The Body Issue

Be impeccable with your word – this is the first agreement that you should make if you wish to be free.” – Don Miguel Ruiz

As a heads-up to readers – this post may stray into the realms of over-sharing. I suppose that, for a number of mounting reasons, I thought it necessary to share anyway.

There were a number of motivating events for this article.

Most recently, I was listening to an interview with natural body-builder Steve Cook, where he touched on the not-so-glamorous, and perhaps downright harmful, elements of the world of competitive body-building – specifically, the severe body dysmorphia, eating disorders and bouts of depression that can easily accompany a life spent hyper-analysing one’s physique. This is only amplified by the fact that success and accomplishment in such an objectively bizarre sport rests only on the subjective opinions of four judges, all of whom seek to identify minute flaws in the mountain of hours you’ve spent manipulating your physiology.

An awareness of my own insecurities with my body had been gradually accruing over the years, and so hearing someone as prolific as Steve and interviewer Ross Edgley discuss it openly was perhaps the trigger for me putting my growing thoughts and realisations to paper.

My conscious awareness of it may be relatively new, but the symptoms are as old as my entire (albeit brief) career in athletics to date.

Skin-fold testing by the Sports Institute at my school in eighth grade left me with the ingrained habit of pinching the skin on my abdomen on a multiple-times per day frequency. The frequency of ‘tests’ would fluctuate wildly, depending on what I had eaten that day, and its perceived ‘goodness’. This unfortunate impulse continues to this day. My levels of frustration and anger, things I now understand to be expressions of a diminishing self-esteem, would ramp up over the years if I spent just one day without training. I came to realise, only in the last eighteen months, that my largest sense of self was dependent on physical fitness – and largely reflected by external measures of validation. I realised I couldn’t imagine genuine comfort with my own self if I wasn’t at a certain level of physical fitness, and if my body didn’t appear in a certain way. Despite trying to pride myself on a lack of ego, and limiting vanity as best I could, I found myself reluctant to head to the beach or pool unless I could try and get in a quick weights session beforehand. Things that I cringe to write, but true nonetheless.

I’ve been using the past-tense when I describe these unhealthy symptoms of body insecurity, and I really shouldn’t be – moving away from this is a daily-practice for me. It’s something I have to consciously try to resolve. The habits of excruciating self-analysis and critique are pretty deeply rooted.

The reason I am sharing this is because I think experiences of body dysmorphia, disorders of diet and a grossly unhealthy relationship with one’s physical body are far more common in men than is typically discussed. A conversation with a training partner, himself in phenomenal shape, around the time of my marathon-swim further highlighted just how not alone I was in having such toxic thoughts swirling in my mind.

Within the field of gender studies, the measurable effect that Barbie dolls have on the body-image of young girls has been well-documented – with Barbie herself possessing an almost impossibly-petite physique found in less than 1 in 100,000 Australian women, and theorised to have a body-fat score so low that menstruation would be prevented altogether.

When one stops to consider the shapes of the male action-figures that are presented to young boys (traditionally), a similar image is quickly painted. My Saturday mornings as a growing child were filled with the bulging biceps, ridiculously-chiselled abdomens and shredded-quadriceps of the likes of Tarzan, Batman and Hercules – all expressing no emotions except anger, never experiencing fear, and solving all their problems through easily-justified violence. Early adolescence saw a shift to the steroid-riddled physiques and CTE-inducing antics of professional wrestling.

In the aforementioned interview, Ross and Steve discussed the stark contrast between the GI Joe action-figures of the seventies, and the modern versions of the same toy – the present-day soldiers possessing massive chests and arms that would surely leave the admittedly ‘normal’ looking originals feeling totally inadequate. This gradual hyper-masculisation of children’s toys has been theorised to have helped contribute to the number of teenage boys using illegal metabolic steroids more than doubling between 2009 and 2012.

Realistically, there are probably an infinite number of factors that effect our perception of our bodies and our selves, and our increasing societal obsession with the inherently impossible pursuit of physical perfection.

I would hope that it would be evident from my writing and my time in endurance sport thus far that I am completely in favour of pursuing physical improvements, and of expanding our capacities for strength and stamina. Chasing personal development through endurance sport is entirely central to my sense of self, and by its nature, seeking to improve one’s self physically is not inherently unhealthy.

I would argue, however, that we can easily brush over the blatantly unhealthy and detrimental elements of physical pursuits like this – pretending instead that behaviours that may well be genuine problem areas in our lives are simply examples of our ‘passion’, or our ‘obsession’. We gloss over unbelievable perfectionism, or binge eating, or calorie-restriction, or a complete obsession with physical vanity, as mere signs of our dedication to the pursuit of gaining strength and stamina. Our relationship with something that should be bringing real joy and comfort, the act of moving and using our bodies as they were meant to be used, can so easily swing into the realms of toxic behaviour, in this era of social media-equipped personal trainers lighting up our news feed with topless gym pictures, of ‘eight week challenges’, and ‘washboard abs in five weeks’ magazine headlines.

As athletes, I think it’s crucially important that we all sit back every now and then and properly consider our relationship with training. It’s not necessarily an easy question to answer, that of ‘am I doing this for the right reasons’. The Passion Paradox authors Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg argue that the answer can be found in the balance between how much of what we do is motivated by intrinsic forces, rather than external sources of validation – instead of pretending that humans are immune to the often-nice feelings of ego and pride, they present that so long as the ratio is at least favouring intrinsic sources in the majority, then we are probably doing okay.

The problem is that these internal conversations are not happening enough, I feel, particularly within men. It took me, at least, over a decade of consistent physical training to even begin having that discussion with myself – leaving me now with ten years of unhelpful thought patterns and toxic behaviour to try and reprogram. As I said before, it’s a daily practice – it takes applied effort, just as training does, and patience, and self-compassion.

The most useful tool thus far has been this practice of real compassion with myself – ‘cutting myself some slack’. Our modern idea of high-performance training drills into us from the outset ideas of unrelenting hard work, of never-settling or missing a workout, of always pushing ourselves – again, done well, these might be useful characteristics to possess. I’ve always felt compelled to get in the gym or pool, despite how sick or tired I may be feeling, and that a failure to do so on a given day was representative of some kind of personal failure at large. That’s not at all to say that I have never backed off or missed training sessions – just that whenever I have, I would be filled with feelings of inadequacy and regret. A recipe for an unhealthy long-term relationship with a passion, evidently.

Now, I am constantly trying to assess how I am feeling about my training, and question what is driving me. When I have these natural feelings of exhaustion, or reduced motivation, I try to be gentle with myself. Rather than meeting these normal experience for any athlete with frustration, I try to be ‘impeccable with my word‘ to myself, and to just accept whatever my best effort may be that day. I’ve tried to reorient my personal goals to be far less influenced by external factors – rather than achieving a certain physical look, I am trying to improve my strength or power. Rather than concerning myself with body-fat percentage or resting heart-rate, as I have been known to do, I’m trying to find joy in the fact that I can do things now that ten-year old me would have been amazed by. Rather than concerning myself with winning certain events, I am trying to focus on goals that are dependant only on myself.

And its tough – it’s a genuine uphill battle. But what good is all this physical work if it leaves us battling demons and mental anguish that is so totally unnecessary? I was reminded of the line “riding your bike to your job at Monsanto” by my partner the other day, in reference to one unhealthy habit undoing all the hard work done in other areas.

If you’re anything like me, and you read this article, I hope that it can start to spark a conversation that we all should be having with ourselves – and one that I wish I had started ten years earlier.

The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, but the second best time is right now.

Expanding Our Scope, or Why Cross Training Is More Than A Side Hustle

The SAID principle – ‘specific adaptations to imposed demands’ – is undoubtedly a universal and unyielding rule of training, and human biology as a whole.

We improve at that which we practice. If you lift a load of heavy weights on a consistent enough basis, a broad range of physiological and neurological adaptations take place in your body – increased muscle fibre recruitment, increased metabolic function, increased skeletal muscle mass, to name a few – and over time, you become better at lifting heavy weights.

In a traditional sense, there’s really no getting around this specificity requirement for our training; hence why it is uncommon to see elite marathoners working on their maximum deadlift in the gym. The chronic physical adaptations in the body required to run a fast marathon time could not be more different than those required to heave three hundred kilograms from the ground.

Therefore, when employing alternative forms of exercise in our training to provide respite or variety (cross-training), we are historically encouraged to maintain a level of specificity in our actions. The cross training may be a completely different activity than our usual chosen sport, but the underlying energy systems and demands on the body remain relatively constant.

This is pretty well Fitness Training 101 material.

However, it can be argued – and has been demonstrated, both academically and anecdotally – that this interpretation of the principle is limited, and perhaps is far too definitive than it should be.

I had this exact conversation with a friend and now-retired elite Australian triathlete, who was baffled by my brazen and perhaps ill-informed choice to train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu consistently in the lead up to my first one hundred mile ultramarathon attempt.

Mixing the two vastly differing disciplines can indeed seem conflicting and counterintuitive at a glance, as outlined earlier, and as pointed out by my friend. After all – what exactly am I asking my body to adapt to, and why am I sending it such mixed signals? Do I want to adapt to be better suited for fighting in short, intense anaerobic efforts, or to be able to aerobically turn my tired legs over, mile after long mile?

I’ll completely accept that the physiological requirements of the two, when applied so literally, are not in harmony. Distance running favours high levels of muscular endurance, and a strong cardiac and pulmonary output at low effort levels – while the more intense Brazilian Jiu Jitsu calls for muscular strength and power, and an ability to function predominantly anaerobically.

But if you apply an only slightly wider interpretation of the SAID principle in training, and look at some of the perhaps more intangible elements of human performance, the choice to train both is perhaps not quite so brazen.

For one, my foray into Jiu Jitsu exposed me to constant, maximal intensity efforts over continuous hours. There was sweat and blood, and bittersweet moments of total bodily exhaustion. It taught me calmness under pressure (while an opponent is trying their best to choke you unconscious) a genuine tolerance for mild to severe discomfort, and a degree of fearlessness matched with deep humility and respect for limitations. It taught me to find reserves of energy when I thought I had reached my maximum output. It’s a pursuit in which you are constantly reminded of the ‘bigger fish’ that surround you, and are forced to make peace with that fact, put your head down and seek improvement. These are all useful tools to have in an ultramarathon running toolbox.

It’s sort of like involuntary yoga.

I’ve never experienced a more tangible and real feeling of ‘the grind’, a word thrown around like so much confetti in the realms of fitness training, than when sparring Jiu Jitsu. What we are actually referring to when we talk of ‘the grind’ is the notion of ‘work capacity’ – the amount of physical exertion that we can both perform and positively adapt to. My work capacity, my ability to function continuously under duress and fatigue, improved dramatically in my year of counter-intuitive training – and I remained injury free, healthy and motivated to learn.

Can it not be argued that the hours spent in the martial arts gym helped me to build and polish skills that actually translate wonderfully to the world of endurance sports, despite the fact that they share select few physiological requirements? Did the work capacity that I built in Jiu Jitsu not spill over into my long distance running ability?

Endurance athlete, and personal hero of mine, Ross Edgley would undoubtedly agree – serving as a testament to the body’s ability to adapt to multiple fitness components at the one time in his 2016 running of a marathon distance whilst pulling a 1400 kilogram Mini Cooper. The ‘freakish’ event highlighted Ross’ capacity for both strength and stamina, which he developed through building an absurdly high work capacity. Ross is famed for his ability and willingness to take on any challenge at seemingly any time, no matter the discipline; and as a result, has become one of the most rounded and high-performing athletes walking the planet today.

It is hugely important that we don’t write people like Ross off as freakish, but rather dissect and analyse how they became the way that they are. Ross didn’t emerge from the womb with the capacity to swim two thousand miles around the English coastline, or rope climb the height of Everest in eighteen hours (all things that he has achieved) – he developed it slowly and meticulously over time with varied yet focused training.

I suppose the take-away from this post is to not be continuously caught up in the finer points of fitness training, and to challenge and question traditional ways of thinking about our abilities. While we should indeed all learn more about existing knowledge and research in the fields of physiology and psychology, we can also benefit from being more liberal and broad in our application of said knowledge. I see a lot of athletes that I know become so obsessive and confined with their approaches to their own training, and I’m becoming more and more convinced that it may not be always necessary. It can limit the ‘wholeness’ and overall ability to perform a range of physical tasks, can limit training variety and interest, and can crucially withhold valuable skills and lessons that can unexpectedly be added to the repertoire of our pursuit in focus.

A common explanation I offered in the last year of my training was that “running an ultramarathon is hard, and so I’m just training to do hard things.” It sounds simplistic and poorly informed, but there is a mounting body of evidence that suggests that we may have been unnecessarily deconstructive and limiting in our approaches to training in the past. I lifted heavier weights, I rock climbed, I fought and swam, and ran a load of miles on the trails. My capacity for handling discomfort and fatigue increased. And I had the best athletic performances of my life, to date.

It’s important that we remember that the body doesn’t differentiate hugely between a carefully tracked and recorded track workout at the Australian Institute of Sport, or two hours of star-jumps on the spot in a hotel room at 2:00AM – it merely responds and adapts to stress and stimuli.

We don’t always need to over complicate it.

Channel Swimming, An Introduction

 


It is with some level of anxiousness that I begin writing this first post. I try as best as I can in my daily life to maintain a foundation of humility and to do away with my own ego as much as possible – and so the notion of dedicating a website largely to one’s own athletic pursuits can, at first glance, seem to fly in the face of that.

This being said, I hope that Misogi Team can be far more than just another Instagram fitness account in a market that is already heavily saturated. Rather, the site intends to document both the physiological and psychological science behind endurance and our often self-imposed limits, as well as articles on the achievements of men and women far more interesting and accomplished than myself. I hope that at least one person following the site feels to some extent inspired to raise their own bar for themselves and to try and see just exactly what they are capable of, just as the practice of Misogi has done for me.

Obviously, the site will also serve to document my training (ideally in an engaging an non-egotistical manner) and preparation for the seemingly endless physical and mental challenges that I have chosen to lay out for myself – but to a larger extent, it will focus on the mindset and psychological exercise that I am convinced are the keys to achieving one’s objectives.

 


The deep ocean scares the absolute shit out of me. I honestly wish that this wasn’t the case, but it would be a lie to say anything else. In my own defence, it is not so much the depth but rather Australia’s Great White inhabitants that I have such struggles with. I have spent my entire life in and around the ocean, but the further I have tried to venture into open water swimming with comfort, the more readily apparent my genuine fear has become.

Open-water training in the South of France

I hear romantic stories from other triathletes and long-distance swimmers about the pure bliss and euphoria they find in the open swell, and the remarkable beauty of the wild ocean. I’m sure that it’s there, and I deeply wish I felt the same – but the looming threat of a fish-related death seems almost undeniable to some fight-or-flight part of my brain.

It may indeed seem trite and overused, but I do sincerely believe that there are wonderful times to be had over the borders of your comfort zone – as a thousand online personal trainers can tell you, with any number of nice motivational posters. Most of the meaningful experiences I’ve had in my relatively short life thus far have been as a result of medium to severe discomfort and unpleasantness. Both physically and mentally.

As well as that, on a personal level, I really do not like something so intangible having such strong control over me. Such a thing as fear will just stand in my peripheral, as an unwavering testament to that which I cannot do.

So it seemed suitable to orient my next big athletic goal around the bountiful aquatic sphere of the Australian ocean.

On March the 23rd of this coming year, I will be attempting to swim the equivalent thirty-three kilometres of the English Channel in the open waters of South Australia, while fighting a very tangible fear pretty much every stroke of the way.

I’ve been a strong swimmer, but never a wonderful swimmer – having come from a traditionally long-distance running background with the odd triathlon thrown in. Comfortingly (?), the reading I have done on the matter reinforces my suspicion that you don’t necessarily have to be fast – you just have to be able to continue, all day long, against an ever-mounting desire to stop. This attempt would be nearly seven times as far as I have ever swum before, in open waters, with the very real possibility of having to swim in darkness at either end of the day. Two rather daunting elements for me to mentally adjust to, and to prepare for.

Despite my lack of a swimming pedigree, the foundational skills towards achieving something like this are deceptively intuitive, and are techniques that I have practiced in other arenas, for all of my life. Someone swims the English Channel is very much the same manner that anyone does anything seemingly difficult.

You strip the task down into manageable components, and tackle them individually on the micro level. What starts as an insurmountable distance is broken down into several, smaller pieces that seem within the realms of possibility. This is one of the central rules of Misogi – ‘process over outcome.’

If every single process ( in this case, each stroke) is delivered with maximal intention and efficiency, and continuously delivered, then the outcome is inevitable – the Channel will be crossed. So attention needs to be stripped entirely from the far-away objective of finishing the swim, and rather placed wholly on being fully present for each individual stroke. The beach at the end really shouldn’t be on my radar until it is absolutely safe to let my mind wander, and instead I should resign myself willingly and intentionally to the possibility of sixteen hours with my head facing the bottom of the Southern Ocean.

These are techniques that we all use at some point in our lives – be it at school, or at work, or with raising children. We take a huge project and we strip it down to a more palatable size, and focus on what we can handle right now, rather than the overbearing big picture. You don’t spend the first year of medical school stressing over your internship several years later. For some strange reason, I have the impression that very few people apply this some school of reasoning to their own physical capacities. We are truly all capable of far more than we ever ask of ourselves, we just tend to focus on looming goals rather than the actual body of work itself.

That is the theory, at the very least. What remains for me is obviously a huge amount of time between here and now spent progressively overloading swimming distance and time, in an effort to induce chronic changes in the body to adapt to different movements and endurance-swimming specific demands. Perhaps more importantly for me, there will need to be a lot of time spent mentally preparing for dealing with what is a very real personal fear – as I will explore and write of in the coming training weeks.

At the very least, I do not have any fear of failing – despite failure’s very real presence here – or a fear of the proverbial ‘biting off more than I can chew’. I will happily go down swimming, even if it means being dragged from the water into a support kayak, a mere seven kilometres into the attempt in March. There is glory in failing in great attempts, as Bruce Lee so eloquently spoke.

I really, sincerely believe that there are countless benefits to my life brought on by attempting to do things that fully extend my perception of my abilities, or my abilities themselves – even if that means falling well short of my target. Process over outcome, once again.


If you’re interested in reading about the coming months and my experiences of trying to get into Channel-crossing shape, then stay tuned for following articles. I’ll explore the physiological requirements and science behind moving from my current state of fitness to a more aquatic one, as well as my experiences training and the experiences of other men and women who inspire me. As much as it fascinates me, I will try to prevent the sports science components from becoming overly dry – and similarly try to keep a more grounded approach to talking about myself and my experience than the “me, me, me” attitudes that can easily come with this territory.