Monday, December 21, 2015

Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall

Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall is his latest book, following on the heels of Born to Run from 2011, and I enjoyed Born to Run quite a bit and also found Natural Born Heroes to be a really interesting read.

The subtitle this recent book is How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance and, as McDougall notes in the afterword, it blends together two stories, one of heroic action with the capture of a WWII German General on the occupied island of Crete and one of how to set oneself up physically to be useful, and potentially heroic.

In terms of this idea of staying healthy and being someone who contributes, the descriptions of three things from Natural Born Heroes all tie together, a fighting art and self-defense based on fascia or connective tissue in the body, exercise that’s around natural movement of the body, and an approach towards nutrition that eschews simple carbohydrates and enables us to tap into more healthy fat reserves while exercising rather than just burning sugar.

About self-defense, McDougall writes of how the body twist, or utilization of one's fascia, can be the central movement to winning a fight, with mention of Wing Chun, a martial art, practiced by Robert Downey Jr. and related to the fighting art of Pankration, centered around the idea of power spiraling up through the center of the body. Additionally in the book is the story of Norina Bentzel, who in 2001 held off someone with a machete in an elementary school, in part by bear hugging him and utilizing this idea of twist power.

McDougall also notes that utilization of one's fascia works off the idea of muscle memory, teaching the body how to do a movement and that movement can then be called upon instinctively rather than through deliberate thought. This idea is mentioned as applying to something like firing a weapon and how just firing is likely going to be more effective than taking the time to aim and how in a fight, someone should throw the opponent off balance, charging when they expect a retreat and fighting dirty when they expect civility, basically treating self-defense as a survival and not spectator sport.

Around exercise, McDougall, writes of Natural Movement, which came out of Georges Hebert, a French naval officer in the early 20th century and his notion of heroic action and being useful through the Natural Method of training, and relates to the sport of Parkour with an emphasis on skipping and bouncing around outside. As part of this, McDougall notes the modern day practitioner of Natural Movement Erwan Le Corre, his idea of exercise as problem solving and staying alive and his YouTube video The Workout the World Forgot.

The last area McDougall covers in Natural Born Heroes is nutrition, with details on Dr. Phil Maffetone and the problem of processed carbohydrates, typically high in sugar, and how high fat foods and other staples of the Paleo Diet are much better for the body.

- Bad foods: pizza, juice, rice, bread, granola, cereal, beer, soy, fruit, beans, pasta, milk, yogurt.
- Good foods: meat, fish, eggs, avocados, vegetables and nuts (such as cashews), cheese.

McDougall notes how Maffetone prescribes a two week test of a changed diet and how we can in fact alter the body so it craves the food we've hunted and gathered, not processed foods and also mentioned in the book is that drinking too much water, especially during strenuous exercise, can actually be dangerous as diluting the blood sodium concentration can lead to brain swelling.

Tying this idea of nutrition back to exercise, Maffetone’s notion is to get your body to burn fat, not sugar, and to accomplish this, one keep the heart rate low (goal should be should be at age subtracted from 180) when exercising as if the body strains, it will dip into using sugar stored up. It can take the body some time to get used to having the heart rate low and workouts will be slow at first, but this idea of long, lower-impact training should lead to a higher level of fitness.

There was definitely a lot of material covered in the book and while I probably found the story in Born to Run more compelling, Natural Born Heroes was an excellent read with interesting ideas to consider.