I love The Matrix. In my favorite scene, Neo straps himself to an archaic dentist’s chair. He’s learning martial arts by downloading them into his brain. Once they’re installed, he can use them in the digital world. To make the downloads, Neo’s colleague plugs a thick cable into the back of Neo’s skull. He taps a button on his screen, and Neo’s “training” begins.
Wouldn’t that be amazing? Instead of dedicating a slow, tedious decade to one martial art, we could plug in, download it, and be awesome.
But life isn’t like that, is it? To master something, a slow, tedious decade is mandatory.
What Shysters Sell
A slow, tedious decade doesn’t sound very exciting. It’s a daunting, groaning prospect. Everyone withers at the thought of devoting so much time and energy to such a long-term project at such a slow pace. It’s much more tempting to think that, just maybe, we’re special. Maybe we can find a secret shortcut to getting most of the benefit with very little effort.
The fantasy is rampant. Shysters build their businesses on it and capitalize on our laziness. We can get fat over a decade, but skinny in six weeks. We can be a couch potato, but transform into an Olympian in 20 minutes of high-intensity intervals. We can be everything we’ve ever wanted to be, even bulletproof, and it only costs $39.99.
Right? No, I’m afraid not.
As Greg LeMond said, “It doesn’t get easier. It just gets faster.”
Remember that: It. Doesn’t. Get. Easier.
The Real Winners
Several years ago, two friends were talking about what it takes to sport climb at a high level. My friend Greg had been climbing a long time, but he’s better built for rugby or football. He’d never climbed harder than 5.11. Will, a professional climber, told him, “Your biggest problem is that you don’t try very hard.”
When Greg was 18, he convinced his dentist to try a root canal without anesthetic. Old-school and Eastern European, the dentist agreed. Greg completed the procedure, fingers like dragon claws digging into the armrests.
So telling Greg he didn’t try very hard was like telling a bull he doesn’t get very angry. Greg was taken aback, but took Will’s comment to heart. He buckled down and focused. Two years later, he climbed his first 5.13. That same year, he ran his first 50-mile ultra and set a deadlift PR of 500 pounds.
There is no secret ingredient
In Kung Fu Panda, Po receives some key advice from his father (who happens to be a goose).
The secret ingredient is ... nothing.
Wait, wait. It's just plain old noodle soup? You don't add some kind of special sauce or something?
Don't have to! To make something special, you just have to believe it's special.
First, believing something is special is what the shysters want. They try and sell special all day long just as Po’s dad does with his soup.
Second, special isn’t necessary. We all have what we need to do what we want. The unknown variables are how far we can go and whether we have the will to do it.
Luckily for uphill athletes, the path to high-end endurance is well-known. If we can commit to a long walk down that path, progress is almost certain.
The question is not how far. The question is: Do you possess the constitution, the depth of faith, to go as far as is needed?
—Il Duce in The Boondock Saints
What does endurance demand?
In the field of endurance training, world-class athletes and their coaches know all the ingredients. The magic they create is in how they combine them. It’s not in discovering (or pretending to discover) something that’s never existed.
To be as good as you can be, you need to:
1. Be humble.
Accept that it’s going to take years of hard work to get where you want to go. The only way to escape the work is to dumb down your goals or waste your potential. (To do the former, swim in small ponds. To do the latter, pride yourself on your off-the-couch performance.)
2. Stay healthy.
Health is the foundation of athletics. Training can become unhealthy, and when it does, fitness will deteriorate. Focus on health, and your long-term mileage will be a lot better.
3. Embrace constraints.
Everyone, even a professional, has constraints. Professionals have the luxury of human capacity as their constraint. The rest of us need to accept that kids and careers are ours. And they’re worth the sacrifice.
4. Start early.
Chances are good that you’re at least six years from your potential, not six months. And certainly not six weeks. Even when training, people often get seduced by the first bump in ability, thinking that they’ve realized their potential. Not so. That’s just a white belt. If it takes 10 years to get a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the same to get an MD, why would anyone think physical actualization happens in one summer?
5. Be consistent and gradual.
Consistency, gradualness, and modulation. Slow and steady wins the race. An approach that’s modest and regular will beat something more extreme that’s less consistent.
6. Take it easy.
Training volume is the dry sand you need to build a castle. Respect that. Over 90 percent of your training should be easy and below your aerobic threshold.
7. Be specific.
Being active isn’t enough. Make those low-intensity hours count. Your training should be as specific as possible to your goal event.
8. Add a small amount of intensity.
Only after the first seven are in place does it make sense to go hard. It’s safe to add a small amount of intensity—less than 5 percent of total volume—when your aerobic threshold is 90 percent or more of your anaerobic threshold.
Did I Burst Your Bubble?
It’s too bad there isn’t a secret sauce, isn’t it?
Believe it or not, slow and steady is the secret sauce. With everyone else chasing fantasies, you can get miles ahead by just ignoring the nonsense.
As Tyler Durden said:
You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.
Negative? Demoralizing? Not at all. It’s liberating. You don’t need a lottery ticket. You don’t need to search for something special that doesn’t exist. Just buckle down and get to work.