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Ivan Denisov – “Just let the Kettlebells fly!”

Great athletes make the hardest feats look easy. They achieve results seemingly impossible to conceptualize for the majority of us who have ever tried to run fast, lift heavy, hit further or jump higher. They succeed under an enormous range of pressures; yet often look so at ease, so focussed.  I had a chance recently in Rome to meet, and be coached by, one of the greatest kettlebell lifters ever, Ivan Denisov. Current holder of absolute world records in all three competition lifts (jerk, snatch, longcycle), Denisov was in Rome with another legendary lifter, Valery Federenko, founding head of the World Kettlebell Club (WKC).

I’ve had the privilege over the years of watching incredible athletes up close compete at the top of their game. I’ll never forget Miguel Indurain, legendary Tour de France champion or Gianfranco Zola, Chelsea’s greatest player. I’ve seen Nick Faldo make the game of golf look simple and the great Sachin Tendulkar, cricket’s all time record scorer. These, and other legendary athletes share a common denomenator: The ability to find an inner calm and dominate their surrounds with such ease. There is no rush, no huffing and puffing and no look of impending collapse. Ivan Denisov shares these qualities.

As a great champion, Denisov is perhaps on his way out of top competition and moving more into his role as a full-time coach, although he was coy about this when I asked him, and he still posts world class numbers. With limited, yet improving grasp of the English language, Federenko adopted the role of Denisov’s translator, and had a more sidelined role during the training camp. He took us through the small details of the GS competition lifts with continual emphasis on efficiency and easy of movement. While I was struggling to refine my technique with the 20kg bell, Denisov was snatching and jerking the 32 as if it were a toy. Try pressing or snatching a 32 and you’ll see it is certainly not a toy!.

During the breaks, I was interested to observe Denisov and was struck but his calmness and focus. He’d politely answer my questions about his training methods, his diet, his secrets to achieving such amazing numbers. There was certainly a presence about him, he was after all 190cm and almost 110kg, yet not in the imposing way I would imagine a heavyweight boxer or an American football linebacker. On day 2, Federenko informed me that Denisov would be demonstrating a snatch set after lunch. Stripping off into his competition suit and lifting shoes, Denisov made his way to a side room to the gym we were training in and began a breathing sequence, no doubt Russian “systema” technique. He found his solace, and prepared in the most relaxed way for a 5 minute set with the 32 using only his right hand. The set was almost perfectly timed at 20rpm, for a total of 102 reps. No fuss, no stress. The breathing and technique were even throughout, and there was no visible fatique afterwards. A simple 3264kg of lifting with one arm in 5 minutes.

Denisov later completed the WKC strength and conditioning test (5 sets of 6mins) with a maximum score using the 32. Strangely there were no heavier bells, as he had previously negotiated the 48 to set the highest ever score recorded in the test. Again, no stress, no panic. Time and time again during my attempts to nail the technical aspects of the snatch, Denisov commented that I need to relax more, breath and “let the bells fly”. I realized quickly that masters of their respective games are able to find a zone whereby their efficiency equates to power output at a level few others come close to achieving. I often wondered during my rugby career, and even as a footballer, why coaches seem to think that whipping players up into a frenzy of blood boiling tension is suppost to help performance. I never went along with that theory, even whilst I was in the changing room squeezed up against these sweating guys who seemed to have expended much of their energy before the match had begun!.

I’ve noticed professional athletes off the field too, are skilled at relaxation. They talk of sleep, of unwinding with movies, PlayStation, swims or walking. Maybe this is the way the best performers save their energy for the times it really counts. I have a sneaking suspicion the majority of amateur competitors, regardless of their sport, fail to see this connection. Performance is as much about the ability to turn up on the day and win the match, dominate your set or your opponent, as it is the ability to stay calm and relax. Too often I see the strain of tension intervening with correct and safe form during training or competition. Few people seem to think about the importance of breathing, or of mental focus and visualization.

This summer, I’ve had the pleasure of training with Steve Maxwell, Steve Cotter, Ivan Denisov and Valery Fedorenko. Different guys with different backgrounds. Each great coaches and champions in their own right. The commonality though is an important one, and one that I hope to install in my game as a coach and amateur competitor:

Performance comes through being able to master your body/mind connection. Most of us will never be world class athletes, but all of us have amazing potential to become so much better. Performance is not something we save for our thrice weekly visit to the gym. It is not something we turn off as we open the fridge and take out a packet of junk. It is not something apart from our daily life, Performance is our whole way of living, and the interconnectedness is lost on the majority. We must seize the opportunities that are in front of us on an everyday basis to improve our game, and not compartmentalize physical condition. Denisov told me of his love for family time, for games of basketball with friends and for reading. The ability to relax takes many forms, and is inextricably bound up in the ability to harness strength, mobility and power in athletic performance. I had this reinforced to me this summer by guys that know. Take your time, chill out, feel your performances grow.

 

 

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“Go to bed now!” (actually, I mean that!)

“Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.”
William Shakespeare

Human biological clock

One of the many curiosities about my time in Solomon Islands over the past years has been the way locals relate to sleep. I have been raised to think of sleep as a necessity obviously, and something done at night when not much else is happening. I have thought of weekends as a chance to alter routines by staying up later, sleeping longer (or “catching up” whatever that means), then by the time monday rolls around, look to more of a routine-esque sleep pattern if I want to keep the work/study/training/social/domestic gig alive. I knew that a lack of sleep made me perform poorly at school, work, the gym etc, but I never really pondered upon how sleep patterns work, and whether or not they are socially, biologically, environmentally or hormonally conditioned.

Solomon Islanders don´t seem to have set routines when it comes to sleep. For that matter, when they eat and are physically active either. It took me some time before I realized that the linear routine of the common Western way of living does not apply to this Melanesian archipelago. Food and sleep and exertion occurs when it occurs. It seemed to me that if I was to survive in rural areas, my body would have to assimilate its natural rhythms to local time as best it could. This meant being hungry, over satiated, so well rested to become stiff, exhausted from random bouts of paddling, trekking, football, bored and over stimulated. In other words, my comfort zones were put to the test every day, by not being able to precisely judge what was about to happen. It was never drastic however. Mostly, locals rested, stayed out of the heat, chatted, chewed betel nut, and left the running about for the kids. I was an anomaly for many reasons, not the least, because I found it hard to rest so much, always on the move for more ethnographic knowledge.

I wondered how Western society has become so agitated, so excuse-orientated, so dissatisfied with its lot?. I know this is a multi-facited dilemma, but the way we look at sleep, and the way Solomon Islanders do, made me search for a deeper understanding of this massive part of our lives.

1. How does lack of sleep affect our physiological/mental/metabolic performance?

2. Is sleep a universal requirement for mankind, or are we quick to adapt to different ´lifestyles´?

3. How does light affect sleep? What about the huge changes in daylight from Northern/Southern hemisphere to equatorial regions?

4. Why am I tired in the winter months, but awake in the summer months? Are we like bears or bats?

Robb Wolf is a guy whose advice seems to resonate on many levels with sensibility and logic. Often talking about the importance of sleep, Wolf advocates getting as much as possible short of getting divorced or fired, and in terms of training, weight control, hormonal balance, cortisol levels and insulin intolerance to name but a few factors, sleep is an obvious component of a healthy lifestyle. But still, I needed to know more about circadian rhythms and environmental factors that have selected us to become tired and awake in different ways at different times of the year. After all, modern man only recently ventured away from equatorial regions out to the extremities, and surely our genetic makeup has allowed for adaptability, but not adaption?. I suspected that sleep was another factor that was being manipulated by modern life, trying to con the physiology of our natural life cycles to fight the need to rest.

I read “Lights Out: Sleep, sugar and survival” by Wiley and Formby (2001) on Robb Wolf’s recommendation. Good read indeed, despite the mediocre reviews. I found their argument about seasonal changes effecting not only our dietary requirements, but our need for more or less sleep relating to light and energy zones very much standard evolutionary theory, but sleep specific, in that we cannot speak of optimal health by preferencing one factor (diet, lifestyle, rest, movement) over the other. In this sense, it strikes accord with a paleo-like way of thinking, if not in a more extreme context. To suggest that summertime (obviously this is a Northern hemisphere bias book) is party-time, stay up late, eat, drink and be merry type gig, viz-a-viz wintertime, where we should hybernate like a bear, and live in darkness is more to highlight our misguided lifestyles, than a doctrine to be strictly abided by. Despite the somewhat sloppy writing style (having just finished Gary Taubes’ excellent Why we get fat: And what to do about it) the message appears clear:

  • Sleep more, in order to recover
  • Avoid sugar, grains and excessive carbohydrates
  • Listen to your body as it is trying to be in tune with the seasons
  • Excessive artificial light in winter and sleep deprivation screws your hormonal balance, and exacerbates carb addiction

Lack of sleep blunts human growth hormone response, raises cortisol levels and causes insulin resistance. Not good, unless you want to soften out.

Anthropology, as the great bastion of holistic social sciences, has strangely remained quiet on the issue of sleep. Professor Carol M. Worthman, a leading researcher on the social ecology of sleep and hormone related developmental issues at Emory University, Atlanta, has crucially shown that the majority of clinical research and trials on sleep related disorders and habits are based on Western societies where sleep patterns are drastically different from societies where artificial light sources are infrequently available, and seasonal changes are minimal. The comparative field of evolutionary medicine is one branch of anthropological research that can be useful cross-comparatively in determining the extent of sleep variation in cultures with a focus on certain variables that point to deterioration of physical and mental health. As yet, no long-term cross-cultural epidemiological studies have been carried out that allow us to ascertain the effects of sleep deprivation, and lead us to a better understanding of the ideal way our biological sleep temporality effects our wellbeing, regardless of locality.

A better understanding of the history of sleep practices is needed so the social and physiological constraints that allow sleep to become inextricable linked to circadian patterns of consciousness, which are both phylogenetically and ontogenetically determined, become slightly more demystified. After all, to confuse this matter further, or at least my curiosity as to why Solomon Islanders slept so randomly, is the fact that circadian rhythms, and the hormonal action that takes place regulating our biological makeup, occur whilst awake AND asleep. It has the makings of something sci-fi this sleep thing. We are sleeping less and less, have more and more clutter and stress and fake-food surrounding us, and even try to alter our physical and genetic makeup by synthetic interventions – that perhaps humanity is trying to out-wit biology and attempt not just to stay up late, but stay up forever?.

I recently stumbled upon the work of A. Roger Ekirch, historian, and author of the fascinating “At Day´s close: Night in Times Past” (2005). Taking us back to the medieval days of the 16th-18th centuries, before the advent of electric lighting, Ekirch reveals the common segmented sleep patterns broken up into “first sleep” (dead sleep) and “second sleep” (morning sleep) and all the interesting nocturnal events that went on in between. Lights, he reveals, eliminated this pattern of semi-consciousness, where people would often have sex, pray and reflect. For me this is a startling find, and made me think of the way Solomon Islanders seemed half-awake, but never fully able to function in full consciousness. Often I would hear conversations, when all appeared quiet. Biphasic sleepers?.

Sleep cycle comparisons

Maybe, by looking back at our polyphasic sleep patterns from an historical perspective, comparing that with our monophasic tendencies nowadays, we are denying our evolutionary part in the animal spectrum once again?. An interesting article on biphasic sleep written by psychiatrist Thomas A. Wehr on a study about photoperiodicity (circadian rhythms) seems to confirm our tendencies to sleep in 2 periods (biphasic) of roughly 8 hours, but that artificial lighting and social norms have made us monophasic sleepers, which is not in accordance to our natural biology. To really start to geek-out on this, try this PubMed article on the evidence for a biological dawn. I also found paleohacks a goldmine of information on this issue, and as a bonus, stumbled upon this great thread for sleep hacking. Must give Tim Ferris a big High5 for getting me inspired.

I feel the need to do some more research though, and self-experimentation. Maybe my biological clock will tell me when it is time for that. I trust that clock, for it has made us a perfect species for adaptability to so much modern life presents to us, but we need sleep, and a good deal more than we are getting. That we cannot deny.

 

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