You know an athlete needs to be fast, strong, agile, coordinated, balanced, mobile and enduring, but what you might not have added to the list was the word Rusticity.
Rusticity is a concept I was introduced to by the work of Georges Hebert the founder of Le Methode Naturelle.
When Hebert observed French farm workers and native peoples in West Africa, South America and the Caribbean, he noticed that not only were they fit without the benefit of formal gymnastic training, but that they also had the capacity to handle difficult environmental conditions easily.
They could work effectively and thrive in cold, heat, sun, wind or rain.
He named this trait Rusticity, and recognized it as a key quality of natural movement; advocating for a practice where one would train barefoot and wearing minimal clothing as often as possible.
This concept was on my mind this week because I am in the process of returning to my outdoor movement practice after 3 months of training exclusively indoors.
On Wednesday I did my first tree training session since my ankle sprain back in October.
It was a small session; I had 50 minutes between calls and was picking up my kids, but the sun was out and I needed to get my hands and feet touching a tree.
The temperature was just above freezing but I took my shoes off for the first 15 minutes of the session, and I was very pleasantly surprised to find my feet handled the cold very well.
Not only was I able to train barefoot for those 15 minutes, but when I put the shoes back on, my feet quickly warmed up again.
Over the last few years I have noticed my feet’s ability to tolerate cold had greatly decreased, causing me to spend larger segments of the year training in shoes.
I had attributed this to the results of a series of foot injuries going back to playing basketball in my teens. I think now though that the inflammatory condition I was suffering from was also limiting my capacity to develop rusticity.
This played out not just with my feet, but with my entire body.
I have done a lot of cold exposure training going back to 2016, however, as I dealt with fatigue and burn out I noticed that I was more and more sensitive to cold and less able to adapt to cold exposure training. Early this fall I found just seconds of cold water could leave me feeling hypothermic for hours afterwards.
I had to give it up for a period as I concentrated on healing my body.
At the end of last year I noticed suddenly that the water was attractive to me again, I had an innate drive to get in.
I started with just 10 seconds, and when I handled that well I moved up to 30, and then 2 sets of 30 seconds, and then 3…
I have now been doing regular cold exposures for 6 weeks and the change has been wonderful.
At the same time that has been happening I have moved from training almost exclusively indoors to doing 1 session a week outdoors.
The cold exposure has been great in preparing my body to take on sessions in cold, wet and windy conditions outside.
The gap in my rusticity I am currently noticing is more about handling the demands of complex surfaces under foot. My power and skill in most of the core parkour movements has largely returned to my baseline from a couple of years ago. However, when I move into nature, I can feel that my coordination and joint integrity is not yet tuned in to the demands of natural environments.
The flat carpeted grounds of the ninja gym have been ideal for me to rebuild core aspects of certain skills, but at the same time, my movement diet has been missing surface variability. Returning to running over slopes, mixed rock, dirt and tree roots, has been fascinating.
I can feel gaps in my ability to accurately perceive how my lower body is moving over these surfaces. I can feel little spaces in all my lower body joints that are still underdeveloped.
I transitioned from training primarily indoors to mostly outdoors in urban terrain 18 years ago. It was 16 years ago I first made the transition to primarily training in nature.
Those experiences fed the theory I would later develop on why movement in nature was so much more nourishing. It’s very interesting to repeat the process once again with the full theory in mind.
I will always maintain that training in nature is the optimal. That said, I feel incredibly grateful for the ninja gym.
The opportunity I have had to train there and rebuild my attributes and skills while my body was vulnerable has been vital for me. As I shift my training back to nature, I return with a renewed appreciation of the balance between the optimal and what is scalable and functional for an athlete at a given stage.
I suspect many of you, like myself, have been indoors a lot over the winter, or maybe you haven’t even taken your practice into nature yet. In either case, my advice is think about rusticity as an attribute that takes time to develop. Just like strength or speed we need to scale up our exposure to the unique demands of natural environments progressively.
Start with lighter and shorter outdoor sessions, in less intense conditions and environments and work your way up.
For a slow progression into outdoor natural movement, you won’t find better than our online courses. Here’s a link where you can go check out what we have available.