-marathon champion, a multisport workout-video king, and a Silicon Valley insider, to name a few. The common thread: They're all getting a lot of attention, and they all have their own clear vision for the new future of fitness. 

Steve Edwards

You probably know Edwards’s work. As the director of results for Beachbody, one of the largest fitness companies in the world, the 53-year-old runner, climber, and cyclist has helped develop the routines for dozens of workout videos, everything from P90X to Brazilian Butt Lift. Millions of DVDs featuring his workouts have been sold worldwide. He’s the unofficial company lab rat, and there are few fad diets or newfangled training regimens Edwards hasn’t tried. “I like messing with my body,” he says. “If you don’t test it yourself, you can’t really know.”

Edwards’s Advice

1. Jump rope. “If I could do only one exercise, this is it. It works your upper body, lower body, and core. The cardio benefits are legendary, too.”

2. Opt for beans and rice. “It’s like a poor man’s sports food. It’s mainly carbohydrates but also contains plenty of protein and vitamins and minerals.”

Matt Skenazy

Brent Ruby

Ruby, an exercise physiologist and director of the Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism, once took a muscle biopsy of his own leg after a half Ironman, because he was curious about how much energy he’d expended. (The answer: about 4,500 calories.) Needless to say, this isn’t the way traditional research is done. But Ruby’s real-world tests have led to innovative discoveries, including one that found that rates of muscle recovery are as dependent on how often you eat during a race as what you eat afterward.

Last August, intrigued by altitude acclimatization, he took a mobile lab up Mount Evans in Colorado, site of the highest paved road in America (14,264 feet), and flew in 30 subjects. Without giving them time to acclimatize, he strapped them to a treadmill and had them swallow various supplements to see who performed best. (The study is ongoing). A longtime Ironman triathlete, Ruby often designs the outlines of his studies while in the field. “It’s about balancing the creative and analytical situations I find myself in,” he says. “I formulate questions I wouldn’t have otherwise if I hadn’t been out on a bike ride or a long run.”

Ruby’s Rules

1. Begin your recovery during the workout. While studying road cyclists, Ruby discovered that eating regularly during long bouts of exercise is often more important for muscle recovery than a protein-heavy recovery shake afterward. Opt for something simple—a granola bar, some pretzels—every 20 minutes or so.

2. Don’t overdo it with hydration. Studying firefighting crews, Ruby found that it’s not uncommon for hotshots, who work in extreme heat, to lose one to two liters of sweat per hour. Because it isn’t feasible to compensate for that loss in the field, Ruby advises letting thirst be your guide. Your body will regulate itself over time to match your water intake.

3. Keep it chill. In the first four hours after exercise, Ruby found that ambient and muscle temperature can influence recovery more than post-workout nutrition. The body needs to cool down, but that doesn’t mean you should have an ice bath. The simplest advice: don’t linger outside on a hot day.

Meaghen Brown

Alberto Salazar

Salazar will always be known for his three New York City Marathon titles in the 1980s—and the fact that he wrecked his body through vicious training sessions to achieve them. But he’s now making an even bigger name for himself as the head coach at Nike’s pro running program, the Oregon Project. And his masochist past has fueled his unconventional belief in prescribing brutal workouts for his runners, including having them run after all-out races. Why? Salazar, 55, believes that the adrenaline of racing primes the body to work harder than everyday conditions permit and that his runners get a double stimulus from a race followed by a workout. Beating the best in the world, Salazar says, means you’ve got to experiment, and over the years he’s been the first to tinker with innovative training tools like oxygen tents, which mimic high altitude. Since 2007, five Oregon Project runners have won ten world championships or Olympic medals, more than any other distance group in the country. Writes Salazar in his 2013 autobiography, 14 Minutes: “We are just scratching the surface of empirically training the human body.”

Salazar’s High-Tech Tools

1. Cryosaunas. Refrigerator-size cylinders are pumped full of supercooled liquid nitrogen, to chill runners’ skin and promote recovery.

2. Underwater treadmills. Low-gravity running lets athletes reap the benefits of extra mileage without the wear and tear.

3. Altitude houses. Oxygen-depleted homes simulate sleeping at elevation, which boosts aerobic efficiency.

Peter Vigneron

Raj Kapoor

“For most people, the gym is broken,” says Kapoor, 43. “Globally, it’s a $75 billion business, and more than 60 percent of people don’t go, even though they’re paying.” That’s why Kapoor, one of Silicon Valley’s most well-known investors (he cofounded the photo app Snapfish), turned his attention to the fitness world. He quickly realized that the problem was not time or money but motivation, or lack thereof. His big idea? Spark people’s enthusiasm with two incentives: community and cash. In January, he launched Fitmob, a website that lets you connect with personal trainers, who are vetted by the company, and join group workouts in studios, gyms, and even nightclubs. The more training sessions you attend each week, the lower the price, from $15 for your first session to $5 for your third and fourth. Group workouts organized by social media, especially in public parks, is one of the hottest trends in fitness. But most of these classes are free. Can Kapoor convince people to pay for them? His sell is that Fitmob’s experienced certified trainers are worth the expense. Launched in January, it now offers more than 50 classes per week, everything from yoga and pilates to CrossFit. And 80 percent of mobbers have invited friends to join. “Fitness is not about fancy equipment or expensive real estate,” says Kapoor. “It’s about people helping people. We’re reinventing the gym for the digital age.”

Fitmob’s Most Popular Classes

1. Rise and Grind. Circuit training and high-intensity interval sessions.

2. Battle of the Bands. Strength and conditioning with exercise bands.

3. Weapons of Ass Reduction. Female-focused class with squats, lunges, and other toning exercises.

4. Mission Impossible. Running drills, mobility exercises, and core exercises in a circuit.

Ryan Krogh

Steven LeBoeuf

LeBoeuf, founder of Valencell, a tech supplier to consumer fitness companies, says most wearable devices­—Fitbit, Nike+ FuelBand—aren’t providing meaningful data. “They don’t measure the things we need to know about,” he says. For a device to be useful to the average consumer, it can’t just track your heart rate. It needs to compare your heart rate with your activity history to calculate training adaptations. Most important, the device has to fit seamlessly into your daily routines. To help transform wearable devices from gimmicks into essential gear, LeBoeuf and Valencell developed PerformTek, an earbud technology that tracks everything from oxygen levels to core temperature to, in the future, whether you’ve got a heart problem. LeBoeuf’s ultimate goal is a day when tracking allows consumers to personally take charge of their health and fitness. “When this gets really good,” he says, “people will be astonished by what they learn about themselves.”

LeBoeuf’s Rules

1. Track yourself. Even if the data being captured isn’t rich, LeBoeuf says, a monitoring device may inspire you to be more active.

2. Trust the tech. Last December, LeBoeuf injured his groin while pushing for a running PR—this despite Valencell’s tracking app beeping at him to slow down. The program recognized that he was going too hard even when he didn’t.

Michael Frank

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