“HOW VAIN IS IT to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live?” This sharp-edged quote from 19th century philosopher Henry David Thoreau haunted modern-day adventurer Ross Edgley. Early last year, Edgley had just rewritten the book on fitness (literally, in the form of The World’s Fittest Book) and felt the pull of some unspecified challenge that would support his claim to know-how. Despite already being one of the most qualified people in the world to write a book on conditioning, his yearning for validation continued to fuel his humble heart.
In the 10 years leading up to the book’s release, Edgley had used himself as the ultimate test subject. Training at altitude in the Ecuadorian mountains, fighting gnarled Russians and subjecting himself to the toughest military training regimes were just the beginning for the young sports scientist. His thirst for knowledge repeatedly pushed him to the limits of his physical capacity, as he completed a marathon pulling a Mini Cooper, made consecutive rope climbs equalling the height of Mount Everest and swam 100km across the Caribbean Sea pulling a tree. His resume reads like an adventurer’s drunken ramblings.
“For me, The World’s Fittest Book was ten years of research, testing and using myself as a human guinea pig,” says Edgley. “I’d put everything into this book. When people were like, ‘Are you going to write another one?’, I was saying, at the time, ‘No, this is ten years of work. I have nothing left to give’.”
But Edgley, as it turned out, had a lot left to give. Fast forward six months, and Edgley became the first man to swim around the UK’s entire 3200km coastline in the so-called Great British Swim, completing the equivalent of an English Channel crossing every day for 157 consecutive days. In the wake of his remarkable aquatic feat, the self-proclaimed philosopher of fitness revealed his mind-and-body secrets exclusively to Men’s Health. “There are many ways to get fitter, stronger and leaner,” says Edgley. “You shouldn’t discriminate against any of them. As soon as you do, you close your mind and limit your potential.”
“We’re seeing this trend in fitness where people are kind of going, ‘Look at that guy over there – massive back and big lats’. Why? Because he’s a rower. You look over there and that guy has these insane quads. Why? Because he plays rugby. His body is an instrument, not an ornament.
I started [the Great British Swim] at 92 kilos and I had a six-pack. I was like, ‘Yeah, I look great’. By the time I got around Scotland, I was 102 kilos of fat. It was like seal blubber, and I loved it. I was so glad because up there in Scotland in an Arctic storm, they don’t care if you’ve got a six-pack, and a sixpack is not going to help you.
Everybody was saying I was going to lose so much weight, that I was going to come in looking like Tom Hanks in Castaway. But when you started to look at the swim and the strength and conditioning principles involved, I was always in an aerobic state. Very rarely did I tap into my lactic threshold. It was really this kind of moving meditation, where I was all but asleep at times but still swimming, and I was so relaxed. It’s not like metabolic stress you have when you do bodybuilding-centric work, where you burn out and do drop sets. It wasn’t that. It was more mechanical tension to make sure that my body was able to maintain efficient biomechanics in the water.
By completing 12 hours a day of really low-intensity aerobic work, I ended up putting on muscle. But when I say muscle, it was like whale bulk. I was turning into a seal. It wasn’t what you’d call beach muscle.
There was one picture where my arms, especially my triceps, were huge. But you wouldn’t go, ‘Whoa, they’d look good in a T-shirt’. They just looked like chubby seal legs. Putting on weight was something I didn’t account for, and yet by the time we got to Scotland we needed to go up a wetsuit size.”
“When I came home, a lot of the mainstream media were saying, ‘Oh you must be the fittest guy in the world right now’. But I’m like, ‘What is fitness?’ There’s no clearcut definition. Fitness is this completely malleable term; it’s so ambiguous. I’m fit for purpose. If fitness is floating for 12 hours a day, then yeah, I’m the world’s fittest guy right now. But you get me to go and run or lift weights or squat . . . honestly, when I first squatted [postswim] I’d forgotten motor patterns. I put the bar on my back and what I did was the ugliest. It looked more like a good morning than a squat.
I’m still trying to find my feet after skipping leg day for 157 days at sea. You could see the arches in my feet had sort of collapsed. You could see these compromised ligaments and tendons. They looked like baby’s feet; they were really chubby and soft because I just hadn’t used them. People think about skipping leg day and they think you’re just going to get these tiny little legs, but it’s more complex than that. The ligaments, tendons and the tinymuscles, they all atrophied.
In any given 24 hours, you’ve only got a certain amount of adaptation energy to use. Do you use that for strength, speed, stamina? How do you apply it? You can’t, for instance, go and do a five-mile run and then expect to perform some decent plyometric training like box jumps. You’re just not going to generate force like you need to. In terms of my adaptation energy, I was swimming for 12 hours a day, so in between that I’d be looking at a passive plan – studying tidal maps, weather reports, eating and sleeping.
So when people say, ‘You should have done some rehab on the boat’, there wasn’t any time. The only strategy was to swim for 12 hours, making the most of the time when the tide was with you. The tide changes every six hours, so I had two six-hour swims a day. Outside of that, I was like, ‘What do they propose I do?’ Some lunges down the deck of the boat while I’m getting smashed in 50-knot winds? That wasn’t going happen.”
GRIN AND BEAR IT
“I remember going to sleep one night – it was six hours on, six hours off – and I was out like a light. I was sleeping like a baby; dead to the world. The captain comes down and says, ‘Ross, quick! Tide change. Wetsuit on. Five minutes. Get in’.
And I looked up, sat bolt upright in my bed, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m up’. But as I sat up, the bedsheets had stuck to the open wound that was on my neck [from constant wetsuit rub]. So it all stuck to my neck and, forgive me, but the pus and everything that’s coming out . . . for God’s sake. So I know that to get in the water for that day I’d have to rip the bedsheets from the open wound that is my neck. It’s then going to start bleeding everywhere. I then had to get in a wetsuit. This was near Aberdeen and I’d stupidly left my wetsuit out to dry. So this particular morning, I wake up, rip the bed sheet from my neck and have to dress the wound that is now bleeding. I then find my wetsuit that I left out on deck, and I have to scrape a thin layer of ice off it. And I remember that was the darkest, worst moment throughout the whole swim.”
“People sometimes ask, ‘Why did you keep going? What was the reason?’ And I think so often the best endurance athletes will find a reason to go on – you know, to scrape ice off that wetsuit and get in. They’ll find one. That reason might change every tide, every day, every hour. And you have to get so creative. Sometimes the fact of swimming with dolphins or minke whales or even a basking shark is what gets you going.
It’s really easy to get in during those times. But at times like the one I just described, you just need to smile. I always swim with a smile because there’s research exploring how your mental or emotional state affects your immune system. It looks at cortisol levels, the body’s stress hormone, and inflammation. There’s a famous study [in the journal Psychology of Sports and Exercise] where athletes ran to exhaustion. Later, they repeated exactly the same test, but this time they were shown subliminal messages of people smiling. Researchers found that seeing a smile actually improved performance. It’s only now that we’re really looking at the science of the smile, as I call it, and it’s crazy.
The Royal Marines have their ethos, which is ‘cheerfulness in the face of adversity’. But when you actually start to delve into that, you say, ‘What do you mean by that?’ And then they start talking about, basically, the science of the smile, and how even when you think you are absolutely at your limit, you’ve actually got more in reserve to draw on.
So quite often, as bad as it was, we’d always try and find something to laugh about, and we had a pretty dark sense of humour quite often. There are things that people in ordinary life will hear and be like, ‘Whoa, that’s pretty dark – you shouldn’t laugh about stuff like that’. But we were there finding humour in the weirdest of places. We needed to. Believe me.”
“It was really interesting looking at the central governor theory, which suggests that fatigue is an emotionally driven state that we use to pull the handbrake to stop us doing harm to ourselves during exertion. It’s a selfpreseveration mechanism that serves to maintain our habitual level. We see it at 30 kilometres into a marathon when we’re saying, ‘I cannot go on . . . my body is broken . . . I can’t!’ And then, all of a sudden, it’s the 42-kilometre mark and you can see the finish line and your family is there clapping, and all of a sudden you’ve got this second wind and you’re sprinting to the end.
And it’s like, ‘Well, hang on, what happened there? At 30 kays you said you couldn’t possibly go on? But what’s this?’ And it’s then you know that your brain is very cunning and it will try and trick you, anyway it can, to pulling Of course, it does this because of our inbuilt self-preservation mechanisms that we needed in prehistoric times to stop us from pushing ourselves to the point of death. But when you know that and you’re logical about it, it becomes really interesting. When you are getting hit in the face by jellyfish, you kind of go, ‘Oh, God ,that hurts, that hurts!’ And you start making decisions based on pure emotion rather than rational assessment. You go, ‘Get out!I’ve been hit! I’ve been hit!’
But then you say, ‘Hang on, am I going to die? No. Is it painful? Yes. But can you continue? Yes’. It’s the same as scraping ice off your wetsuit before you get in. ‘Is it pleasant? No. Is it going to kill you? No. Will hypothermia set in? No. You can do at least half an hour, Ross’. And then that half-hour turns into an hour, and an hour turns into two. And then by the time you’ve done that, you know you might as well finish the six-hour tide because then you’re going to get out and you’ll be warm before you know it.
The US Navy SEALs have the 40 per cent rule. So when you feel you are at complete exhaustion and you think you are dead on your feet, you’re actually only at 40 per cent. When you are completely logical about it, and you understand the physiology and psychology at work, and you know your brain’s playing tricks on you to get you to stop, you can start to override it. And once you’ve done that, you can apply those principles to virtually anything that’s challenging. The next time you’re on a treadmill or next time you’re doing intervals on an assault bike or rower, just for a brief second ask yourself when you want to quit, ‘Am I gonna die? No’.
Marcus Aurelius said, ‘If it’s endurable, then endure it’. And if you can’t endure it, don’t worry: you’ll die and it will still end anyway’.”
“Be so naïve that you start but so stubborn that you finish. Sign up to that ultramarathon that you’ve always wanted to do but always thought, ‘Oh, I don’t know’. Sign up for that first triathlon, even if it’s a sprint triathlon. Or do you know what? Just sign up to your first 5-kay or 10-kay. And be so naïve that you start it. Be so naïve that you’re on the start-line thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’
But because you started, you’ll get at least a quarter of the way in. And then you can resolve to get to halfway. But then just be so stubborn that you finish. The formula is so simple. As Lao Tzu said, ‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step’.
I don’t recommend my lifestyle to anyone, like 99.9999 per cent of the population. Don’t do it. When people talk about the Great British swim, I say, ‘Don’t do it! It’s really overrated. It’s awful. It was a bad idea’. But what I’ve seen since is people have said, ‘I’ve now signed up to a marathon. I didn’t think I’d ever want to do a marathon but seeing what Ross has done, it makes me think that the body is capable of more than we’re led to believe’.
As a philosopher of fitness, I feel that all the principles of endurance and mental resilience were tested in the Great British Swim, and I’m so happy. I almost feel that an experiment has just been completed. And now it would probably be good to look at testing the human body under different variables. And those variables could be like more hostile, whether it’s looking at swimming with wildlife, whether you make the water colder, whether you make the currents stronger.
The short-term goal is to walk again. I want to run an ultramarathon again soon – you know, at real high altitude, just to say, ‘Brilliant! I’m back and I’m a good human again, not just this sea-dwelling Santa Claus that I’ve become’. That’s the overarching goal, really: I want to actually become a decent human.”