A Century Old Lesson in Functional and Cross-Training

I'm obsessed with true tales of human grit and glorious victory these days. This holiday season has had me engrossed with Boys in the Boat, the Disney-esque narrative of the 1936 US Olympic crew's gold medal charge in the midst of a Hitler-run Berlin (think Million Dollar Arm meets Iron Will). My mom gave it to me a year ago and it sat on my bedside table. Now I'm propagating it's message far and wide. 

Turns out that 2016's buzzing trend, functional training, is an age old idea we're reinventing. We learn this from, among others, 1936 Olympic team member Joe Rantz whose life is profiled in the story. A century ago, Rantz and his Olympic teammates from Washington State embodied the functional training mantra. Their frontier youths as fishermen and farmers set them up for their inhuman stamina in a crew shell.

Rantz's personal journey reminds us of the single most important lesson for elite, professional, and occupational athletes alike: cross-training diverse physical pursuits and pastimes optimizes our bodies and minds, no matter what level of athlete.  Physical hardship across multiple activities, mediums, and/or sports develops the whole body instead of isolating requirements for a single pursuit. Functional training is an extension of cross-training that prepares the body for real movement requirements it faces.

Hauling lumber in exchange for his daily meals by the age of 10, and living on his own at 15, Joe's prowess as a rower in one of the most grueling sports was fueled in part by a childhood of hearty physical work that prepped him for 3000 meters of sheer pain during any race. Ten years of salmon poaching, hunting, chopping, constructing, and hauling honed muscle mass and motor skills. They taught a kind of stamina impossible to build from single-sport or one-dimensional training. The Washington crews trained with functional activities like working the two-man bow saw on a giant tree trunk to mimic motions in the crew shell. 

University of Washington athletes demonstrating their own take on functional training.

University of Washington athletes demonstrating their own take on functional training.

For the past 10 years there's been a growing prevalence of sport specialization early in adolescence. An obsession with getting the edge over the next kid has fueled increasingly intensive childhood training regimens in one sport. This narrows the activity base, squeezes out diverse physical activity, and makes whole body development more challenging. On Long Island, where I live and Fitfighter is headquartered, lacrosse is the obvious example of this trend. Year-round private and travel leagues outside of school environments are perceived to be all but required here if a young athlete wants a shot as a college recruit. 

But that trend is being questioned now. With the help of sports celebs like Abby Wambach (US Women's Soccer World Cup Champion) and Urban Meyer (Ohio State Football Head Coach) we're finally paying attention to the notion of 360 degree training like that of Joe Rantz and the boys of the Berlin Olympics. Wambach is adamant that it was her basketball training, not soccer itself, that made her the best header ever to play soccer. Urban Meyer recruits four times as many multi-sport athletes as football-only athletes, and Pete Carroll always asks what hobbies his players have, what else they do in their lives outside of football. 

Research on early specialization in young athletes shows that injury rates increase in one-sport athletes. Moreover, there is no indication that early specialization provides any advantage over having a diversity of activities until much later. In fact, a majority of top athletes did NOT specialize until later in their careers. As school-aged kids, many were recess junkies and multi-sport competitors like the rest of us.

For occupational athletes such as firefighters, military, and law enforcement, Joe Rantz' lesson is directly applicable: physical training should be diverse in design, relevant to our work, and ranging in intensity. It should develop the whole body for the special athletic demands of our occupations. 

So my charge to all of you, in a toast to 2016: get out there and spice it up!! Pay tribute to those who have come before us, overcome all odds, and shown us how its done. Gather your troops, train as a team, pat each other on the back, ride a single-speed bike, pick up an oar, climb a mountain, run a road race, find new tools to inspire you, move your body in fresh ways. Overcome the inertia. Really fight for it. 

Cheers to the New Year!

See Training tab for ideas to jumpstart your own cross-training program.