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Me at the top of the Haleakala crater, Maui.

If you were living the best version of your life possible, what would that mean?

What would being the man you always wanted to be, or the woman you always wanted to be, look like and feel like?

In March of 2016, those were a couple of the questions I was asking myself, deep inside the biggest cave in the world, in the jungles of central Vietnam.

Standing on a spire in do-line 1, inside Han Son Doong Cave.
Standing on a spire in do-line 1, inside Han Son Doong Cave.

Along with two buddies I was there for an adventure and a new perspective on life. And boy did I get a dose of both.

The idea for this site came to me on the way back from the cave. It was then that I also started thinking about what it would mean for me to “be Civilian Strong”.

What I came up with, the essence of Being Civilian Strong in my opinion, is being at your absolute best and living life as an adventure.

To me being Civilian Strong also means being on a mission.

It means creating your day by choosing what you’re going to do with your time. Each day is an opportunity to move closer to your mission.

When I got back from the cave, I thought I knew what my next mission was right away.

At first it was just to get back into shape.

But as I thought more about it, I realized I wanted to go far beyond just being fit. I wanted to feel like a beast again. I wanted to be strong physically and mentally and I wanted to have the energy to tackle every day and every adventure with enthusiasm. I wanted to be at the top of my game and live life like it was a grand adventure.

You see the best version of myself is a man who loves the outdoors, being active, and going on adventures.

And it’s hard as hell to do all that stuff when you’re fat and out of shape.

Trust me. I’ve been there. I’ve been in good shape before and more recently I’ve been in bad shape, yet always dreaming about the day I’d get my act together.

I had been talking about it for years.

6 years precisely and that is a long ass time to talk about something.

I tried multiple times to “get into shape” and every time I either fell off the wagon or I got injured while playing sports.

2010 was the last time I felt like I was in solid shape. It was also the year that I competed at the Crossfit games regional qualifier in Squamish B.C – the event that would cause me to physically crash so badly that I couldn’t set foot in a gym for 8 months. And that’s when my downward health spiral began.

Snap back to late 2016.

I decided it was time. I knew I had to make a mindset change (to fitness as a lifestyle instead of a one off event) and I also knew I didn’t just want to be fit, I wanted to get fit with a purpose. I wanted to go on another adventure – one that would test me physically and mentally.

I also knew I couldn’t very well write this blog while continuing to be 30-40 lbs overweight. I was going to have to become Civilian Strong.

This post is about how I got started.

The first thing I recognized was that my past attempts had failed in part because I didn’t have a strong enough reason for putting in the work that it takes to be fit.

So I decided I’d pick an event to prepare for. An event that would test my mental and physical limits – one that would require long term dedication and commitment and one that would require me to rise above the man I was being, to become so much more.

It was around that time that I heard about Kokoro Camp: a 50+ hour civilian hell week run by former Navy Seal Mark Divine. After reading about the camp in depth on the Sealfit website and reading posts by people who had completed Kokoro, I knew immediately I wanted to do. I also knew that at the moment it was out of my reach due to my current mental and physical shape.

Surf torture at Kokoro Camp - looks fun!
Surf torture at Kokoro Camp – looks fun!

I would still like to tackle Kokoro Camp but decided I should keep that in the back of my mind as I train for something more achievable in the short term – walk before you run right?

So the plan at this moment is to train for a Spartan Super (8 mile race with 25+ obstacles). If that goes well I will then tackle a Spartan Beast (12 mile race with 30+ obstacles). And then I’ll look at doing a Sealtfit 20x (a 12 hour non-stop beat down) and then, perhaps Kokoro Camp if I’m still feeling the need for more punishment :).

Quick Aside: 

I’m writing about my training  because a friend of mine was curious about how I’m going about getting back into shape and he convinced me to write about my experience and what I had learned so far. And you never know, someone else may find my journey interesting enough to get off the couch and start their own program which would be a cool side benefit of all this.

I’m looking at a 2-3 year timeline so that I have no unrealistic pressure to perform and can tackle this holistically and avoid injury.

As part of this new series of goals I’ve decided to give up all sports. No pickup basketball, no soccer, no snowboarding. The only things I’ll do other than train are obstacle course races, hunting, hiking, and camping or other kinds of activities that aren’t competitive in nature. First reason is that my biggest injuries have all come from sport. Second reason is that I’ve realized competition often brings out the worst in me and the real competition I need to win is the internal battle with myself.

Second Aside:

I think that choosing a tough physical goal and the training required to achieve it builds mental toughness if you stick with it. I also think the opposite is true: that if you purposefully work on building mental toughness and resiliency, you will be compelled to want to tackle tough physical challenges.

MISSIONS & GOALS 

I think everything starts with having a goal or an objective.

Some people say you should start with your “why” – why you want something – but my experience has been a little different. I think you need to set your goals and then dig deep to find your why – I’ll come back to this in a moment.

I also think there’s a difference between goals and missions. I still need to give this concept some more thought, but to me a mission is an activity, a journey, or a time based event that you choose to do.

Goals are the steps you need to take to achieve your mission or said differently they are specific, measurable, deadline based, quantifiable things you get done on your way towards mission completion.

The missions I set out to accomplish were the events I mentioned above (Spartan Beast, Spartan Super, and a Sealfit 20x).

Next up were the first set of goals I would need to complete to prepare for each of those events.

GOALS

The following is a list of goals that I need to complete in preparation for each event.

(It’s possible that I’m not aware of all the prep I will need to finish each of the events, so these goals are based on my current knowledge level and may change as things progress):

  • Lose 25 lbs so I look and feel good and so everything else is easier
    • From what I’ve read just about all of these events are for guys much smaller and much lighter than I am. Especially when it comes to running long distances, my impression is that big guys just don’t do well.
  • Find a way to eat that doesn’t drive me crazy
    • Progress: I’ve figured out that consuming higher amounts of good fat and eating less starchy carbs helps me feel better when cutting calories / eating to lean out.
  • Be able to complete all Crossfit workouts at RX level
    • Sub goals specific to Crossfit would be to be able to do the following:
      • Double unders;
      • 10 unbroken toes to bar;
      • 10 strict pull-ups with a 20# weight vest;
      • 5 handstand push-ups;
      • 20 GHD sit-ups;
      • Rope climbs;
      • Need to increase my grip strength and grip endurance/stamina;
      • Do 30 burpees with proper form in rapid succession.
  • Be able to complete the workout “Murph” (see below for definition) in 70 minutes
    • Need to be able to do 100 strict pull-ups over that time, with a 20 lb weight vest
    • Progress: I now have a scaled down Murph practice program I can do on my own once a week.
  • 1 mile run in 9 min
  • 10 mile run in 1 hour 20 min
    • Sub Goals specific to running:
      • Need to learn proper running technique (Progress: Chi Running, Power Speed Endurance training, & the Pose Method)
      • Need to build endurance.
        • Progress: learned I need to build a strong aerobic base which likely means I need to train at a sub max heart rate level as outlined by Dr. Phil Mafetone.
        • Further progress: did a VO2 Max test which showe me which zones and what heart rates I need to train at to build endurance.
        • Probably need to incorporate some sprint training at some point
      • Progress: Learned that in order to be able to run long distances (or hike or anything over 1-2 hours long) I need to change my diet so that my body learns to burn fat for fuel more so than carbohydrates.
  • Do a 20 mile hike in 6 hours with added weight
  • Be able to run 10 k without stopping
  • Build mental toughness and the habit of positive self talk and visualization and setting micro goals.
  • Improve mobility of calves, quads, glutes, hip flexors, hamstrings, feet, and shins:
    • Progress: Read Kelly Starret’s books: “Becoming a Supple Leopard“, “Deskbound“, and “Ready to Run“.
    • Progress: practicing Drew at Studeo55’s mobility prescription
    • Progress: bought a standup desk and bar chair to lean against
    • Progress: doing mobility every day or every other day
  • Improve grip strength and ability to do large a large volume of burpees.

Nextup…

MY WHY

Your why is your bedrock.

It’s what underlies everything and it’s the thing you need to come back to – to remember – when fit hits the shan and your plan gets blown out of the water. It’s the thing that you need to keep front of mind when things get so tough that you want to quit. I think part of being Civilian Strong is having a clear why that you keep in mind when tackling big goals or missions.

For me it was simple: I was approaching 40 and still felt like I needed to prove myself to myself. I didn’t like the couch potato I had become. I knew more about fitness and health than the average joe but I still looked like and acted like an average joe and that simply wasn’t cutting it anymore.

The best version of my life is where I am fit, active, and loving the grind of tough challenges and tough training. I feel my best when I’m on an adventure – whether it be hunting or caving or an epic treck into the wilderness – and all of that is so much better when you are in shape.

With my goals and My Why clearly in mind, the next thing I did was asses my starting point.

STARTING POINT: ASSESS YOURSELF

You gotta know where you’re starting from and where you’re going before you can take the next step.

For my journey to Becoming Civilian Strong there were two starting points I needed to get a read on: my fitness level and my mindset.

MINDSET

The mindset is probably the harder one to asses because it requires a high level of self awareness. We’re all aware to some degree but it’s the things that we’re not aware of – the things going on in our mind repeatedly, the patterns of thought and behaviour and emotion and how we act because of those – that get us into trouble.

At some point I hope to either find or create an objective mindset quantification method but for now I knew a few simple things about myself:

  1. When the going had gotten physically tough in the past my quit would show up, my attitude would suffer, and my self talk would turn negative.
  2. My attitude was generally at the mercy of how I woke up on any given day. I did not have a routine to get myself into a positive mindset and was simply winging it.
  3. Injuries and other setbacks had traditionally de-railed my training for far too long.
  4. Every year there’s a cycle I go through: I’m up in summer and get down in the winter.

There’s probably a whole lot more I could write down here but those points will have to do for now. Each point is something I’ll need to be aware of and actively be working on over the course of this journey.

My plan is to use positive self talk and visualization in moments of difficulty and to change how I’m moving my body, to get my mind back on track. I am also going to be establishing a morning routine to get my mind and body in the right space every morning, and before bed.

Onto the physical.

PHYSICAL

I’m by no means an expert  but there are few immediate things that come to mind when assessing where you’re at physically.

  1. Can you move the way you’re supposed to be able to move? Do you have any injuries that need to be addressed?
  2. Do you eat properly? (Do you even know what it means to eat properly?)
  3. Do you weigh a healthy weight for your age and height?
  4. How much body fat do you have?
  5. Can you run or jog? If so, how far before you give out?
  6. What else can you do in terms of working out with weights or other exercises or body movements you’ll need to do to achieve your goals?

Here’s where I was at:

  • Multiple past injuries and a recent calf tear which needed about 4-6 weeks of physio.
  • Mobility issues from sitting at a desk for years. I have tight hip flexors, calves, shins, and recently started getting plantar fasciitis. First thing I did after physio was one was get a mobility assessment from my physio and then began following his mobility prescription (see the book Becoming a Supple Leopard for more info on this) to start working on improving my ability to move properly.
  • My diet was out of whack. I knew I needed to follow something like the Paleo Diet and that I needed to reduce my carb intake as part of my weight loss goal.
  • Weight: 240 lbs. Target weight: 215
  • Body Fat: 21-28% (depending on measuring device). 28% using the Skulpt device. 21% using fat caliper and a single point of measurement. Target Body Fat %: 12-15%.
  • Cardio/Endurance: Right now I cannot jog further than 4 km without needing a break.
  • Skills: Running. I literally cannot run right now, at all. Even jogging is uncomfortable. This appears to be a mobility and technique issue so I’m going to need to do some reading, get some coaching, and work on developing proper running technique.
  • Strength: I am weak and need to build grip strength and core strength and overall strength by doing compound movements with weight and body weight. So far I’m about 5 or 6 weeks into Crossfit after a 6 year break and already I’m making big gains here.

Aerobic Base

This one was new to me. I’ve been reading a bunch of books on running and endurance training as being able to run long distances is something I’ll need to be able to do to complete the events I want to do. One of the concepts I’ve been learning about is building an aerobic base – or “Training at a level of intensity at which an athlete can maintain an adequate supply of oxygen to the body’s musculature to fuel necessary contractions.

Building an aerobic base basically means that you train at low intensities to build up your ability to go longer and farther without getting tired out.

It’s something all endurance athletes should do from what I’ve been reading and it’s something I’m going to do a lot of work on given that my past exercise habits tended to be anaerobic (without the presence of oxygen) – high intensity things like basketball and Crossfit and Krav Maga.

VO2 Max

This was another new one for me. The more I read about endurance training the more I heard about heart rate zones and understanding your VO2 max.

I did a Google search and found The Peak Centre Vancouver. I called them up, told them about my goals, and signed up for a VO2 Max test.

The test requires getting on a treadmill while wearing a device on your face that you breathe into / and through. Every 3 minutes they increase the pace and take a blood sample. When you go as hard as you can as long as you can and finally relent, the test ends.

The end result (which I may go into more detail on in another post) was that they gave me a detailed report that showed me 5 heart rate zones I could train in (1 and 3 were the zones that needed the most work) and they told me what my heart rate needed to be when training in each of those zones.

Here’s a snapshot from the report:

v02-max-hr-zones

To work on building my endurance and my aerobic base, I needed to train in Zone 1 3-4 times a week at a heart rate under 149 beats per minute. This was a higher heart rate than I had read in one of the books I was reading and seemed to work better for me right from the get go.

So that’s it in terms of where I was starting from.

End result of all this self assessment?

It told me I had a lot of work to do!

TRAINING PHASES

Phase 1: Ramp Up, Strength Building, and Skill Development

I’m not entirely sure how long this phase will last but I expect it to take about 12 months to achieve a solid fitness foundation. This would mean I have my eating dialed in, can do Crossfit 3x per week at the prescribed weights and reps (RX), have lost 15-25 lbs, and can run 10 k without a break.

One of the very first things I did was join Studeo55 Crossfit which is about 5 blocks from my apartment and take their foundations course, which is an 8 class onboarding course. During foundations you get trained with other beginners in all the foundational movements and lifts that Crossfit uses. You also do short high intensity workouts at the end of class. It was a good way for me to ease back into things.

In addition to building up to 3 Crossfit classes per week there are a few more things I’ll be working on every week:

  1. I’ll be doing sub max reps throughout the day of pullups and pushups to build strength.
  2. Low intensity cardio / aerobic base building via jogging or rowing, using a heart rate monitor. In time, work up to jogging 10 k without a break.
  3. Daily or every other day, invest 10-12 minutes into mobility exercises.
  4. Do Murph practice 1x per week.
  5. Work on my mindset, attitude, and emotional control by practicing meditation and being aware of how I start and end my days and being especially aware when my self talk or emotions go off the rails (and then take steps to correct).
  6. Eating properly: lean meats, loads of veggies, some fruit, nuts, seeds, healthy oils and good sources of fat like avacados and coconut oil. I’ll also be trying to get more calories from protein and fat and less from carbohydrates (most veggies are pretty low in carbs so you can likely get away with eating as many as you like).

MURPH

“Murph” is a famous Crossfit workout named after fallen Navy Seal hero Mike Murphy (See the Mark Wahlberg movie “Lone Surviver”).

It consists of the following:

  • 1 mile run (1.6 km for my fellow Canadians)
  • 100 pullups
  • 200 pushups
  • 300 air squats
  • 1 mile run
  • All done with a 20 lb weight vest

My goal here is to be able to do a full Murph using strict pullups in one hour and 10 minutes in 12 months from now.

At first when I read about this workout it felt impossible. Now that I’m about 6 weeks or so into my training however, I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Here’s how I’m going to build up the capacity to get ‘er done.

MURPH PRACTICE PROGRESSION

Once a week, in addition to 2-3 Crossfit classes, I’ll hit the gym on my own and do a scaled down version of Murph, as follows:

Emom (Every minute on the minute):

  • 1st min: 5 pull ups (When I started I could only do 1-2 pullups so I would do those, then switch to jumping pull ups or kipping pull ups or ring rows or pullups with a band). 
  • 2nd- 10 push ups 
  • 3rd – 15 air squats 
  • Repeat for 10 rounds= 30 mins total

Next progression: add one round every week until you reach 20 rounds (so by end you’ll be working out for 1 hour).

Next progression: 20 rounds, 1 whole round every 2.5 mins. (Now all 3 exercises right after one another).

Next progression: 20 rounds, 1 whole round every 2 mins (40 minute cindy).

Next progression: add 1 mile run at the start.

Next progression: full murph- no vest.

Final progression: full murph with vest [I figure I’m going to need to work on weighted pullups long before I try my first weighted Murph.]

Phase 2: Endurance & Sport Specific Training

I’m thinking this phase may take 12-24 months depending on how the first 12 months progresses. Running and endurance are weak points for me (although just about everything feels like a weak point right now hah!) and I’m reading as much as I can to brush up on my knowledge on these topics.

At some point I’m thinking I may need to take a break from high intensity anaerobic workouts to focus for a while on low intensity aerobic work outs so that I can build my endurance more quickly. From what I’ve learned HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts like Crossfit can spike cortisol (something else I’m learning about) which can cause sweet cravings and binge eating.

Seems the old school way of training had endurance runners focus entirely on lots of running over long distances at low intensity. The newer school of thought prefers a mix of HIIT + shorter runs and strength training. Not sure which method will work best for me just yet but will keep you posted. I recently met ultramarathon athlete and coach Paul Romero and will most likely seek his guidance on how to tackle this aspect of my training. May also hire Ben Greenfield for coaching consult at some point.

Phase 3: Challenges & Adventures

I figure the following are doable in next 12 months:

  • Spartan Sprint: I want to crush my 2 hour time. I think I can do a sprint (5-6 k with 25 obstacles) in about an hour if I can get my grip strength up and my ability to do burpees. My first sprint resulted in 120 burpees which absolutely crushed me. My grip strength was so poor I fell off of 4 obstacles and missed the spear toss which meant a 30 burpee penalty each time.
  • Brunswick Mountain (highest peak in the lower mainland in Vancouver B.C. It’s an 8-9 hour hike with serious elevation gain that damn near killed me in 2015.)
  • Hunting Trip: I’m planning on heading to Edmonton to hunt elk with my dad in late 2017

I figure in 24 months I could be ready for:

  • A Spartan Super
  • 20X
  • A northern British Columbia hunting trip in the Rocky Mountains on foot.

And in 2-3 years I could potentially be ready for:

Spartan Beast and Ultra Beast

Kokoro Camp

WHAT’S NEXT?

If this post is received well, in a future post I’ll go into the supplements and superfoods I’m taking, the books I’m reading as well as the progress I make.

If you want to hear more, just let me know in the comments section.

A QUESTION FOR YOU:

So the question I have to ask you now is this:

If you’ve read this far, all the way to the very end of this long ass post, what mission are you going to tackle next?

What does it mean for you to Become Civilian Strong?

Let me know what you’re up to and what it means to you in the comments.

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