Chapter 3: Ivan Petrovitch (Russia)
Before, I knew how to close down my mental aperture to a fine point for strength. I trained myself to be oblivious to everything except applying infinite force. Now I know how to open up my mental aperture for endurance. I am aware of everything, my senses are heightened, I can see an eagle before he sees me. I am learning how to visualize and feel the inner workings of my body heal and recover. The key to mental training for either strength or endurance lies in being able to summon, practice, and command the mental faculties that facilitate our survival.
— Ivan Petrovitch
Ivan wasn’t sure of his fate when the Kremlin asked him to pay a visit to Moscow first before returning to his home in Saint Petersburg. He kept thinking that no matter how badly Nemesis treated him that President Putin could find a way to make his life even more miserable. Could he be getting a one-way ticket down the Siberian Highway? Or will it be to some gulag not on the map? He was picked up at the airport and dropped off at the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski just outside of Red Square near the Bolshoi Theatre.
It turns out that the powers that be liked what they saw in him and were granting him full state sponsorship for next year’s competition. He did not earn an exemption from qualifying due to his collapse on Nemesis so he will need to scratch and claw his way back to redemption by performing well enough in The Continental Phenomic Championships to qualify for Worlds. While in Moscow he met with a team of sports scientists that already had all his records from competing in Olympic weightlifting from the time he was a teenager. They already dissected his performances from Turin and the qualifier round. One thing was crystal clear: the broad strokes of his near future were going to be about wolfing down a steady diet of endurance training.
He would still retain his weightlifting coach, Ilya Matveev. He had been Ivan’s coach for over 12 years and knew him better than anybody except his parents. In a way, he was his dad, certainly his trusted confidant. He knew how his mind worked, what he feared, where his motivation button was and how to push it. Coach Matveev had convinced the politicos that Ivan was a good bet. Now that meant, however, that Ilya has skin in the game. Overseeing Project Ivan is Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko, well known in the endurance community for his groundbreaking work in mental and physical training protocols for ultra-endurance sports and and his technical assistance in The Race Across Russia, a nearly 10,000km cycling race over 24 days. In other words, Nemesis does not impress him. Yes, Russia, of course, started a junior development program for future Phenoms, but they needed someone capable of carrying the hammer and sickle for the next couple years. Ivan was volunteered. Welcome home, comrade.
Ivan always wanted to be a gold medalist in Olympic weightlifting and idolized David Rigert, who, besides Vasiliy Alekseyev, was Russia’s most celebrated Olympic lifter. David was a gold medalist in the 90kg class in the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. Ivan knew David personally when he became the National team’s head coach for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. He learned from the master and also from many other Russian Masters of Sport. Ivan was known for having impeccable technique and had an outstanding pedigree but never was able to quite make the Olympic team. He was fast-twitch dominant like all outstanding strength athletes but he had a higher percentage of slow-twitch in his legs than world-record holders and Olympic gold medalists. But this is an advantage now: there is no way a world record holder in Olympic lifting could ever be long and strong. His best clean and jerk was 451 pounds (205kg) in the 206.8 pound (94kg) class. At the Turin Phenomic Worlds he did 407 pounds at a bodyweight of 191 pounds, winning the gold medal easily. He trained himself for the Games last year and did lose a lot of weight, strength and muscle mass trying to prepare for the backend events. His knowledge of endurance training was scanty at best but now that problem disappears; Mother Russia has his back and will provide a potent tailwind. Ivan’s life is about to change in a big way.
The Russian sports science team is going to use Ivan as a guinea pig; they are going to see what happens when an ex-elite strength athlete lives and breathes like an endurance athlete. One year will just be the beginning of Project Ivan; this is more like a four-year project. Russia is no newbie when it comes to quadrennial, Olympic, periodized-training plans. Russia has had many elite, high-altitude mountain climbers over the years and understands road and track cycling as well as any country. They have a superb rowing development program. Yes, Russia has all the pieces on paper to transform Ivan into an endurance athlete. But is he an endurance athlete? Can he become one?
Ivan will not be alone in the many immersion programs going on around the globe. Immersion is when you take an athlete with a pure strength background and then immerse him in a highly regimented endurance program for almost a year, or the reverse process for indigenous endurance athletes. No one knows yet the magic recipe for creating Phenomic champions but many countries are mixing up various strains of world-class athletes, coaches, propeller-headed experimentalists and academics and throwing it up against the wall to see what sticks. Nobody knows anything for sure. This is not about theory anymore; this is pure pragmatism driven by the whimsical winds of political expedience. But no matter what, Ivan is excited to be Russia’s center of gravity. His head is in the right place; he feels humiliated about his blow up on Nemesis but he was not alone in that debacle. He feels he has what it takes to win it all but knows that the road to victory is, for him — literally and figuratively — all up hill. And for years. Make no doubt about it, Ivan is Russia’s incarnation of Sisyphus.
The first leg of his annual periodized training will be a mezzo-cycle of three months duration where Ivan will be training at moderate to high altitude and focusing on rowing, cross-country mountain biking, and speed hiking in a mountaineering base camp environment. Then the second mezzo-cycle will be a sea level environment featuring a terrain with lots of steep, rolling hills. After that he will return to Moscow and perform a six-week macro-cycle of training for The Burn with world-class coaches in track cycling’s kilometer and Olympic weightlifting and will do track workouts to improve his running economy. The endurance work will shift to the background during that macro-cycle before returning to an endurance emphasis including a brief peaking cycle with altitude training but everything is fluid depending upon how everything goes; a lot of data and real-time judgement calls feedback into the action plan on the ground. The scientists and coaches will figure it out on the fly because there are no guidelines to follow; typical canards of periodized training are relegated to the back seat, everything depends on how well Ivan responds. This in many ways is like NASA making painstaking plans for the first moonwalk only to discover the surface is sticky instead of dusty and have no contingency plan. But Ivan is ready for anything; he knows that his team harbors some of the finest minds in the world. He feels confident in their hands. Everyone is on the same page, it is just that the page is blank. At least Columbus had a map of the known world as a guide. Ivan’s map featured more unknowns and he wasn’t even sure which way is up. But he didn’t care because he believed in himself. From the outside looking in Ivan is a story of redemption. Ivan didn’t see it that way; he doesn’t live in the past. His motivation is to up his game so he can slay the endurance monster and this is a battlefield that exists solely in the mind. If you win there, the body follows like a faithful servant.
After extensive medical evaluation and physiological testing in Moscow, Ivan was flown to Kislovodsk, Russia in the Caucasus mountain range near the Georgian border. The town is at an altitude of 2500 feet which is essentially sea level. Forty miles away, however, was Mount Elbrus standing at 18,510 feet and features every desirable altitude range and terrain in between. The physiological plan was to maximally stress Ivan for production of red blood cells, aka erythrocytes. The drug EPO greatly enhances erythrocyte synthesis but the Phenomic Games is a sport on the World Anti-Doping Agency watch list and any athlete listed on a national team or is highly ranked is subject to random drug testing on a 24-hour notice. If you no-show that counts as a positive test. WADA has his baseline blood chemistry profile which is called an Athlete Biological Passport. If there are sudden, aberrant changes to the profile you are busted. It is next to impossible to cheat given this process.
There are two very different performance objectives to altitude training: performance and survival at extremely high altitude and enhanced performance at sea level. But what got the ball rolling on a global scale for thinking about enhanced performance at sea level was the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City which was at the moderate but physiologically significant altitude of 2250m (7380 feet). Alexander Polunin, formerly the Chief Endurance Coach of the USSR, said: “Training at altitude works for everybody.” It was the Eastern Bloc countries that made altitude training a scientific discipline before the West. The Russian sports scientists are world-class in high-altitude physiology and the process of acclimatization is to improve performance in high-altitude climbing while reducing the risks of high-altitude pulmonary and cerebral edema, or HAPE/HACE. These conditions are deadly if you are exposed to high-altitude environments too quickly or too long. Without acclimatization, an untrained person would die within 10 minutes if magically dropped on the summit of Everest. The process is to establish a basecamp from which climbers can progressively reach higher altitudes and quickly descend before making a summit attempt in the Death Zone (8000m+) in a “live high-train higher-live high-train even higher” ratcheting approach.
The approach to enhancing performance at sea level has evolved since the early 1990s but still is unsettled in regards to optimal protocol. First there was “live high-train high” and then came “live high-train low” but these early studies focused on systemic level changes, not cellular or gene expression adaptations. For Phenomic Games, any kind of altitude training is going to negatively impact the clean and jerk and can even negatively affect Nemesis because of counterproductive adaptations to fuel regulation. As for Ivan, he needs to focus on The Erg, The Climb, and Nemesis so the Russians put together a training plan to achieve this outcome. In 2001, research on gene expression from altitude stress revealed beneficial adaptations that occur with “live low-train high”. In 2010 there was research on “live high-train low and high”. The research is complex and even conflicting but the 30,000 foot view is that stress and adaptation need to be examined through the eyes of the organism — Ivan. The Russian team concluded that adaptive yield during recovery is best served under conditions of mild hyperoxia which means an ambient O2 concentration that is greater then sea level during sleep but not to the point of oxygen toxicity. With this approach they theorized that they could extend the overall altitude exposure to 12 weeks instead of the normal 4 weeks for greater overall gains without crash and burn. Maybe if you are clever enough you can squeeze blood out of a turnip.
They structured the training so that Ivan would be subjected to varying dosages of altitude exposure over 12 weeks at between 2500 to 3850m (8200–12,630 feet) depending on where he was in the training cycle and whether the training was high or low intensity. The training is focused on hiking, running, and mountain biking. He would be flown in daily by helicopter with his training partner Nicholi Yakovlev, a very experienced trekker, high-altitude climber and mountain biker. At the end of each day’s training at altitude he was flown back to Kislovodsk where the team focused on his recovery with the intensity and focus of a Formula 1 pit crew. The process is designed to maximize stimulus for specific adaptations in oxygen transport, ventilation, buffering capacity, and nervous system function with the recovery being at sea level to expedite and maximize adaptive yield.
During the last week he will spend a 96-hour straight time span at around 15,000 to 18,000 feet. So only at the very end would he face the stress of “live really high-train really high” to trigger different physiological adaptations including shifting his mind to the next level. His sleeping chamber was set up as a hyperbaric chamber featuring an optimal oxygen concentration, aromatherapy, sound therapy, and with a state-of-the-art, low-frequency Schumann harmonic electromagnetic field generator. The room was pitch black to optimize his chronobiology, the field of biology that focuses on biological rhythms and sleep. Ivan’s chronobiologist, Dr. Alexei Fyodorov, a world-class expert in sleep physiology, setup Ivan’s sleeping chamber to his exacting specifications and then monitored his progress via satellite uplink to his lab in Moscow.
The Russians, along with the Romanian Tudor Bompa, in the 1960s were the first to adopt theories of stress management and homeostasis originated by Claude Bernard, Walter Cannon and Hans Selye and apply them to sports performance planning. Leo Matveyev is the father of periodized training; he created the means of coordinating training stress with adaptive response. Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko, when he was a teenager, knew Matveyev personally and during his long career Anatoly applied the new theories of homeodynamics, genetics and eco-evo-devo to training planning to bring it up to state-of-the-art. But Phenomic Games throws monkey wrenches into the best laid plans of mice and men, even Anatoly had no definitive answers on how to train phenomically.
The Russians approached Project Ivan as a complete team. Ivan was just a team member; each scientist or specialist served their role in the goal during Phase 1 of maximizing his oxygen transport while keeping his wheels from falling off. High altitude is not the environment to stress adaptation for maximal lipid power, or maximal fat burning which is needed for Nemesis. No, in fact at extreme altitudes the human body switches preferentially to burning protein which means cannibalization of muscle. This happens because protein, although a slow burning fuel, produces more energy per liter of oxygen than fats or carbohydrates which is the limiting factor at extremely high altitude. But progressive training volume along with measured doses of moderate altitude stress over a long time period is the best approach to improving oxygen transport. When oxygen availability is chronically scarce and is life threatening, the body adapts accordingly through gene expression to remedy the stress with a phenomic state that better fits the new environment.
Phase 2 of training will shift to sea-level and a high volume of low heart rate, extensive endurance training where he will have his diet and training optimized to force a shift from using carbohydrate for fuel to fats. He will simulate early man’s migratory world for a a couple of months. When carbohydrate availability is chronically scarce and is life threatening, the body adapts accordingly through gene expression to remedy the stress with a phenomic state that better fits the new environment. Strength training will begin to factor in during this mezzo-cycle before ramping up later. As for rowing, Ivan worked on technique during Phase 1 whereas in Phase 2 he built a strong aerobic base in what is known as a general preparatory phase which is composed of mostly steady-state, low heart rate endurance work with a small percentage of volume as interval training that increases over the weeks. Later on center stage for rowing will shift from low heart rate work to high-intensity interval training. But technique will always be monitored by a high-level coach critiquing everything imaginable.
Phase 3 will be about putting it all together for the Continental Phenomic Championships. He won’t peak the frontend until World’s but will have to have a strong showing on the backend to assure qualification. His performance will then be broken down with final tweaks put in place for the home stretch going into Worlds. He will spend at least a couple weeks shuttling back and forth between altitude and sea level back in Kislovodsk to dial in oxygen transport without impairing maximal lipid power and, of course, fine-tune his mental prep. One year to build a new Ivan from the ground up. Tick tock…
Team Ivan is willing to take strategic risks with the overall training plan because this is just the first year of a multi-year process and they need to experiment to better understand how humans adapt to the complex and rare stress profile of phenomic training. Implementing metabolic and mental immersion is the safest approach to avoid the canceling effects of simultaneous strength and endurance stress. Beginners can do both simultaneously and get great results but as you become more advanced you encounter increasing epigenetic crosscurrents from being able to build phenotypes in your phenome that exhibit the desired performance characteristics. Phenomic training will lead you into unexplored physical and mental territory right to the edge of the human performance envelope: no one in the history of our species has been here before. If you exceed this level you have just — by definition — redefined what is humanly possible. No ancestor can make that claim; you are it. And that is why the Phenomic Games appeals both to the intrepid athlete and spectators alike; it just screams the question: “What could I do if…?” Think of hypercaffeinated mad scientists from an alphabet of disciplines brainstorming while enrapturing a man-sized Petri dish.
Gene expression for strength adaptations synced with hormonal changes impact the nervous system quite profoundly. The nervous system adapts with both faster engagement and by more motor units being recruited in parallel that control fast twitch muscle fibers. Additionally, there are increases in the cross sectional area of muscles. This is the bread and butter of the clean and jerk and is also crucial for the start in The Burn because you have a fixed gear and are on an incline. It also is important for rowing in the relationship of maximal strength of the legs to average strength applied per stroke. This is known as the strength-reserve to mean-strength ratio and the higher the better. Energy systems for strength are fine-tuned for the ATP-CP energy system with anaerobic glycolysis as the backup during longer duration efforts at full power.
Endurance training targets the nervous system to recruit motor units to use muscles with fuel efficiency in mind which greatly negates explosive power development: a slow, ramping, damped firing pattern is the opposite of explosive, massively parallel neural engagement. Energy systems are fine-tuned for aerobic glycolysis or fat oxidation depending on the duration and intensity of training. A bigger muscle diminishes the ability to transport oxygen from the blood into the muscle’s mitochondria, the organelle in muscle cells where aerobic metabolism occurs. The distance between the muscle cell membrane and mitochondria must be minimized to perform aerobically at the elite level, there is no escaping this fact, it is physics, the physics of active and passive transport of oxygen in fluids. You cannot negotiate with physics and for this reason is a big obstacle to work around. Ergo, you don’t see thick, blocky muscles on elite endurance athletes or top ranked Phenomic competitors. Ivan did have thick, blocky muscles in yesteryear but no longer. He was well on his way to morphing into a jaguar with the fur pulled off.
Phenomic training at a deep, informational level, exposes the problem of trying to become stronger and longer at the same time like lifting weights on Monday and then biking for 4 hours Tuesday. Your genome is signalled via gene expression to create some form of adaptive response to mitigate the stress of training. Your body knows nothing about exercise, training, or the Phenomic Games, it only knows stress and adaptive response. During gene expression DNA is transcribed into RNA which then is mostly involved with making proteins. These proteins are the structural material of adaptive response. For example, in strength training these proteins will constitute the structural building blocks of sarcomeres; sarcomeres are the structure of what makes muscles contract and are actually nanoscale molecular motors. Under a powerful microscope sarcomeres are visible as molecular machines.
But sarcomeres are not the only molecular machine, another is making ATP, the universal energy currency for cellular function. You need more motors in the form of contractile elements and you need more capacity to make ATP from ADP. The muscle gets bigger by building lots of molecular machines. However, for endurance training different proteins are made to construct more mitochondria or capillaries for increasing oxygen extraction for endurance-stressed muscles. The transcribed RNA inside the cell is the transcriptome; it is constantly changing depending on gene expression. The transcriptome is a relatively small set of informational molecules that are constantly being created, disassembled and recycled.
Doing both types of training in a short time frame produces opposing gene expression, a form of informational crosstalk, decreasing the signal-to-noise ratio of the transcriptome. This means the adaptive yield is compromised due to biological noise. It is like two people screaming instructions to you to turn left and right but you can’t hear either; one or the other must be silent. Further confounding the adaptation efficiency is that you are mixing the anabolic pathway with the catabolic pathway creating conflicting supply and demand issues for energy. In short, you are doing self-defeating behavior despite how hard the training is. That doesn’t matter; all that matters is organizing your training and recovery to maximize adaptive yield. Consequently, there are two strategies to phenomic training: immersion or some form of alternation. Immersion is a long-term form of alternation where an emphasis is placed for a long time span on your weak pole of the power spectrum, either the strength pole or endurance pole. The two polar events are the clean and jerk and Nemesis. The next two are less polar: The Burn and The Climb. The Erg is in the center, equal contribution of strength and endurance to maximal performance. Shorter term alternation is on the macro-cycle or micro-cycle level, 6 weeks or less. Immersion is greater than 6 weeks but is more typically 3 to 9 months, or 1 to 3 mezzo-cycles. Athletes that are balanced choose an alternating strategy with emphasis on specific weaknesses. Athletes that are single-pole dominant immerse for long periods in the opposite pole minimizing training of their metabolic dominance although technique continues for everything to keep the nervous system engaged.
What are the limiting factors? The nervous system is far more capable of supporting divergent motor control strategies than the energy systems and motors (“muscle”) can. The nervous system is closer to a pure informational system whereas the motors have severe biophysical and energy supply constraints. Another way to think about this is that neural circuits are software featuring memory and is virtually unlimited but hardware — motors — confront physics: real-world, physical limitations impose concrete constraints. That is why the organization and challenge of phenomic training is the most difficult in the world; exercise physiology and biological anthropology have no tales to tell about simultaneous high performance at the poles and if you have designs on winning the Phenomic Games that is what you are going to have to do.
But Ivan will have none of this; he is going to be long and strong, physics be damned, even if he has to eat shit and die.
It is about 5 PM and Ivan is returning from a long mountain bike ride of endless rolling hills followed by a two-hour speed hike. Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko is a big believer in brick training: a rapid switch from one endurance sport to another mostly implemented in the bike-run transition in triathlons. He is looking to keep Ivan’s nervous system and muscles under constant bombardment in an endurance immersion milieu. Some days he switched back and forth several times with “Vinnichenko brick intervals” — intervals lasting one hour or more followed by a transition to another sport, all done at low heart rate. Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko informed Ivan that a reporter is coming tomorrow to interview him. Some American from the London Herald named Dr. John Beasley, a scientific journalist with a PhD in phenomics.
The car arrived around 9 AM and Anatoly informed Dr. John Beasley and his cameraman Ralph Towers they were going on a 30 mile helicopter ride to a base camp of Mount Elbrus at around 10,000 feet. This would give them a real feel of Russian altitude training, Vinnichenko style. John had trouble recognizing Ivan with the mountain man beard and sunburned face and remarked: “Ivan? What have you become? You were the strongest man at Worlds…you are beginning to look like an endurance athlete of some sort, not sure what flavor though.”
Ivan’s English is not so good and the translator came in and did his thing. Ivan’s response is simple: “Dr. Beasley, I am what happens when a Russian weightlifter is kidnapped by Anatoly at gunpoint and must do what he says, however ridiculous, for 4 months with no breaks. Nietzsche comes to mind, didn’t he say, ‘That which doesn’t kill you makes you longer?’”
Everyone laughs but more because it scary true than it is funny. It is a good thing that Anatoly doesn’t experiment with lab rats because PETA would declare it cruel and unusual. Ivan is not complaining, however, because so far it is working and results are all that matter to Ivan 2.0.
May 9, 2015
Emailed transcript to the LONDON HERALD for the weekly column:
Portraits of The World’s Fittest Humans: Preparing for The Phenomic Games
Ivan Petrovitch, winner of the gold medal in the Clean and Jerk at The Phenomics World Championship in Turin, Italy
Dispatch from near Mount Elbrus, Russia
— — — — — —
by Dr. John Beasley, PhD
My mission is to track down the leading contenders for next season’s Phenomic Games World Championship in Whistler, Canada and bring their dreams, beliefs, and training approaches directly to you every Saturday.
Who are the world’s fittest humans?
What do they do to prepare?
Why do they do it?
Phenomic Human Ranking: 49, 45 (male)
Height: 5–8 (1.73m)
Weight: 184 lbs. (83.6kg)
Birthplace: Saint Petersburg, Russia
Education: B.S. in Physics from Saint Petersburg State University, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Background: Olympic weightlifting (6th in 94kg (206.8 lbs.) class at 2012 Russian Nationals, 200kg (440 lbs.) C&J)
Started training for the Phenomic Games in 2013
Favorite event: Clean and Jerk
Most challenging event: Nemesis
Favorite exercise: snatch grip pulls from wood blocks
Coaches: Anatoly Vinnichenko and Ilya Matveev
Favorite food: T-bone steak
Current residence: Saint Petersburg, Russia
Nickname: Crazy Ivan
Note: translated from the Russian by George Bugayev
Dr. John Beasley: I am here today reporting from an altitude of about 10,000 feet at a Russian base camp on the outskirts of Mount Elbrus which stands at 18,510 feet behind me. With me today is Ivan Petrovitch, winner of the gold medal in the Clean and Jerk at the Phenomics World Championship in Turin, Italy, along with his head coach Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko and training partner Nicholi Yakovlev. Ivan, we all remember two things about you, winning the clean and jerk handily and suffering mightily on Nemesis. What brings you back to the Phenomic Games this season?
Ivan Petrovitch: Yes, I still vividly remember how I felt on Nemesis and most people would not want to face such punishment and humiliation again. But I am not like others, I live to face off against serious challenges and will do what it takes to overcome. I will be ready, I promise this.
Dr. John Beasley: Is that coming from confidence or do you know something the audience doesn’t?
Ivan Petrovitch: It is about learning from my mistakes and experiences. I am dedicated to possessing the conditioning required to realize my full potential. I do not know what my competitors are doing; instead I focus on what I need to do. I am just a single piece of a team effort and I am part of a formidable team. I trust Anatoly’s judgement and expertise in my training approach. I think he and my team believe in me.
Dr. John Beasley: Anatoly, your record of improving ultra-endurance performance using bold approaches in both mental and physical dimensions is legendary. But you have always worked your magic on proven endurance athletes. Ivan is a world-class weightlifter. What is he doing in a place like this and what are your expectations?
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: John, your concerns are valid but this is the Phenomic Games which is about the exploration of human possibilities. We cannot be burdened with old assumptions of what people can and cannot do. That attitude leaves us defeated without actually experiencing defeat. Yes, Ivan collapsed on Nemesis last season. But his training was not close to what was required. What he did accomplish, however, was to establish enough of an endurance beachhead to be able to be in a place like this, training at altitude for several months doing precise workouts that will build his ability to transport and utilize oxygen. He is already at a performance level far exceeding his performance in Turin and he will improve greatly from here.
Dr. John Beasley: So what is the overall strategy?
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: We got all of Ivan’s baseline medical and performance data while in Moscow. We examined his strengths and weaknesses compared to his competition. From there we assembled a team of specialists in the areas we are going to target. This approach is top down beginning with the ΔP [Ed. change in Performance] we plan on achieving for each of the 5 events in Canada. Obviously Ivan needs to build a backend and this cannot be fully manifested in just one year but we will aggressively do what we believe is possible provided there are no major setbacks such as injuries or illness. I think everyone will be surprised by the new Ivan.
Nicholi Yakovlev: When Ivan got here and we started training I had my doubts. I have been on many climbs including on Lhotse and Everest with team members in great fitness for multi-day expeditions carrying loads at 7000m [Ed. 22,966 feet] and above in the death zone sometimes for several days with little sleep. I do not believe the old Ivan would have survived the demands of a big climb without supplemental oxygen. But since the first weeks of his training he has improved greatly. His mountain biking and hiking at lower altitude is now strong. His mind is strong and this team is achieving results I simply cannot believe. I doubted him at first but now I doubt his limits.
Dr. John Beasley: Ivan, are you freaking out Anatoly and Nicholi?
Ivan Petrovitch: No, it isn’t quite like that…it is Anatoly freaking me out! He is demanding but I respond strongly to such demand; I rise up to meet the daily tasks. My recovery has been incredible. I adapt to the training stress. The different technologies I didn’t know about. And there is synergy between them. Every day I am ready to go like a bloodhound on the hunt, I taste the scent.
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: Ivan is correct, he adapts rapidly to the training stress. We approach the pursuit of ΔP in terms of maximizing adaptive yield to each daily training and recovery cycle. Most people focus all their efforts on having a solid workout with the mental dimension lacking and then follow with a naive approach to recovery. The belief is that the body recovers automatically given food and downtime, all with no effort or thought. This is true, it does respond with food and sleep but how well does it respond relative to what is theoretically possible? We seek to capture all the adaptive yield possible.
Dr. John Beasley: Yes, I see what what you are saying. In the past the approach was to use performance enhancing drugs in concert with extreme training and the results were excellent. But without drugs what fills the vacuum?
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: John, my vision is that you start with the mind and the body will follow. All the technology and expertise amplifies the process. The challenge of Phenomic Games is the highest level humans have faced. You can leave no stone unturned, all technologies from anywhere in the world must be harvested. But you have to get the mind opened up. The meaning of endurance is about expanding the aperture of the mind out into infinite space. You empty your conscious mind and connect to nature while leaving thought behind. Some people experience this randomly as a spiritual phenomenon in a once in a lifetime type event but my athletes train to do this on command.
Beginners will need to have a fatigued body or else they depend on their body for movement. The first thing I do is break an athlete’s dependence on their finite body for energy by proving there is a backup energy source without limit. That may sound strange to your audience because they assume their performance is always solely dependent on their body. We know that is not true; in expeditions on big climbs especially under life or death survival circumstances we can will ourselves to perform at levels beyond physiological explanation. This first phase of training is a rite of passage I call the Endurance Quest in the spirit of a vision quest. You will be stunned by how much you will learn about yourself in such a short time. The purpose of the Endurance Quest is to break through seemingly impenetrable, false mental barriers to a qualitatively different level of mental conditioning; once you get to that point we are ready to begin in earnest. I discovered you want to make this quantum jump right away.
Nicholi Yakovlev: I have been in those predicaments on several occasions in big climbs. I have seen people in great physical condition die at high altitude, they couldn’t tap into their minds and their bodies failed them. Others, even not in great physical condition, did the impossible and lived. There is no container strong enough to confine willpower.
Dr. John Beasley: Ivan, what you have experienced early in your career with mental training?
Ivan Petrovitch: In my weight training experience my coach Ilya Matveev taught us mental techniques to override our built-in strength limitations. We spent a lot of time when not actually lifting to simulate everything the mind does before encountering a load exceeding our best previous effort.
Dr. John Beasley: Ivan, can you give us an example?
Ivan Petrovitch: Sure. Say you have to face a difficult lift, say a front squat, with a load of 100% of your PR. Then you do 5 to 8 single attempts with it, succeed or fail. You repeat this on a frequent basis. You deeply record the mental state immediately before, during, and immediately after it. Then you try to replicate just the mental state without the actual physical lift. You repeat it forever. You do this with other lifts and then apply it to everything applicable in normal life. Now load it to 105% of max in your mind. Then 120%. This trains the mind to get closer and closer to accessing limit strength, the mother lifting the car off her baby. But for this to work you have to dedicate yourself to it. The mind is only powerful if you repeat the entire mental atmosphere countless times with no shortcuts. Over time — years — you erode the default barriers that safeguard you from accessing force levels that cause injury. I did not have the genetics of the world record holder but I got really strong. I train my mind all the time.
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: What Ivan says his true, we have default limitations genetically built in to keep us out of harm’s way except in emergency. The average person living in a first-world nation never experiences or never has a need to apply a high force level or have to move their body until they cannot. Even so, these higher capacities are permanently conserved in our evolutionary biology but they are accessible when triggered by circumstances that are perceived as dire, as life threatening, as survival responses. So people go through life believing they have these low limits to strength and endurance because in their personal experience they are weak and have woeful endurance. But these personal lifetime observations are not concrete limits like we believe. Being able to consciously think about these limits is a double-edged sword: you can believe you can or cannot do something and you will be correct most of the time based on your belief. In other words, most people fail because they believe they cannot succeed, they yield to false mental limits, not to actual physical ones. They do not volitionally explore their actual limits which is the beginning — not the end — of discovering your potential.
Ivan Petrovitch: Anatoly said something that resonated with me, he said our actual limits, be it limit strength or the large reservoir of untapped endurance, are only accessible if the body perceives life-threatening danger. The mental training I have done in my life is directed at affecting perception. Perception is not a fixed thing the body automatically does; it is subject to influence by the mind.
Dr. John Beasley: So, you are saying perception is plastic? We cannot alter our sensory inputs, so what do you mean exactly?
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: Actually, in studies conducted by the military, our sensory inputs can be altered and quite significantly. This is the discipline of the physiology of the deadly encounter. It is difficult to volitionally manipulate the actual sensory part of perception but what you can do is use the mind to influence how sensory information is processed. So mental training is about using the mind to change the backend of perception, not the frontend. For example, with vision, the optical nerve routes electrical signals to the visual cortex. From there, inputs are integrated from all the other sensory inputs including proprioception, vestibular function [Ed. inner ear, “balance”], kinesthesia, and so forth. All of this is the frontend of perception, the sensory half. The objective of mental training is to affect the downstream decision making process which contains the gatekeepers to emergency capacities. It is quite possible as you focus the mind to trick the brain into accessing the gatekeeper so that sensory inputs become altered via feedback and feedforward circuits — all of these processes of the perceptual apparatus are intertwined and highly recursive. What I am describing is theoretical, an attempt at an explanation. What is most important is that the mind can and does gain access to emergency capacities, how it does it is still unknown because the relationship between the mind — that is the total mind — and the brain is speculative at best.
But let me make my point. Ivan described a method to be able to apply limit strength at will. The mental aperture of the strength athlete is closed to a laser concentrated focus, a single point. All that exists in your mind is the pure application of force at that single point. Loud sounds are attenuated and peripheral vision is not in your field of awareness, your awareness is stripped down to just the task at hand, you are oblivious to all distractions. In mental training for endurance you need to develop different skills because endurance is about infinite continuity whereas strength is about a single spike of infinite amplitude. By focusing the mind to a single point with high intensity I believe the gatekeeper for limit strength opens the door, not all the way but you get your foot in the door. Over time with extremely disciplined and focused practice using heavy loads the door opens more and more. Eventually your mind gets the key and thus free reign of the gatekeeper so that you ultimately wield volitional command.
Ivan Petrovitch: No one has ever explained it like that, that is a great metaphor for a mental technique to access limit strength. Anyways, it feels like that but it has taken years of practice. But eventually your field of vision does become telescopic and your peripheral vision disappears when you are in the limit-strength zone. Your senses are altered because of the mental focus. The crowd is gone. Thought is gone. I believe it is possible to gain mastery of the gatekeeper through a disciplined practice of the mind.
Dr. John Beasley: You and Anatoly have done a great job for limit strength. So how do you frame mental training for endurance? After all, the objective is a full-spectrum phenomic mind.
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: You must go back to humanity’s origins. We have forgotten what we are and how we got here. Homo sapiens are creatures of magnificent endurance, not strength. How do we match up against the strongest mammals, kilo per kilo, say against medium-sized cats and chimpanzees? Not well. How about speed? Poorly. How about aerobic power? Can we keep up with greyhounds, thoroughbred racehorses and the king of all mammals, the pronghorn antelope? No. We have only one-third the VO2 max per kilo of a pronghorn antelope and that is comparing the most elite human to their average performers. They can run a 10K in under 10 minutes — over 40 miles per hour — whereas the human world record is just under 27 minutes.
As for endurance, we are the best on earth if allowed to go back to our roots, to our being. Better than camels, elephants or Arabian horses over more diverse terrains and environments. So to even begin to consider what a human must do to be the world’s fittest it begins with ultra-endurance because this is the only range of the power spectrum where we reign supreme relative to other mammals and this is the foundation of our biological anthropology given the bigger picture of comparative physiology. In other words, ultra-endurance is what defines us and separates us from all other terrestrial mammals. Our greatest physical treasure is our robust bipedalism; this is our only true superpower given all our physical capabilities within the human power continuum. Measuring the degree of that superpower is the starting point of any cogent assessment of human fitness. Maximal strength is a very distant second and that is iffy at best.
We are the most elite endurance species but who is the most elite endurance human, tantamount to which human is the world’s most elite endurance mammal? In other words, being the world’s strongest man does not impress even a weakling among bears or cats of the same size but no other creature can walk in our moccasins for the long haul. We alone endure, we have the capacity to change our environment from an inhospitable one to a favorable one on foot. We can change our fitness, that is, our relationship — how we fit relative to the environment — just by walking long enough. The ultimatum of adapt or die for humans over the millennia often boiled down to walk or die and the engine of that awesome potential is harnessing our bipedal superpower. That is what fitness really means, how well an organism fits to the demands and resources of its environment. Darwin would consider a human’s robust bipedalism the ultimate Joker card for terrestrial mammals.
Dr. John Beasley: I see what you are saying, we have lost touch with the scale of endurance. We are endurance athletes first and foremost and that doesn’t mean a 10K or marathon. So how does the mind factor in to training to become a better endurance athlete?
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: Our minds evolved as a species and developed on an individual basis during a lifespan dominated by walking in large open spaces. Our senses were expanded to access sensory information that most humans today have lost entirely given their pitiful urban existence of living in enclosed apartments, cubicles, cars and stores inundated by audio noise and alternating current, electromagnetic noise while eating garbage their entire life. Science is impacted in very powerful ways because of this since the scientific method is founded on seeking truth by asking questions; the ability to ask probing questions that lead to deep truths is profoundly impaired if the very ground of your perception is distorted. The degree of skewness in our perception today is such that we not only fail to ask the right questions but we deny the possibility or even existence of what and where the real truth is or lies. When you go off in a misguided direction based on a faulty hypothesis long enough — like 50 years, multi-generationally — you find your grandchildren memorizing textbooks that are based on nonsense, at worst, or are of superficial, marginal value, at best.
We lost the sense of what we are, and that would be migratory bipedal movement over open-ended, vast distances. The finish line is your death, not a checkered flag. When I say endurance I mean endurance in precisely that sense, so, yeah, I am not talking about marathons. The world record for doing marathons is going that distance every day for a year or doing an Ironman-distance triathlon everyday for 50 days. That is endurance worthy of our migratory heritage. But it is not the limit; the limit of our endurance is defined by the cessation of bodily movement, the cessation of life.
Reinhold Messner, the world’s most accomplished high-altitude mountaineer, talked about vertical endurance, the ability to conquer vertical space with the will. He was the first to climb all fourteen 8000m peaks without supplemental oxygen. Later he talked about horizontal endurance, the traversal of the stark, infinite space of Antarctica. Traversing a flat featureless surface in a 360-degree panorama of blank white space for several weeks or months changes your perception of everything, it opens up the dimension of temporal endurance. This is the mind willing the body to move through infinite space, this transcends our current scientific understanding of physiology, beyond the prosaic ATP energy paradigm. Messner is a pioneer in the conquest of inner space by using the mind to conquer extreme vertical and horizontal space. He pushed the edge of the human performance envelope as much as any person I am aware of. He demonstrated the consummate endurance mind which faces extremes of both time and space and his body followed his will. At these true limits, life is in the balance. He knew the risks. He lost his brother Günther during an avalanche on a extreme climb on Nanga Parbat in 1970. Every person alive is indebted to his pioneering and re-defining of what the human mind and body is capable of in an endurance capacity. Messner is an example of Tom Robbins’ maxim: “To achieve the impossible, it is precisely the unthinkable that must be thought.” He embodied that.
Dr. John Beasley: Anatoly, I am sure you are aware of Henry Worsley’s recent attempt to traverse the Antarctic continent solo, unassisted and with no access to additional provisions. To this day it has never been achieved. All 8000m peaks have been climbed consummating the vertical endurance dimension of our planet but the horizontal dimension in extremely frigid environmental conditions has not been done. Only extreme migratory traversal of non-polar regions has been achieved.
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: Yes, we are a migratory species which implies extreme prowess of the temporal and horizontal dimensions of endurance but another aspect of the architecture of endurance besides linear time and space’s horizontal and vertical dimensions is the environmental stresses on the human organism. The vertical brings into play the impacts of gravity, oxygen scarcity, and extreme cold. The temporal dimension is minimized by Messner’s alpine-style approach which requires maximal physical and mental conditioning — you climb fast and light which avoids the hazards of time. The horizontal endurance dimension, however, cannot sidestep the temporal dimension at the boundaries of the performance envelope. In this context it is quite obvious that a marathon or Ironman is not a test of human endurance capacity except from the perspective of modernity because modern man does not have to demonstrate any endurance qualities at all to survive. What Worsley attempted was nearly 1000 miles in an estimated 75 days in hostile environmental conditions. And that is solo with no outside support and all of his provisions he dragged by sled. No Siberian Husky dogs. No food drops. Just a satellite phone if things went sideways, and they did.
Now, if we examine the limits of horizontal and temporal endurance for the human species, we have Shackleton’s quest unanswered. The problem is the thermodynamic demands imposed by the Antarctic continent which is really a high, polar desert, you have ice and snow instead of sand. Remember that the majority of the traversal is at an altitude of just under 3000m [Ed. 9600 feet] so this is really not merely horizontally and temporally demanding but also has two of the physical properties of vertical endurance: oxygen scarcity and extreme cold. The third — gravity — is not significant because it is relatively flat. The thermodynamics are such that the daily caloric expenditures are around 10,000 calories per day because of the energy demands of locomotion combined with maintenance of core temperature while at rest. This is what got him in trouble. Even though the terrain is fairly flat the footing is not a walk in the park, it is more like being at the beach in soft sand with rolling dunes. This increases energy demand and also slows you down. Time, distance, and energy — physics — is what endurance is all about at the end of the day. The bacteria in his gut were starving as much as he was and caused sepsis. By the time he was rescued it was too late. He died in Chile shortly after from bacterial peritonitis.
Dr. John Beasley: It is sad that as a species we do not show respect or even appreciate the courage of this man. Out of 7.3 billion people on earth less than 1000 followed him on Instagram. He was attempting to extend the human performance envelope to a new frontier and gave his life for a very worthy cause. He was only 30 miles from success and was unable to continue. He found a human limit the only way a true human limit can be measured: he died.
I think there is a deep truth here about the relationship of the mind and body and their limits. Roger Bannister was the first to break the 4-minute mile barrier which was thought to be a physical limit, but it was thought to be — meaning it was really a mental limit, not a physical one. After he broke it physically the mental barrier at the species level was shattered and many people then went sub-four minutes. Even kids in high school do it now; kids know it can be done, it is an expectation.
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: Yes, you are right. Vasily Alekseyev was the first person to break 500 pounds in the clean and jerk and after that even people in much lighter weight classes exceeded that limit. A woman will break it some day. Reinhold Messner, like Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute mental barrier in the mile, broke out to a new level with being the first to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen and to climb it solo. He opened the mental door to speed-climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen solo. So, John, in the big picture of the conquest of inner space, that is, the realm of the mind, human imagination opens up the possibility of quantum leaping the previously unimaginable which then allows a brave pioneer access to virgin performance frontiers. Mental evolution ice-brakes and leads for physical evolution to follow. This is the process and trajectory of human performance. That is why we must always question limits, or, really, we need to imagine and visualize the performance frontier that is in the adjacent possible beyond them. Our minds tend to get trapped into believing in the adjacent impossible which condemns our performance to a comfort zone. What your mind cannot imagine the body cannot do.
Dr. John Beasley: That is a handy formula on how the human phenome evolves — mind believes then body achieves. That is not new, we have all heard that before, but, unfortunately, most people secretly conduct their life believing “my body will achieve after some other mind believes” which is why most people are followers and not leaders like Messner or Bannister. They wait for somebody else to ice-break the limit and only then can their mind believe so that their body can do it. Only leaders have the imagination to envision the next step and to actually do the mental heavy lifting, to have the willpower to pave the way for their body to do it.
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: You make a good point. Yes, we have all heard that yet there are very few trailblazers. Why is that? The reason is that people do not train their minds, only their bodies. They have weak minds. There are two mental qualities that you need to become aware of and then to train. One is imagination and the other is will. Messner imagined climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen, he visualized it, he flew in a plane above Everest without supplemental oxygen at 30,000 feet. He visualized himself in his mind doing the climb without supplemental oxygen, feeling what that would be like. He then used his willpower during the actual climb to connect the dots in his mind between where he was physically and the mental goal of summiting Everest.
His two mental properties of imagination and willpower merged together to allow his body to draft in his mind’s slipstream: willpower is a mental connection between your imagined goal and your body — as your willpower increases the perceived physical resistance separating your body from the imagined goal decreases until it reaches zero. If your imaginative power and willpower are strong enough you discover that the paper tiger limits that exist in your head are no match for the trained mind —your way of life becomes your body drafting in your mind’s slipstream. Man can overcome any obstacle with this mental superpower. Out here we develop this superpower, we blow through limits one right after the other as long as the body stays tucked away in the mental bubble, in the slipstream of the mind.
The reason why people fail is that they do not train their imagination or their will. The simple visualization drills people do is not sufficient. In a sense, the mind is like a vector for the body, it provides magnitude and direction. Imagination is the direction — the goal — and will is the magnitude — the power in willpower. Through imagination you strengthen your direction by making the goal as real as possible in your mind until you can taste it while its mental partner — willpower — marshals the necessary resources to get you there. You become unstoppable, limits are roadkill. Both these qualities need to be highly trained and then integrated to breakthrough to the next level, whatever that may be. Of course, this applies to all perceived limits.
Dr. John Beasley: It certainly illuminates the more extreme mental and physical barriers of becoming long and strong for the Phenomic Games; we will find out who is a leader and who isn’t. In this context, Anatoly, what is willpower? People never think about the mind in such realms as migration, the death zone, Antarctic expeditions and, well, Crazy Ivans!
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: Willpower is independent from the nervous system, is non-material and purely subjective, and, therefore, its energy source is independent of the body entirely. This means you can train your willpower to the point you can summon it on command: this is what it means to turn it on or up at “will.” So, imagine if you train your willpower by continuously applying it to every little thing all the time or for a big chunk of cumulative time per day. That makes a huge difference in how effective, precise, and intense you are with every aspect of training and adapting to training, or, for that matter, overcoming difficulties of any kind, say in business.
Dr. John Beasley: So the source of willpower is not some locus of neural circuits in the brain? Some neurophysiologists think the will to survive is part of the function of the brain’s anterior cingulate gyrus.
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: No, not at all. Under conditions of extreme survival like starvation and fatigue, willpower becomes stronger as the body weakens. The will to live can be so powerful that near death it is the dominant focus of your being. You will yourself to overcome, to continue. Life is endurance; if you fail to endure, to persist, you die.
Dr. John Beasley: Can you give us an example. That is a lot to absorb.
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: Certainly. On a big climb after several days in the death zone, that is above 7500m [Ed. 24,600 feet], the brain is starved for energy and oxygen. If I were to ask you your name there would be a several second delay. You would have much difficulty telling me your street address. You are beyond the incapacity of drunkenness, you have the I.Q. of a turtle. All of these tasks are cognitive tasks, part of your brain. But your will to live under these same conditions is not diminished, it is amplified. The will does not emerge from your primitive reptilian brain or from the cingulate cortex which is part of the cerebral cortex, if it did there would be evidence of diminishment. But there isn’t, your willpower is totally unaffected by your nervous system shutting down. Your ability to control your limbs or any form of motor control is severely impaired. But what is dominating your being is the most powerful awareness of willpower to live that you have ever experienced. It only goes away when you lose consciousness or there is a loss of self-awareness like in dementia. But then you are sub-human, a zombie. Zombies like in artificial intelligence applications can be programmed to protect themselves from damage but that is not will. Will cannot be reduced to a Turing string of 0’s and 1’s.
Nicholi Yakovlev: This has happened to me many times when forced to bivouac due to bad weather conditions in the death zone. You are scared that you will not make it out alive. Your communication is reduced to a retarded mumble but your willpower is maxed and does not lessen. Your willpower is the only thing you can count on as your brain and body power down. You must stay awake, if you lose consciousness you will die. You just move, one foot in front of the other, until you make it down or perish.
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: There is something your audience needs to grasp. You have the ability to tap into energy outside yourself, it’s just that we are conditioned to not do that or even to not believe it is possible because science says it isn’t so. The world’s greatest endurance athletes probably have similar mental and deeper sensory capabilities as early man, that is, migratory man. Modern man and migratory man are quite different in that one knows how to endure and the other is clueless. Finishing a marathon or Ironman is no proof that you comprehend endurance. All you did was finish a race in a controlled environment over less than a day where your odds of dying are close to zero.
But modern man can train to regain the mental powers of migratory man. That is what we do here around Mount Elbrus, we are in an environment where survival requires endurance and endurance requires a mind with its full, latent faculties at full capacity. That means harnessing and redlining willpower and imagination. Ivan’s mental aperture is opening up. His body is following his mind, not the other way around. It all begins with the mind but before you can use your mind you have to know what it can do and then learn to train it so you can use its full potential on demand. This vast, open environment surrounding us is training wheels for developing the endurance mind. It helps speed up the process. It is not magic, it is only reclaiming what is yours buried under a lot of mental detritus and scientific dogma. Anyone can do it, it is built into your operating system. You just need to find the “on” switch. Ivan found his “on” switch just by taking out the garbage between his ears.
Dr. John Beasley: Are you saying that Nemesis is too soft, not representative of ultra-endurance? Most people complain saying it is way too long, even ridiculously… [Anatoly cuts John off]
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: Look, the only people that complain about Nemesis are those that have no understanding of what the human body principally evolved to do. In one sense nothing is long enough, in the long run we are dead, death being the finish line of the human race. That is both the subjective and objective worldview of migratory man but is just a seeming meaningless abstraction to modern man with his automobiles and jet planes. What makes Nemesis work is the back-to-back combination of The Climb followed by Nemesis. In the five events, The Climb is deceiving in its brutal treachery. It is the same duration as a marathon but the mountain bike time trial is composed of nasty rolling hills followed by a viciously steep climb which is deadly on the legs. It is like doing step-up intervals for close to two hours. In the history of the Tour de France, I don’t think there has ever been a mountain time trial even close to 2 hours. Yes, the mountain stages can be many hours but they are not a time trial. You can’t hide behind a domestique’s wheel during a time trial. Unless you have several serious seasons of hard climbs out of the saddle under your belt you will not recover and you will be toast by the 6th hour on Nemesis with the worst ahead of you. If you watched Janu, the Nepalese Sherpa, even though he destroyed the field wire-to-wire, his gait lost something in the last few hours, his body language telegraphed compensation, I sensed laboring. He was feeling it. If he felt it all the others were in purgatory. Look, this is a guy whose livelihood for 10 years was ferrying 35kg loads ascending and descending for hours at 5000 to 7000m on Annapurna and K2 and other 8000m peaks. That is like doing heavy step-ups as an endurance workout close to the death zone. So the combination works, it is a cruel one-two punch. If you don’t have a world-class backend you will pay dearly. By the midpoint of Nemesis, it is plain to see who are the real endurance competitors and who are the pretenders. I think the Phenomic Secretariat did a great job with this collection of events.
Ivan Petrovitch: My legs were wobbly in the last hour of The Climb and Nemesis just crushed me, my legs were toast in the first few hours. I tightened up and my stride length shriveled to baby steps. I never felt so bad in my life, I wanted to quit. I wasn’t ready. But now I am hungry to excel on the backend. I learned about the power of the mind for strength training when I was a kid and teenager but knew nothing about the power of the mind for endurance. I am learning a whole new way of being as I acquire a new mental tool box. Soon I will have a phenomic mind, a mind capable of controlling my body across the full power spectrum from strength to endurance. John, you asked earlier, I think at the very beginning about my confidence. It is more than confidence postured as dogmatic belief or untethered ego; it is more an inner knowing of what I can do with my body almost as if my body has become a tool held by the imagination and will of my mind.
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: Ivan, your body is a tool and nothing more than that once you detach reality from the perception of reality. Where once you perceived a body, now you project a body, and all you are is the projector. I want my athletes to progress to that level as soon as possible so we can start the real training. Training at the elite level is about mind, total mind. Until then training is mechanics, wax on, wax off. If young athletes learned about the mind before the body, they would progress much faster because the mind does control the body, the mind becomes a remote control for the body once the training is consummated. If your mind is weak, then your control of the body is weak. If it is strong, then your control of the body is strong. Many physically gifted athletes are prodigies early on and then plateau because their body and ego is tapped out and they never realize that they could tap into their mind to fulfill their potential. If your mind is fully conditioned, the body eventually becomes a mental projection of your desire, focus and visualization, your obedient slave. It just tags along for the ride in the mind’s slipstream. The Phenomic Games is fascinating just from the mental dimension, the idea of mastery of a phenomic mind is unexplored territory. I love this stuff.
Dr. John Beasley: Ivan, you may be one of the only people in the world to use his mind phenomically, that is, full-spectrum from strength to endurance. Anatoly was talking about the gatekeepers to latent physical capacities only accessible under emergency conditions. You described what it is like to gain access to the gateway to limit strength. How does it differ gaining access to emergency endurance?
Ivan Petrovitch: Great question. I made great headway in the pursuit of mastery to the strength gateway. You might say I know that gatekeeper on a first name basis. [everybody laughs] The endurance gatekeeper I do not know as well. Well, on Nemesis I was hammering on the door but nobody was home. [laughter again] Anyways, by my 3rd week here during Phase 1 I was going on longer and longer day hikes through rolling hills. I would have no food with me, only water. I knew what it was like to bonk before and when that would happen I would quit and go home. That’s what I did last season in preparation for Nemesis. Unfortunately, that only trains the body, not the mind. Your body runs out of gas and then mommy comes to pick you up. That is not Anatoly’s approach to building an endurance mind. Anatoly is a really crappy mommy! [laughter]
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: A little tough love goes a long way!
Ivan Petrovitch: Out here, in this program, I go until I bonk and then the training begins, not ends. How long could I go after bonking? At first not too long. You try to muscle it but the body just doesn’t have it. The legs feel heavy, wooden, they don’t move. But at some point the mind shifts into a different dimension and the legs move. If you train at this threshold enough you just get used to it, your body has access to something you didn’t have access to before. Now I can go a long way because I mentally have direct access to the gatekeeper. I can’t go super fast, but I can keep going. Maybe that is what migratory man did everyday, I don’t know for sure. Being out here in the wilderness accelerates the process. I totally get it, the environment affects your senses profoundly and changes your perception which is the key to either the strength or endurance gateway. You use your mind to alter your perception. I can see further improvement, I can connect the dots to knowing the gatekeeper on a first name basis and even having him give me the key. I can imagine myself having access to emergency endurance capacity on command, it is an emergent superpower once your willpower is of sufficient magnitude. It is quite real. Isn’t that right, mommy? [big laugh by all]
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: Yes, that is the training process to strengthen the endurance mind. Migratory man did not have mommy to come by and pick him up by helicopter when he got tired. That may sound funny but the consequences of having no magical rescue when you are physically wasted has great significance. Most humans never have to live in the mind of our ancestors and that is a mind that deals with a profoundly fatigued body all the time…it would be rare when you are not tired. As for bonking, I believe that is a recent phenomenon, bonking is really a demonstration of the huge drop in power from aerobic metabolism using carbohydrates and IMTG [Ed. intramuscular triglycerides] for fuel to having to use protein and adipose for fuel. Great endurance athletes do not bonk, they lose some power but it is not a catastrophic loss. They build a world-class 1st gear using fat for fuel.
The first step in building the endurance mind is training past the bonk until you no longer bonk, just a gradual loss in power that plateaus on a relatively high level. This can take several years. World-class Ironman athletes have a great 1st gear as well as stage cyclists, long-distance Nordic skiers, and high-altitude climbers that do long distance treks. The second step is what you see under survival conditions, where physiology is defied. Nicoli and I know this world well, the world of high-altitude climbers and other types of long distance trekkers and explorers when confronted with the forces of nature. Nature has a way to access the gatekeeper in a way that training cannot. In my training method I bring athletes to face nature on Her terms like out here until you no longer depend on your body to endure because if you do you won’t be coming back. The threat of death on a frequent basis is a wonderful catalyst for amping up willpower. As Ivan said: “ Mommy ain’t coming”.
Dr. John Beasley: Gathering from you and Ivan, gaining voluntary control of limit strength and super endurance is not easy. Do you think there is an easier way?
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: No, I do not and there shouldn’t be. I read in magazines about people wanting to gain immediate access to limit strength through cheap tricks. We have these capabilities for a reason: there would be a lot more injuries and tragedies. Evolution has safe-guarded them very intelligently. Yes, the mind can access them but only two ways: through real emergencies or a lifetime commitment to diligent and purposeful mental training. Ivan and I just described how to go about developing the mental practices to access the gatekeepers. There are no easy, quick ways. The best way to develop a phenomic body is by building a phenomic mind. At the level of performance we are talking about, it is all about the mind, the body is a tool and projection of the consummately-trained mind.
Reinhold Messner is an exemplary role model of how to befriend the gatekeepers. Take a second or two and just imagine where your mind is forced to go by climbing Everest for the first time in history without supplemental oxygen — solo — and being the first to do it on a new route of the north face. He spent 3 days all alone above 6,500 meters [Ed. 21,300 ft]. I think that puts the meaning of “endurance” in perspective, no? The British poet T.S. Eliot captured this nicely by saying, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go”. To pioneer new human limits where you must travel in your mind is the residence of the gatekeepers. But at this level, it is not all glory. Robert Falcon Scott, who died on an expedition to the South Pole, said in his frozen, discovered journal: “ We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint”. Henry Worsley echoes the same sentiment.
Dr. John Beasley: Thanks for the stories and clarification. I think the audience will now understand the deeper significance of what endurance means. Anatoly, how else do you use the mind with your athletes?
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: We have been talking about the power of the mind and its natural role as master and commander of the body for both strength and endurance. This applies with equal influence on the body’s recovery from training.
Dr. John Beasley: What do you mean by that? Anyone can understand how technology affects recovery and adaptive yield. Where does the mind factor into that equation?
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: Everyone is familiar with the placebo effect. For those in the control group, I give you a pill that has no biological value but I trick you by saying it has specific benefits. A certain percentage of people experience the benefits. “It is all in your mind,” they say. But that is not entirely true. Yes, it is in your mind but there are measurable effects on your body! Drug companies hate placebos because they work well enough to decrease the relative benefit between the control group, which is the placebo group, and the experimental group, the ones receiving the actual drug. The placebo effect theoretically should cancel out but it doesn’t. This is the influence of the mind’s imagination on the body by people that do not have the ability to use their mind to its fullest potential. For people in the drug trials, it is essentially a passive, background belief as opposed to an active, foreground, specifically-trained mental technique of one’s imaginative power.
Dr. John Beasley: Anatoly, I see what you saying, the mind, even an untrained mind, can directly impact the body so a trained mind can amplify this impact to a much high degree. We have been talking about the mind’s influence on strength and endurance and now what the mind can do for recovery. Basically, use the mind as a tool to affect all aspects in the pursuit of ΔP, correct?
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: Precisely. Let’s do that. Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine if you focus your mind on recovery as well as training. Some aspect of visualization is incorporated into most elite training programs, yes? Why do people focus their minds on training but not recovery? There is a very simple biology lesson to be learned here. Training does not improve performance at all; 100% of adaptive yield occurs after training ceases and only after it ceases. Training, whether it is for strength, endurance, or anything in between is always 100% catabolic: mass is converted to energy to move the body or external objects while mass — your body — suffers damage in the process. All of that is bad for performance. In your mental preparation and during your effort you used your mind to better damage your body — more gross energy expenditure, greater rate of energy expenditure, more metabolic stress causing damage to intracellular structures and more mechanical forces causing damage to connective tissue. Athletes don’t use their minds during recovery not because it doesn’t work but because nobody does it.
Allow me to clarify all this. The anabolic half of a daily training cycle, which is the recovery phase of any training type, equals the portion of the training cycle that accounts for 100% of adaptive yield which is the goal of your training, that and its overall contribution to ΔP. In essence what I am saying is that it is far more intelligent to undertrain and over recover than is the all too common approach of overtraining and under recovering. Overtraining and under recovering ultimately results in a crippled adaptive yield, illness, injury, immunosuppression or psychological burnout. The more effort you apply to that process the poorer the outcome. “No pain, no gain” is stupidity on steroids. Now let’s fix it.
Say we have young athletes just train their minds with the purpose of amplifying recovery processes and forget about using their minds to enhance training. They learn physiology, biochemistry, chronobiology and anatomy and use visualization to focus on the body becoming stronger, more efficient, leaner, greater endurance, deeper sleep, more body control and coordination. They understand that the consolidation of motor patterns into lower brain centers and the peripheral nervous occurs during sleep, not during training. They feel, imagine and visualize this happening while they are awake. They see mitochondria, capillaries, and enzymes for energy metabolism growing in number and concentration. They see neural motor units firing sooner and in parallel thus generating more force and with greater power. In your mind, you imagine joints getting thicker and more elastic. You get the picture. How would 5 years of that practice fare against the guy doing mental training just to better execute actual physical efforts? My bet is that it would be pretty close if measured in terms of ΔP.
Ivan Petrovitch: Anatoly has totally changed my mental game plan. Before I knew about mental training for strength and that’s it. I had a big hammer and knew how to swing it. Now my mental training tool box has screwdrivers, nuts and bolts. Before, I knew how to close down my mental aperture to a fine point for strength. I trained myself to be oblivious to everything except applying infinite force. Now I know how to open up my mental aperture for endurance. I am aware of everything, my senses are heightened, I can see an eagle before he sees me. I am learning how to visualize and feel the inner workings of my body heal and recover. The key to mental training for either strength or endurance lies in being able to summon, practice, and command the mental faculties that facilitate our survival. Pulling the car off the baby or fighting off a big cat is about survival. Coming down the mountain after being in a whiteout in the death zone or walking for days on end without food is about survival. These survival conditions are at the mental poles, they are quite different in their applications. Both are tools, just different tools requiring different skills. I swallow placebos for everything now! [everybody laughs]
Dr. John Beasley: What about your use of technology to accelerate recovery? Can you give us the big picture on that?
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: When you are a beginner you can do just about anything and you will improve. You can do interval training for a marathon and you will improve for awhile. But as you become more advanced, meaning relative to your theoretical performance ceiling, the margin of error in the decision process for training and recovery vanishes. You are forced to walk the razor’s edge, you can’t even blink. You experience transitions from big marginal returns to smaller marginal returns to, eventually, negative marginal returns over the course of your career. In endurance sports, there is an asymmetrical relationship between the two dominant opposing but complementary capacities: the capacity to cause stress, which is “training”, and the capacity to adapt to stress, which is “recovery”. As you approach your performance ceiling, the capacity to cause stress greatly diverges from your capacity to adapt in almost a linear versus hyperbolic relationship. In other words, your linear recovery capacity does not keep up with your gigantic capacity to cause damage. If you maintain course, you are the Titanic with all four boilers maxed out while barreling down on the mother of all icebergs. But this shipwreck is more common than not due to lack of understanding.
Dr. John Beasley: Explain that in more detail please, Anatoly. That is an important takeaway point.
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: John, what I am discussing now is the dominant physiological battleground in endurance sports in regards to improvement as you reach the top amateur or professional ranks so, yes, I will paint a picture for you. For you to improve in a short distance event you will not have to log the huge annual or mezzo-cycle mileage of longer distance events. By long I mean events dependent on maximal lipid power which is at least 3 hours and beyond. That is the short end of maximal lipid power but its dominance magnifies as race duration increases: Ironman, Tour de France, Nemesis, long distance Nordic skiing, 100 mile runs, Race Across Russia, expeditions, etc. In other words, mapping it to evolutionary biology and the evolution of Homo sapiens, we are talking migratory man. Migratory man didn’t depend on aerobic glycolysis, he depended on beta oxidation. Fats, not carbohydrates, are used at relatively high power levels, say 1/2 a gram per minute or greater. Carbohydrate dependence and its optimization is only good to 2 hours if you have everything dialed in correctly. The marathon is the marquee endurance event of aerobic glycolytic capacity. Beyond that, no can do.
Dr. John Beasley: So, thus you have The Climb at around 2 hours and Nemesis at 12 hours.
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: Exactly. They are both aerobic but starkly different events, quite asymmetric in which specialist is going to perform well: the guy that can comfortably do Nemesis metabolically can do The Climb, but not the reverse. But that is metabolically. Biomechanically they are different because they engage the muscle very differently. Cycling is 100% concentric contractions and burns more carbs at the same energy output as running which is a mixture of concentric and eccentric contractions with a lower duty cycle and a spiky versus damped ramp-up power curve per repetition. Of course, the cycling specialist will beat the ultra distance runner in The Climb but will be destroyed on Nemesis. This is the fallacy of anything beyond 2 minutes is “aerobic” in a nutshell. That is like saying a shot putter and a 400m runner are the same because they are “anaerobic”. Yes, that is true, but equally asinine.
So, in terms of recovery, in order to continue to improve for really long events you must tax the energy system that is the engine for your event. If it is Nemesis, you obviously must be careful in how you coordinate duration, intensity and frequency because you will not recover if you are going at race pace and race distance on a frequent basis. That is suicidal. If you are elite, then your capacity to vastly overtrain is much greater than if you are a beginner because you can do ridiculously long workouts at high speed but you cannot recover from them. You are trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip. Yes, recovery capacity does increase over the years as you improve performance but only marginally compared to your capacity to expend vast energy resources and cause enormous connective tissue damage and fry intracellular structures like mitochondria from absurd flow rates of free radical production from aerobic metabolism. Ergo, to improve you must shift your thinking from trying to improve from the training side of the adaptation curve to the recovery side.
Dr. John Beasley: Anatoly, you really are talking about human performance envelopes and what happens at their boundary, at the edge of the unknown where limits are exceeded.
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: Yes, I am, and let me show you how to overcome an inevitable limit. Like I said earlier, learn to undertrain and over recover. Another way to look at it is when you are going full throttle on the training side, you — by definition — are pushing the envelope. It is called an envelope for a reason — it has a boundary and when it is exceeded bad things happen. There are constraints and consequences. The solution to the problem is to stop banging your head against the wall and, instead, pull the envelope. Pulling the envelope means to switch from the right boundary of the envelope to the left boundary which is the undertraining half of the curve. That means pulling back on the throttle: combinations of less intensity, less duration, less frequency. I don’t mean all the way back, but just enough to trigger a response. It is tricky to get it right. This is more art than science right now. Heterochrony is not well understood. [Ed. the different & asynchronous time scales of all the properties of adapting to stress]
Dr. John Beasley: OK, so the big idea here is pull back on the three variables of training stress — intensity, duration, and frequency — and put your focus on recovery and this will produce a positive adaptive yield?
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: John, you are forced to do this because you are backed into a corner by physiological constraints. You are tapped out of phenotypic plasticity by further increasing stress; think more is less and less is more. Your source of further adaptive yield comes from increasing the efficiency of adaptive response by enhancing recovery. Now if you greatly increase recovery by exploring the full potential of everything known to enhance recovery, what you discover is something quite profound: the shape of the performance envelope changes by getting taller and shifting to the right. The new curve is bigger and that is tantamount to increasing your margin of error. Now you can go back to pushing the envelope again but this time the new, extended boundary can accommodate greater training stress and you don’t spin your wheels. This will only happen, however, if you have truly enhanced recovery capacity. It is the only way to improve once you hit this boundary and this wall you cannot overpower head on; you must learn the tools of how to improve from the recovery toolbox because the training toolbox offers no joy.
Dr. John Beasley: Anatoly, what you just described in terms of phenomics and biological information theory is that when a stress is applied and adaptive response fails, that means that the phenotype your body wanted to build cannot be constructed. There is no phenotypic plasticity informationally and/or energetically to make it happen. That phenotype is not within the set of available phenotypes in your phenome given the present conditions. But, if you modify recovery capacity in some way to favorably change available informational or energetic resources, then a further adaptation can manifest and this new adaptation just extended your phenotypic plasticity resulting in a new phenotype that is now in the set of available phenotypes in your phenome. Another way of thinking about it is that you opened the door to the adjacent possible. The phenotypes that you have available to build are contingent on the right adaptive stimulus in concert with the right informational and energetic resources; if the training stress is incorrect or the resources are not available, then the body cannot consummate the adaptation, the adjacent possible is not available, therefore its existence is context dependent. The new body and its new fitness capabilities that you want is out of your reach unless you know what you are doing. The margin of error is close to zero, a seat-of-the-pants approach to training for the Phenomic Games corners you in a local maxima on the fitness landscape, sort of a performance cul-de-sac.
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: Yes, I can see how the new biology of phenomes, physiomes, and metabolomes is useful; it allows for an entirely new way of thinking about training, recovery, and performance based entirely in energetic and informational terms. With these new tools, we are no longer limited by exercise physiology, nutrition and other related fields that are rooted in the obsolete Descartian reductionist paradigm. The new biology is composed of bioenergetics, bioinformatics, systems and network theory.
Dr. John Beasley: I studied phenomics in terms of the development of pathological phenotypes, like diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Given the right stress profiles over a long enough time course, these phenotypes occur. You follow the right lifestyle formula and these phenotypes eventually emerge in most humans. The human phenome has a pretty large set of phenotypes that represent pathological conditions. What we are talking about here, Anatoly, are the development of phenotypes that are capable of performing at high levels across the entire power spectrum, that is, spanning strength to endurance. These phenotypes have never been expressed in history. It is easy to see why recovery is critical just to reach high levels of endurance performance and we are not even talking about simultaneous display of high strength levels. In the big picture, the body doesn’t know the difference between a diabetic phenotype and an elite cyclist’s phenotype; they just happen depending on the ingredients in the stress and adaptation brew and how long you cook it. Phenotypes just reflect behavior and conditions. They are totally agnostic to our perceptions, desires and beliefs.
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: John, in practical terms for your audience, I would like to reiterate the basic point. In order to improve, a point is reached where the stress needed to trigger further supercompensation exceeds your capacity to recover with recovery being first to restore function to what it was prior to the stress plus additional adaptive response which constitutes supercompensation. That little bit of supercompensation is your ΔP, the net profit of the overall training-recovery cycle. Stated simply, you reach a point where you at best spin your wheels and at worst detrain, lose fitness. You plateau, stuck at some performance level with ΔP being zero or negative, meaning you are operating at a loss and the more you train the greater the loss.
Dr. John Beasley: We have all experienced plateaus. They are tricky to overcome. So, now I suppose you are going to tell us how to overcome plateaus from the recovery side of the stress-adaptation daily cycle. What tools do you have in your recovery toolbox, Anatoly?
Dr. Anatoly Vinnichenko: We have some great ones. It takes years to learn how to use these tools as an integrated system. And we are always searching for more. Even athletes at intermediate levels of performance can hit plateaus and depending upon what errors they are making they can be permanent blunders meaning they will be stuck in the mud forever. If you are missing an essential or conditionally-essential micronutrient you will be stopped in your tracks. Likewise, if your sleep quality or quantity is poor or you are doing the wrong training like doing intervals for Nemesis. Most people figure out these errors but as you become more advanced your thinking must change or else you will fail long before you reach your potential. Thus, further harvesting of adaptive yield must come from increased sophistication of recovery modalities: mind, judgement, expertise, technology. We have discussed mind and expertise somewhat. Let’s briefly look at technology for recovery, that is, for enhancing adaptive yield.
I just mentioned circumstances for endurance athletes suffering negative or zero adaptive yields. We want adaptive yield to be as positive as possible. Training harder is not the answer; recovering smarter is. Our approach is to augment micro and macronutrition, sleep, physical therapies including devices across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, medical data like blood panels and, of course, to minimize stresses unrelated to ΔP. We examine all these aspects in granular detail and are always experimenting with new promising technologies. Chronobiology we view as critical to success. This means the physiology of sleep and better understanding of heterochrony is of paramount importance. We look at sound therapy, aromatherapy, Schumann harmonic electromagnetic generators and other technologies. Wearables and ingestibles are at the vanguard for new means of real time measurement, they take some of the guesswork out. We have seen significant advances in adaptive yield as these technologies are better defined, refined, and integrated. I won’t go into details. But every minuscule benefit looms large as marginal returns of adaptive yield approach zero. Over the course of a season or career, the net difference of the sum of all these tiny differences defines the margin of victory: it becomes the source of virtually all ΔP once you breach a threshold, a Rubicon that every competitor will cross. Of course, phenomic training and its concomitant metabolic headwind exacerbates this problem immensely. You walk the razor’s edge. Old ways of thinking die hard, but they must die so that future growth is possible.
No one in the world has a handle on how to design a training and recovery program correctly for the Phenomic Games. There are too many moving parts, unavoidable conflicts, and just too many convoluted layers including inexplicable mysteries beyond the tentacles of all scientific disciplines. In the 1960s and beyond, periodized training programs were the state-of-the-art. Now the recovery program and all its intricate facets is moved to equal footing with training design. Data is important but human judgement at this point, in my opinion, is more important because we just don’t know what to measure or even if what is mission-critical is known or measurable at all. Qualitative thinking trumps quantitative thinking. So we are in a learning phase in a beginner’s mind posture, Phenomics 101, if you will. No one knows what is possible. Seeking answers is way too preliminary; first we need to pose the right questions. If we were able to pool the world’s greatest minds I think we could arrive at some useful first principles in a few years. Phenomics, systems biology and biological anthropology will help to frame the new emerging paradigm. We must let go of old ways of thinking; we must abandon sunk costs no matter how great, assassinate assumptions fossilized by dogma and sacred cows. Thinking must always remain open and fluid. All I can tell you now with certainty is that tapping into the mind — building out a robust mental conditioning infrastructure — will provide the lion’s share of progress beyond the current known boundary of the human performance envelope.
Dr. John Beasley: Ivan, you want to say something about recovery?
Ivan Petrovitch: I can speak from my experience. I can personally tell you how important all these technologies have affected my recovery. Very rarely am I sore for more than a day. My head’s clear and my energy level rarely is less than extremely good. Maybe after a long Anatoly brick I feel like my ass is kicked but by the next day I am ready with few exceptions. My joints feel good even early in the morning. Last year I had a lot of achy joints, particularly my knees. Anatoly may be saying he doesn’t have all the answers but I believe he has me heading in the right direction. I feel unstoppable.
Dr. John Beasley: Ivan, I am sure the readers and your fans have a pretty good feeling of who you are and what you are doing. Anatoly, thanks so much for sharing your stories, insights, and wisdom. It was awesome. I look forward to seeing Ivan 2.0 perform. Good luck at the Games!
The World’s Fittest Humans ©2015 James Autio. All rights reserved.
John’s next stop is London where we meet Ellie…
Ellie is 23-year old Phenomics rookie who was the 2013 UCI World Champion in the 3000m individual pursuit event in track cycling. Through her scholarship and life path, we see through her eyes the immortal meaning of ancient Greek civilization, the significance of the Olympiad to Western culture, the pursuit of mastery, and the Western origins of physical and mental training. Along the way — within the scope of ancient Greece’s concept of sublime athletic prowess — you will internalize the meaning and evolution of the beautiful and transformative idea and ideal of areté, heroic excellence.
Ellie brings a lot of high-octane gürlpower to the table and Airi and Jōtara should worry less about each other and more about her.
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