September 23, 2007

Since no one has risen in defense of the sport of swimming, I guess I’ll just do it myself:

Dear Muscleman,

Though you claim to have spent years as a competitive swimmer, you seem to have missed the most rewarding aspect of the sport – the competition against yourself. As you know, the most important benchmarks in swimming are your own personal best times. You’ve no doubt experienced disappointment after a win, or satisfaction after a loss. There’s a lot to be said for a sport that’s less about the best that can be done, and more about the best that you can do.

Buoyant in Baltimore

Buoyant, thanks for your note. I think you’re on to something here, but that you’re right for the wrong reasons.

I found a syringe in a gym locker today – a pretty disgusting reminder of how athletics at every level are tainted by performance enhancing drugs. Still, champions distinguish themselves through their mental game – the way they control their nerves and maintain focus – irrespective of suspicions of drug use.

Soon, however, even mental advantages may become obsolete. Take this fascinating article about the drug scandal sweeping the world of classical music. Musicians at every level are getting in shape for auditions and concerts not with steroids, of course, but with Inderal, a beta-blocker. This drug does a near perfect job of shutting off the symptoms of fear, doubt and anxiety.

While the calming effects of this particular drug make it useless in sports, a similar pill that leaves adrenaline glands untouched is surely on the way. With drugs creating artificial results both physically and mentally, the only meaningful measure of success will indeed be your own personal best.

Washed Away

August 26, 2007

Every morning, my gym rubs my nose in it. On my way to the locker room, the gym’s layout forces me to walk past the swimming pool – a reminder not only of wasted gym fees, but also of my deeper philosophical objections to the whole activity.

Let me be blunt: Stripping down to your banana hammock and diving into the pool is probably the worst possible use of your exercise time. I say this not as some cannonball specialist, but as a former competitive swimmer, with a record at a club in Northern Virginia that still stands after 22 years.

There are the obvious drawbacks to swimming laps: the feeling of someone’s snot sliding down your leg, sections of pool that seem suspiciously warm, the sight of dirty Band-Aids floating past.

There’s also the problem with H2O itself. Water’s cooling effect causes the body to retain, or even increase, fat stores. In water, people can twist their joints in unnatural ways, triggering all kinds of knee and shoulder injuries. And in contrast to every other form of physical activity, a pool’s minimal gravity does nothing to improve bone density.

Most importantly, it’s just intolerable the way chlorine damages your hair.

Regardless, if you’re going to go through the hassle of submerging yourself in cold water and the annoyance of a public bath, at least try. On my way to the locker room today, I saw a guy holding a kickboard in his outstretched arms, pretending to exercise by casually walking up and down the lane.

Tough Read

August 19, 2007

I’m always worried by the guys who bring bodybuilding “how-to” books onto the gym floor. My first reaction is similar to when I spot a car with a Student Driver sign: I slowly back away and give him a wide berth. Recently, I’ve been thinking about that scene from Spies Like Us, when Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd attempt an appendectomy by reading through the medical textbook they’re hiding under the operating table.

I’m fairly certain that reading material has no place near exercise equipment. You know what I think of the people who do cardio while reading People. Well today, I saw a guy working out on this “cross trainer” machine (envision a seated StairMaster) with a full blown hardcover novel, complete with tassel dangling from the bookmark. The guy supported himself with his right arm, while cradling the book in his left arm. He cupped his left hand around the top of the book to keep the pages spread open.

I walked by a couple times to see if I could nonchalantly pick up the title of the novel. Unfortunately, this gentleman was bored by his workout and his book, and succeeded in brushing me off with an evil eye.

So, does this man’s absent-minded, indifferent approach to his weekend hobby offend me as a bodybuilder? Actually, no. It offends me as a writer.

Heat Of The Moment

July 29, 2007

As I watch Seinfeld in syndication, I’m struck by how much of the show’s humor takes place at the gym. There’s George Costanza as the urninator: “It’s all pipes, what’s the difference?!” You’ve got Elaine Benes feeling up Teri Hatcher in the sauna. And speaking of saunas, how about Kramer’s greatest line, from the hot wooden planks of the steam room: “Whew. It’s like a sauna in here.”

Less comical, but equally silly, is the way some people engage the sauna as a weight loss tool. In fact, dehydration is in vogue. I saw a woman last week wearing the long-sleeved garbage bag that now masquerades as gym attire. The whole arrangement just seems gross.

Similarly, a number of people, generally women, transform style on the treadmill into something life-threatening. I’ll be the first to say that it’s nice to look at a long ponytail bouncing out the back of a baseball cap. Nevertheless, headwear clogs up the body’s main heat escape route, raising the risk of heat exhaustion, or worse.

So here’s the scene from last Friday: It’s Miami. In July. And this guy is walking the free weight area of my gym in shorts, a tank top, and a Ferrari-red ski hat. I’ve seen some wacky getups at the gym before, but I’ve always said that exercise is hard enough without aiming to overheat. Still, to be fair, I must point out that this guy has to be doing something right. He was working out alongside not just one, but two really attractive women.

Now then, I wonder where I can find a ski hat in South Florida …

Over The Top

June 24, 2007

There is a whole class of people that have been ignored by this blog but deserve better: the compulsive overexerciser. I’ve even lived in my own denial for years, but I think I finally reached the acceptance stage.

I have always been careful to finish my run before sunrise, especially in summer. But because of a scheduling mishap, I found myself strapping my headphones on today around noon. I’ve long been fascinated by joggers who manage to pound the asphalt under a brutal sun. Well, it turns out that heat stroke’s numbing effect can carry you quite far.

In fairness, training under extreme conditions is way macho. Olympic athletes sleep in oxygen-deprived tents to simulate the effect of high altitude. And who can forget Rocky Balboa’s courageous workouts in the Siberian wilderness prior to knocking out Ivan Drago? Now don’t tell me that’s just a movie. I have a relative who ran his last marathon on the North Pole, and we’re convinced his next race will be 26.2 straight up Mt. Everest.

What’s not funny is the collection of injuries that follow from this kind of regimen. Long-distance runners suffer from the same joint problems as professional football players. They sometimes find blood in their urine. And triathletes occasionally show scarring on their hearts – exactly what you’d expect from any severely overtrained muscle.

There are also those folks who aren’t trying to swim the English Channel, but still freak out over taking a day off. I know someone who fit in a workout on the day of her mother’s funeral. In the same bloodline is also a guy who often claims he “didn’t like” his first workout, and promptly heads back to the gym.

Speaking of which, I’ve had a big lunch. I think it’s time for a brisk walk.