How Heroes Are Forged


I just finished the new book by Christopher McDougall titled Natural Born Heroes. McDougall was the author of the wildly popular book, Born to Run. In his new book, he touches upon topics such as self defense, fitness, endurance training, and nutrition. Instead of focusing solely on those topics, the bulk of the story revolves around World War II events on the island of Crete, and how this lesson in history related to optimal human performance. During WWII, Germany invaded Crete, hoping to rapidly take it over and have a base of operations in the Mediterranean Sea as they made their push towards Russia. However, the Germans greatly underestimated the defiance they would receive from the local resistance fighters and a group of rag tag British agents known as the dirty-tricks squad. The story culminates in a fascinating plot to kidnap a German general, but if you want to know what happens, you should really read the book. I wanted to further explore the health and fitness related topics that came up during the story.

I have mentioned my past experiences in martial arts before and how they can be an excellent way to improve fitness. On top of improving fitness and movement, there is the added bonus of increased self confidence with having the knowledge to keep yourself and others safe. Check out my past blog post here about adding a little fight to your fitness. The author briefly explores two kinds of martial arts, Wing Chun Kung Fu and Pankration. What these arts have in common is the ability for anyone, of any size to learn them, and be effective against even large threats. As the story goes, Wing Chun was created by a woman and by using the elastic energy of the body, it does not require brute force and massive strength. Pankration translates to “total power and knowledge” and should be considered one of the origins of mixed martial arts, combining wrestling and boxing into ferociously effective techniques. As with Wing Chun, a fighting stance can look unassuming and non-aggressive. For real world applications, martial arts techniques should be fast and efficient. Trading strikes with an opponent and going to the ground is best avoided if possible in self defense situations. I was able to learn highly effective and simple techniques in MovNat Combatives. Ultimately, I want to reiterate that martial arts can be awesome additions to a fitness program by improving coordination, movement, body awareness, and confidence. Many of the resistance fighters on Crete had the knowledge of Pankration, while many of the dirty-tricks squad had wing chun techniques along with a few other tricks under their belt.

I’m not shy about mentioning the benefits of natural movement techniques and fitness. There are a few chapters in the book that delve into the origins of natural movement fitness, and I found it fascinating to learn the history behind it, which had been mostly unknown to me up to this point. The foundation of ┬ánatural movement training was formed by French naval officer Georges Hebert. In 1902, he witnessed a horrific natural catastrophe in the capital city of Martinique when a volcano erupted. While helping to rescue people, he wondered how many more people could have survived if they had the ability to crawl, climb, run, jump, and swim. Out of the 30,000 people estimated to be in the capital city of Saint-Pierre at the time, it’s estimated that 29,000 ended up perishing in the tragedy. While traveling home to be welcomed as a hero, Hebert contemplated this disconnect between humans and their adaptable bodies. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen an adult run, jump, or crawl. In a dangerous situation, we expect other people to come along and rescue us, instead of being capable of rescuing ourselves. Even before Hebert made his revelations, Edwin Checkley, an English immigrant living in the United States had written a book and even opened his own gym based on the principles of natural movement. He told people to forgo barbells, weight machines, circuits, diets, and focus on the whole system of the human body. Hebert felt that Checkley’s system of fitness lacked one thing, a higher purpose. It is our duty to be fit to help others. McDougall relayed this profound statement in the book, “Etre fort pour etre utile,” Hebert declared. “Be fit to be useful.” Over 100 years later, Erwan Le Corre is bringing the “Natural Method” into the 21st century with MovNat.

When McDougall transitions to endurance training, the story revolves around two key figures, Stu Mittleman and Phil Maffetone. You may have never heard of them, and that wouldn’t be a surprise. Stu is an ultra distance endurance athlete who wrote a book called, Slow Burn: Burn Fat by Exercising Slower. Stu was a successful ultra distance athlete until one day, a foot injury caught up with him. He struggled to continue racing and was unable to obtain any clear answers about his injury from medical experts and body workers. Everything changed one day when he met chiropractor Phil Maffetone. With one quick adjustment of the foot, Mittleman felt extreme relief and went on to race well that day. However, Maffetone told him it wasn’t going to fix his injury for the long term, the answer was to stop eating sugar. I know, I know. I’m talking about sugar again. Check out my recent post about limiting sugar. At this point, the book delves into two subjects, nutrition and endurance training. Let’s continue on with the endurance training topic and we will talk about nutrition in a moment. To tap into fat as endurance fuel, Maffetone recommended training at a lower heart rate, along with the reduction of sugar in the diet, known as the “Maffetone Method.” He came up with his own heart rate training formula which was 180 minus your age. With a few tweaks to that heart rate number dependent on your training level and health, it left you with a heart rate ceiling. Your training heart rate had to be kept below that number. It’s an interesting concept. I have experimented with it in the past and achieved some promising results. Initially, my training runs had to be brutally slow, but over the course of a few weeks, I started to make progress. It was easier to keep my heart rate down as my pace got faster. I have heard of a few other people who have had encouraging results. The cool part was I actually enjoyed my runs more because I wasn’t killing myself every time. Maffetone’s most famous athlete was someone you probably heard of, Mark Allen, one of the greatest triathletes of all time. The Cretan runners were messengers who helped keep communication between the resistance fighters and were known for being able to cover long distances over the steep mountains of the island. The author presents the idea that they were tapping into their fat stores for fuel.

Nutrition is a subject of much more controversy. McDougall spotlights professor Timothy Noakes who is known for his tome on running, “Lore of Running.” Professor Noakes had been a long time believer in the power of a high carbohydrate diet for runners. It all changed after he had finished research for his book, “Waterlogged.” During that time he was heavily researching the drinking habits of runners and he came to the conclusion that runners were over-hydrating, instead of using thirst as a natural indicator of hydration levels. He was so engulfed in research that he hadn’t been focusing on his own fitness and health. As he began to back into running, he started to question why he had struggled with his weight for most his life even though he got plenty of exercise and watched his calorie intake. He decided to attack the subject with the same fervor that he used to address the hydration issues. He came to the conclusion that he was wrong to recommend a high carbohydrate diet, and now recommends a low carb diet. I have not been shy to talk about my experimentation with a low carb diet. It has helped me feel better after suffering from long term digestive issues. I also have done endurance racing while following a low carb plan and did not suffer from any ill effects. In fact, I threw down some of my best bike split times in triathlons. However, I know the scientific evidence is a bit cloudy and what works for one person may not work for everyone. One thing worth noting, it’s interesting to see an expert do a complete 180 as Noakes did. He obviously feels he has found something important. The Cretans were known for eating a Mediterranean style diet which was believed to help fuel their endurance feats during the German occupation.

As I mentioned at the start, all these topics that relate to health and fitness are touched upon in the book while the author unveils an amazing story from World War II. The heroes that inhabited the island at this time were in peak physical condition. They could defend themselves, navigate through dangerous situations, and travel long distances over steep mountains. It’s part of the reason the German’s struggled greatly to try and take over the island. ┬áIf you are a fan of history and fitness, I think you’ll love this book!

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