I recently took part in a program called XPT Experience (Extreme Performance Training) in Miami. A weekend full of challenges created by founders Gabby Reece and Laird Hamilton to teach my body to adapt to different stresses and make me a more versatile human. As a life-long triathlete, pushing boundaries is part of my makeup. It is part of what defines me and helps me make sense of this world. I frequently blog about these experiences to share them with my patients. Most recently, the benefits of cold and heat exposure. As a human, these challenges make sense to me and bring meaning. As a physician, I believe we have become soft as a nation and that challenging ourselves more would drastically reduce the health burden that plagues the average adult and is slowly bankrupting our country.
We have become accustomed to too much comfort. We have come to associate heavy exertion, heat, cold, and hunger as negatives. We live in air conditioned and heated environments, we are largely sedentary, and rarely miss a meal. It is this mind set, in my opinion, that has made us soft and susceptible to most of what kills us. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke, and even accidents due to the degeneration of our bodies and minds. It is also why I continually preach to my patients the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and to get out of comfort zones. A common mantra in my exam room is that you don’t have to be a marathon runner or a bodybuilder, but you have to be active in a variety of ways.
The XPT Experience is not for everyone. But if you are active and healthy, participate in regular exercise, and are looking for a unique challenge for your body and mind I would highly recommend it. Most of the participants were accomplished athletes in one way or another. Many planned to incorporate the XPT challenges into classes they were teaching or even becoming a certified coach of this approach to physical and mental adaptation. A few, like me, were there out of curiosity and the personal challenge the program presented. What I got out of the weekend was more than I bargained for.
The defining moment for me occurred on the first day of pool exercises at the University of Miami pool complex. An almost full day of mostly rigorous exercises that took place under water with dumbbells and with the added difficulty of doing most of them underwater creating an oxygen deprivation component. I spent the first half of the day in the shallow end of the pool performing various exercises that were challenging but not to the extreme. Then we moved to the deep end and the difficulty level went to another stratosphere. Although much more challenging, I was able to perform the exercises, some of which took place under 12 feet of water. The last exercise of the day changed all of that.
The exercise seemed straight forward. While holding 30 pound dumbbells in each hand, sink to the pool floor, use the weights to crawl across the floor 10 yards out, swim back to the wall with one dumbbell under water, return to get the other dumbbell and finally walk back across the pool floor before surfacing. Easy enough if you can breath. I didn’t realize we were expected to do it all on one breath so I went through the exercise the first time breathing after the first half, then again after the third leg. I was then instructed to do it without coming up at all, uh oh. The first and second attempts were similar, I made it to the third leg and had to abort quickly as my body screamed for oxygen and I came out of the water gagging, desperate for air. After 3 attempts I had resigned myself to the fact that finishing this one just wasn’t in the cards.
Enter Gabby Reece. Co-Founder of the XPT program, former pro volleyball player, SI swimsuit model and all around bad ass. Without solicitation she came to me, looked me in the eyes and told me that after watching my performance and comfort in the pool, that I had the ability to complete this task. I would have been happy to move on to the next exercise in anonymity as most of the group did not complete this task. For whatever reason, gabby saw something in me that made her believe I could do it. She gave me a few pointers, told me to calm my mind and to stop trying so hard. I tried a final time and came close but once again came up short. This experience is about training the body to adapt. Like most of the participants, the physical work never crossed my mind as being too challenging. The addition of oxygen debt to the equation, and what that does to your mind when you are in the moment brings these challenges to another level. Working harder is not the answer. Working smarter and conserving energy is.
As the rest of the group moved on to the next exercise, Gabby told me to hang back and rest for a few minutes because, “we have a date,” to “complete the task.” What came next for me is what I didn’t see coming. That five minutes of struggle in my brain to overcome fear and doubt. We are obviously not talking about life and death here. No life achievement goals like med school or ironman on the line. No real ramifications if I did fail other than a bruised ego. In those moments, however, I was in a place that we just don’t get to experience in our adult lives very often. The uncomfortable feeling of attempting something that holds the good chance of failure and the butterflies it brings out in your gut. On top of all of that baggage it was going to be doing it in front of a supermodel who took the time to pull me aside and challenge me to be better.
As promised, Gabby returned 5 minutes later, gave me some additional coaching and said, “lets finish the task.” In the end I was able to complete the task and did not fail in front of one of my new favorite people. It wasn’t pretty, there was still panic in my brain, and doubt in my mind, but mission accomplished.
Before my trip down to Miami, my wife asked me what I was looking to get out of this experience. I don’t even remember what my answer was but knew in that moment that I was not able to really articulate what I was looking for. To be honest, other than a curiosity of all of the different challenges involved, I’m not sure I fully knew the answer.
After that first day I texted her back to tell her that I really didn’t have an answer to her question about why, but I do now. The answer is that I am seeking growth and challenge that I don’t get in my daily life. My life has been blessed beyond measure. I have worked very hard to get to a comfortable place and have achieved some bucket list goals. In that comfort however, there is also unrest. The desire for challenge that is not part of the ordinary and the growth that comes from that type of challenge. I am also eternally curious and gravitate toward things that challenge me mentally and physically. It is those challenges that make me feel alive.
It’s funny how a few moments can define a whole weekend. There were more challenges to come. Intense beach and gym workouts, 35 degree ice baths, heat exposure, and performance breathing exercises. There was also fellowship with like minded, “bad-ass alphas,” (another term I picked up from Gabby) who, by the end of the weekend it became apparent that we were all kindred spirits. Although we came from different walks of life, we learned that we tended to listen to the same podcasts and read the same books, we were humble and curious, loved physical exertion and challenge, and were seeking to better ourselves in some way by getting out of our comfort zone and learning more about ourselves. Being exposed to these people, and those personal moments of breaking through boundaries are what I will remember and cherish most about XPT. I hope to return again for more of the same.