Nature’s Athletes: Adapt or Die
‘Complex systems are weakened, even killed, when deprived of stressors’
Here’s a truth I want everyone who doubts their physical and mental potential to keep at the forefront of their mind: beneath the shell of the soft, sedentary people we have become are the raw materials of nature’s most adaptive and capable athlete.
The key word here is adaptive. If you’re not already convinced that adaptation is the true birth-right of all human beings, I’ve got one word for you: wingsuits. How the hell have we worked out how to do that?! Where is the precedent in our evolution for the ability to calculate flight trajectory and master air-currents and to compute every factor fast enough that we can weave through trees and skim cliff-faces with just a flimsy bit of fabric between our wrists and ankles? That, my friends, is the awesome power of the adaptive machinery we possess.
Look at how diverse our achievements are: from free-divers who descend hundreds of metres beneath the waves to long-jumpers that clear eight metres in a single bound; from skateboarders who leap the Great Wall of China to strongmen who drag trucks with one arm; from gymnasts who hold near-impossible isometrics to motocross riders who let go of their bike mid-air, casually add in a somersault, then catch the same bike and land on two wheels without batting an eyelid. As a species, we’re ridiculously diversely talented! And that’s a testament to natural human ability, that we are capable of becoming very good at such specialized and distinctive skill-sets.
Adaptation is what made us the dominant species of the planet – our incredible ability to adapt to new terrain, new environments, new challenges – and in fact to be strengthened by that process; strengthened by challenge. Maybe Nietzche was right. Certainly Nassim Taleb’s idea of anti-fragility – the concept that true strength is found not in being robust but in being able to improve as a response to stressors – applies to us as a species and can apply to us as individuals too.
So remove that need to adapt – say, by adhering to limited training paradigms and narrow, arbitrary movement patterns – and you remove the greatest stimulus to our physical and mental development. Adaptation made us strong, made us fast, powerful, flexible, mobile, responsive – it made us fit.
There’s another way of saying that: and that’s challenges made us strong. The reason an organism needs to adapt is because it isn’t capable of dealing easily with a scenario or situation it encounters – which means it’s experiencing a challenge of some sort – and it has to find a new response to solve the problem, which often means changing or upgrading itself in some way to cope. That process of problem-solving is therefore the vital component in its continued development and improvement.
It then follows that without regular challenge, without those positive stressors, you will at best remain stagnant or, more likely, become more fragile; you’ll weaken. Put people in a comfort zone with no threats, give them a life of luxury and cater to all their needs, and watch them grow soft and slow, watch them decay. But take away those comforts and throw some challenge into their lives… and watch out! We’re born survivors, if need be. The problem is that, for many of us, that need isn’t there anymore.
The combination of our incredibly adaptive physical form with the most advanced neural command centre known means that each and every human being has immense potential to overcome almost any obstacle put in their path. The fine motor control we are capable of paired with our innate animal instinct and unconscious ability to move means we’re all in charge of one outstanding piece of organic hardware.
Forged in Nature’s Fires
‘The frequent consumption of varied movement is what drives essential physiological processes.’
And guess what? That hardware you’re behind the wheel of wasn’t built in a gym. Its development wasn’t programmed, deconstructed, engineered, supplemented or controlled in any way other than through exposure to the hottest forge of all: evolution and the need to survive. Human beings have been in great shape for hundreds of thousands of years, long before there was even the notion of gym memberships, abdominizers and shake-weights.
And it’s even questionable as to whether our modern, high-tech training methods have made any significant difference to our physical capabilities whatsoever with studies maintaining that any measurable improvement in the achievements of athletes in competition over the past century or so can be largely attributed to improvements in technologies (see banned swimsuits or running track materials) rather than to stronger, faster or fitter individuals in general. Obviously exceptions abound and appear in every generation, but exceptions tend to prove the rule.
Whether you believe this or not, bear in mind that the current world record for the 100 metres sprint is 9.58 seconds, set by Usain Bolt. The world record over 100 years ago in 1912 was 10.6 seconds, held by Donald Lippincott of the USA. And then think about what shoes and clothing Mr. Lippincott was running in, how less engineered the surface was, and how less ‘advanced’ his training methods, diet and supplements were. One can then postulate that give that 1912 guy the training, equipment and conditions of the modern age and he’d probably take Usain to the cleaners. Which would mean not only that we haven’t noticeably improved at sprinting as a species, but also that all our modern, high-powered, sports-science supported methodologies make just about zero difference overall.
Manthropology author Peter McAllister goes one step further to claim that ancient Man was actually considerably stronger, faster, more powerful and more resilient than his newest descendants. While it’s obviously very difficult to compare capacities on an individual level over such vast time-frames, the point remains that humans have been pretty damn awesome for many thousands of years and that this is due to our innate, natural, hugely adaptive physical capabilities.
And you, me, all of us have the same basic raw materials as everyone else, which means anything one of us can do is something all of us can at least approximate, if we were to practise hard enough over time. Never skydived? Well, you have the same essential apparatus as the very best wing-suiters out there, so you could learn how quite easily. Never run a marathon? We’re all born to cover long distances, millions do it every year. Never been in a boxing match? Guess what; a little technique, a lot of effort, and you’d do alright in the end. Think of your body/brain as a piece of very smart clay rather than an automaton of levers and pulleys: it is literally shaped by the pressures and forces it is exposed to over time. And it is supremely good at conquering adversity if it has to.
Practical over Functional
Which brings us back to the crux of the matter: adversity. I think the central reason parkour produces such all-round capable individuals is that every aspect of the training is challenging in a very practical sense – and not only physically, but mentally too. Forget the overused and now-tainted word ‘functional’, parkour focuses solely on building practical movement skills: the ability to climb, to jump, to run, to crawl, to drop, to swing and to do these things in quick succession over variable terrain with little room for error. That MUST produce capable human begins, or they simply won’t be able to perform the tasks. They have to adapt. It’s actually really simple, and therefore really effective.
I prefer the word practical in this context. The fitness industry over recent years has attached the buzz-word functional to everything in an effort to sell it to the unsuspecting masses, but they’re forgetting one simple thing: just because a movement is a possible function of the human body doesn’t mean it is the intended or optimal function of the human body. A bicep curl is a function of the arm – it can perform that movement, therefore it’s a function. Does that mean that the function of the human body is to perform bicep curls all day? No. The function of the human body in terms of movement is to carry the brain through the environment, adapting to the terrain as it goes. So truly ‘functional training’ is to do just that – to move over terrain optimally, effectively and safely. If your training methods don’t enable you to do that or don’t make you better at doing that, they can’t really be classified as ‘functional’. That’s the litmus test. For me, functional training means the acquisition and improvement of practical movement skills. Sorry, shake-weights.
The good news is that this means becoming fit and strong isn’t rocket science and it doesn’t require fancy machines, tools, materials or training protocols. Because it’s literally our nature to be physically capable. All we have to do is give that nature space and time to breathe, and to let our physicality be shaped by regular exposure to practical challenges and adversity: to force it to adapt. As we say in parkour – first, just move; then move well; then move fast and well. Don’t over-complicate things, don’t get drawn in by pseudo-science that changes every few years, don’t deconstruct your body’s holistic movement capabilities and don’t limit yourself by thinking you can’t do something if you want to do it.
Maybe you can’t do it now, but with this piece of hardware at your disposal I’ll bet you probably will be able to do it someday.
– Dan Edwardes