Spartan Race Training, Functional Fitness, Melbourne and You

One of the things I often hear from people is that they don’t have time to get in shape or they don’t know where to start. Living in Melbourne makes getting in shape easy. Whether it’s losing weight, getting stronger, gaining the sort of functional strength and fitness you need to become a firefighter or getting training for a Spartan Race, Melbourne has enough training options to keep you busy for a lifetime.

Let’s cover one of the biggest hurdles for people first. When you were a kid you used to love running around, going until you could barely breathe, quickly recovering and doing it again. Life was fun. There were monkey bars, slides, games to play and hours and hours in the day to move and play. And then adults came along, forced you into a chair and made you stiff and tight. Sitting is our generation’s smoking. There may be nothing we do that is more damaging to our bodies than sitting. Research shows that sitting places more pressure on the lower back than even lifting weights poorly does. Not only that but it shortens and tightens many of the muscles we need for movement making you feel old and stiff. But do you know how to reclaim that youth and that feeling of effortless movement? By moving more. Movement cures lack of movement.

But the biggest problem we’ve got is that because you don’t move much when you do decide to move you’re no good at it – you’re stiff, tight and weak. That’s no fun. And in today’s fitness world no one has a “start sensibly here” plan. They have “Insanity” and “Extreme fat loss” plans that start with very high expectations of your current fitness levels. Did you start with Insanity at age six? Given that’s the last time you may have moved often what makes you think that you’re in better shape after being sedentary for twenty years than you were at age six when you ran daily? No wonder people hate exercise – they begin with something that’s too hard. That’s like walking into a martial arts school for your first class and being expected to spar with the black belt world champion every night. Sure, you’ll get better fast, but man are you going to cop a world class beating before you do. And if you know that once you walk in the door to that training hall for the night that you’re going to cop a world class beating, well, how much will you enjoy the thought of training?

So the very first step to getting in shape is to find something scalable and very definitely within your grasp. Fitness is not a race but a lifelong journey. In the grand scheme of things what good is one salad today versus twenty years of poor eating in comparison to a lifetime of healthy eating and one bad meal which is then just a drop  in the ocean, covered by all the good food you’ve eaten previously? It’s the same with exercise – what we need is to find something that can become your ocean, something that you can build up a massive volume with. The only way to do that is to start with easy. We can get to hard later, but if we have to choose between easy sessions daily and a hard session once per week – the ocean versus the drop – we should pick easy.

The absolute easiest thing that everyone should be doing more of is walking. Walking is not really exercise. It’s transport. And up until only about a hundred years ago when the first mass produced cars started coming out we walked everywhere. But beyond human evolution (as if there could actually be a bigger reason) there are other reasons to walk. Firstly, walking has a massive therapeutic effect. The rhythmic action is good for flushing muscles with fresh blood and removing waste products from harder workouts and has also been shown to be good for spine rehabilitation. Not only that but it is a powerful aerobic exercise. The fitness world is filled with Insanity and other types of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training). The problem with this is that our body is designed to do things at low intensity too. And just like a car we can’t risk running our engine at redline all the time – there needs to be some easy miles done too. Mike Robertson has done a great job in this post here talking about the benefits of aerobic activity over HIIT training. What you should see is that there are a great many reasons to use longer, slower forms of training. From a personal viewpoint I know that I have never felt better than I do now with a good mix of easy runs, some maximal strength work and one or two harder interval type sessions each week. I wrote about my current training split over here on Breaking Muscle and also talked about how useless it is for most people to be training a single specific exercise long term given their goal is actually to “get fitter”. When your goal is something as broad as being in decent shape you’re better off being permanent cross training mode and following something like the split I talk about in that article.

The next step to developing functional fitness and strength – say like the kind you need to get in the MFB, SOG or even the military – is to again look at broad fitness qualities. Strength, for instance, a cording to many seems to only come in one flavour – maximal. These people think that the only rep range you need to work in at all times is from one to five reps. I hate to break it to these guys but what happens if you’re fighting a fire and need to do something that lasts more than ten seconds? While there is carry over and greater efficiency found from high levels of maximal strength I’d rather fight fires with the guy who can lift 100kg twenty times non-stop than the guy who can lift 200kg once. Because while the guy who can shift 200kg is going to look impressive in the gym (and maybe without his shirt on) when we start having to perform hard for extended periods of time he’s going to wilt. That gym strength will seemingly deflate before your eyes like a popped balloon.

When modern fitness started telling people that you could get rid of longer efforts we started implying that the body isn’t comprised of inter related systems. Without my aerobic system working well I won’t recover between maximal bouts – one system under pins another. And just like we have energy systems that allow us to go for varying lengths of time we have ways to train for that too. Working up to five reps is one of them. But beyond maximal strength we also have general strength, which we train for around the ten rep mark, and then we move into varying degrees of strength endurance. And it’s only by working strength endurance that we develop true functional fitness. Fires don’t go out after sixty seconds and recruit training in the military lasts weeks and some of the trials in various selection courses can go for days. I can remember going non-stop for three days with no food or sleep during a particular course I was on. Then we had one good night’s sleep and were expected to march thirty kilometres. That’s strength endurance and to get it you need to train for it.

Luckily Melbourne is blessed with many personal trainers and gyms where you can go and do some of this work. It’s easy enough to do maximal strength work and strength endurance work indoors. But if you really want true fitness that is functional and carries over to real life activities, maybe like fighting fires or getting ready for combat, you need to get outdoors. And Melbourne is lucky in that you have beach areas like Bayside. There’s sand to run on, stairs to climb and even a few well known open water swims such as the Cerberus to do so that you never run out of options for fitness training. But this is where most personal trainers fall down. They won’t tell you to go run and play and move outside. They’ll tell you to come and train more with them in their cosy little studio. Well, life isn’t indoors with a climate controlled environment. Life is outdoors and raw. And if you want that Spartan warrior type of fitness you need to get off the couch and get outdoors.

As we’re training clients for Spartan Race we make a point about telling them to be outside on days they don’t train with us at Read Performance Training. There were no days off for Spartans, just days in battle and easier days marching to the next battle, and so it should be with people looking for the ultimate in functional fitness. Have a hard strength day in the gym and for recovery make sure to get outside, maybe to one of the beaches in Bayside, and walk or run. As the race gets closer the duration and speed of those sessions will need to be brought up – you are training for a race after all. The other thing to realise is that as you get closer to a race you need to do more and more strength endurance work and less and less maximal strength work. Again, you are training for a Spartan Race – it’s not a short event and you’ll need as much stamina as you can muster.

Here’s a list of my favourite training locations in Melbourne:

  • Read Performance Training (obviously).
  • The trails at Mt. Dandenong (but not the 1000 steps because that’s not even a warm up).
  • Black Rock beach for the Cerberus swim (my preferred Ironman training long ocean swim location) as well as the ramps that you can run up.
  • Lysterfield for some great trail runs.
  • The rest of my own training is made up of runs around Oakleigh, Bentleigh and the Bayside suburbs so that I can run along the beach and get some hill work in.

Favourite training tools:

  • Kettlebells for strength endurance work and recovery sessions including light pressing, get ups and mobility work.
  • Barbells for maximal strength work.
  • My Prowler for assistance leg work and recovery training.
  • Concept II rowing machine and Airdyne for high intensity work as well as some strength endurance.
  • Naturally I’m quite lucky as I own all this stuff and have daily access to it at Read PT.

That’s a simple enough plan – move often. Move for longer periods of time, which means you need to go slower. Lift some heavy things. Lift some less heavy things a lot of times. Cycle between hard days such as heavy lifting or hard running with easy days such as walking or easy runs. But realise that if you really want to be in great shape, to have the kind of functional fitness that will allow you to breeze through a Spartan Race or get into the MFB that you need to work at it for a long time.