The Outside Blog

Adventure : Athletes

The Underdog King of World Cup Soccer

America’s relationship with soccer has always been a little complicated. For one thing, the entire universe cares more about the sport than we do—we refuse to even refer to it by the same name. Then there is the matter of our utter futility. Team USA’s best result at the World Cup—third—came back in 1930, long before the game had reached its competitive zenith, and since then just getting past the tournament’s first round has required agonizing struggle. That doesn’t exactly help sell the sport to a spoiled American public used to measuring success in World Series titles and Super Bowl rings, not advances to the second round. (We’re referring, of course, to men’s soccer. Our women’s team won the World Cup in both 1991 and 1999.)

And yet. Going into this summer’s World Cup in Brazil on June 12, our national team is more popular than ever. Why is that? Here’s one theory: America, a country founded on one of the biggest upsets in military history, misses playing the underdog. It’s no accident that the 34-year-old Miracle on Ice remains one of our most treasured international sports memories. It’s way more fun to witness the unexpected than, say, the joyless victory lap that USA’s heavily favored basketball team undertakes every four years at the Olympics. Slowly, we’ve even come to appreciate the joy in our fútbol failings. Each game, each crushing defeat, only builds anticipation for what might someday be a raucous celebration.

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It’s fitting, then, that the man shouldering our underdog soccer fantasies, team captain Clint Dempsey, is the epitome of a dark horse himself. The 31-year-old striker ascended from a trailer home in East Texas—is there a state more seemingly predisposed to despise soccer?—to become arguably the most successful American to ever play the game. “As a kid,” he told me one afternoon last March, “I used to play in Mexican leagues on Sundays. I was playing against men out there, getting elbowed in the face. It forced me to be tougher.”

We were sitting in a training room in the bowels of CenturyLink Stadium in Seattle, where Dempsey had just finished practice with the Sounders, the Major League Soccer team he joined last year, when he became the highest-paid American player in league history, making a reported $32 million over four years. A nearly four-story-tall photo of Dempsey now hangs outside the complex. Wearing a flannel shirt and jeans, his jaw covered in three-day scruff, Dempsey came off as a mix of southern nice guy—he still calls people sir and ma’am—and wrong-side-of-the-tracks roughneck, with tattoos covering much of his torso.

Dempsey was telling me about his unlikely rise, which began in high school, when his nurse mother and carpenter father started ferrying him six hours round-trip between their home in small-town Nac­ogdoches and Dallas, where he developed his skills against better competition. (They burned through a Pontiac Grand Prix, a Mazda 929, and two GMC Suburbans.) In his high school yearbook, Dempsey was asked where he’d like to be in five years. His answer: “Playing professional soccer in Europe.” In 2004, he attended tiny Furman University in South Carolina, and after being drafted by the New England Revolution in 2004, he got his first call-up to the ­national team for a World Cup qualifier against Jamaica. Since then he has earned more than 100 caps and scored 36 goals, making him the team’s second-all-time leading scorer, behind Landon Donovan.

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Developing players who can find the back of the net has always been America’s weakness, which is what makes Dempsey so special. He seems to generate chances through sheer willpower and instinct. “Clint has daring, quickness, and incredible ­technique,” says national-team coach Jürgen ­Klinsmann, who was one of the game’s canniest scorers during his prolific career playing in Germany. “And he can create something out of nothing.”

He’s also the antithesis of the stereotypical striker, the kind who falls in agony at the slightest bump in the way that drives so many American fans bonkers. In Dempsey’s first professional season in Major League Soccer, he played through two games with a broken jaw before it was diagnosed. Since then he has developed a reputation for dealing out as many elbows as he takes—both in the MLS, first for the Revolution and now the Sounders, and in the English Premier League, where he played six seasons for Fulham and Tottenham, scoring 57 goals and earning respect from some of the sport’s most discriminating fans. Dempsey plays with a gritty passion that Americans have often found lacking in Donovan, our other, more guarded soccer superstar. Dempsey pleads with refs, scowls at opposing players and fans, and thumps the tattoo on his heart after goals. (A tattoo, it’s worth mentioning, of an eagle.) He’ll do whatever it takes to win. Often overlooked in Donovan’s triumphant score in the final minutes of the game against Algeria, which advanced the U.S. past the knockout round in the last World Cup, is that Dempsey, after a full-field sprint, was the player who collided with the opposing goalie, allowing the ball to pop up right in Donovan’s path.

This summer’s World Cup campaign begins with the U.S. lodged in the dreaded Group of Death, facing Ghana, the team that knocked it out of the 2010 World Cup, along with Germany and Portugal, the number two and number three teams, respectively, in ­FIFA’s world rankings. At press time, Las Vegas put our chances of winning the group at eight to one. And winning the whole tournament? A daunting 160 to one.

“We have a difficult group,” Dempsey says, trying to downplay the ridiculous odds. “But we’re doing everything we can to do something special. The team is getting stronger and stronger.” No one is giving them a chance—and that’s just how he likes it.

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Training Tips From Ultimate Mountain Man Josiah Middaugh

The GoPro Mountain Games are a little more hardcore than your average weekend sports festival. After all, this is the place where an obstacle course is called the Badass Dash and the half marathon route climbs 2,900 feet and 13.7 (not 13.1!) miles to the top of Vail Mountain Pass.

The Games' most hardcore athletes tackle not one, but four events over two days. This combination of kayaking, mountain and road biking, and trail running is called the Ultimate Mountain Challenge (UMC). For the past eight years Vail local Josiah Middaugh has dominated the UMC, claiming the title of Ultimate Mountain Man and taking home the coveted golden hatchet. 

What does one do with a golden hatchet? We didn't know, so we asked. The 35-year-old father of three was nice enough to tell us a bit about his training and nutrition, too.

The hatchet is real; it's great for camping but not so great for kids. At the awards ceremony, my kids were running around the podium with it. We are going to try and keep it away from them. 

The GoPro Mountain Games isn’t a big deal for me. It’s is a local event. I live right down the road so this is where I train; it’s nice to compete in my hometown. 

You pay the price if you come into a race beat down from hard workouts. I don’t have any high-intensity workouts a week before competing.

I’m a multisport athlete, so I train for each event at the same time. On a weekend, I will go for a long swim, long mountain bike ride, and a short run on Saturday. Then on Sunday, I will run anywhere from 12 to 15 miles off-road.

When you train for three to five hours a day, you have to eat. A lot. I eat 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day. I eat a lot of high-calorie foods and carbohydrates. 

My diet is not bizarre. It's just double the portion size of most people’s. I’m vegetarian because I grew up eating vegetarian. Hunger dictates what I eat—and I eat carbs and gluten and sugar and dairy. Fad diets are like cults.

Ice cream, semi-sweet chocolate chips, and sea salt kettle-cooked chips are what I crave. Man, I love those things and I eat them quite a bit. More than I probably should.

The 10K trail run portion of the UMC usually leaves me the most sore—it is straight up and down Vail Mountain.

There are two hours in between the 10K and the 9.75-mile road bike time trial. I carried my 4-year-old son around Vail Village for one of those hours.

Kayaking is my weakest event. But this year, a buddy owed me a beer after not catching me in the Class II down river sprint during the UMC. I don’t really party down after wins, though.

This year’s GoPro Games win celebration consisted of my wife and me just getting the kids home and getting back to work. I cooked dinner. That’s what you do when you have kids aged four, eight, and ten.

The satisfaction is enough of a reward. I have big goals for this race season.

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the 2014 GoPro Mountain Games:

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Why Cycling’s Hour Record Matters

The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), cycling’s governing body, recently announced that it’s changed the rules for the Hour Record—an event that pits a cyclist against the clock to see how far he can ride in 60 minutes.

Previously riders attempting to beat the record had to do so on bikes without any aerodynamic benefits, which ruled out shaped tubes, deep section rims, drop handlebars, and anything resembling a modern time trial position. Because of these limitations, Eddy Merckx’s 1972 record of 49.431km (30.715 miles) was long considered the mark to beat.

Under the new rules, any attempt at the hour record moving forward will be bound by the regulations that apply to endurance track bikes (including equipment and position) in place at the time of the ride. That means modern TT positioning and aerodynamics will now be fair game, and it moves the benchmark up to the 2005 record of Czech rider Ondrej Sosenka, who rode 49.7 kilometers (30.882 miles).

Though this all may sound like eye-glazing esoterica, the decision has some interesting, broad-based implications for the cycling world.

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First of all, it’s important to remember that not too long ago the hour record was a prestigious accomplishment that appealed to fans in much the same way as the quest for the four-minute mile did in the 1950s.

The ping-pong record trading of the ‘90s between Graham Obree and Chris Boardman, as told in the biopic The Flying Scotsman, captivated the public—even people outside the bike-racing niche. The record gained so much cachet that even some of the biggest names in the peloton, including Tony Rominger and Miguel Indurain, tried their hands at it.

That period culminated with Boardman’s 56.375-kilometer record in 1996. But the UCI cut the heyday short when it amended the rules to disallow records set during the period because the organization felt technology—including unorthodox aerodynamics such as Obree’s superman position—was making for an uneven playing field.

The move away from the anachronistic 1972 standard—as well as the simple act of explicitly clarifying the rules at all—should help reignite interest among the top pros. And with all the bad press cycling’s had in recent years, that’s a good thing. Wouldn’t it be great to see some of the most respected names in the sport battling it out for the honors? An Obree-Boardman-style rivalry could help reignite some interest in road cycling as a whole among the public.

Before the rule change, several riders—including time trial world champions Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin—had talked about taking a run at the record. Cancellara is reported to have put his plans on hold since the ruling, presumably because Trek had been developing gear for him based on the old standards. Meanwhile, Tour de France champ Bradley Wiggins sounds more interested than ever in giving it a go

But the import of the rule change reaches beyond the hour record. The UCI has come under fire for all sorts of ineptitude and malfeasance in recent years, and it is widely considered too stodgy and dogmatic regarding equipment. Hopefully, this move on the hour record signals that the organization, under the direction of its new president, Brian Cookson, is ready to move into the future. 

“This new rule is part of the modernisation (sic) of the UCI Equipment Regulation,” said Brian Cookson in the news about the changes to the hour record. “Today there is a general consensus that equipment used in competition must be allowed to benefit from technological evolution where pertinent. This kind of evolution is positive for cycling generally and for the hour record in particular.”

That’s refreshing talk, and there have been other promising signals in this vein, including word that the UCI is considering the legalization of disc brakes in professional racing.

I’ve also heard rumors in recent months that there could soon be changes coming to the minimum weight for race bikes (currently set at 6.8 kilograms, or 14.99 pounds). Many have criticized this 14-year-old standard because it means professionals are constrained to equipment that is inferior to that of many recreational riders. Just imagine if the general public drove nicer cars than F1 drivers or piloted finer boats than America’s Cup sailors.

Of course no equipment regulation is all that important. But the fact that the UCI is thinking about these things hopefully signals that it’s in the process of much-needed reform, both in terms of equipment and beyond. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” And right now, the UCI—and professional cycling in general—could use some expansive thinking to rescue the sport from the doping morass.

In the meantime, I just hope we see a few top pros throw their legs over an hour attempt. It might be the closest we’ll ever come to seeing an in-form Cancellara race against Eddy Merckx at his prime. Let the betting and conjecture begin.

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10 Timeless Fitness Laws

In the not-so-distant past, your food grew on a farm. Meals were home-cooked (on an actual fire, in an actual stove). The outdoors was your gym. Watches? They tracked time, not activity. Blue light, texting neck, and the masses getting supersized by McDonald’s were issues for a future generation.

Yet somewhere along the way, conventional wisdom got muddled with modern mechanisms. And the results weren’t pretty. We became much more sedentary and got fatter. And slower. And weaker (seriously). At the table, our food began to look less and less like it ever came from the ground.

“Western society is the most overfed but malnourished, sick society due to the imbalance of physical activity and real nourishment, says Stacy Sims, MSc, Ph.D., co-founder of Osmo Nutrition. “The body is designed to move all the time and use food that supports health, not quick hits of ‘feel good’ sugar and fat.”

So how do we go back? By homing in on the fundamentals and returning to the principles that have stood the test of time. Here, 10 laws of fitness your grandfather would approve of.

#1: Perfect the Pushup

When Charles Atlas promised the men of America that he’d transform them from weaklings into masses of muscle, the fitness industry was forever changed. But “Dynamic Tension”—for all its faults—also had its strengths. It was a program based on the basics: bodyweight. As the legend goes, Atlas studied lions, noticing that animals had no exercise equipment. They had no gyms. Instead, they pitted one muscle against another. And dropping down and giving 10—or 20 or 50—should still have its place in your routine. “With proper form, your pushups and pull-ups are still the best exercises you can do. They engage your core with a functional push-pull action,” says Sims.

#2: Do It Right—or Stop Doing It

Focus on form. If your technique is all wrong, you might be doing more harm than good. Why? Misalignment means the biomechanics of movement are out of whack.  The result: increased stress in different joints and potential muscle imbalances—the perfect setup for overuse, chronic pain, and injury, Sims says.

But mastering the “how to” isn’t all about taking preventative measures. “The other aspect of proper form is that you end up using the smaller, stabilizing muscles giving you core stability for daily movement,” Sims explains. And if you’re engaging your muscles all day—with good posture (yes, you really should pull your shoulders back), or by perfecting a pushup—you’re building core strength without realizing it. Slouched over, resting on your elbows, back twisted? It should be no surprise that you make grandpa noises when getting up from your chair.

#3: Drink, Baby, Drink

Athletes have been around far longer than Gatorade and the new class of beverages strewn across supermarket shelves (ones that promise to replenish, hydrate, and boost performance). And when a run was no more than a run, athletes didn’t swear by high-concentration sugary liquids.

When a workout isn’t long enough or intense enough to result in severe fatigue, plain old water works, says Matt Fitzgerald, sports nutritionist, and author of the book Diet Cults. “In fact, it's not necessary to drink anything in most workouts lasting less than an hour,” he adds. That’s not to say that drink scientists aren’t onto something: “You need a small amount of sodium to actually pull water into the body,” says Sims. That’s why low-concentration approaches (Nuun, SOS, and Sims’ OSMO) have become popular.

#4: Eat a Quality Breakfast

Rising with the sun means more hours to move and more hours to eat well. “One of the overlooked benefits of eating breakfast is that it provides an early and additional opportunity to make progress toward meeting daily quotas for high-quality food types such as vegetables and fruit,” says Fitzgerald.

It’s not hard to start knocking out nutritional requirements before your day begins either—one serving of vegetables or fresh berries added to whole-grain cereal—can make all the difference, says Fitzgerald.

Just remember composition, says Sims. A croissant and a coffee won’t cut it: “You wake up with high levels of cortisol (the belly fat hormone), and adding sugar and caffeine will perpetuate cortisol’s actions,” she says.

#5: Repeat After Us (One More Time): I Will Eat Real Food

You won’t find the recipe for a healthy diet on the back of a package. Change the way a food naturally exists, and you change the way your body absorbs it. “There is a disconnect between the marketing claims of pre-packaged food and real food made from scratch. And food can’t just be reduced to single compounds,” says says Allen Lim, Ph.D., founder of Skratch Labs.

To that extent, Fitzgerald has spent time analyzing world-class endurance athletes—a group as fit and healthy as any population on earth—finding a simple trend: “what I call ‘agnostic healthy eating,’” he says. What that means: eating in culturally normal ways, but not avoiding food groups entirely; filling meals with vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, fish and high-quality meat, whole grains, and dairy; and only sparingly eating low-quality refined grains, processed meat, and sweets. “If this formula is good enough for athletes who place tremendous demands on their bodies, it's good enough for us,” he says.

#6: Feel Your Way to Faster

The most sophisticated and reliable fitness monitoring device that exists—or will ever exist—isn’t a device at all: it’s your brain, says Fitzgerald. “If your body needs rest, your brain will communicate that to your conscious awareness in the form of feelings of fatigue and low motivation,” he explains. The symptom: a greater perceived effort: “If the body is fatigued or if its performance capacity is compromised, the brain will have to work harder to get the same level of output, and the greater the effort the exerciser will perceive.”

On the other hand? If your body is responding well to your training and is ready for more hard work, your brain will let you know that too in no uncertain terms, Fitzgerald says.

#7: Lighten Up and Have Some Fun

“The more you enjoy your training, the more you'll put into it,” says Fitzgerald. “And the more you put into it, the more you'll get out of it.” The research agrees: Your best efforts will likely come when you’re having the most fun, a 2012 study by Alan St. Clair Gibson of the University of Worcester found. Find something you like and the addiction will come naturally: “Research indicates that the association of ‘fun’ with things you do perpetuates stress release, making you want to go back for more,” says Sims.

#8: Recover. No, Really: RECOVER.

One of the problems with the evolution of cross-training is that you can go hard every day. The problem: That’s not what your body needs. The key is finding an easy-hard cycle you can give into, says Michael Joyner, M.D., and physiologist and anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic. “People have forgotten to make the hard days harder and the easy days easier.” Think in terms of “active rest”—a 3- or 4-mile run for a distance runner, calisthenics, jumping rope, or classic conditioning drills, Joyner says. “That’s really important.”

#9: It's Not All About the Bike, the Shoes, or the Compression Underwear

Aerodynamics, biomechanics, breathability—they’re words that get a lot of ink (on labels, in magazines, and in the scripts of gear salespeople across the world). And yeah, tech has its perks. Breathable fabrics make long and hot hikes more bearable. But will your gear always make the difference?

A recent University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill study found only 14 percent of runners who laced up in lightweight kicks reported injury in a year’s time; almost half of runners in traditional sneakers did. So plus one for minimalism? Not so fast. The same University of North Carolina research revealed that people who chose traditional shoes landed differently from those who donned the minimalist shoes (on their heel or mid-foot versus on their forefoot).

The point: Everyone is different. And gear that works is subjective. “Good gear makes things more enjoyable, and most importantly prevents injury,” says Sims. So don’t skimp on no-brainers: proper bike fit, shoes, and protective items—but don’t become slaves to them.

#10: Never Stop Moving

Take this in the most expansive and philosophical way: Build movement into all aspects of your life—work, home, play—and throughout your life. You name the disease and exercise is the cure. “It’s proven to reduce the likelihood of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, osteoporosis, sexual dysfunction, and a host of infectious diseases,” says Fitzgerald. Work out, and not only will you be healthier, but happier, more confident, and (bonus!) smarter, Fitzgerald adds.

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The Really Weird Trend of Breast Milk as Energy Beverage

There are grown men who drink breast milk. For some, it’s undoubtedly a kink. But for others, it’s something else: a “God-given” performance-enhancing elixir—and believers are paying top dollar for it online. Once a fringe gym-rat movement, now athletes of various stripes are chugging the stuff in search of a high-energy protein fix.

Far away from government oversight or official scrutiny, hundreds of gallons of breast milk flow through online classifieds, according to one of the leading online facilitators, OnlytheBreast.com. The site officially caters to mothers who want to sell their “liquid gold” (their language, not ours) to other women, but about a third of the requests for milk on the site are posted by men. The demand has set off an arms race among the 10 percent of women willing to sell their milk to the other sex. One St. Louis provider catering to athletes boasts that her milk is best because she adheres to a “Paleo-style diet with added grass-fed butter,” only organic foods, and a daily regimen of supplements including charcoal and probiotics.

The “breast is best” believers drink this stuff up. They say that the milk is more nutritious than anything you can get from a cow, best for body building, the secret to fighting off disease, and a sure-fire way to boost energy levels. It’s the energy drink of the future, New York Magazine reports.

It’s too bad it’s soggy logic—on all counts, says Bo Lonnerdal, a professor of nutrition and internal medicine at University of California at Davis. “I don’t see much sense in it all,” she says. “It doesn’t provide more energy than other drinks with the same energy content.”

Which brings us to protein. Fans of human breast milk point to its supposedly superior whey-to-casein ratio of 60-to-40, compared to nearly the inverse 20-to-80 of cow’s milk. But a liter of breast milk has only one-third the total protein of cow’s milk. And it contains nearly twice as much lactose sugar, making it sweeter than cow’s milk and a poor choice for those who are lactose intolerant. Then there’s breast milk’s fat content, which varies widely based on the donor’s diet.

More souring is that the heralded bioactive components within breast milk are unlikely to make it through your stomach—precisely because adult men aren’t at all like children. “We highly likely would break down bioactive components like lactoferrin and immunoglobulins long before they could have any potential function,” Lonnerdal says.

It’s just wrongheaded to think that what works for baby boys and girls will be best for grown men, says Katie Hinde, assistant professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, who tracks advances in milk research on her “Mammals suck… Milk” blog. 

“Breast milk is nature’s magical elixir for those particular infants at a particular time, but the benefits for adults are less clear. There’s still too little we know about what it does even in infants,” she says.

Then why all the fanfare? Adherents are committing a naturalistic fallacy, says Sarah Tishkoff, a professor of genetics and biology at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the evolution of lactose tolerance. They believe that people evolved to drink breast milk, not cow’s milk. They’re wrong. “No humans have evolved to drink breast milk after weaning,” Tishkoff says. Most human populations whose ancestors practiced dairy farming have actually adapted to drinking cow’s milk.

But would it really hurt to give breast milk a try? That’s not a good idea, particularly if it is purchased online versus milked from a willing wife or girlfriend. “The biggest issue is that breast milk can contain live viruses and bacteria,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Sharon Donovan, former president of the American Society for Nutrition and a professor at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

When moms donate to a hospital milk bank, they are screened before being approved, Donovan explains. But men buying from strangers could result in transmission of diseases including HIV, syphilis, or hepatitis. Most milk bought online also comes contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, as Dr. Sheela Gerahrty’s lab at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center reported last year. Granted, OnlyTheBreast.com has explicit instructions about home pasteurization.

Plus, there’s the issue of cost—at $2.50 to $4.00 per ounce, a gallon of breast milk is priced at $320 to $512, versus just $4 a gallon of cow’s milk, Donovan says. And what really sucks?  There’s a chance you might not even get what you’re paying for. Because it’s sold by volume without any oversight, the milk could be cut with water or cow’s milk, Hinde warns. These aren’t problems you find with hospital milk bank donations where no monetary gain is involved.

Getting beyond the ick factor, athletes commanding high prices for breast milk could inadvertently encourage disadvantaged women to sell their milk instead of feeding their own infants. It may also discourage women from donating to milk banks, which are crucial for supporting the needs of premature infants.

The “invisible breasts of the free market” selling their products online comes with lots of questions, Hinde says.

If you’re still convinced that breast milk is best, take heart: cows may soon be genetically modified to produce human milk, The Telegraph reports.

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