Chris McDougall’s new book “Natural Born Heroes” promotes functional fitness.
What counts as fit? Being fast, having six-pack abs or being able to bench press more than anyone else at the gym? Chris McDougall, author of “Born to Run,” the book that launched the minimalist running movement, doesn’t think so. His latest book, “Natural Born Heroes,” explores the concepts of agility, flexibility and movement diversification—in other words, useful fitness. And that is the very question McDougall wants people to ponder. Is your fitness useful?
If your workouts lack variety (here’s a tip for runners—if all you do is run, your workout routine could use an upgrade), small tweaks can make a big difference towards becoming a more balanced athlete. Read on for five of the ways McDougall recommends stepping out of your comfort zone to expand your fitness tool kit.
Edwin Checkley, an English emigrant to the U.S., first put the concept of natural fitness to paper in 1890, with his book A Natural Method of Physical Training: Making Muscle and Reducing Flesh Without Dieting or Apparatus. Even in 1890 people were becoming specialized in their pursuits, forgoing the idea of fitness as a given for surviving in a harsh world. The Industrial Revolution allowed for more leisure, a shift that caused people to look to the concepts of diets, gyms and “exercising” to stay in shape. Instead Checkley touted the idea of Natural Training, which encompassed an active lifestyle and movement for the fun of it.
In the Early 1900’s Frenchman Georges Hébert took Checkley’s concept to a new level with his own Natural Movement program, explained in the book The Natural Method: Georges Hébert’s Practical Guide to Physical Education. Hébert’s credo was “Be strong to be useful,” a motto reflected in workouts consisting of running, jumping, climbing, swimming, balance, sparring, fresh air and no competing. The result is an arsenal of practical and useful skills. (Photo: Josh Gibney/Spartan Race)
Parkour is another brainchild of Georges Hébert. That’s right, the form of athletic expression chosen by convention snubbing youth, hipsters and former hippies alike, was created by a French physical fitness educator and theorist in the early 1900s. The French word “parcours” means obstacle training, and was one method Hébert recommended for training French soldiers.
Parkour’s resurgence, including being incorporated into military training, began in the late 1980’s, thanks to David Belle, another Frenchman, who helped to shape parkour into a recognizable sport. What’s been embraced as a way to interact with the urban environment includes an understanding of the basic principles, knowing your abilities, discipline, training and repetition. Whatever parkour means to you, there is no denying that it takes hard work to make bounding, jumping, running and climbing look so effortless and free. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
Look at Performance Gaps
According to McDougall, sports with a big performance gap between men and women actually count more as recreation than useful fitness. Think of body building or boxing. Being successful at those pursuits requires strength and bulk. Women compete in both disciplines, but they are sports primarily associated with young men. Then think about running and swimming. Men and women, old and young participate and do so with surprisingly close results. Meaning those activities embody natural movements.
McDougall argues that throwing also falls into the natural movement category, as something that, with practice, can be honed, by both sexes and all ages. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
Think about it—how often do you throw anything? Once out of grade school, it’s probably a rare, if ever, occurrence. How about tossing knives or tomahawks? That’s probably never. But, according to McDougall, that’s all the more reason athletes should try it.
In fact, McDougall says to throw something well is hard wired into our natural instinct. It’s a fundamental and an effective movement pattern. If it’s something you did as a child, you should have built-in fascia memory that allows you to improve quickly. If not, it will be more challenging, but is doable. Don’t worry; throwing doesn’t have to be performed with knives to count. Even throwing a ball works to develop body torque, twisting, coordination and movements necessary to hit a target (be it a bull’s eye or a catcher’s mitt) and fire your fascia. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
Burn Fat As Fuel - The Maffetone Method
You know those gels, chews and energy drinks you love? According to McDougall and others, they aren’t much more than candy disguised as health food. And they aren’t necessary. McDougall touts the Maffetone Method, a training and eating methodology created by Phil Maffetone and popular with endurance athletes in the 1980s. The theory is that reducing or eliminating sugar (the same goes for the fake stuff) and high-glycemic carbohydrates from your diet and taking the time to exercise at a lower heart rate (Maffetone uses the 180-Formula, 180 minus your age for a maximum heart rate), allows your body to adjust to burning primarily fat instead of glycogen as fuel. The result is athletes being able to go further more efficiently and feel better while performing. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)