I thought I’d write a little ditty about something that many people feel is a simple concept, but is in fact very complicated. When asked “are you fit?”, the correct answer ought to be another question: “for what?”. It is one of those words where the received meaning has escaped the actual definition – suitability. In this modern world where the pursuit of fitness is the new religion (see the last post on the parkrun), the word takes on a binary, “either you are or you’re not” – type feel, the inference being that to be unfit is tantamount to be morally deficient, rather than simply not suitably prepared for a given activity.
So what? I hear you say. At least this modern religion is healthier than some of the guilty, self-flagellatory variants of the past. On the other hand, however, it is actually very similar: one of the pernicious consequences of this binary, moral approach to fitness is that training becomes an exercise in proving self worth. Every session is a test to be passed, not a period to prepare. The result? Chronic overtraining and underachievement, leading to lower self worth and redoubled, disastrous efforts to prove oneself on the training ground.
I have had a many and varied relationship with physical training. Indeed, those who only know me now would be surprised if the relationship had ever been anything more than a long distance correspondence course (I do love my wine). However, I did spend 10 years as a professional athlete whilst serving as an infantryman in the British Army, two very different fitness regimes. Let me explain. On the one hand, the life of a professional athlete was all about shepherding oneself through the minefields of potential injury: you worked with your body, you listened to it, you respected it. On the other, the military training was about “conquering” the body, “beasting yourself”, being proud of the dissonance between mind and sinew. Of course, both approaches were right for their respective contexts, but its fair to say that whilst the military approach makes supreme sense as preparation for war, it is flippin’ dangerous in any other environment. Maybe it is the gnawing feeling of banality in some people’s lives that attracts them to the drama of such military approaches, but it is depressingly common in pastimes that are meant to be fun.
That is not to say that an athlete does not know pain on the training ground and in the competitive arena: there were plenty of occasions when interval training sessions were distinctly barfworthy, and boundaries were pushed in the big games. However, such sacrifice comes from the thrill of competition, not the desire to conquer yourself. To give you an example close to home, my wife (a Great Britain marathon runner) was coming second into the finish of the Edinburgh Marathon after a gut wrenching last few miles into the wind. With 200 metres to go, her legs simply gave way and she collapsed in the mud of the home straight. Hauling herself up on the advertising hoardings, she staggered through the finish, muddy hands held up to revel in what she had managed to do. That’s what sport is all about.