The Way of the Outdoor Athlete

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in:

Bioshphere II Newsletter, Volume 3, No. 1, First Quarter 1993
Triathlete, July 1993
ULTRA Cycling, Vol. 4, No. 3, July 1995
Fitness Plus, Vol.7, No.7, July 1996

An updated version for the 21st century was later published in 1999

A later updated was published in 2009

Ask any average cross-section of the populace whether they are an athlete and few will respond in the affirmative. However, many will explain that they are into running, skiing, cycling, or backpacking, as if those pursuits were neither athletic nor integral to their "real life." Instead, most people compartmentalize life, separating athletic pursuits from personal life from professional obligations and so on. Far too many have lost sight of the interconnectedness of all that makes up the grandeur of life, lost the intrinisic understanding of how every action complements every other, how everything in our human lives is connected to "the big picture."

This even holds true for triathletes and other multi-sport athletes as well. Simply excelling at three sports rather than one, while definitely a tiny step in the right direction, is not enough on the path to excellence. And if excellence is what cross-training and the multi-sport lifestyle is all about, then it's time to quit being so single-minded in our athletic pursuits, time to start living the way of the outdoor athlete.

Steve Ilg wrote, "The outdoor athlete seeks not an arena but embraces the globe" by finding a way to naturally express oneself athletically in each and every possible natural arena or biome that one encounters. And it is this diversified approach to athletic outdoor experience, as opposed to the training specificity which so many robotically follow, which is the key to excellence in both a cumulative and activity-specific sense. Call it cross-training for life, if you will. This understanding will increase your enjoyment and success at athletic pursuits and at life in general.

But first we must get over one hurdle: the weekend warrior syndrome, the nasty tradition of living for the weekend and for the annual vacation. In this typical lifestyle, one's athletic life is all but lost in the shuffle - five days a week and fifty weeks a year. The result? A dreary, listless life with very, very little energy left to expend during the 114 days that do remain each year for pursuits out of doors. So, little progress is ever made, injuries are frequent, and life is lived from one weekend to the next. This has to stop now if we want progress in any realm of our life.

Many multi-sport athletes of the world do not suffer from this syndrome in a training sense; many if not most train fiendishly nearly every day of the week. However, most do suffer from a fixation on training and racing to the degree that "reality" goes by the wayside: Life outside of the sport is nothing but a necessary drudgery and has no value or connection to one's athletics. How wrong we are to feel this way...

Seemingly disparate pursuits have much to offer one another, no matter how much it may seem otherwise. Can snowshoeing add to one's grace and skill while cycling, for example? Quite assuredly so, for snowshoeing naturally puts one in touch with the terrain, texture, feel, and sound of the snowscape over which one is shoeing. This heightened awareness translates into better road or trail sensitivity while cycling and thus enables better handling, cornering, braking, and balance. Ditto for running, skiing, and even driving a car. The beautiful cardiovascular, biomechanical, and neuromuscular benefits of shoeing also transfer straight across the board into other athletic pursuits and life experiences, both physical and otherwise.

And what of SCUBA diving? Done mindfully and with practice, it teaches maximum return for minimal investment in movement, energy, and air expenditure. SCUBA diving teaches grace of movement and non-movement, for any wasted energy or movement equals less oxygen and therefore less "bottom time." Thus one learns to make the most of every physical movement, every breath, every nanosecond while in the water. As well, the diver learns to think, feel, and move in a three dimensional plane. And then one slowly learns that a three dimensional environment like the water column is not a prerequisite to moving and living three dimensionally. This translates into conservation of energy and momentum on-land, making any activity (athletic or otherwise) less taxing. One learns not to waste energy, 24 hours a day, and to move, breath, and even live more gracefully.

But the most exciting aspect of this wholistic view of outdoor performance is its natural transfer into the totality of one's activities. Cease to separate your athletic pursuits from the rest of your life and instead acknowledge the interconnectedness of all that you do and much will change in your life. (And it goes without saying that far, far more than some generic, nondescript "better quality of life" will be gained...)

Heightened attentitiveness will become an integral part of your life. Not missing those never negligible details will make your work, reading, speaking, and listening more effective and rewarding. Postural awareness will make you more comfortable, at ease, and efficient at something as simple as sitting, not to mention typing at a computer, conducting a meeting, or working at an assembly line. Intuitive appreciation and recognition of the breath will become a common opportunity to center and renew oneself in times of stress and relaxation. Regularity in athletic pursuits will keep your mind, body, and spirit fresh for each new day and all that it brings. Perhaps most importantly, though, you'll quit living and longing for some far off timeframe, but rather you'll live for the moment and appreciate it before it goes by. Living and loving each and every day of your life will make you a happy camper - whether you're on Wall Street or in Yosemite.

So just as the innumerable components of our common biosphere are intrinsically interconected and interdependent, so too are all aspects of our own individual lives. Success in the outdoors equals success in the indoor world, for they are one in the same. Thus we must not let even one subsystem of our lives be neglected, for the entire system will be taxed and incapable of maximum growth and potential.

Chief Seattle of the Suquamish Tribe observed that "Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself." We must use our heightened awareness to understand that our own individual lives are webs within this web. We are each and every one of us our own personal biosphere within the greater biosphere. And now we must learn to better steward the biospheres within and without, for that is the path to excellence, the way of the outdoor athlete.