Use these ancient lessons to make you more focused on bettering yourself in modern days.
When researching and writing my most recent book, The Road to Sparta, I learned that our forebearers maintained certain mindsets and ideals that resulted in healthy, balanced lives. Obviously these practices date back millennia. But if you look closely at the main values of what drove people like the ancient Greeks, you’ll discover that many of their daily principles are still relevant today. Here are some of these lessons you can apply to your life for greater fitness and health this year.
1. Exercise. Not daily, constantly.
The ancient Greeks considered activity and exercise indispensible in living a full life. The modern word “gym” is derived from the Greek word, gymnasia (which literally means school). Those who frequented the gym spent their time running, jumping, throwing and wrestling, while professors and scholars taught everything from philosophy to trade practices and economics.
The gym was a place where many citizens spent their entire day, and often businesses were located nearby so tradesmen could readily access both. The modern takeaway is not to compartmentalise your workouts as separate and distinct activities from the rest of your life. View yourself through the lens of an athlete and conduct all your activities in accordance. If that means lunchtime runs and a sink bath before heading back to the desk, so be it. Invest in a standing desk – or ask HR for one. The point is to always seek out ways you can stay fit.
2. Sometimes don’t eat. When you do, eat mostly plants.
The idea of eating three square meals a day is a very modern one. Unfortunately, so is the epidemic of obesity across the globe. The ancient Greeks practiced intermittent fasting (sometimes referred to as an “Apostles’ fast”) as a way of purging impurities from the body and the spirit and normalising metabolic functions. Today, many progressive thinkers are doing the same, including Tony Robbins and Tim Ferriss, as well of a slew of celebrities, like Beyonce and Hugh Jackman. (Before trying this on your own, learn more about intermittent fasting from RW US’s Fridge Wisdom blog.)
And as runners, there could be some benefits to going out on a run with the gas tank not quite full. The great Meb Keflezighi is known for morning runs sans breakfast. This helps the body adapt to using stored fat as a fuel source, which is a much more plentiful reserve than stored glycogen. During a particularly gruelling 245-kilometre race from Athens to Sparta, known as the Spartathlon, I ran the last 120 kilometres consuming only water. Why? Well, nausea and exhaustion prevented me from keeping anything down. It wasn’t ideal, but it can be done.
One final thought: the ancient Greek diet was largely plant based, consisting of horta (leafy greens), olives, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and lean meats and fish. There’s a reason the Mediterranean diet is still popular 2500 years later.
3. Get lost once in a while. On purpose.
Many of today’s runners think only in terms of training for a stated purpose, like running a BQ (Boston qualifier) or finishing a half-marathon. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with training for a goal, it can become monotonous and lead to burnout.
The ancient Greek hemerodromoi (day-long runners) would sometimes venture out for long runs with no stated purpose other than the pure enjoyment of running. The legendary runner/writer Dr. George Sheehan advocated running as a state of play. He told his readers, of which there were many, don’t just run to achieve a goal, but also run for the simple love of running.
In researching The Road to Sparta, I would oftentimes fill my backpack with food and water and set out for the day with no particular timeline or route. Sometimes I would be out for eight or more hours. It proved an insightful way to discover the back roads and byways of Athens and a fascinating approach to exploring remote sections of Greek countryside. Ultimately, it did wonders for improving my endurance, but it was most restorative for my soul. Make some time in your training to try out different routes, run with new people, or run longer than you normally would to discover uncharted territory. It keeps things fresh.
4. Never stop. Ever.
An ancient proverb states: Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still. Endurance, in both running and life, requires the same gritty resolve to keep moving forward. It was at the 176km mark of the Spartathlon where I thought it was over. I could hardly move, yet there were still more than 64 kilometres left to cover.
I pondered my dilemma and the idea of quitting, but somehow found the doggedness to keep going. I didn’t have to go fast, I reminded myself, I just had to go.
Too often in our lives we get discouraged when goals seem unattainable and impossible, so we simply give up. When I hit a low point like this, especially during a long race, I often recite the African proverb: Even a slow walker will arrive. Success is more often about perseverance than speed. The ancients knew this and we should keep it in mind when facing adversity.
5. Plan for tomorrow. But live for today.
This could be applied to your daily training, or living a richer life. If your goal is to PB at an upcoming 10K, have a plan in place to get yourself there. But that plan is only as good as your everyday commitment to train your best.
On the track today, give it your all and perform at your fullest. Do the same tomorrow with your next scheduled workout, and the next day, and the day after that. Live in the moment and be the best you can in that instant of time, each and every day.
We all maintain goals and aspirations, but life is a precious gift that is best enjoyed in the now. I learned this after completing a race in the Peloponnese region of Greece when someone handed me a shot of ouzo at the finish line. Here’s a passage from my book, The Road to Sparta, that captures the moment:
“I usually don’t drink, but that day I did. If we always made decisions with our heads instead of our hearts, we’d probably live much more orderly lives, but they would be much less joyous. I learned a lot running in Greece, mostly about myself. It fundamentally changed the person I was. Sure, life was to be taken seriously, but not too seriously. We should never be beyond a shot of ouzo and some Greek dancing. Reaching a finish line can be gratifying, but it’s the journey where life is savoured.”
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Adapted with permission from The Road to Sparta, by Dean Karnazes. Published by Rodale.