The 9 Fitness Lessons We Learned in 2016
Blood analysis! Fat burning! Centenarians and pockets full of bacon! All that, plus six more of the biggest fitness trends from this year.
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Depending on your outlook, 2016 was either a very good year or the dawn of the apocalypse. The good news (we guess?) is that if the latter is true, we all have the opportunity to die really, really fit.
This was a hell of year for fitness, one in which we realized that fat is good, age doesn’t matter, and the mind is the final frontier. Indeed, there’s never been more people, approaches, and ideas pushing the limits of human performance. Here are our nine biggest takeaways from the year in fitness.
1. Eat Fat, Run Far
We’ve all been there: out on a long race or training session when—bonk. You hit a wall that makes each step or pedal stroke feel like the final leg of a death march. The good news from 2016 is that if you’re willing to eat a lot of fat, you may never bonk again.
The science behind this high-fat ketogenic diet, as it’s called, is fascinating. In short: when you shun carbs, minimize protein, and eat a whole lot of fat, your body adapts to that fat and produces ketones, or molecules produced in your liver from fatty acids, which can be used for energy. The idea for endurance athletes is that by adapting your body to burn more fat instead of carbohydrates, you unlock a virtually endless fuel source.
“Being fat adapted may take bonking out of the equation,” says Trevor Kashey, owner of Relentless Dietetics in Vero Beach, Florida. “Even the leanest athletes have enough stored fat to fuel most events.” Ultrarunners Timothy Olson and Zach Bitter are two notable athletes who swear by a high-fat diet.
But it’s not easy to enter ketosis. Sixty-five percent of your calories must come from fat and the other 25 percent from protein. This means almost entirely eliminating carbs from your diet. (Think lots of cheese, yogurt, eggs, heavy cream, fatty fish, and a few green vegetables.) To really reap the mental and physical performance effects of a ketogenic diet, you have to eat that way without fail for the better part of a month. The diet has been around for decades—doctors began prescribing it in 1921 as a way to control epilepsy—but 2016 saw peak keto for the average person, with Google trends reporting an eightfold spike in searches and biohacking juggernauts like Tim Ferriss and Dr. Peter Attia touting its benefits.
2. FKT Is the New Podium
The truth is often stranger than fiction: Utah man drinks copious amounts of Red Bull, eats ungodly amounts of candy, stuffs pockets with bacon, and runs the Appalachian Trail faster than anyone ever. That’s precisely what Karl Meltzer did this summer, breaking Scott Jurek’s 2015 fastest known time (FKT) of the AT by ten hours.
Then, in early October, ultrarunner Jim Walmsley smashed the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim FKT by more than 25 minutes when he finished the 42-mile round-trip run in 5 hours, 55 minutes, and 20 seconds. According to his Strava data, Walmsley averaged an 8:31 per mile pace and logged 24,566 feet in elevation change. He burned an estimated 7,721 calories.
And in late October, ultrarunner Pete Kostelnick broke perhaps the most notorious FKT of all time: the run across America. The Lincoln, Nebraska–based 29-year-old covered 3,000 miles, from San Francisco to New York City, in 42 days, 6 hours, and 30 minutes. In doing so, he broke a record that had stood for 36 years.
3. Your Body Is a Spreadsheet
Let’s say you have an off day on the mountain or your performance stalls on the road. What do you do? Most likely, a bunch of guesswork. Maybe your nutrition is off; maybe you’re under-recovered; maybe you’re just not training hard enough. Once you come to a conclusion, you tweak your program, then wait to see if anything improves.
But your body contains information, and by testing and analyzing your blood, reaction to certain foods, heart rate variability, and other indicators, biohacking companies like WellnessFX, EverlyWell, and BioForce HRV have recently started using biomarkers to provide blood, diet, and training analysis and guidance. While some docs believe biohacking may not be a save-all, claiming that overtesting can bring about its own set of health problems, these new companies are often staffed by high-level PhDs and MDs and are currently utilized by the Oakland Raiders, UCF fighter Demetrious Johnson, and mega-companies like Google and UPS, for example.
“There are few things that you will see in bloodwork that aren’t super obvious when you review lifestyle habits,” says Kashey. “For example, if you sleep too little and train too much for too long, your blood counts will reflect that. There’s no reason to make guesses when you can take a measurement. Testing shows that certain lifestyle habits can do real damage rather than ‘might be’ doing damage.”
4. Mind Your Mind
Zen master Phil Jackson was right: mindfulness training can improve athletic performance. The practice of meditation seems to work by reducing general stress, thus helping athletes better adapt to competitive pressure. As a proven stress fighter, meditation will also lower your chances of getting injured—people who are under high life stress are twice as likely to incur an athletic injury, according to researchers at the University of Missouri.
This year, the practice took off among high-level athletes, especially Olympians in Rio, but mindfulness was also brought into more mundane activities like doing the dishes, waiting in airport security, scrolling through Facebook, and drinking coffee. It has also been adopted by ultra-endurance athletes—runner Timothy Olson recently launched a multiday retreat that combines running with meditation. Google searches for the term have been steadily growing, and the backlash pieces have begun, inadvertently solidifying mindfulness as a trend.
Another crucial part of mindfulness and meditation is deep, controlled breathing into the belly, which also benefits athletes in tangible ways. “When done right, certain breathing techniques are effective at altering joint range of motion very quickly,” says Greg Spatz of Resilient Performance in New York City. Most people take shallow breaths, using their neck and upper back muscles to power their breath. These shallow breaths trigger a fight-or-flight response, and, in turn, your body dials up the tightness of your muscles, says Spatz.
5. Strength Athletes Were Wrong About Cardio
Strength athletes and coaches have had it in for cardio over the past couple of decades, believing that endurance exercise—particularly running—is, at best, the worst way to get fit because it drops your testosterone levels, makes you weak, and injures you. At worst, they said, a long run or ride was a ticket to an early grave and “the most effective form of gender reassignment for men.”
But recently, more enlightened strength coaches began to point out the flaws in that old logic and cherry-picking of data and see the value in low-intensity aerobic exercise. “The rash of strength athletes passing away from cardiovascular illness, the general unhealthiness of many of the top athletes in strength sports, and the inability of these individuals to truly engage in high-intensity exercise was one major impetus for the resurgence in low-intensity cardio,” says Alex Viada, owner of the online fitness consulting company Complete Human Performance.
Low-intensity aerobic exercise may allow you to work harder at higher intensities, which is important in sports like CrossFit and strongman. It can also help you recover from those nightmarishly difficult workouts by improving blood flow and resetting your nervous system, says Viada. And it becomes exceedingly hard to argue that running kills your strength when you have guys like Viada, who once deadlifted 705 pounds and then ran an ultramarathon, and powerlifter Andrey Malanichev, who squats more than 1,000 pounds and jogs 10 kilometers a week.
Most important for the average person: steady-state aerobic exercise—like jogging, cycling, or swimming—leads to specific adaptations in your heart that optimize heart health, potentially fending off the number one killer of Americans, says Viada.
6. Age Is Only a Number
In May, a 100-year-old retired school teacher set a new 100-meter dash world record for her age group with a time of 46.791 seconds. Ella Mae Colbert crushed the previous mark by a staggering 30 seconds. Her sprint was just one notable feat in a year when we collectively shunned the idea of one’s prime and realized that with a bit of hard work, age can’t stop you.
In October, Ed Whitlock, an 85-year-old Canadian, set a world record in the 85-to-90 age group with a marathon time of—wait for it—3:56. Yes, a man who started receiving AARP 35 years ago ran a sub-four-hour marathon. A month later, he broke his age group’s world record in the 15K with a time of 1:15:10. (The man is actually a record-smashing OG—at 72, Whitlock became the oldest person to ever run a sub-three-hour marathon.)
Over in the strength world, a 71-year-old, 181-pound Hungarian named Janos Fabri spotted up to the bar and pulled a record 574-pound deadlift, which is more than three times his body weight.
7. Old-School Cardio Machines Rule
Once relegated to rowing clubs, demoralizing physical therapy practices, and the saddest corner of big-box gyms, rowing machines, fan bikes, and other fan-based cardio machines are making a massive comeback.
“We’ve definitely seen phenomenal growth over the last few years,” says Greg Hammond, director of sales at Concept2, a company that’s been making rowing ergometers since 1981 and in 2009 introduced a ski ergometer. Meanwhile, with fan bikes on the rise, Schwinn overhauled its AirDyne, and in the last handful of years, LifeCORE and StairMaster developed their own takes on the fan bike.
Thank CrossFit for bringing the machines back in the fold. The Concept2 rower appeared in a September 2002 edition of the CrossFit Journal, where founder Greg Glassman named it CrossFit’s favorite piece of cardio equipment. Ever since, CrossFit boxes have been dominated by fan-based machines. This year, the CrossFit Games even featured a workout that included the rower, ski erg, and fan bike.
Should you be using a fan bike? Probably. They’re ideal for hard intervals because the resistance is set by how much effort you give. That is, the harder you pedal, ski, or row, the harder pedaling, skiing, or rowing becomes. That accommodating, exponential effect is unmatched by motor-powered cardio machines.
8. Calisthenics Can Make You Better at Everything
No longer do people care what you can bench. Instead, they want to know if you can do a human flag or a pistol squat.
In its annual poll, the American College of Sports Medicine found that body-weight training solidified itself as a top fitness trend and not just a passing fad. The study authors point to the method’s effectiveness, cost, and practicality.
“People are starting to recognize the incredible value in being able to control their own body and how that can transfer to any other sport or activity,” says Dave Durante, an Olympic gymnast and the owner of Power Monkey Fitness, a gymnastics and calisthenics-centric training program. “Gymnastics is a combination of so many different components: strength, flexibility, body and spatial awareness, and more.”
9. Fitness Gurus Have Become Instafamous
In the fitness space, social media “influencers”—a precious term for someone who has a lot of Instagram followers—made serious dough in 2016. They scored huge book deals, developed apps, and launched activewear lines.
Of course, they also brought in serious ad dollars by sneaking products into their photo feeds. In a completely unscientific analysis, we found that Google searches for products commonly shilled by Instagram influencers, like FitTea, shot up more than threefold across 2016.