The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Flexibility

Inside the Mind of an Ironman

Can inspirational quotes make you a champion? It worked for six-time Hawaii Ironman champion Mark Allen—and he wants to share his moral support with us mere mortals.

The legendary triathlete's new book, The Art of Competition, combines scenic photographs with Allen's own spiritual thoughts. The finished product reads in bit like a series of inspirational posters, but also as a serious reflection on healthy competition.  

We talked to Allen about the book, triathlons, and the spiritual work he does with Shaman Brant Secunda.

OUTSIDE: What made you decide to write a book of inspirational quotes?
ALLEN
: For years, people asked me, 'What did you think about during races? How did you hold it together?' I always felt I was falling short of explaining the essence of what I was doing.

How did you begin to compile the quotes?
I was on a retreat with Brant Secunda in Japan. I was lying down and these quotes just started coming to me, out of thin air. It was like a faucet. By the next day, I’d written down 35 to 40 quotes. I thought, these are pretty cool, but I didn’t have a vision for what to with them. Five years later, I decided that I needed to pair them with photographs from nature.

Why is nature such an important part of the book?
We are hard wired to feel good in nature, and the quotes have everything to do with us feeling good in life. That is how I raced best; when I felt good about life. I trained in San Diego in the winter and Boulder in the summer and I just loved those environments. You’re running by the ocean and then riding in the foothills of the Rockies. It doesn’t get any better. Nature has always been a huge part of my training. When you go outside and immerse yourself in nature, you inherently feel better.

Did you write this book for triathletes?
I wrote this book for everybody. There’s not one photo of an athlete in it. There are no numbers or formulas. It’s meant to test people on a deeper level. Obviously, there’s a sport slant to a lot of it, but it applies to personal challenges in any arena.

Should someone read this book straight through? Or take their time with a few quotes at a time?
When I had put everything together for the book, I sent out a PDF to people to get feedback. One of the guys I sent it to I thought was as far at the end of the spectrum of people who might like it as possible. He finally called me, and told me he’d at last finished reading the book. He’d started reading quotes and flipping through the pages, and then realized he could only look at two or three quotes each day because he would start thinking about each one. I think a lot of people will read a little bit at a time and go reflect on it.

The book contains positive quotes, but it also addresses problems such as being stuck, jealous, or grappling with self-pity. Do you deal with all of those?
I’ve had to overcome all of those things. I didn’t want to make the book just about fluffy positive things. I was feeling sorry for myself all those years I didn’t win races. I could be in the lead at hours five, six, or seven, but I couldn’t be in the lead at the finish line. I had jealousy and self-pity when Dave Scott kept winning and I couldn’t. We all have to find a way to move beyond those things.

Your best known race is the 1989 Ironman Hawaii battle with Dave Scott. What did that win mean to you?
It was an amazing race because we were side by side for eight hours. It had never happened before, and it hasn’t happened since. It was a defining moment for me. I made the switch to finally having the race I wanted to have. It was the first time I really integrated the soul-body concept. I really embraced how the internal space dictates what is going on outside of you.

What happened mentally with you in that race that enabled you to push through to the finish line?
Dave was surging at the half marathon point. I remember looking around at the black lava surrounding us, and thinking that it was the most amazing creation nature could make. It was like a cloud had lifted. I stopped thinking about everything and became a vehicle for performance to take place. I think almost all great athletic performances happen when you are in that space.

What was the tougher race: The duel with Dave Scott or your final Ironman Hawaii victory in 1995, when you had to make up 13 and a half minutes in the marathon over race leader Thomas Hellriegel?
I would say the final victory was the hardest. When I was racing with Dave, we were side by side the whole time. There was zero doubt about how he was feeling. With Hellriegel, I was racing a guy who’d passed me on the bike and I didn’t see again for hours. It was very hard mentally to keep going and say this is something that could turn around.

How did you keep going when you were that far back?
I knew I had to make up 30 seconds per mile in the marathon. It seemed so impossible. I threw off my heart rate monitor. It would tell me if I was running out of gas, and I didn’t want to know that.

What made you a great triathlete?
Tons of guys have the same genetics as me. I’m not a freak of nature genetically. There are a lot of guys with better numbers. But the numbers in the logbook don’t necessarily tell what you will do in competition. I discovered how to persevere in difficult moments. When you just want to quit, you have to surrender to the moment, and find a calm.

What did you love about Ironman Hawaii?
I loved that Ironman is such a complex puzzle to figure out. The wind, the heat, the energy of the Big Island. Everyone willing to give 100 percent. I really loved that.

Have you been surprised by the enormous growth in the sport of Ironman?
When I started in 1982, there were 1,000 people in the race in Kona. You didn’t have to qualify. There were very few Ironman races to enter. Now, there are races everywhere. I think people do this sport because of the community of people, and because you test yourself and challenge yourself.

What do you do in the retreats you host with Shaman Brant Secunda?
We teach retreats all over the world. We’ve been doing it since 1998. The Art of Competition is a teaser of what you can get if you develop your mind and body, which is what we work on at our retreats. We get a huge range of people at our retreats. Everyone from world class athletes to inactive, overweight individuals. The way we set up the workshops is so there’s something for everybody.

Do you also work with triathletes?
I do training camps periodically. I’ll be in Boulder in August. I talk about both the physical and mental because there’s a lot of misinformation about training. I believe in getting fit in a way that is healthy instead of burning yourself out. I tell a lot of Ironman stories because it brings to life that even champions struggle.

Do you still do triathlons?
My day-to-day exercise now is surfing. I live in Santa Cruz and absolutely love it. I get out on the water most days. It’s my cardio, my strength, my stretching, and my nature fix. I also run and lift weights.

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Victory V's Don't Always Mean Victory

For years, we’ve been discussing the media’s role in distorting female body image. Dozens of studies and campaigns have fingered Photoshopped images in women’s emotional, mental, and physical health issues. Well boys, it seems your time has come. The pressure to look good, bulk up, and build a "six-pack," the supposed stamp of ideal male form, is gnawing away at your happiness, too, and prompting Reddit-topping threads and five-figure play-count videos. The question is: What are you gonna do about it?

Let’s back up a sec to look at just how bad the body image crisis is. A 2012 survey of 394 British men found that more than "half of men questioned (58.6 percent) said that body talk affects them personally, mostly in a negative way," with "beer belly" and "six pack" being two of the most popular terms men use to describe each other’s appearance. Even more disturbingly, more than 35 percent of men surveyed "would sacrifice a year of life to achieve their ideal body weight or shape."

Well get ready to add that year back to your life, men, because "there really isn’t an ideal," says John Haubenstricker, a Research Associate in the Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh. He’s also a dietitian, coach, and bodybuilding competitor. "Is there an ideal fruit or an ideal car? No. We need to change our terminology. What we should focus on more is: what is the healthy weight people should be at?"

There’s no magic formula for healthy weight. Body Mass Index, often used to help determine healthy weight ranges in the general population, might not be as applicable to athletes who often carry more muscle mass than the average person.

"A good description of healthy weight," Haubenstricker says, "is where you have the lowest risk for death and illness, and where it’s maintainable within your lifestyle." That means you’re not overweight, which can set you up for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, among other things. And that means you’re not underweight either.

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The images you see in the media of men with six-pack abs and "victory-v’s," Haubenstricker says, are often shot when those guys are at their absolute leanest. "Maintaining that level of leanness [around four to five percent bodyfat] isn’t typically recommended for very long," Haubenstricker says. "You’re not getting enough energy to do all of the things you want to do and improve" your fitness. "You’re also increasing your risk of injury."

As Scientific American explains, "fat is crucial for normal physiology—it helps support the skin and keep it lubricated, cushions feet, sheaths neurons, stores vitamins, and is a building block of hormones."

In other words, that "ideal" you constantly see splashed across magazine covers is bullshit. It’s an ephemeral state of being even for the people in the photos.

It’s going to take a long time for society to stop shoving that muscled-up ideal down men’s throats. As Eva Wiseman wrote in the Guardian:

The media is a construction—this is no secret. Magazines, film, TV, newspapers—they all rely on advertising. So reminding ourselves that the body types we see represented are the body types that generate purchases. Asking ourselves: "Am I being sold something here?"

The answer is almost always yes. Diet pills. Diet programs. Workout DVDs. Ab rollers. You name it. All of those things generate billions of dollars in sales by making men feel inadequate. If you believed you looked perfectly great as you are, you wouldn’t need any of those things—why fix what isn’t broken?

"Our culture has to change to be more tolerant" of different body types, Haubenstricker says. His suggestion? Start changing your terminology and perspective by checking out resources from EatRight.org and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

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8 Summer Yoga Essentials

There’s 420-friendly yoga. There’s co-ed naked yoga. There’s yoga California Chrome could love. There’s even yoga that includes a beer chaser. No matter which you choose, you’re likely to need some gear to practice.

We looked high and low for the latest and greatest in yoga mats, bags, and outerwear (for you prudes who don’t go au naturel). Here are our findings:

Lululemon Metal Vent Tech Tee ($64)

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Similar to the now sold-out Assert Tech Short Sleeve Tee we raved about in a recent review of Lululemon products, the Metal Vent Tech Short Sleeve is one of our favorite T-shirts by virtue of the cut alone, which is athletic while not being skin-tight. Put simply, it's damn flattering. And that goes for body types ranging from Cat 2 to Clydesdale. Thanks to anti-stink technology that inhibits the growth of odor-causing bacteria, the only funk that flows from you will be from your earbuds.

Manduka LiveOn Mat ($58)

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New to yoga? Released on June 4, the LiveOn is the perfect first mat because it’s lightweight, and at 5mm, it’s relatively thick (your knees will thank you for this in poses like cat/cow and dolphin). Plus, that joint-saving foam is 100 percent reclaimable and recyclable. Looking for something a bit thinner? A 3mm version is slated to go on sale this September.

The North Face Be Calm Tank for Women ($38)

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More affordable than most, this staple from The North Face is a poly-blend built from recycled fabric that wicks. And it’s cut long enough to reach the top of even the lowest of low-riding yoga pants.

yogitoes We Are One Collection Skidless Yoga Towel ($64)

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Whether you’re down with hot yoga or you just sweat a lot, this skidless yoga towel will save you from a saturated and, therefore, slippery mat. Silicon nubs help with grippiness, which you’ll appreciate in trikonasana and warrior poses when you're squeezing your inner thigh muscles and pushing down on your feet.

Much more absorbent than regular towels, it also dries quickly in the sun. Pro tip: the little nibs go face down. Keeping them face-up is the yoga version of wearing a bike helmet backward.

Yoga Sak ($50)

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Minimalist and multi-modal? Check out Yoga Sak. The fourth generation of this bag stows your mat vertically and is complete with a retractable pouch to make sure heavier mats (like the Manduka PRO) don’t slide out the bottom. 

And for hot-yoga-inclined people, the company also offers a wet bag ($10) for any sweat-drenched clothes. One drawback? The cell phone pocket is too small for an iPhone 5, Nexus 5, or Galaxy S4, an issue the company says will be addressed in the fifth generation of this bag, which is slated for release in early 2015.

Prana Sutra Pant ($70)

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Although most running and climbing shorts translate well to yoga, the Sutra is our favorite full-length pant. Available in three lengths (30”, 32”, 34”), they’re built from a blend of hemp, polyester, and lycra. With an inseam gusset, front pockets, drawstring waist, and relaxed fit, the Sutra is the Levi’s 501 of yoga—a classic.

Manduka GO Free Backpack ($120)

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Pedaling to yoga is the best. You get a warm-up and another excuse to ride your bike. But carrying a mat can be tricky: if you put it into a traditional backpack, it’ll hit the back of your helmet, testing even the most enlightened yogi’s equanimity.

Save your sanity with the GO Free that secures your mat with quick-release buckles and is big enough to haul a laptop (in a padded sleeve), a few bike locks, and change of clothes. There are also internal pockets for pens, tools, and a pad of paper, plus several large external pockets.

Lululemon For The People Short ($68)

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Although you can practice yoga wearing an old Radiohead T-shirt, shorts are different. Go with a pair without four-way stretch and you’ll be able to blame your clothing for keeping you out of half-pigeon. Go too baggy, on the other hand, and you’ll show too much when you’re upside down.

The tapered For The People were designed for yoga and are sweat-wicking, breathable, and knee-length. Plus, the breathable fabric feels good on your skin.

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What if Sitting Doesn't Kill?

Think you’re “resting” at your desk job? Yet another study has attacked Americans' favorite activity: sitting. The latest report, from the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, finds that for every hour you sit, you lose eight percent of your fitness gains from each hour you worked out that day. Sound really depressing? We thought so. That’s why we’re happy it’s probably not true.

Much has been made over the past few years about our sedentary lifestyles and how they’re killing us and how we should probably never, ever sit down. In this latest jab at the seated position, researchers tried to figure out the relationship between exercise and time spent sitting. Depending on whose article you’re reading, and whether or not you’re an athlete, you’ll either be really, really excited about the results, or really freaking depressed. 

Time put it like this: “Because exercise has a more powerful effect in helping the heart than sitting does in harming it, one hour of physical exercise could counteract the effects of sitting for six to seven hours a day.” 

Runner’s World put it like this: Each “time unit of sitting cancels out eight percent of your gain from the same amount of running. In other words, if you run for an hour in the morning, and then sit for 10 hours during the day, you lose roughly 80 percent of the health benefit from your morning workout.”

[Note: Running counts as vigorous activity. If your activity has less vigor, you can count on losing 16 percent of your workout-induced fitness gains every hour you’re hunched over a desk.]

Fortunately, it’s not that black and white. “People forget the gray area,” says Stanford exercise physiologist Dr. Stacy Sims. “If you go for a run, you’re going to get the benefit, but it’s better if you go for a run, then don’t sit all day.”

The issue here seems to stem from the study’s definition of fitness. Researchers looked into cardiorespiratory fitness, the kind involving your heart and lung capacity. Or, as many athletes may know it, the kind VO2 max indicates.

Look at it that way, and it’s not surprising athletes don’t have enormous gains from each day’s exercise, even if they don’t sit all day. It takes weeks to see a measurable change in VO2 max. And that’s with a concerted effort of high-intensity exercise.

As for your musculoskeletal and neuromotor fitness, this study did not look into those systems, which should improve with training even if you do sit during the day. “If you plan your recovery right, like your nutrition recovery, you won’t be losing fitness as long as you get up and move around during the day, too,” Sims says.

Neuromotor gains, for example, should be preserved if you follow the recommendations the researchers put forth: walking up stairs at work; standing while talking on the phone; holding walking meetings; sitting on a fitness ball or using a standing desk; taking a lunchtime walk.

“If you’re training heavy weights,” Sims says, “and then you sit on that muscle, it gets compressed, so you’re actually reducing that neuromuscular signaling.” But just getting up and walking around will reduce pressure on that muscle so you don’t lose the signaling you built up.

As for strength gains, you won’t lose strength by the hour as you sit, either, Sims says. Just get up every hour so your muscles don’t tighten up, which can lead to imbalances, which can lead to injury.

So don’t give up on your training. Just make an effort to stand up, stretch, and move a little throughout the day and you can kiss this new eight-percent rule goodbye. 

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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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