Be Careful Choosing Your Sport!

Probably a better way of saying it is “be thoughtful when selecting your sport or primary fitness pursuit.” This will take a little explaining but I believe you’ll find it an interesting topic.

Whenever I’m working with my online coaching clients, we do some initial assessments to assist with program design. We consider goals, injury and health history, schedule, space, budget, family support, and many other factors. We also use my AnimalFIT system to dive into the concept of nature versus nurture. We identify genetically driven gifts and traits that make the athlete a natural fit or high performer in certain sports, based on their body type. We also respect their total presentation of relative strengths and weaknesses so we can bias their training to fit whatever sport or exercise they desire, even if it’s not numero uno in their genetic wheelhouse. #findaway #createthewin are always in our methods.

The theme of today’s discussion is going to revolve around epigenetic influences, and I’m going to use myself as an example. Everyone has innate tendencies and traits based on personal nature, or genetics. But these genes are influenced, aka upregulated or downregulated, based on our lifestyle, training habits, etc. That’s the epigenetic influence. This stimulus can range anywhere from rather mild to quite strong, depending on the depth of the influence. 

Regarding athletic abilities and body morphology, you can’t completely change yourself into a totally different person with training and diet. But you can make some major shifts, whether that’s a dedicated pursuit or a somewhat serendipitous outcome.

I spent my youth and high school years playing a variety of sports including swimming, baseball, basketball, tennis, and sprinting. And once I was 15 or 16, and the hormonal picture started changing, I got into the weight room on a regular basis. Nowadays we encourage this athletic generalization (versus early specialization) as a way to develop well-rounded motor skills and abilities. Back in those days…it was just what you did. You played. And…everybody had P.E. class. It’s probably no surprise that I really enjoyed all of these experiences, even if I wasn’t great at everything. Neither I nor my coaches probably knew as much about training and physiology as we do today (or think we do), but it was fun.

It’s interesting to me because any athletic boy or young man who did those things had good competency in most sports skills and carried a reasonable amount of muscle mass for his given genetic potential. By the time I graduated high school, I weighed about 165 pounds at just under 6 feet tall. I was no bodybuilder but the picture below of me doing handstand pushups at that time provides an example of my body composition. Although it wasn’t tested at the time, I was probably around 10% bodyfat, pretty much by paying no attention to diet and eating three “squares” along with a little junk food. 

In college I was a reluctant middle distance runner. One way of describing middle distance runners (those who run the 800 meters and 1500/mile) is that they are pretty fast with decent endurance, giving them the stamina to dominate those events. Another way is the way my coach at the time put it to me: “You’re not quite fast enough to be a sprinter but you lack the endurance and mental fortitude to be a good distance runner!” Honestly, he was right but I had fun anyway. Had a few good performances. Not necessarily stellar, but often on the high side of mediocre.

When I got out of college it was the mid-80’s and triathlon was booming. Naturally I got drawn into that. I still played a little pickup basketball and recreational tennis, but mostly I just started training for the triathlon. I joined a club and had a really awesome training group. I loved racing and going to the competitions, and I really savored the social element of the team (which I had always known and craved). But actually, I found much of the training to be boring. Endless hours at master’s swim practice staring at the black line on the bottom of the pool, and pedaling or running in frequently hypnotic states. Don’t get me wrong, there’s huge value in cardio training/endurance sports and some folks really find it to be their jam…but they probably have the mental fortitude my track coach saw lacking in me.

All that stated, though, I did pretty well in triathlon, at least up to what was then called “half-Ironman” distance. Now it’s cooler to call it 70.3 so you don’t feel lessened by doing “half” of something. I was pretty good at the swimming and running, and worked hard to eventually make the bike my strong suit. I even won a few small races. The picture below is me coming out of T2 at a regional event on my way to a 2nd place finish in 1988.

By the way, both of the pictures I’ve shared so far are from a collection of photos and memorabilia I received when my Mom passed away last year. She and Dad had kept a desk drawer full of photo albums and other items chronicling practically every year in our family history. When I see some of the leisure suits, hairstyles, and looks of the past…I laugh and cringe a little at the same time. And that’s especially true of me running down the road in a speedo.

Now I can return to the epigenetic influence topic. That triathlon training that I did really consistently for 7-8 years had a profound effect on my body composition and appearance. Sure, I got a little leaner (having my bodyfat officially tested several times around 7%), but in my best racing years I weighed about 145 pounds. It worked for the sport, but that was way too skinny in my opinion. I probably lost about 15 pounds of muscle. I was cold most of the time. And my immune function wasn’t as good as it was, or is now. Just an n=1 here, but even though I did a small amount of strength training and sports play, I mostly just did endurance training for all that time. 

Perhaps my greatest passion is hunting and fishing, particularly backcountry hunting. I found that my tri-training gave me great cardio but not enough strength and durability. Consequently, I lightened up on endurance training and started to explore/develop the conditioning model I currently use.

I continued to dabble in endurance athletics, but once I got rolling with career and family stuff, I quit doing triathlons. Just didn’t have the time or money, or really even the interest. I was into road bike racing for a few years, the early years of cross-country mountain bike racing, Nordic ski racing, trail ultras, kayaking, and running road races. Still playing some basketball, tennis, or Ultimate frisbee once in a while. But I was back in the gym on a very regular basis. Much of this relates to a 20-year stint when I owned my sports medicine clinic and gym.

But things didn’t change overnight. It took me another 7-8 years of reduced aerobic training (still doing more than the Guidelines level) and resistance work to gain back 15 pounds of muscle, and rekindle some strength, speed, and power (don’t laugh too hard). 

Fast forward to my early 50’s and I was developing my current business model and philosophy. I got into some “science experiments” in which I tested my evolving systems and paradigms on myself. 

The first of those was an assault on running a sub 60-second 400 meters. That happened, taking me about 8 months to get there. Great fun but also very challenging and humbling. Speed can be developed at any age, but it gets harder with each decade. It’s never too late, but that’s one of the reasons I’m always trying to inspire others to (safely and intelligently) delve into speed training. It’s the true fountain of youth. You’ll see in the picture below what I looked like during that journey. I was back at that 165 pound weight at around the 10% bodyfat level.

Then the following year, I was looking for a new project. For a variety of reasons, I decided to see how shredded I could get. But this time around I wanted to do that without losing muscle mass. That project revolved around a lot of diet and lifestyle modifications, as well as more creative training using those ever-evolving principles I’d been studying. Ultimately I got down to 8% bodyfat as a dude in his mid-50’s and felt really good.

You’d think I’d learn from all these things, and indeed I did. But I was exploring that ketogenic diet thang. I think that diet has great applications in the short term (2-4 months perhaps) to restore metabolic health and reverse some of the issues often associated with the Standard American Diet. But if you stay keto too long, it can whack out your hormones a bit. I won’t go into that here very much, but one thing that happens is you actually stop being hungry for the most part. So, ironically, even though you are eating a lot of fat (high caloric density) and very low carb, you eventually just don’t eat enough. I woke up from this stupor about 18 months later, having lost that 15 pounds of muscle again (for the second time in my life). Truth be told, I feel a little stupid on this one.

Sooo, a few years ago I started back on the rebuild of my strength and lean body mass. Unfortunately I had an accident and a major shoulder reconstruction with total joint replacement, so the rehab process severely limited my ability to train in powerful ways. Nonetheless, I’ve kept at it. Did a little “bulking” in the process and got up to 175 pounds. Now I’m at 171 and planning on working my way back down to 165 by summer’s end. You gotta embrace the process…as I always have.

The message that I hope comes from me sharing these experiences is this: What you do (or don’t do) for your fitness or your health – even if you are well-meaning or enjoying it – can often bring undesired results along with the desired ones. There is no one right way to approach fitness or athleticism…in fact there are infinite possibilities there. But we need to make sure we have a health-first focus that allows us to enjoy peak performance over a long healthspan. That’s the true definition of longevity and it’s what we all deserve. We just have to work for it.

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