Aquaman is struggling with his double chicken enchiladas. This is because on dry land, Aquaman, a.k.a. Michael Phelps, is the self-described "klutziest person on earth." It's late October, and a week ago Phelps tripped while climbing out of a car here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, reached to catch himself, and cracked his scaphoid. He's earned himself a short pin in the wrist, a few days out of the drink, and a club of a cast that's making an awkward affair out of one of his favorite pastimes—hunting down the 8,000 to 10,000 daily calories it takes to fuel the world's most dominant athletic machine.
Your first thought upon seeing this cast is patriotic horror. Four years after Phelps earned eight Olympic medals (six gold and two bronze), a count that surpassed 177 entire countries at the Athens Games, America's superhero is expected to duplicate this effort in Beijing come August. Right now, odds are he'll compete in at least eight events: 100 and 200 butterfly, 200 freestyle, 200 and 400 individual medley, 4 x 100 and 4 x 200 freestyle relay, and 4 x 100 medley relay. He's swimming so well these days, however, that there's talk of a ninth (100 backstroke) and possibly a tenth (200 backstroke) event. Speedo, one of his seven major sponsors, has once again dangled a cool million in front of Phelps if he can match the record of seven golds set by Mark Spitz. But what about obliterating the record? What about ten golds? Phelps won't go there, saying simply, "I want to swim the events that allow me to do my best."
Your second thought seeing that cast is, Huh, its owner isn't ten feet tall and chiseled out of granite. With his Detroit Tigers ball cap spun 160 degrees and his designer jeans riding low above his Ugg loafers, the 22-year-old could be any lanky student slouching across campus. And you think, briefly, that maybe if you'd just worked harder you could've gone further with your athletic career. Maybe even to the Olympics.
But, no, you're just seeing Aquaman out of his element. After lunch I'll stand next to his six-foot-four frame—I'm six-two—and notice that his legs are significantly shorter than mine. His torso, however, goes on forever, before tapering to an almost girlish waist. He has the streamlined build of a seal: double-jointed for flexibility, size 14 flippers, with a pterodactyl's wingspan three inches longer than his height.
On the inside, Phelps is even more freakish. Genadijus Sokolovas, USA Swimming's director of physiology, looked at Phelps's lactate count in 2003 after he broke a world record. Sokolovas has pinpricked some 5,000 high-level swimmers, and none of them has ever posted a count of less than ten millimoles per liter of blood after a comparable effort. Phelps's reading was 5.6. The uncommonly low number is significant: It means his muscles recover remarkably fast between workouts and races, which, in part, is why he can compete in so many events in such a short time.
But natural assets take you only so far. An overarching reason for Phelps's continued improvement is his longtime coach, Bob Bowman. Phelps began working with Bowman back in Baltimore at age 11; three years ago he followed him to Ann Arbor when Bowman became the University of Michigan men's swimming coach. Bowman, a perfectionist, now oversees Phelps's life aquatic from his office facing the university's Canham Natatorium, where a clock relentlessly ticks down the time until the Games begin—288 days, 16 hours, 31 minutes, 45 seconds, 44... 43...
In Phelps, Bowman has a student who shares his pursuit of underwater perfection. After the 2003 world championships, when the U.S.'s Ian Crocker beat Phelps in the 100-meter fly, preventing him from winning his sixth gold medal—and breaking his sixth world record—Phelps taped a photo of Crocker on the wall above his bed. For nearly a year, his rival was the first thing he saw every morning. Phelps beat Crocker in Athens by .04 seconds. "I hate to lose," Phelps explains.
Bowman knows how important it is to stoke this competitive drive, especially in an athlete who loses so infrequently. So while the rest of the world was pinning the "greatest ever" tag on Phelps after the Athens Games, a post-Olympic DUI notwithstanding, Bowman was convincing his pupil there was room for improvement. Aquaman may have collected eight medals, but his performance in the "walls," or transitions, was positively ordinary. Phelps couldn't push off and take more than four or five of the critical but grueling "dolphin kicks" in an entire race. So the pair decided to improve them, a move not unlike Tiger Woods's deciding to retool his swing despite being the best golfer on the planet.
They started in the gym. Bowman added a three-times-a-week, one-to-two-hour regimen of strength training to Phelps's routine. The swimmer has put on 14 pounds of muscle and zero fat. (At our lunch, this was hard to believe. When Phelps's double enchiladas arrived, he promptly airlifted the cilantro to safety and applied a side of sour cream before tucking in. "I'm not the healthiest person," he concedes, "but I get what I need.") For dry-land training, they worked on plyometrics and the stationary bike. (Bowman long ago banned running—too much of a hazard for the klutz.) And they worked nonstop on his dolphin kicks. Three years later, Phelps had become one of the best transition swimmers in the world, able to surge underwater to the 15-meter limit on nearly every turn.
The New & Improved Phelps made his debut last spring, at the world championships in Melbourne. He won seven gold medals Down Under—and would've won an eighth in the 400-meter medley relay had a teammate not been disqualified. He also set five world records. And in a sport where victory is usually measured in hundredths of a second, Aquaman beat one second-place swimmer by more than three seconds. Phelps's ecumenical domination is even more staggering when you consider that he's competing mostly against specialists who focus on just one or two events.
The success means the pre-Olympic hype for the Michael Phelps Show has only intensified. There are ESPN commercials in the works. More cover stories. Cameras are already poking around his day-to-day life for a potential reality-TV show. NBC has cajoled the International Olympic Committee into rescheduling the start time of Beijing's swimming events to ensure that Phelps's races will be beamed live during prime time to living rooms across North America.
Despite the mounting pressure, Phelps's life is—for the moment, anyway—shockingly low-key: After swimming or working out up to five hours a day, the guy just kicks back. "I'm the most laid-back person out of the water," he says. He plays Halo 3. He eats. He hangs out with Herman, his goofy English bulldog puppy. He watches SportsCenter. And eats some more. "His greatest strength," Bowman says, "is his ability to relax and focus under the stress of competition. And as the pressure and the expectation level rise, his performance level rises."
It helps that Phelps insists on setting his own expectations, even if they're no less lofty than the media's. "Swimmers are some of the most dominant athletes in American history," he says, "but the American public doesn't see that." Exhibit A: Last year's five world records in Melbourne were largely ignored by an American public fixated on March Madness. Phelps wants to change that, and he knows the catalyst has to be his own performance.
On his nightstand, Phelps keeps a list of all of the races he wants to enter in Beijing, along with all of his time goals. Walking toward his car after lunch, I prod a little more, trying one last time to get him to reveal just how many races—and which ones—are on that list. But Aquaman just smiles, demurs. Only he and Bowman, I'm told, know what's on that piece of paper. Not even his mother has seen it. —Christopher Solomon
Be Like Mike
You’ll never swim faster than Michael Phelps. But you can learn from him.
1. Keep your goals nearby
“I have to see them every day, whether i want to or not,” Phelps says of the time goals he keeps on his nightstand. “They’re a constant reminder whenever I turn off the alarm clock.”
2. Befriend the weight room
“I do a lot of legs, pull-downs, push-ups, pull-ups, box squats. My weight coach pretty much destroys me every time I see her.”
3. Move on, smarter
”A friend of mine once told me, ‘You can make a million mistakes, but never make the same mistake again.’ I try to live that in and out of the pool. In 2004 i didn’t expect to get a DUI. But it happened. And I’ve become a better person as a result.”
4. Find your rhythm
“Whatever is the last song on when I get out of the car is going to be what’s in my head during practice. So it has to be a good one.”
5. Never be satisfied
“I always criticize myself. I always think about what I can change to get better.”
George Hincapie: My Day in Food
After 14 years in the pro peloton, George Hincapie, 34, knows sports nutrition. John Bradley caught up with Lance's former lieutenant at the end of the season to find out how he stays fueled.
I'm six-three, and my race weight is about 162. But when I'm not racing, I can gain 15 pounds in a hurry. For one month each year I eat whatever I want—ice cream, beer, all the stuff I avoid during the season. I'm doing that now. My last race was three weeks ago, and I've already added 11 pounds. But when I'm racing, I have to stay lean, which means getting healthy calories. I'd guess I take in 3,000 to 3,500 calories on a typical training day. But I do it by feel. I just cannot count calories. For me, coming home after a hard ride and measuring my food would be over the top.
I eat about an hour and a half before training rides, which start around 10. It's usually a three-egg omelet with ham and cheese, toast, and yogurt. For long rides, like five hours, it will be three or four pieces of toast, and I'll add some rice or a bowl of cereal and a banana.
I basically eat it on the bike, as a mix of bars, gels, and drinks. I'll have a PowerBar or some other energy bar every hour to hour and a half and a gel every hour or so. I average about a bottle an hour for drinks—some Accelerade and some plain water.
After shorter rides, when I get back before two o'clock, I'll have a recovery shake from Cytomax and some pasta or potatoes—a normal lunch. But if I've been out for five or six hours, I just have the shake and maybe a banana and wait for dinner.
It's usually a big salad with all kinds of vegetables, pasta, a vegetable side dish, and chicken or steak. When we're cooking at home, or when we have a team chef on the road, I'll eat different pasta sauces. Otherwise I'll just use olive oil to avoid any stomach issues.
It’s the most important meal of the day, so make it count. Here's how to do breakfast right for any schedule. —By Monique Ryan
You can tweak your training plan, invest in the best gear, and push yourself harder than ever. But if you're not eating the right breakfast, you're not getting the most out of your morning workouts—or the rest of the day. Here are five menus designed to get you out the door fast and properly fueled for whatever you have planned.
1. The No-Brainer Breakfast
Perfect for: Non-workout mornings
Start a rest day right with a meal that includes whole-grain, low-sugar cereal (no more than eight grams of sugar per cup), an antioxidant-rich fruit like berries or cantaloupe, and enough protein to keep you satisfied until lunchtime.
- 3/4 cup granola with:
- 6 oz plain low-fat yogurt
- 1 cup strawberries
- 12 almonds
- 530 calories, 20 g protein, 85 g carbohydrate, 12 g fat, 9 g fiber
2. Quick-Energy Breakfast
Perfect for: Before a cardio workout
Save the big meal for after your workout. But a light meal before cardio training can provide the energy you need to go harder. The key: a menu featuring easy-to-digest foods high in both carbs and protein.
- 2 slices whole-grain toast with:
- 1 tbsp peanut butter
- 12 oz skim milk blended with:
- 1 cup frozen blueberries
- 460 calories, 23 g protein, 70 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 10 g fiber
3. Recovery Breakfast
Perfect for: After a cardio workout
Like the no-brainer breakfast above, this one's built around fresh fruits and whole grains, but it's higher in quick-burning carbs, for faster recovery.
- 1 hard-boiled egg or
- 1 oz string cheese
- 1 cup bran cereal with:
- 1 tbsp raisins
- 8 oz skim milk
- 1 banana
- 560 calories, 24 g protein, 97 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 12 g fiber
4. Power Breakfast
Perfect for: Before and after resistance workouts
To maximize muscle building, down 25 to 35 grams of high-quality protein 30 to 60 minutes before you begin resistance training. Repeat this meal after particularly intense resistance workouts. It aids in recovery, too.
- 4 egg whites, scrambled
- 1 cup cooked oatmeal with:
- 1 peach, sliced
- 8 oz low-fat chocolate milk with:
- 4 tbsp protein powder
- 525 calories, 41 g protein, 77 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 9 g fiber
5. Quick-Fix Breakfast
Perfect for: Hurried mornings
Eat this portable starter in the car, on the train, or once you get to your desk. It will leave you feeling better than that Danish from the coffee cart.
- Two corn tortillas or one large whole-wheat tortilla rolled around:
- 1 egg or 3 egg whites, scrambled
- 1–2 oz low-fat cheese
- 1 sweet red or green pepper, diced
- 1 tomato, diced
- 400 calories, 31 g protein, 52 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 8 g fiber
Apples turning mushy? Lettuce wilting? Store your produce correctly and you'll eat market-fresh for days. Tip: Leave fruits and vegetables unwashed—for up to the maximum times given—then rinse in cold water before eating.
Apples in a plastic bag: six weeks
Apricots in a paper or plastic bag: three days
Blueberries in original packaging: five days
Grapes in a perforated plastic bag: one week
Mushrooms in a paper bag: one week
Oranges loose: two weeks
Peaches in plastic bag: one week
Asparagus in a plastic bag, with stems wrapped in a wet paper towel: three days
Broccoli in a perforated plastic bag: five days
Carrots after removing leafy tops, loose or in a plastic bag: five days
Corn in husks: one week
Grapefruit loose: eight weeks
Lettuce in a plastic bag: ten days
Spinach in a plastic bag: three days
Bananas let ripen, then refrigerate: two weeks
Pears or plums let ripen in a paper bag, then refrigerate in same bag: three days
Potatoes in a cellar or a cool, dark place: one month; at room temperature: one week
Tomatoes at room temperature, out of the sun: five days
Genetically Modified Foodie
Eating for your DNA and unique needs will change you. Literally. —By John Bradley
"Losing 60 cholesterol points in a month is a great result but certainly not unheard of," says Laurent Bannock, the British nutritionist whose personalized diet I've been following for the past month. We're in his Santa Fe, New Mexico, office, looking at two blood tests, one from a month ago and one from three days ago. My total cholesterol has plunged from 211 to 151; I've gone from 12.7 to 11.4 percent body fat (I'm five-eleven and 155 pounds); and a urine test shows an almost 50 percent drop in free radicals, the molecules linked to everything from arthritis to cancer.
I've also been enjoying more consistent energy levels and better sleep than at any time in my adult life. If checking my meals against an exhaustive and seemingly arbitrary list of foods—buffalo, spelt, and spinach are in; chicken, wheat, and tomatoes are out—can do all this, I'm a convert.
Bannock, 39, whose clients have included Sting and Princess Di, created my plan after running me through a series of tests that included genetic biotyping, blood and urine analyses, and metabolic screening. He asked me to collect saliva samples during a typical day to track hormonal patterns and had me fill out a lengthy questionnaire. With that data, Bannock crafted a list of foods that targeted my cholesterol, food sensitivities, caloric requirements, vitamin and mineral needs, and glycemic-index targets. In other words, a diet just for me.
"Very few people in the world would have this exact same list," says Bannock, who laid out his philosophy in his 2006 book The Clinical Nutrition Desk Reference. "Food is a pharmaceutical cocktail. You can find benefits in almost anything, but you have to look at the whole picture. Different [ethnic] groups evolved with certain foods and without others. There's just no diet that works for everyone."
The biggest surprise was how much of what I thought was good was bad—for me. All the soy products I love had to go, along with rice and eggplant. Eating like the Japanese, says Bannock, is best only if you're Japanese. He also suggested $150 a month worth of vitamins and supplements to address specific issues during the first 90 days, including cholesterol, detoxification, and stress. Each day started with several powders blended with frozen berries and distilled water, plus a handful of multivitamins, minerals, and omega-3 pills.
I spent the rest of my time trying to get down the ten servings of fruits and vegetables, four servings of protein, seven servings of oils, and assorted other ways that Bannock wanted me to get in 2,600 to 2,800 calories a day. His recommendation that I gain five pounds of lean body mass proved to be the hardest part. I was so worried about not eating the wrong things that if I didn't have access to approved foods, I wouldn't eat enough. By the time I learned to shop for my new way of eating, I'd lost five pounds—though I gained half of that back by the end of the month.
When my experiment was up, I celebrated with a breakfast burrito—eggs, potatoes, cheese, and peppers in a flour tortilla: all on my no-no list—and within an hour felt more sluggish than I had since I started the diet. I won't follow this plan to the letter—Bannock actually encourages a bit of cheating—but my approach to food is forever changed.
DIY: Initial consultations and tests run about $500. Bannock can work via phone or e-mail. laurentbannock.com
Sin to Win
Because sometimes what’s bad for you is good for you
Get your PS3 on: Researchers from the University of Rochester have found that video-gamers have superior visual skills and cope better with distractions than non-players.
Love, even if only yourself: Separate studies have shown that frequent orgasms can reduce the risk of strokes, boost the immune system, and ward off prostate cancer.
Vent: A 2005 study at Carnegie Mellon found that subjects who reacted angrily to stimuli had lower blood pressure and stress-hormone levels than those who reacted with fear.
Be lazy: Skipping your morning run to catch more sleep? Good for you. German researcher Peter Axt, author of The Joy of Laziness, says exercising too hard or too often may cause stress, accelerate aging, and weaken the immune system.
Get funky: A growing body of research suggests that hyper-cleanliness makes it tough for people to develop strong immune systems.
Fitness Anywhere. Seriously, Anywhere.
With the TRX mobile training device, you’ll never ask if your hotel has a weight room again. —By Andrew Vontz
Contrary to their men-of-steel image, all Navy SEALs have to learn how to sew—wouldn’t want to be stuck behind enemy lines with torn gear. They also have to find ways to stay in shape in remote places where no gyms exist. So Randy Hetrick, a 13-year SEAL vet, decided to create his own gym, fashioning a suspension training device from a few pieces of webbing and a carabiner. As long as he could find something seven feet off the ground to anchor the system, he could keep in shape anywhere.
The outcome of Hetrick’s MacGyvering is the TRX (total-body resistance exercise) Suspension Trainer. The entire unit weighs about two pounds and fits into a stuffsack the size of a lunch bag. While it looks deceptively simple, the TRX is crafted from heavy-duty nylon webbing with built-in handles and an ingenious pair of quick-release strap adjusters to produce a rugged, extremely practical piece of equipment. It attaches to anything from a tree to a hotelroom door (using an optional door anchor) and, with instructions any weekend warrior can grasp, provides a total-body, core-intensive workout. Its adherents range from Saints quarterback Drew Brees to American League MVP Justin Morneau to cycling’s greatest sprinter, Robbie McEwen.
I’m no McEwen, but for the past 16 years I’ve spent three months in the weight room every winter to train as an amateur road racer. When Hetrick first showed me an early version of the system in Santa Monica two years ago, I was skeptical—could this sack of cords really replace a gym’s worth of machines? Thirty minutes later, after running through a protocol of single-leg squats, hamstring exercises, and a three-part move called the “atomic push-up,” I was convinced it could. And because of the inherently unstable nature of the pendulum-like system, every exercise I performed tested my balance and improved my core strength while working my body as a single chain of strength—just what cycling requires. After my first go on the TRX, I felt soreness in core and stability muscle groups I never even knew I had, a sure sign I was hitting my muscles deep. After using it a few times a week for a month, I was sprinting and climbing hills better than ever before.
Today I take it everywhere, and it’s the perfect complement to my on-the-bike training. Instead of measuring my effort in reps, I perform exercises on the TRX in timed intervals, for a functional-training workout that stretches, strengthens, and also works both my aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. The accompanying DVDs take you through dozens of positions and moves, and you can put together your own targeted workouts—it’s equally effective for climbers, snowboarders, runners, or even golfers. The TRX has also brought my flexibility to a new level: I can mash up yoga with stretches I learned from Fitness Anywhere’s Web site, and it’s just as good as having an active stretching partner.
Best of all, the whole thing sets up in literally a minute—on the road or out on my patio, where it serves as my personal training center in the space behind my back door. But there’s one problem. If I want an excuse to blow off training for a day, I’m out of luck. The TRX is the gym that never closes.
DIY: $150–$200; fitnessanywhere.com
Service the Surface
You long ago kicked the Taco Bell habit in favor of whole grains and organic greens. So why are you still parching your face with bar soap? Keep these superb, cool-smelling solutions nearby and you’ll be ready for any weather, spill, dirt, or date.
- Brave Soldier Friction Zone antichafing ointment, 2.5 oz, $16; bravesoldier.com
- Aveda Men Pure-formance Exfoliating Shampoo, 6.7 oz, $24; aveda.com
- Alba Aloe Mint Foam Shave, 5 oz, $7; albabotanica.com
- Kiehl’s Facial Fuel Energizing Moisture Treatment for Men with SPF 15, 2.5 oz, $24.50; kiehls.com
- 63-North High Performance Skin Balm, 0.8 oz, $7; 63-north.com
- Dr. Hauschka homeopathic Mercurialis Wound Rescue, 1 oz, $20; drhauschka.com
- MenScience Advanced Deodorant, 2.6 oz, $17; menscience.com
- Mulholland Brothers Collapsible Shave Kit, $145; mulhollandbrothers.com
My gym routine
For years, Australian Mick Fanning was known as the best surfer in the world not named Slater or Irons—a huge talent whose lack of focus kept him from winning it all. But Fanning, 26, was so dominant in 2007, he secured the world title before the season was even over. What changed? He credits Corrective Holistic Exercise Kinesiology (CHEK). Conceived in the 1980s by San Diego–based holistic-health practitioner Paul Chek, CHEK looks at everything from diet to attitude to foot pronation. After evaluating clients, CHEK practitioners create individual programs focused on balance, core strength, and mental wellness. "My workouts reflect the movements in surfing—a lot of paddling, with short periods of exertion that range from crouching to twisting," says Fanning. Here he shares a few of his key exercises.* —Abe Streep
- Fitter push: Lying prone with his hands on a Fitter (a laterally moving cross-trainer for skiers), Fanning moves from side to side in push-up position to strengthen core muscles and integrate his upper and lower body.
- Wobble board squat rotation: Fanning stands and squats on a wobble board to target= the core muscles used in surfing.
- Swiss ball one-arm press: Kneeling on a Swiss ball, Fanning does single-arm overhead dumbbell presses. As the weight moves, his center of gravity changes, working balance and core muscles.
- Tornado ball: Fanning stands with his back to a wall and swings a 6.6-pounds ball attached to a four-foot rope from side to side, bouncing it off the wall as quickly as posible. This develops explosive power and core strength.
*Chek cautions that because each exercise is tailored to the individual, the key to success and safety is working with a CHEK practitioner (there are 3,000 worldwide) to develop your own program. Get started at chekinstitute.com.
Running to Stand Still
Meditation doesn’t mean sitting. True practice can work on the trail, in the surf, or on the slopes. —By Michael Roberts
"There's a lot of bullshit in spiritual circles," my meditation teacher is telling me. It's a leafy fall afternoon in Massachusetts's Berkshire Hills, and we're sitting in the café of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, one of the nation's premier destinations for physical and spiritual renewal. I've spent much of the last week on the Insight Meditation and Mindfulness Yoga Retreat, a five-day program that I'd hoped would turn me, a meditation virgin, into an Enlightened One.
Of course, I expected to encounter some BS along the way, which I did. "Oh, is that your Sanskrit name?" I overheard a woman who was photographing and interpreting people's auras in the café ask of a customer on my third night. Later, I entered the men's whirlpool room to find a beefy dude chanting naked and proud in the center of the bubbles. (This didn't stop me from taking my soak.)
Thankfully, my teacher—my guru—Larry Rosenberg, 76, is a straight shooter. Raised in Brooklyn, he's spent the past 35 years studying various Buddhist approaches to meditation. His instruction is frank and lively—Mr. Miyagi meets Mel Brooks. This afternoon, he tells me that pairing insight meditation (a.k.a. vipassana) and breath-focused mindfulness yoga is a model that's becoming increasingly popular. The combination was intrinsic before, as he puts it, "Western leotard yoga amputated the meditation."
It's certainly feeling natural to me, though I've come to understand that awareness isn't something you obtain—it's a way of living. It's a practice. Here at Kripalu, where some 450 guests are enrolled in various workshops, my class of about 20 apprentice meditators sits in a carpeted room for three hours in the morning and then two in the afternoon. Each session begins with meditation, transitions into yoga (led by Rosenberg's co-teacher, Matthew Daniell), then returns to meditation. Vipassana is agonizingly simple: Focus on breathing. When the mind wanders, coax it back to the breath. The result: a cessation of the imagining and remembering and obsessing that keep us from being in the moment. Awareness.
Or not. Usually, my sits go something like this: OK, so breathe in. And out. In and WOW-what-a-cool-weekend-I'm-going-to-have-with-that-DINNER-and-then-PARTY-and-big-bike-ride-OH-WAIT-I-need-an-inner-tube-CRAP-pump-is-broken... oh, oops. Damn.
The yoga helped—I'd always do better after the poses. Not talking also made a big difference. Kripalu doesn't offer the rigidly silent retreats found at insight meditation centers, but Rosenberg encouraged us to go quiet. So I did: for 30 hours early on, then 24 later, and generally spoke less than my wife would believe possible.
I also ran. I worried that the adrenaline kick would make a quiet mind impossible, but Rosenberg kept saying awareness is something to bring into every waking moment. So off I went in the early evenings on wooded trails, trying to run mindfully but inevitably falling into my pattern of thinking about everything except that which was right before me.
Then it happened. On my last evening at the retreat, I bolted two miles up to a ridge, stopping to take in the autumn forest. I closed my eyes and found my breath. In, out. In, out ... I can't say how long it lasted—ten seconds? a minute?—and I can't say how it felt, because I didn't feel anything. I was just there. Right there. For the first time ever.
Why Exercise Makes You Smarter
We know that running, cycling, and hiking burn fat and improve cardiovascular health. But Harvard psychiatry professor John J. Ratey says these are secondary benefits, akin to getting frequent-flier miles when you travel the world. In his new book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Ratey claims that the primary benefit of aerobic activity is to improve brain function. This refutes traditional wisdom, which holds that our brains are hardwired computers, unable to be improved upon. Among Ratey's findings: Aerobic exercise produces proteins that enhance thought processes; relieves clinical depression; and makes you a lot smarter. Co-written by former Outside senior editor Eric Hagerman, Spark is mercifully short on Ivy League med-school speak. And it may just spell the end of all dumb jock jokes. —Abe Streep
Holding My Own
New compression garments—don't call them tights—get a grudging endorsement. —Nick Heil
I like to think of myself as an early adopter, someone who embraces a trend before it's a phenomenon. But somehow I'd missed out on the compression-undergarment craze. Everywhere I looked, athletes were swaddled in shiny, body-hugging sportswear. My soccer teammates sported undershorts and physique-molding T-shirts. Cyclists wore long-sleeved shirts that looked like they had been painted on. Runners trotted by in technical leggings. I hadn't seen so much Lycra since Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
Sometime between that 1993 comedy and, in my case, a few weeks ago, skintight apparel ceased to be a mere fashion faux pas and turned into high-performance equipment. While stretch base layers have been around for a long time in cycling and skiing, this new generation of apparel is "engineered" to improve strength, endurance, muscle recovery, and joint support. Under Armour, which took root with football and baseball players, boasts annual sales of nearly $600 million and sponsors athletes as varied as snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis and 2007 Ironman world champion Chris McCormack.
I recently sampled some of the newest pieces from Under Armour, CW-X, and Skins. The Australia-based Skins is the newest of the bunch, and the company touts its patented "gradient compression technology." Translation: garments that squeeze you in all the right places. After I received some samples, I was cc'd on an e-mail to my editor: "Make sure he knows how to use them!" Use them? Don't you just wear them?
While using Skins, I was supposed to experience 10 percent more strength, 15 percent more endurance, and up to a 30 percent longer time to exhaustion. Afterwards, I was to leave them on for four hours for a "60 to 80 percent reduction" in delayed-onset muscle soreness—the pain that arrives one to two days after an intense workout. I tried the Skins for running, mountain biking, and my big game against the dreaded Highlanders, one of the toughest teams in my soccer league.
Whether I felt more strength and endurance was debatable—we lost to the Highlanders, 3-2. I am, however, delighted to report that the Skins completely eliminated the thigh and nipple chafe I suffer during games and long runs.
I also tried the tights for recovery, donning a clean pair for about five hours after my game. Typically I hobble around the next day like an arthritic octogenarian, but I woke feeling remarkably limber. The Skins help improve circulation while simultaneously managing the swelling that takes place after exercise.
The CW-X tights were a tad different. Rather than focusing on compression and circulation, they're designed to improve muscle stability. I tried them on several trail runs and felt like I had a springy exoskeleton wrapped around my legs. Dang if I didn't feel better longer during my workout. The tights were too uncomfortable (and, frankly, clammy) to leave on for as long a recovery period as the Skins. But, again, I simply wasn't that sore the next day.
Last up was the ubiquitous Under Armour. I rotated a few of their basic pieces—short- and long-sleeve Metal compression tops and shorts. The gear was the simplest of the batch but also the most refreshingly comfortable. I don't think it provided quite as much of a competitive edge as the Skins or the CW-X's, but I wasn't in as much of a hurry to rip it off when I had finished my workout or game, either.
All of the products provided an additional layer of welcome warmth, since my test period took place during a fall cold snap. This was a good thing; despite the fact that the slim look is back in vogue, I remained self-conscious wearing these items in public. I found myself pulling shorts over the tights, and a shirt, vest, or jacket over the compression tops. I had come to crave the benefits of the gear, but I was never eager to be seen in it.