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What is fitness - now?

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

In his seminal 2002 article for the CrossFit Journal, "What is Fitness?", Greg Glassman broke the dogma that he had seen in the wider sport and fitness sector wide open. Glassman openly admits he views the crowning of a triathlete as the fittest man on earth, with incredulity. He then goes on to define fitness from CrossFit's perspective and, by the logic expounded in the article, it would be hard to stand by the claim that Mark Allen, the triathlete in question, was anywhere closest to the fittest man on earth. These claims were made long before the advent of the CrossFit games, long before a huge number of people had followed versions of CrossFit programming for many years, and even before Glassman himself went on to define health as fitness over time. This may seem obvious to state, but since I plan on analysing how well Glassman's original claims stand up more than 18 years on, and the context in which they now find themselves being applied, I feel it is important.

Firstly, we need to recognise that, in Glassman's nomenclature, fitness is a measure of physical capacity (measured against one of three models) at any given time which can be measured by plotting the results of several tests on a graph, and measuring the area under the curve, at any given moment in a person's life. Working on that premise, health is then these measures repeated over time, at which point the measurable volume under the curves represents health. This concept is much simpler than I'm making it sound; fitness is what you can do, and health is how long you can do it for. Glassman's theory was that as physical capacity increased, so too did any number of biomarkers such as resting heart rate, fasting blood glucose, body fat percentage and blood pressure, to name but a few. This concept is often represented as values on a continuum, which passes from sickness, through a state of mediocrity labelled as wellness, before progressing toward the hallowed ground of fitness.

All of this holds up for the vast majority of people, but in the minority, those for whom training and competing at an elite level is their whole purpose for being, we see some reversal of the benefits claimed. Whether this be in elite CrossFit athletes, or those in any other discipline, there comes a point at which resistance to disease, and several other measures, begin to reverse. Whilst this doesn't undermine the theory as a whole (even the laws of physics break down singularity) it does bear noting when we consider CrossFit's claim that fitness is a hedge against sickness.

It may be more accurate to say that fitness will improve health, to a point, at which point diminishing returns are experienced in a fitness sense, in exchange for a health decrement. Regardless though, this truth has stood tall since it was first put into print, for the overwhelming majority. The methodology, and nutrition and lifestyle practices that are suggested to accompany the training, have yielded unparalleled results across as broad a spectrum of the population as you could imagine.

So what relevance does that have to people, and specifically me, today? As I see it, less than 5 months out from an ultra endurance world record attempt, there is a very real risk that in the midst of a health crisis affecting millions worldwide, that the level of training to which I currently aspire, may remove some of the hedge previously afforded me by my fitness. At this point, I naturally default to my risk versus reward thought pattern that I have with almost everything I do.

The way I see it, I'm approaching this challenge in a somewhat unconventional manner, most notably with much lower volume than most endurance athletes, but also with a much tighter focus on retaining as much broader fitness as possible - in CrossFit's definition at least. Both of these factors sway me towards reward, and away from perceived risk. In my understanding, it is the large volumes of training, or the repeated hammering of the central nervous system, that cause the risk to increase the most. Whilst I am taking on some longer sessions, and indeed some intense ones, both intensity and volume is below what people might expect. Add to that the fact that I'm keeping a relatively tight leash on my food, getting plenty of sleep, and focusing as much as I can on maintaining well rounded health, and I still see my situation swaying towards reward, and away from risk.

So what does this mean for the endurance community as a whole? To clarify, what I am about to suggest isn't based so much on my methods, but rather on my understanding of the CrossFit model of fitness and the principle of general Physical Preparedness, and how I have seen my body react after basing endurance training on them. I would suggest that, as a shift in elite athletes suggest, that there needs to be a greater shift towards well rounded fitness, and less sport specific training if only to reduce the fragility of endurance athletes. I would also suggest that the less elite, or serious an athlete is, the more this should be the case. It may be worth a fragile, short career that isn't best for long term health for someone whose goal is winning an Olympic medal, because that moment will mean enough to them to justify everything that becomes before and after. But what about the person who wants to run a marathon, just once, to tick it off their bucket list? Should they train like a marathon runner? Well, in a word, no! In two words, definitely not! Sure, they may complete the race 5-10 minutes faster, but so what? Other than bragging rights in the pub, what does this actually give them? Now before I get lynched, I'm not suggesting that non-elite athletes can't be competitive, and seek to improve, but I am definitely suggesting that their priorities are different, and this should be reflected in their training choices. An elite athlete tends to remain funded or sponsored if they get injured or ill and can't race or train, what does an amateur like me get? Unpaid time off work, and a series of real world problems.

So whilst risk will always exist, fitness as a whole can mitigate against most risks to our health to some degree. Where and how the tipping point exists will vary drastically from person to person, but my opinion on the matter remains that wider health should be a consideration when undertaking a training programme. That tiny part at the end of the continuum, where it bends back around and as we really push our training, we actually lose some of the health benefits, is probably more accessible than we realise, even in spite of our amateur status.

What does this mean for performance? In truth, it will affect performance. Quantifying by exactly how much would be near impossible as there are too many variables, however anecdotally, I have slowed by around 7-10% over distances ranging from 5km to half marathon with a greater emphasis on GPP, as opposed to running specifically, over a 7 year period. There are of course other factors to consider here, not least of which is my advancing age! The point is though, I can still perform at 90+% of my all time best, without focusing solely on one discipline, and furthermore I get injured much less and, crucially for me, I don't get ill. Can I promise the same results for everyone? Not at all. What I can say is this; I am far fitter now, aged 37, than I was 7 years ago when I was running my fastest times, judged by CrossFit's definition of fitness. The improvement in fitness far outstrips the loss of running speed. Furthermore, at longer distances, I now actually perform better, take less time to recover, and I'm more consistent. Again, there will be countless other factors at play here, but for me, it means that Glassman was right. Fitness is a hedge against sickness, but also training this way gives real, useful fitness, not singularly focused sporting excellence. As for how much excellence I can personally achieve, whilst working from a base of GPP, the next couple of years should reveal quite a bit! Based on my track record to date though, I am excited to see what's possible!

To keep up to date with my journey to the world record attempt, and beyond to future challenges, please take a moment to engage with me on my social channels:



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