Could you stop what you're doing right now to help move a piano or hike the Grand Canyon without hurting yourself? Could you out-swim a rampaging hippopotamus? You may think you're fit, but are you in a ready state? Being in a ready state means you have the global fitness to do any activity at any time.
I heard this crazy story from Juliet Starrett, co-founder of San Francisco CrossFit, which she owns with her husband, Dr. Kelly Starrett. Juliet is a lawyer and world champion whitewater paddler. When she was in her twenties, she and her mom went to Africa to celebrate her world championship by paddling on the Zambezi River. They were floating along when their canoe was suddenly flung in the air by a hippo. I don't know if you know this, but more people are killed by hippos than by any other wild animal.
So there was Juliet flying through the air into a river infested with hippos and crocodiles. A primal moment of pure adrenaline, right?
Believe it or not, her ready state kicked in while she was still in the air!
"I knew what my plan of attack would be while I was flying through the air," says Juliet. "I was already swimming the minute my body hit the water. I was primed and ready to react quickly and deal with the unexpected." And that wasn't the end of it. Stuck in the middle of nowhere with no way to radio for help, she and her mom had to patch their canoe back together with duct tape and paddle their way out of there.
That's what it means to be in a ready state. Most of us won't get attacked by a furious hippo, but your car could break down in the middle of nowhere, or your buddy might call with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to hike the glaciers in Iceland. Would you be ready? Are you in a ready state?
Stand up for fitness
The fact we sit all day is probably our biggest enemy to being in a ready state. Sitting makes everything slacken, closes off your diaphragm (goodbye proper breathing!) and destroys your posture. Sure, sometimes you have to sit, like when you're driving or flying, but do we really need to sit for everything? According to Dr. Kelly Starrett, author of Becoming a Supple Leopard, owner and cofounder of Mobility WOD, there is no mechanically good position for sitting. None.
"If you're just sitting around you're screwing yourself," Kelly told me. The exception is sitting on the floor. "Cultures where eating, sleeping even toileting is done on the floor have far fewer incidents of falls and accidents in later life." As it turns out, floor sitting requires more muscle tone and greater range of motion. Meanwhile, in America, being unable to get up off the ground is the number one reason elderly people wind up in nursing homes.
When it comes to sitting, I'm as guilty as anyone. There are days when I find myself sitting in front of the computer working for six, seven or even eight hours. What can we do to change that and maintain our ready state? Kelly says we need to stop fooling ourselves.
"You can't overcome 10 hours of sitting with 30 minutes on the spin cycle. Instead of pretending that we're exercising, let's do the thing we're supposed to do and stand up. Standing is the gateway to movement."
So what kind of functional movement will help you achieve a ready state? Kelly says sports like running, swimming and cycling won't cut it. You need to learn how to integrate your muscles, your brain and your breathing, and for that you need what Kelly calls a movement practice like yoga, Spartan SGX, Pilates or CrossFit.
I feel incredibly lucky that my mother and uncles got me into yoga all the way back in the 1970s in Queens, NY (of all places). I remember my uncle telling me "it's cool that you want to be strong, but if you can be flexible and strong you've really got it knocked." I think this is why I have done so many endurance races without an injury. Yoga will not only keep you strong and flexible, but it will also teach you how to breathe and maintain a stable position, something Kelly said many athletes struggle with.
Kelly really lives his philosophy. When I met him for the interview, he handed me a 40 lb. kettlebell and had me hold it throughout the entire 30-minute interview. It wasn't too bad but I'd be lying if I said it didn't get heavier the longer I held it. And when I went to his house there were no seats--anywhere.
Another guy who lives his philosophy is parkour expert Dan Edwardes. There are no obstacles in Dan's life. When we met, we walked to where he was staying and I stopped dead when I saw a four-foot high concrete wall. I wanted to go around, but Dan just chuckled and showed me how easy it was to just slip over the wall. Talk about a ready state.
No one knows functional movement better than Dan. As the executive director of Parkour Generations in England, Dan teaches people how to use the environment as their playground and how to move their body through their environment.
People on my team are big fans of parkour, but it was new to me, although I suspect that we used it (without knowing it) back in the day in Queens to get out of trouble. Parkour started in France and is sometimes known as freerunning. It's all about getting from one place to another using only your athletic ability and your smarts. You see these kinds of epic skills in Bond films.
But the heart of parkour is about functional movement, using your body to overcome obstacles, adapt to terrain and move through space. Our bodies were meant for this, Dan says. "The whole purpose of our body is to move our brain from one place to another. Your body was designed to be moving. Parkour is about challenging yourself in a really holistic way."
Parkour practitioners make death-defying acts look easy, but there's some hardcore drilling going on to build the skills. The greatest part of the training is mental. Parkour is far more than the ability to run up the side of buildings. It's about learning to see the world in an entirely new way.
"You stop thinking of the world in terms of obstacles and start thinking--'how can I engage with that?' Soon you start seeing everything else that way. Instead of seeing barriers, you see stepping stones," Dan says.
As a lifelong student of the martial arts, Dan is a pretty confident guy, so I was surprised when he said one of the things that attracted him to parkour was the fact that it's damn hard. Fear is a big part of it, but parkour taught him that fear is a good thing--it gives you perspective, keeps you motivated to keep training and gives you a constant challenge. "You should seek adversity," he says. "You'll always get more from the difficult path than from the easy path."
I agree with Dan that true happiness requires jumping into the void. "Take the risk," he says. "Pursue the thing you love. You'll want to get up for it every day and you'll go to bed happy. The only true risk is taking no risk at all."
So being in a ready state isn't just about escaping wild animals. It's about being ready to take the risk and using any obstacles in your way as a stepping stone to your next opportunity.