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Dispatches : Fitness

Can the National Pro Fitness League Become the Next Big Thing?

Just before Thanksgiving last year, the co-director and executive producer of the CrossFit Games left CrossFit. Tony Budding had worked for the company for 10 years, first as a coach, then as the first affiliate director, then as media director. He left, he says, because “all of the competitions that we were doing in CrossFit were limited by the need to prove fitness.” Budding believes the best way to grow and monetize the sport lies in creating a more sponsor and spectator-friendly competition

As CrossFit defines it, fitness is increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. In other words, an athlete proves his fitness by doing the more reps of a certain exercise than anybody else in a certain amount of time, or outlasting his competitors in a particular exercise. Therefore, “if you want to test fitness, you have to do a wide variety of things,” Budding says. “Unfortunately, a number of those things you need to do to test fitness don’t end up playing very well for spectators and for TV.” 

Enter the National Pro Fitness League. Billed as “the world’s first professional spectator sport with co-ed teams competing in human performance races,” the league hopes to make the sport of functional fitness more accessible to a broader audience.

Budding is modeling the NPFL after other national leagues including the NBA and NFL, complete with regional teams (think: New York plays Phoenix), a team revenue sharing model, and professional athletes. 

That’s what has CrossFitters abuzz about the NPFL, rather than bemoaning Budding as a sell out: the league is attempting to professionalize functional fitness. Just as in other professional sports, team members will get paid to play. Right now, athletes who make one of eight regional teams stand to earn a minimum of $2,500 per match. That means an athlete who competes in all of this year’s six matches will pocket at least $15,000, regardless of their results.

“It gives us an opportunity to do what we love at a higher level,” CrossFit Games athlete, Katrin Davidsdottir, told the new league. In the CrossFit Games, only the top 10 individuals and top three teams in the final standings earn prize money. (Click here for more on how NPFL team selection works.) 

As for the actual competition, the idea goes something like this: Two teams of 10 (five women and five men on each team) will go head to head on the “Grid,” a playing field the size of a basketball court that, Budding says, never changes and is easy to follow. Matches will consist of 11 races in which teams of five must perform a certain number of functional fitness exercises, such as deadlifts, rope climbs, and handstand pushups. One match will easily fit into a two-hour time slot, including 10 commercial breaks and personal interest stories, Budding says. And unlike, say, pro tennis matches, an NPFL match will never run long—guaranteed.

If this sounds like a grab at sponsorship money, ad dollars, and ticket sales, that’s because it is. “We are a spectator sport which means we exist for the fans,” Budding says. Like America’s most famous national leagues, the NPFL is extremely sponsor-friendly, and that’s something CrossFit, perhaps, is not.

“Huge companies like Nike and Under Armour approached CrossFit when it was starting to get big, saying, ‘Hey, we want to be involved,’” says William Imbo, Associate Editor at BoxLife Magazine, a CrossFit lifestyle publication. CrossFit founder Greg Glassman said no. Those companies “wanted to have a say in how CrossFit is advertised and marketed and he shot them down,” Imbo says. “It’s really important for CrossFit that the community has a huge say in how it’s run.”

While some would argue that the CrossFit Games have been a huge success, selling out tickets, drawing a half-million viewers on ESPN, and winning title sponsorship from Reebok, Budding believes he can do better.

“CrossFit is a fitness program,” Budding says. It’s a participatory sport whose Games attract fellow CrossFitters. “Our goal is to make our teams and our athletes so compelling, so exciting, so speaking for the metropolitan area that they’re from, that people want to just be fans of the team”—even people that have no intention of ever performing a snatch. Like hockey fans who can’t ice skate.

Because the NPFL’s matches begin in August, while the CrossFit Games end in July, Imbo says the two aren’t directly competing—for now. Budding says he sees the Games and the NPFL not as adversaries, but as entirely different entities. 

“They’re in the gym business. They’ve given people the opportunity to make a living doing what they love, and that’s very cool,” Budding says. “But that’s not a spectator sport. That’s not a sponsorship business. That’s not a TV business.” He hopes the NPFL will be all of those things and more.

“My goal,” Budding says, “is to be bigger in the U.S. than the NHL.”

More Outside CrossFit Stories:

Clarification: The original headline of this story stated that the CrossFit Games have not been a success on TV. That is not correct. As the body of the article correctly notes, the CrossFit Games have drawn over a half-million viewers on ESPN, routinely averaging more viewers per show than coverage of the X Games and Major League Soccer. 

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Polar Plunges Are For the Weak: Meet the World's Ice Swimmers

On a frigid February morning in Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains, swimmer Donal Buckley dives headfirst into the boomerang-shaped Lough Dan. Submerged in 38-degree water with no wetsuit for warmth, Buckley begins to freestyle his way across the frozen lake. His goal? To join an elusive club of fewer than a hundred swimmers across the world who have completed an official, mile-long ice swim.

“Imagine taking off all your clothes and climbing into the chilled water in your refrigerator,” says Buckley. “An ice mile is colder than that.”

As he plows on, his muscles contract in the freezing water, delivering less power with every stroke. Fine motor skills are lost. As his body struggles to stay warm, his brain begs for more oxygen. In the final 200 meters, Buckley experiences tunnel vision as he churns closer and closer to shore. Finally, he reaches the beach, where friends await to lift him out of the lake by his tired limbs. He crumples in a moderately hypothermic heap a few yards away. The total time is 38 minutes. 

Antarctic Origin Story

Superman’s Fortress of Solitude was an ice cave in the Arctic where the DC Comics superhero could temporarily escape from the hectic pace of life in Metropolis. Ram Barkai, a world-record-holding extreme swimmer from Israel who now lives in South Africa, shares the Man of Steel’s affinity for polar wastelands, and some might consider him a Superman in his own right—he’s appeared on both Stan Lee’s Superhumans and the Discovery Channel’s Superhuman Showdown. However, instead of beginning on the planet Krypton, Barkai’s story has its origins in a frozen lake in Antarctica.

On an excursion to Antarctica in 2008, the then-38-year-old Barkai convinced his expedition leader to let him go for a swim. He’d become a fan of open-water swimming starting in his younger days, when he’d served in Israel’s army, and subsequently enjoyed regular frosty swims in the cold ocean surrounding his home in Cape Town. He leaped into a frozen lake and swam for a full kilometer, for which he later received a Guinness World Record.

“Give me a challenge to excite me, and I’ll find a way to prove everyone wrong,” Barkai says. “I took on the cold water in the sea as a demon I had to face, to get familiar with and conquer.”

After completing another wintry swim in Lake Zurich the following year, this one 2.3 kilometers, Barkai decided to formalize cold, open-water swimming. He created the International Ice Swimming Association in 2009, an organization that standardized the benchmark to one mile in water temperatures below 41 degrees Fahrenheit and that follows English Channel rules (unassisted and uninterrupted time in the water, no wetsuits allowed). Today, only 87 swimmers from 17 countries have successfully completed an ice swim—locations include sites in Norway, Alaska, Sweden, and the U.S. (Boston Harbor) in the middle of winter. Barkai says that number is growing, however, and he hopes to one day make ice swimming a sport at the Winter Olympics. 

How They Train

Proper training and experience are more than just a question of peak performance for those attempting to swim a mile in freezing waters: they’re a matter of life and death. An ice swim is not an experience the weekend Ironman contender should try on a whim.

Training begins with covering significant distances in normal water temperatures before even attempting cold swims. Of course, intimate familiarity with cold-water submersion is a must. Barkai recommends daily dunks of under a minute to help acclimate the body over time to the piercing sensations frigid waters impose. Many swimmers use ice baths to store these pain perceptions in their memory so they don’t come as a shock later on in open water. Much emphasis is placed on the fundamentals—stroke, breathing, and speed—since technique tends to devolve in a freezing lake.

Perhaps even more important than physical conditioning is its mental counterpart. Understanding how the cold affects your body while in the water is essential, and being able to stay calm under such intense conditions is what will keep you from drowning in a panic.

The cold has an incredible ability to focus the mind. From the second you plunge into the water, you don’t have the luxury of letting your attention wander to outside thoughts. The mind must be zeroed in on every single stroke, every single breath. Despite the pain, you must continue to move.

“Unlike marathon swimming, you can’t just switch off your brain—it’s too dangerous,” Barkai says. “I run a regular checklist, like I would in an airplane: hands, fingers, toes, tongue, vision, rationality. I make sure that I am still capable, both physically and mentally. When that’s not the case, it’s time to get out.”

Hardcore Factor

Being ice swim–ready means more than simply being physically fit: you must of course be fit in terms of strength, but you must also be fit in terms of overall health, says Barkai. In such frigid temperatures, your body must pump more blood to your arteries, which results in higher blood pressure. For those who don’t know what they’re doing, risks can include temporary or permanent nerve damage; drowning from involuntary aspiration, due to cold-shock response; hypothermia; and loss of motor control.

Based on his own experience, Buckley is concerned that less knowledgeable swimmers will attempt the feat without the requisite training, background, or confidence; he believes that the IISA should only permit ice swims once a participant can present a verified training log. Even the most skilled cold-water swimmers don’t undertake the challenge without a proper support system in case of emergency. Let’s just say that ice swimming is not for the faint—or weak—of heart.

“The biggest danger actually presents itself post-swim, from cardiac fibrillation,” says Buckley. “I’ve spoken with two doctors who have expertise in cold water, and they believe there is significant cardiac risk for everyone, regardless of experience.”

To read more about Donal Buckley’s ice swim, including how he trains and the associated risks, check out his open-water swimming blog.Below, see a short documentary about Buckley.

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Milk Ban: How Seemingly Dumb Nutritional Legislation Gets Proposed

In late April, news broke that Connecticut lawmakers proposed a bill that would ban day care centers from serving 2-percent and whole milk to kids older than two. The media was quick to point out that the ban is “sheer lunacy” and “based on an incredibly faulty understanding of nutrition.” That last part is right, and I’ll get to that in a second. But rather than say the lawmakers behind this bill are lunatics, I’ll call them Colberts. 

Stephen Colbert’s character on "The Colbert Report" is eager, but terribly misinformed. That’s what appears to be going on with milk ban bill sponsors, Democratic Reps. David Zoni, Roberta Willis, and state Senator Catherine Osten. The three are up for re-election this year and as Gary Rose, chairman of the Government and Politics department at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conecticuit told Connecticut magazine, “We’re going to see lawmakers announcing more legislative initiatives to let their constituents know they are trying.”

Fighting childhood obesity is a popular and laudable platform that, one would assume, would go over well with constituents. In fact, childhood obesity ranked as the number-one health concern amongst Connecticut parents in 2012. That’s where the eagerness comes in; these lawmakers likely wanted to do the right thing while winning votes. Unfortunately, the misinformation that led to milkbangate came from their own experts, who were meant to guide Connecticut’s newly established (as of 2013) childhood obesity task force.

In a presentation on March 27, John Bailey, the State Director of Government Relation for the American Heart Association gave a presentation to the task force, explaining their joint mission is to build healthier lives “free of cardiovascular disease and stroke.”

In the presentation, he explained that one-third of Connecticut kindergarten and third-grade students are overweight or obese, which could lead to health issues including asthma and type 2 diabetes when they’re older. One of the main standards he recommended promoting: low-fat and fat-free dairy products.

Where did Bailey get the idea that full-fat dairy products contribute to childhood obesity? From the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends low-fat milk and milk products for all individuals aged 2 years and over to “obtain the nutritional benefits of milk while limiting caloric and fat intake.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the benefit as “achieving optimal lifetime bone health.”

In this case, the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics are to blame for milk misinformation. As one researcher wrote in a 2005 study, “available evidence does not support nutrition guidelines focused specifically on increasing milk or other dairy product intake for promoting child and adolescent bone mineralization.”

And as NPR reported last year, several studies have “linked fattier milk to slimmer kids,” possibly because “whole milk gives us a greater sense of satiety.” In other words, kids feel fuller longer which keeps them from noshing on extra calories later in the day. 

In the end, the Milk Ban proposal isn’t just a question of faulty science, or even local government, but national politics. Food associations have contributed to the American Academy of Pediatrics in the past, and dairy lobbying is the likely reason why the CDC hasn’t updated its milk-drinking recommendations. However recent studies touting whole milk’s benefits should have lobbyists fighting to change the AAP’s recommendations so more parents and daycares will buy all types of milk for their kids—if Connecticut lets them. 

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