Dr. Wells’s story: a superb example of a Type A personality pushing to the limits
A few days ago I came across a blog post by Dr. Greg Wells, who has launched what he calls “Project Ex” in his attempt to turn his life around. Dr. Wells, 41, is still recovering from a serious, unexpected viral attack on his heart. He writes: “The dream (not goal) is to build the foundation for a world class life. I want to have happiness in my family life. I want to have energy for a successful career. And I want to compete in the Hawaii Iron man [sic]. And I have to do this against a background of a specific health challenge that requires me to keep a very low stress level and to reduce inflammation.”
The part about competing in the Hawaii Ironman struck a nerve in me, right in the area of my brain that has been mulling over athletes’ obsessive behaviour. But I will return to this after introducing Dr. Wells.
Dr. Greg Wells is described on his website as “a scientist and physiologist who specializes in health and performance in extreme conditions”. He is a professor of kinesiology at the University of Toronto and a scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. In addition, he was the sports science analyst for the CBC at the 2010 and 2012 Olympics. A classic Type A high achiever, Dr. Wells has run marathons under extreme weather conditions and participated in the 11,000 km Tour D’Afrique bike competition. He also has a background in competitive swimming at the international level.
Dr. Wells unexpectedly found himself in the hospital in the role of a patient last May, when an ordinary cold virus attacked his heart, causing inflammation and arrhythmia.
Dr. Wells was shocked by his health crisis. The irony of being an advisor to Olympic athletes and their coaches about how to perform at peak levels (by training correctly, getting enough sleep, eating well, and controlling stress levels)—and then disregarding his own advice—was not lost on him.
He realized that his immune system had been severely compromised by sky-high stress levels. He was setting a frantic pace as he established two new labs, moved to a new house, prepared for the Olympics, launched a new book, and kept up with his two-year-old daughter. His workouts had become inconsistent and he wasn’t getting enough sleep.
Dr. Wells is now in the process of setting up a website for Project Ex. You can read his blog post about Project Ex. In this post, he outlines his purpose for creating Project Ex. He describes the ways he wants to change his lifestyle. He hopes that by sharing what he learns with others, he can inspire people and give them the tools and information they need to follow a healthy lifestyle.
This post also includes an excellent video of an interview Dr. Wells gave on CTV’s Canada AM program.
I think it’s admirable of Dr. Wells to share his personal experiences as well as the benefits of his professional knowledge and research. However, as I wrote above, I question the inclusion of competing in the Hawaii Ironman as one of the components of his “dream”. When I first read Dr. Wells’s post, I wondered how he was going to continue his excellent work as a sports physiologist, kinesiology professor, author, and media personality at the same time as he was striving to be a good father, get more sleep, and follow the training regimen necessary to come an Ironman. How can this be a recipe for keeping his stress under control?
I have encountered similar stories of people who, after a health crisis or a warning from their doctor, decide to make radical changes in their lifestyle, including changes to their diet, work habits, family lives, and exercise. These are admirable goals, and all of them can contribute to a person’s achieving a more healthy, well-balanced, happier life—perhaps even extending a life that poor health could have ended prematurely! Yet so many of these people, similar to Dr. Wells, choose a fitness goal of completing a marathon or an Ironman triathlon.
Setting less dramatic physical goals
My question is this: Why does an unfit person, someone who is possibly starting an exercise program for the first time in his or her life, or embarking on an exercise program in spite of significant physical limitations, feel the need to choose such an extreme physical challenge?
One answer lies in the obsessive, irrational streak in human nature. People are often attracted to extremes, to drama, to the almost-impossible.
Another answer is a lack of awareness about the countless less-glamorous races happening everywhere, every weekend. Ironmen competitions and marathons get a lot of publicity, including TV coverage. People don’t know that there are many less extreme physical challenges available to them. For example, completing a 5K run/walk or a sprint triathlon are commendable goals, and are more rational choices for most people than attempting to run a marathon or finish an Ironman. Why? I’ve listed some of the best reasons below:
- Training for a shorter event greatly reduces the risk of getting a serious injury.
- It’s possible to compete in short races much more frequently than long events like marathons and Ironman races. This allows people to get regular positive feedback; to set step-wise goals for themselves; and to make adjustments to their training based on the results they are getting.
- Competing in short events is fun! Short races create opportunities for people to experience the camaraderie of running, to make new friends, and to take part in team events.
- Setting modest fitness goals demands only a modest (though consistent) investment in training time. This means that an exercise routine can be part of a balanced lifestyle that includes work, spending time with family and friends, and enjoying other hobbies. Devoting a regular, but limited, amount of time to exercise means people are more able to stick with their fitness program in the long term and make a life-long commitment to fitness.
Why are less extreme competitive goals just as admirable as extreme goals?
I’d like to change the common mindset that longer means better. Many people have the perception that someone isn’t a real athlete unless they run marathons or have completed an Ironman. I don’t think people understand that running faster is just as valid an achievement as running longer.
I’m a big believer in setting step-wise goals. When your first goal is achieved, then you can set a harder one. Someone who enjoys the 5K distance doesn’t necessarily have to move up to 10K, half-marathon, marathon, and ultramarathons. It’s possible to choose quality over quantity. It can be exciting and rewarding to watch your time drop for a specific distance. Another goal that motivates some people is to get a medal in their age group (medals are often given to the top three in each 5-year age category, even at small races).
Comparing the risks and time commitment of short versus longer competitive events
|Race Event||5K run/walk||Sprint Triathlon (750m swim, 20K bike, 5K run)||Ironman Triathlon(4K swim, 180K bike, 42.2K run)|
|skill||walking, jogging or running||swimming, cycling, walking, jogging or running||endurance swimming, endurance cycling, endurance walking or running|
|training time per week||2–4 hours||4–7 hours||14–21 hours (or more)|
|time to complete race distance||13 minutes (world class) to 50 minutes (steady walk)||50 minutes (world class) to 3 hours||8 hours (world class) to over 16 hours|
|special equipment||running shoes||running shoes, bathing suit, decent bike, bike helmet||running shoes, bathing suit, good bike, bike helmet|
|likelihood of injury||possible||possible||probable (meaning adding more hours for physiotherapy and other treatment, or having to give up training)|
|frequency of competition||up to two or three times a month||seasonal: up to two or three times a month||once a year|
Many people aren’t aware that Vancouver (and other mid-sized and large cities) offers countless races, of almost any distance, for people of all ability levels. Rather than setting a goal of competing in an Ironman or a marathon, I would encourage people who are changing from an inactive lifestyle to a healthy one to set a goal of completing a sprint triathlon or a 5K run/walk.
I’d also like to promote the goal of achieving mastery in a physical activity. This doesn’t necessarily mean becoming the fastest athlete or the one who can run the longest distance. Many people don’t like running, or may have physical limitations that prevent them from running.
Mastery can mean learning to do something well, with good technique and control. It could mean taking yoga or Pilates classes and learning to do specific moves perfectly, even if your body doesn’t have the flexibility or strength to do the hardest moves. It could mean taking swimming lessons to improve the strokes that you’ve always done inefficiently. It could be learning ballroom dancing or Argentinean tango. The important thing is to choose a physical activity that you can enjoy and stick with in your pursuit of lifelong health and fitness.
My purpose in writing this post was to discourage people from blindly choosing the completion of a marathon or an Ironman as their fitness goal. Don’t get me wrong—I have many friends who are elite marathoners or superb Ironmen(women). I have the utmost respect for the physical dedication and mental toughness that training for and competing in these events requires.
But anyone who makes the decision to “go for” an Ironman should be aware of the facts. This is an event that will take most competitors 12 to 16 hours or more of moving continuously in water, on wheels, and on unforgiving pavement. There is no way to prepare one’s body for such an ordeal without training many hours every week—hours that will be taken from work and time spent with family and friends. Training for an Ironman can easily lead to injury, exhaustion, and strained interpersonal relationships.
What do my ultra-endurance friends think?
Am I wrong to discourage beginners or unfit people to set the goal of completing a marathon or an Ironman?
Is the possibility of achieving such a momentous goal worth all the necessary risks and sacrifices?
Human nature being what it is, are certain “obsessive types” always going to want to chase the most extreme goals, no matter what the price to be paid?
Coming soon…my own “crash-and-burn” story of training for a marathon, and why I’m healthier now that I can only run 12K a week.