Art by Tom Swanson

Body as Vehicle: Article and Interview

To be fair to the interviewee, I need to say that he had no knowledge of the flavor of this article aside from a few questions that I posed to him related specifically to his area of expertise in physical therapy and sports training.  The roots of the piece come from two things: 1) A life-changing moment and, 2) a natural evolution which transcends and includes that moment.  I knew where to start but the writing took on a life of it’s own from there.  In order to link both aspects in a way that will hopefully make sense to the reader it was necessary to rework the piece several times.

Photos are typically best in the viewer (vs on the page)

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I believe that our body is our vehicle through this life.  That’s not a revolutionary idea.  However,  there was a particular moment in my journey when I moved from this idea of the body as a vehicle to something I’d simply call truth. About 7 years ago, my brothers and I took my father off life support and he passed away a several hours later where he lay in the hospital bed.  When the crying and the sharing of stories was finished, it became very apparent we had to go.  That moment had been the elephant in the room.  One brother had remained in the room with me and we had a great and unexpected time of sharing; it seemed a long while but we finally went silent.  We stared at each other for just a second or two but I believe the unspoken message was absolutely clear:  Nothing more could be said and it was time to leave. There was a sense of dread as the moment unfolded…  The finality of death; walking out meant we would never be in the presence of our father again – whether he was in a coma or otherwise.

I paused before reaching the door:  One more look would bolster my memory of him.  The details of his appearance would be burned into my mind and then I’d go.  I pulled the curtain back to look at the man once more, knowing that it would be the last time that I saw him.  What happened next struck me to the core: My father was gone.  What I was looking at was only the shell that had carried around his spirit.

During the preceding 24 hours or so since flying into town, I’d looked my dad over in detail.  He had plenty of scars, spots on his skin from sun exposure, part of a foot was gone from amputation due to diabetes and he had something more akin to a hoof. Large bumps showed where broken bones had mended themselves in his flat feet.   In those hours, I’d massaged his poor feet and run my fingers through his hair, trying to give him some relief and connect with him through touch. But now that he’d passed and I looked at the shell, there was a profound sense that many things I related to my dad – the familiar sound of his voice, his smile, the feeling of his kiss on my cheek, his smell, and more were connected to the body in front of me but disconnected from the spirit.  It’s difficult to explain but, in a way, I didn’t relate to the thing in front of me.  In fact, there was a strong sense that I didn’t relate to it; the spirit had moved on and this thing was empty.  After all, it was his spirit that I really loved and that had loved me.  I knew in that moment: One day my vehicle would also stop running and I too would go.  A tremendous wave of appreciation for life and, at the peril of sounding like a slave to samsara, the physical and visceral nature of having a body washed over me.  There is spiritual and intellectual life that I embrace completely, yes, but I love what my body does for me.  It’s fairly safe to say that our time here all depends on blood running through our veins, nerves firing, chemicals moving into receptor sites.

Bumper sticker: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience”

I think we’re equal parts animal and spiritual being.  And depending on how your cards have been dealt, your animal may have been delivered with all the standard parts fully functional or you may have some parts that don’t function…   Some people are minus parts altogether.  Others have everything but the parts don’t do what the mind says, etc, etc.   The body can take you up a mountain, pedal you to work or carry your children to bed.  So we tell our bodies where to go and what to do, and then we get to see, hear, and feel everything along the way.  It can be incredible.  In a more enlightened state, all moments are probably incredible… but for us regular folks certain situations tend to elicit more awe than others and this, I think, is a large part of why we ski, surf, jump out of planes, etc.  That night in the hospital solidified something for me: I had a profound sense that I needed to make the most of my limited time on earth in this body.  This was by no means new to me but I felt it more imperatively than ever.  Another concept that was concretized for me that night was that I was the top generation (genetically speaking). It was a strange realization.  Both parents were dead and even if I lived to be 80, my life was almost half over.  Natural decline of the body’s performance through aging and the beatings it takes along it’s way meant that I only had so long to enjoy certain pursuits at a relatively high level of performance. For example, it was unlikely that I’d ride my mountain bike faster at 75 years old than I would at 36 (or that my body would recover from crashes as quickly).  Would I have to give certain things up as I aged?  Probably.

Get it while you can, kid.

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Our body sustains injuries, can get tight and painful or relaxed and loose, it could be in the peak of health or it could face dis-ease.  Exercise for sport, fitness, or fun can take us through the full spectrum of health – from wellness to injury.  How do we maintain what we have and/or make it perform closer to our potential?  Sometimes our attempt to reach health can actually be part of what takes us into decline and this is where I asked an expert for his opinion.

Too much of a good thing is not good.

This year, I wondered if I could get into the best shape I’ve ever been in.  It would be hard to measure given that I hadn’t kept detailed records from earlier in life.  Also, my primary sport right now is surfing – something I’ve only been doing for 7 years.  Anyway, what I really wanted was to be able to run, surf, bike, climb, etc, most of what got in my way.  The exact measures weren’t what I was going for: The goal was all-around performance with an emphasis on wave riding.  At the very least, I thought I could get into the best shape possible for my body at my age.  Seemed reasonable.  The core of the program would be pretty basic: Eat well, train smart, train hard, give adequate recovery, etc.  I thought I’d learned what most of those things entailed to some degree so it sounded easy enough.  So in August of this year when I had to leave my surf travels in Mexico and Central America, I committed to a fairly rigorous training regimen in order to replace the intense exercise I got surfing.

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I find surfing to be very physically challenging  – as much as any sport I’ve tried.  Unlike some sports, your efforts in surfing are partially determined by the conditions of your environment.  This is not to say it’s more challenging than other sports.  But if currents are strong, you have no choice except to paddle simply to maintain your position for catching a wave.  The swell can get more powerful than you anticipated and the waves larger than you can handle… “When in doubt, don’t paddle out”.  Too late.  You paddled out, the swell has come up, and you have no choice but to handle.  This is a contrast to running around a track where it’s your choice to slow down if you’re tired or your muscles ache.  The track won’t rise up and smack the shit out of you.  You don’t always have the same kind of luxury on a surfboard.  So, I trained hard.  And a funny thing started to happen: My sleep got worse than my normal insomnia.  Way worse.  I was worn out from two workouts per day and daily business but I couldn’t sleep even with strong prescriptions.  My mood deteriorated and I had ‘knots’ in my muscles.  I guessed that I was ‘overtraining’.  It had happened before and I made the conclusion faster than I had at some other points in my life.  Years before, I’d read a somewhat generic article about it in a fitness magazine but I wanted more insight.

Sean Roach has been generous enough to share his thoughts on overtraining.  Even if you are simply a sports fan (vs. training for one), Sean’s answers provide some insight into the life of an athlete.  His replies made me realize that I didn’t even know how to asked the right questions.  So, who’s Sean Roach?  I asked him to write his credentials for me because I’m familiar with him as a physical therapist – Doctor of Physical Therapy.  I’d gone to his clinic searching for help with a nagging shoulder problem and was so impressed that I sought training to improve my performance and went for frequent tune-ups.  He’s one of the best hands-on people I’ve come across in over 20 years of exploring a wide spectrum of healing modalities.  Sean’s knowledge is extensive to say the least and when he mentions that he works with elite athletes, think Olympians and the highest level track athletes on the planet (since he’s in Tracktown).  True to his nature, Sean went deep on his answers.  He might lose you in some parts, but try to stretch your brain; there are some nuggets of insight.

*Sean Roach, PhD, DPT, ATC

Tensegrity Physical Therapy (owner)

Western Institute of Neuromechanics (director)

Current career consist of the evaluation and treatment of orthopedic and sports related injuries. This is in addition to the design of individualized rehabilitation and performance programs. Population of patients and clients includes every age with range from young children to senior citizens. This population includes non- athletes to the elite professional athletes. Current focus is helping individuals learn how to train safely(particularly strength training) and recognize and manage early signs of overtraining and potential injuries. Actively involved with clinical research and publications in primary journal. Primary focus on the role of the hip in chronic low back pain and non- specific knee pain disorders.

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Daniel: How do you define overtraining?  

Sean: This is an interesting question and is open to discussion/debate. What is commonly defined as overtraining syndrome(OTS) is actually more appropriately termed non- functional overreaching (NFO). It can be difficult to differentiate between OTS and NFO. Some investigators have expressed that OTS is actually extremely rare and more often actually NFO.

OTS can be defined as a compromise of the body as a result of too much extreme exercise or training that results in negative responses in several bodily systems and longer term performance decline (>2 months).  These include, but are not limited to, the central nervous system, endocrine and immune systems. These negative responses are a direct consequence of an individual exceeding their bodies ability to repair and recover from the demands being placed upon it.

NFO can be defined as intense training leading to long term performance decline but with usual recovery within weeks to approximately 2 months.

The ability to differentiate between OTS and NFO is usually based on time of recovery and importantly not on degree or type of symptoms. It is also felt by some authorities that a continuum exist where OTS, when actually present, has been preceded by NFO.

Additionally another term commonly misused for OTS is functional overreaching (FO). This is nothing more than temporary decline in performance (a few days) secondary to intense exercise/training that results in positive physiological changes

Clinically the diagnosis of OTS or NFO is accomplished through history of athlete and with following findings:

A) Decreased performance persisting despite weeks to months of recovery

B) Disturbance in mood

C) Lack of signs/symptoms or diagnosis of other possible causes of underperformance

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Daniel: What are some key indicators of overtraining i.e. how does it typically present itself?  Will we see the same presentation in cardio and endurance athletes as we will in strength athletes? 

The diagnosis of OTS, like all other conditions using the word syndrome, is derived from a collection of different symptoms.

It is important to discuss a few terms to better understand where and when these symptoms occur. The nervous system is divided into a central nervous system and a peripheral nervous system.  The CNS is recognized as the brain and spinal cord. Everything else is recognized as the PNS. The PNS has a component known as the autonomic nervous system (ANS) also referred to as the involuntary nervous system.  The ANS is comprised of three subsystems: the parasympathetic (PSNS), sympathetic (SNS) and enteric nervous systems ENS). Our main concern within this discussion is the PSNS and SNS. The ENS is of considerable interest but much remains unknown objectively regarding this network.

The primary function of the PSNS is essentially a slowly activated dampening system (rest and digest), while the SNS is “quick response mobilizing system” (fight or flight). These 2 systems work in concert to help the body maintain a dynamic state of equilibrium. Both are crucial for a healthy state of being and can be greatly impacted by excessive and prolonged training routines.

So now the question should be why did we need to learn about these elements of the nervous system. Well there is a unique difference between OTS in aerobic vs anaerobic sporting activities. There appears to be more of an alteration of the PSNS with OTS in aerobic sports and SNS in anaerobic sports.

What may be observed with more aerobic/endurance based OTS (parasympathetic dominance) include: fatigue, depression, bradycardia and loss of motivation. In anaerobic/quicker/strength sports (sympathetic dominance) it may be an increased insomnia, irritability, agitation, tachycardia, hypertension and restlessness. It is very important to remember that these symptoms are generalizations as the nervous system is an extremely complex and uniquely wired entity in each biological organism. The potential symptoms mentioned are used as clues to help in differentiating an individuals diagnosis.

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Daniel: How should someone approach training to maximize their results/performance, including basic nutrition (if it’s a factor)?  How do you find the line between your personal ‘best’ and ‘too much of a good thing’?

Sean:  The ability to train intensely without decrements in performance becomes more difficult and challenging as the athlete becomes more competitive.  Whether it is endurance or strength related training, both diet and nutritional considerations are very important. The serious athlete is recommended to also consider having their blood work taken prior to starting an intense training regime to establish baseline numbers.

Included in the blood work would be iron, vitamin D3, total testosterone, SHBG, estrogen panel and thyroid panel. This is in addition to a standard complete blood count. Certain individuals may require additional test based on their past medical history.

Having these baseline levels allows the athlete to determine with a higher degree of objectivity where to concentrate changes if OTS is suspected. Without baseline values it becomes a much larger guessing game as to how to modify diet or hormonal levels if needed.

A great way to approach training is to keep a very detailed log of all training routines and diet, along with comments as to how the individual feels during and post training each session, including the following day. It is important for the athlete to be consistent with the log as it can be an invaluable tool for retrospective analysis for a health care practitioner or coach.

Essentially an athlete needs a good 6 weeks of basic conditioning prior to initiating an intense training program.  This includes sufficient strength, flexibility and endurance. Significant alterations in mood, fatigue and diminished strength need to be identified early and appropriate steps taken early in the process.  This may mean 1-2 weeks of minimal exercise, 8-10 hours of sleep daily and increasing fat and protein intake to help the body replenish glycogen levels and boost the neuroimmune system.  It takes approximately a week for the body to restore imbalances between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system.

Summary:

1) Prepare for an intense training period with proper preconditioning, addressing all elements of mobility, cardio and strength.

2) Diet: Sufficient protein intake (approximately 30 grams every 2.5-3 hours), fat intake and complex carbohydrates. Also, food high in antioxidants may be helpful in helping body repair following intense training bouts.

3) 8-10 hours of sleep and small napping periods as able throughout day

4) Early recognition of nonfunctional overreaching and the ability to modify routine as needed.  Importantly being disciplined enough to take a week or longer when NFO signs are present.

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Thanks go to all who take their time to give interviews and to you who read them. Exogenista is on social media : @exogenista on Twitter, Exogenista on Instagram, and on the Facebook https://www.facebook.com/Exogenistacom. Follow and/or like to get updates on fresh content. Comments on this site will be screened and will take time to appear due to tons of spam – sorry, spammers. Be well and much love, everyone.

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