I was listening to this inspiring Rich Roll podcast interview with David Goggins. It was 1 hr 45 minutes of mind-blowing stories of what this guy has accomplished in his military career and in ultra-distance events, in light of the history he had to work from.
All the while, David was exclaiming that he was not a freak or something super-human, but a real person with the drive and presence to push through his own mental and physical resistance. The message seemed to be, “You just got to get off your butt and get going!”
But where was the human behind these achievements?
I was waiting for any word of reality and it was revealed right at the very end – right about 1hr 36min mark when David admitted that he had blown his adrenal system and had become very, very ill in the last years. He had been pushing and pushing, living like an athletic-warrior-monk for so many years and his body was giving out.
The human body just cannot do that and get away with it.
David made some important points. One that is true and needs to be emphasized is, that we have not come even close to seeing what we are truly capable of physically and mentally.
Temporary Versus Permanent Debt
But what I want to point out is that there is a line in there somewhere that separates an accomplishment that comes at a temporary debt that can be recovered from, and an accomplishment that comes at a permanent debt that cannot be recovered from.
We’re talking about physiological debt in the form of illness and injury that are more than the bumps and bruises of good, active living.
I feel compelled continually to point this out from different directions. I watched my father live this lifestyle of push-push-push and then die from cancer at age 53. I have watched my mom crumble from heart failure in her mid-60’s. I am watching relatives, friends and people all around in my community lose their health and freedom from a push-push-push lifestyle that has lost most of its connection to life-giving principles of mindfulness and flow.
It’s urging me to make more extreme efforts personally, privately in my family, and in my health-oriented business to make a reformative impact on my community. So, I will keep sending out the message…
Here is what I see:
There are two extremes (strictly in terms of exercise) that need to be avoided:
- Getting too little activity and stress to provoke growth, to counter the deterioration that occurs naturally in the body.
- Getting too much activity and stress which provokes too much deterioration. The body cannot keep up with repair and falls into permanent debt.
There are many other factors involved in a healthy life, which affect repair and restoration, but for this article I want to address just this physical activity component. Because, in the non-professional athletic world, people are jumping from one extreme to the other, and what we need is to help people land in the sweet spot between.
Not All Adaptations Are Equal
I agree with David, that the human body’s capacity for adaptation is amazing and important and most people have no idea what they are capable of. Adapt or die is the mantra of evolution. And, it seems as apt in modern life as it would be in primitive life. But adapt to what, exactly?
There are things we can and should adapt to and there are things we can but should not adapt to.
Humans are able to adapt to just about anything. There are stories of people surviving all sorts of hardships that took them to the edge of death but they go on to live long lives. This last year the official oldest living person on the planet was a French man who had survived one of the Nazi concentration camps in World War 2. That is a wonderful anecdote of a single person’s story that happened in a unique context. There are plenty others who survived the camps as well but were not able to bounce back after such extreme trauma.
There is a quality difference between what we see when someone adapts to something they should adapt to (e.g. having children and raising them for 20+ years) and when someone adapts to something they shouldn’t (e.g. a war). Not all adaptations are equal. We cannot just indiscriminately say, ‘Hey, go do harder and harder things to see what you can really handle!” Because at some point you will cross the line and find that your body cannot handle it any more – or the people in your life decide they cannot handle it any more. Are you one of those people who are ready to pay that price?
All adaptation is costly, even that which is required for recreational sports. It is stressful because it requires transformation inside the body to handle a level of activity beyond its current abilities. Some stress-and-adaptation situations a person can bounce back from – they experience only temporary debt from the challenge and end up a stronger, more healthy person because of it. While other stress-and-adaptation situations are so intense or so prolonged that the person cannot bounce back from them – they experience a permanent debt resulting in a broken and ill body that can never fully recover.
We only have to look at those returning from war or rescue personnel who rush to the scene of horrible tragedies to find many examples of those who live with permanent debt from the stresses they were subject to. We see professional or citizen athletes who pursue their dream of a podium or a position in a coveted race, only to destroy their body in the process of getting there.
Yes, humans can adapt to a lot of things, but we can make a good argument that not all things are worthy of our adaptation.
There is a bit of a contradiction then in David Goggins’ exhortation and example. On one hand, we need to be urged to go out and do good, noble things that might seem impossible to us right now – it is true, we are not coming even close to our potential. On the other hand, to follow his example in many ways could lead one to becoming seriously ill and permanently ill – we need to think carefully about what we will do, why, and what it will cost.
The message should be, “Get up and get out there! And do it wisely.”
Adaptations Is Good, Necessary
Adaptation to different or more difficult situations is not only good, it is necessary because life is full of these and we are forced to face them. But as we pass through we also need to try to land in healthy situation where there will be no permanent debt, if we can help it. As compassionate as we hope everyone will be, that debt would still be a burden to ourselves, our loved ones, and our community. Is it fair to involuntarily subject all these people to the cost of our ambition?
Permanent debts (in terms of physical body) include:
- Wrecked metabolic system (like diabetes)
- Wrecked hormone system (like adrenal fatigue)
- Wrecked cardio system (like heart problems)
- Wrecked mind
- Wrecked joints
All athletic sports are essentially provoking debt and must provoke it in order for the athlete to grow – the question is, “What are the signs that it is moving from temporary debt to permanent?”
Where Is The Line?
There are achievements and coaching programs for those achievements which will risk this kind of permanent debt, either deliberately or out of ignorance. The crux of the whole situation is knowing when to stop before the debt turns from temporary to permanent. How close to the line are the athlete and coach willing to go? Will they even recognize the line when they get close?
For you, which injury should be the signal that it should be the last injury you tolerate? Are you depending on the coach to tell you? Does that coach even ask or care? What is his track record with athletes? How many have been wrecked under his care? (No one advertises their failures, do they?)
The sweet spot of athletic exercise should put you into temporary debt that your body has to work its way out of – the performance and repair systems get stronger. This kind of health puts you in position to handle more extreme but temporary stress (perhaps that French concentration camp survivor was more prepared than others to bounce back).
Go too far – go too hard too soon, go too high, go too long – and you fall into permanent debt which the body will not be able to work its way out of. The performance systems might deceptively get stronger for only a limited time but stop because the repair systems can never catch up. Eventually, you cannot handle any stress, no matter how awesome you were for that period of time earlier in life.
If the podium of a long-life-with-healthy-body is the podium you seek, consider very carefully where you aim to land when you feel inspired by these athletic heroes to take a leap.
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