Who needs a gym?

This is a post I’ve been trying not to resort to in a while- not because I think the content’s going to be bad or anything, just that it’s a bit of a leap from my usual stuff and because it’s actually going to be a bit too easy. However, given the fact that a) the Euros, Wimbledon and the Olympics are all on over the next month or so, b) my last few posts have been of a sporting persuasion, c) I vaguely know what I’m talking about here and d) I keep forgetting my other ideas, I thought I’d bite the bullet and go for it. So here it is, my first ever advice column for this blog: how to get fit and strong without the use of any gym equipment.

Fitness can be broadly (and fairly inadequately) split into three separate fields: aerobic & cardiovascular, muscular and flexibility. I’ll deal with all three of these separately, and am almost certainly going to have to add another post to fit all of the ‘muscular’ area into, but I’ll start with flexibility.

Some would argue that flexibility is not really part of fitness, and it’s true that, on the surface, it doesn’t appear to fit into our typical classification of the subject. However, it is just as much a matter of our physical ability to perform as any other, and thus probably has the right to be included as part of this list. The main reason I have misgivings about talking about it is simply personal knowledge- I don’t really know any exercises designed to improve flexibility.

However, that doesn’t mean I can’t offer advice on the matter. The first, and simplest, way to improve general flexibility and range of motion is just to get active. Every movement of the joints, be they legs, arms, back or wherever, makes them that tiny bit freer to move over that range and thus a little bit more supple- running, cycling, whatever. It is partly for this reason too that it is important to warm up and stretch prior to exercise- by extending the muscles longer than they are naturally used to, then they are prepared for that greater range of movement and are thus capable of easily moving across the more limited range that general exercise demands. Perhaps the easiest ‘flexibility exercise’ one can do is tree climbing  (which also happens to be endlessly entertaining if you can find some good trees), but stuff like yoga can be learnt without too much difficulty from the internet if you’re serious about improving your flexibility. Otherwise, I would suggest joining an appropriate club. Doesn’t have to be yoga or gymnastics or anything quite so extensive- martial arts (my personal preference, and a superb full-body endurance exercise) and rock climbing (which will build forearms and biceps the size of Mercury) are great for teaching your body a whole new way of moving, and are also a lot more fun for the casual enthusiast.

OK, now onto something I can actually talk about with some authority: aerobic and cardiovascular fitness. The goal when training cardio is simply to get the heart pumping- cardiac muscle works like any other muscle in that it can be built by straining it, breaking muscle fibres and having the body re-knit them into a bigger, stronger structure capable of doing more. Cardiovascular training should ideally be done at a rate upwards of 160 bpm (heartbeats per minute), but if you’re struggling to get into exercising then it’s best to start off with a more casual workout. Regular walking can quickly burn off excess fat and build up at least preliminary fitness (although be warned- to be most effective one should aim for a rate of around 120 steps per minute, or less if you’re struggling to keep that pace up, for at least 20 minutes. Bring an iPod too stave off boredom). The average resting heart rate of a person is somewhere around 70bpm- if yours is anything below 80 or so (measure it at home by counting the number of thumps on the left of one’s chest over the space of a minute) and you’re relatively serious about getting fit, then it’s best to step up a gear.

Just about any activity that gets the heart racing (remember- 160bpm minimum, 180 as a target) is suitable for increasing cardio fitness, be it running, cycling, swimming, rowing, football, rugby or whatever else you can think of- the only important thing is to try and keep the motion fast. Running or cycling on a machine (if you have access to one) will make it easier to keep up a pace (since air resistance is decreased), but reduces your workload, meaning less muscle is built on the legs and the effectiveness of the exercise is reduced, meaning you have to work out for longer. Rowing is an especially good exercise for both you muscles and your cardio, but access to a machine can be problematic. Oh, and a word of warning about swimming- whilst it’s a great full-body workout and can really improve your speed, it’s only going to be as effective as a good run or cycle if done at a fast pace, for quite a long time; moderate speeds won’t cut it.

You don’t have to judge one’s activity by heartbeat, as this can be understandably tricky if you’re pounding along a road, but learn to get a feel for your intensity levels. A low intensity, when you’re still able to comfortably breathe and speak (so about up to a fast walk), is a little too slow for proper aerobic work- moderate, where you can feel the breath coming hard but can still speak about normally, is fine for aerobic work over sets of about 20 minutes or longer- but keep going for as long as you can/have the time for. High-intensity work is you going flat out, where speaking becomes next to impossible. It’s probably best left until you’ve achieved a good level of fitness, but if you can manage it then just short bursts of less than 8 minutes (which is about how long you should be able to keep it up) just a few times a week can reap rewards.

A final thing about cardio, before I devote Wednesday’s post to the nitty gritty of muscular workouts- it’s at its most enjoyable when done as part of a sport. Pounding round the roads on a daily jog is almost certainly going to be a more effective workout, and if you’re really looking to seriously improve your fitness then it’s probably more the way to go- but the attraction can quickly fall away in the face of a damp Wednesday when you’re nursing a calf strain. But sport is without a doubt the best way to build up a good level of fitness and strength, make a few mates and have some fun in the process. Some are better than others- boxing is the single best activity for anyone after a cardiovascular workout, whilst something like golf doesn’t really count as exercise- but there’s something for everyone out there, if you know where to look.

Now, to plan a muscular workout for next time…

What good are Olympians?

In my last post I talked about the Euro 2012 football tournament, an event that no European could hope to ignore unless they lived in a particularly well-soundproofed cave. The event I’m going to talk about today however, has a strange power akin to osmosis meaning that it is physically impossible to avoid hearing about it from any distance less than 50 miles from any living being or, if you live in Britain, the centre of the earth. It is, of course, the London 2012 Olympics.

Olympians are, of course, the pinnacle of human physical perfection- or so we keep on being told, despite Usain Bolt’s famous obsession with chicken nuggets. In fact, it can be hard, on occasion, to believe just how amazing Olympians are meant to be. This is especially true given the amount of media attention they have attracted in recent times presenting them as ‘just normal people’, involving talks with their families and discussions of their home lives and ‘normalness’.

To an extent, some of their achievements don’t seem to be super-amazing either, when you think about it. Usain Bolt is a prime example- the man is the fastest on earth and is able to cover 100 metres in a little under 10 seconds.  This, we are told, is amazingly exceptional- despite the fact that anyone watching athletics willquickly notice a far larger number of people all able to run the same distance in less than a second more time. Then there are the dozens of other amateur or schoolboy sprinters, and fast sportsmen such as rugby wingers, who are able to do their 100 in around 11 seconds- in fact one England Sevens player (Dan Norton) has been clocked as quicker than Bolt over 20 minutes, and as a sportsman rather than athlete probably has a broader range of physical skills than him. Admittedly, most of us are probably not going to come close to any of that- but the fastest guy any given person knows is likely to be able to cover 100m in around 12 seconds, despite probably having no formal sprint training and not dedicating their lives to running very quickly in a straight line for an incredibly short period of time, which is perhaps not the most versatile of life skills.

A similar idea can be applied to quite a range of Olympic fields. Most people who keep themselves fit and lead an at least reasonably active lifestyle could cover 400m in around a minute with a little practice, so perhaps covering it in 45 seconds is not something super-amazing. I am not an especially serious rower, but I use a machine occasionally and can clock a time over 2000m of around 7:30- just a minute slower than the men’s world record on-water time for single sculls, and only 2 minutes slower than the record for a machine. A lot of blokes in the pub would consider themselves enough of a dab hand in a fight to be an at least reasonable boxer with a bit of training, and amateur boxers can’t be all that amazing can they? And have you seen the bows they use for archery? They make a laser sniper rifle look like a nerf gun- anyone could hit a target with one of those, surely?

And that’s before you even consider the practical implications of what it means to be an Olympian- I’ll use handball as an example. Up until winning the bid for the 2012 games, Britain had never had a handball team, and after the people who run these things had insisted that Team GB would enter a competitor in every event they had to produce an acceptable outfit within 4 years. This meant recruiting from people who’d already played high level sport (which mainly ended up being rugby players and basketballers) and retraining them as handballers. This required them all to spend countless weeks at special training camps. Most of them had to give up their jobs and entire lives for a worse-paid job with poorer facilities, all in pursuit of their one shot at the Olympics. As far as I know, they have yet to win a game. Surely a balanced life, sampling all there is of the human experience, makes one a better person than this relentlessly single-minded devotion?

Well… maybe, but to sell the achievements of an Olympian short is to seriously devalue them. True, in some events the differences between amateur and world-leading may not be huge, but in others the difference can be truly staggering. Consider distance running- I consider myself to be a reasonably fit guy, and go running of occasion around a 4-mile (6.4 km) course near where I live. There’s the odd small hill, but the majority of it is flat. I can cover that course in about half an hour, by the end of which I am usually sweating like a paedo in a nursery (my apologies for the rather crude expression). However, the other day a news item I saw featured a 10km event in which a few soon to be Olympians were taking part. Bear in mind that this course was over half as long again as mine… and yet they covered it in three minutes less time than I could my course. And they barely looked tired. Worse still, at my rate of running it would take me around three and a quarter hours (assuming I could somehow replicate my pace for six and a half times the distance) to complete a marathon, whereas even a mediocre Olympic marathon runner would expect to hit just two. Usain Bolt can typically keep a top speed of around 12 metres per second up for around 4 or 5 seconds, whilst a marathon runner can keep up six for hours on end. Consider events such as the javelin- they might look all light and easy to throw, but from experience trust me, they’re not. I can get one perhaps 15 metres- an Olympian six times that distance. In a long jump, most of us would struggle to exceed a metre or two, whereas the poorest Olympian jumper can hit six or seven with ease.

In these events the gulf in ability between an Olympian and a mere mortal is obvious- but do not be mistaken. That difference in terms of sheer class is present in every single Olympic discipline, and every athlete attending the games in London this year represents a world leader in their field. The Olympics is a showcase of the top 0.01% of the human race, and just how amazing we can be- and they deserve every ounce of admiration and respect that they get.