Scott Jurek not only runs all-terrain races of 100 miles or more. He wins. Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Maria Chapman makes the difficult...

Share story

SCOTT JUREK NOT only runs all-terrain races of 100 miles or more. He wins.

Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Maria Chapman makes the difficult look beatific.

Courtney Thompson, among the land’s finest volleyball players, is not satisfied.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

You, most likely, are not like them. You probably never have won — and never will — such prestigious awards and titles or even gotten applause. Yet, when it comes to the nub of what “fit” means, the accomplished share more than you’d expect with the rest of us.

Despite what magazine-cover freaks tell you, being fit, at its core, is about function, not form. That’s the focus of top athletes. Being fit means having the ability to do what you need, whatever that may be. It could be skiing without getting injured or doing your job without letting your job undo you. How about keeping weight down and cardiovascular levels high to avoid chronic disease? The bottom line is that all of us need to realize potential.

“Functional fitness” is all the rage now, but it’s just rediscovering what we began to ignore. Fitness always has been about function — long before gimmicks and gizmos and guilt fogged focus and before body beautiful overtook body awareness.

Fitness depends on your health history, vanity, goals, skills, injuries and commitment. Endurance and body-fat percentage and the strength of your heart and core are benchmarks, but we overlook the bottom line: how we feel and what we can do. It has nothing to do with awards, unless they spur you. Beyond the adulation, top athletes are fueled by inner affirmation. They know what they need — and train for it. So should you.

Did you know?

• Thirty minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week can greatly improve your health by lowering your risk of chronic disease.

• Regular activity improves health because you will have less body fat, more muscle and better cardiovascular health. You will also be less likely to develop heart disease and some forms of cancer. You also likely strengthen your immune system and bones.

• Lack of exercise and poor diet combine to be a leading cause of death in the U.S.

• A balanced diet is crucial. Load up on fruits and vegetables and go easy on saturated fat and trans fat. Choose whole-grain foods, and low-fat or nonfat dairy products. Avoid commercially fried and baked goods such as crackers and cookies.

Ultra-marathoner Jurek needs more than physical fitness to run his endurance races. He needs mental stamina, too.

Chapman has an artist’s grace but, at her core, she is an athlete who needs to develop and maintain proper body mechanics to avoid injury.

Thompson needs to parse her lofty, long-range goal into daily, sweaty steps. She also knows she can’t look like Barbie and play like Shaq.

These three all look good, but looking as good as you can is not the prize. It’s the byproduct, they say, of the lifestyle journey. They understand that “fit” is a moving target.

We get slower and weaker as we age, but usually the rate of decline is up to you. Your goal is in your hands, too, as is your willingness to act on it.

When it comes to exercise, the brain is an underdeveloped muscle. It can persuade you to quit instead of keep going. It can tell you that a deadline or even a television show is more important than your health. It can persuade you that the finish line and self-worth await in the mirror.

You will never need to run 100 miles or set up spikes, or twirl across a stage under the Klieg lights. But athletes can teach you about clear vision.

IT WAS A March morning during finals week, so the University of Washington Athletic Department weight room was nearly empty. Thompson was in there, though, holding 20-pound weights as she did lunges off a platform. The start of the new season was about five months away, but she was intent on maintaining and building the fitness base that made her national player of the year and the leader of last season’s national-championship volleyball team.

She’s the setter, a quarterback position that requires power and endurance along with skill and smarts.

Don’t forget to be flexible

Here’s a well-known and often-used test you can do at home.

Warm up so you are lightly perspiring. Place a yardstick on the floor. Tape the yardstick in place at the 15-inch mark. Now sit on the floor with your feet on either side of the yardstick, about a foot apart and even with the 15-inch mark.

Keep your legs straight, and get a spouse or another friend to hold them down if necessary as you place one hand directly atop the other so your middle fingers line up, and slowly stretch forward. Slide your fingers along the yardstick as far as possible, without jerking. Stop at first sign of discomfort. The higher the number you reach on the yardstick, the greater your hamstring flexibility.

“She is the best athlete I’ve worked with here,” assistant strength and conditioning coach Daniel Jahn said as he watched her rip through his training plan. “In terms of work ethic, drive and motivation, she can’t be beat.”

Why? Because she wants to win and, she says, conditioning is something she can control.

Thompson can teach all of us a thing or two about goals, mandatory for making progress. There is want. And there is want. How important is it to you to lose weight, get stronger and improve your lung power? Why do you want it? How will you achieve it?

“You have to think about the big picture and go for it,” she says. “But it is overwhelming if you think about that every day. You have to break it up in small steps. You have to focus on improving today. Can I get better today? The goals will come with the work.”

Dieters and resolution-breakers take note: Experts say those who make true progress are those who, like Thompson, have the ability to think both holistically and incrementally.

Thompson’s lower body is powerful, the function of her low-to-the-ground court responsibilities and her training regimen. She looks rock-hard fit, not waif-model, cover-girl fit. She mentors girl athletes on a number of topics from team-building to hard work, and she often hears a lot from those conflicted about body image.

“I didn’t want to get bulky in high school,” she says, “until I realized that level of training is what would take me to the next level. You have to choose your priorities.”

Dr. John O’Kane of the UW Sports Medicine Clinic, and a team physician, says he lectures athletes about function over form all the time — and it isn’t just a problem with females.

Calculating Body Mass Index

While you should not be a slave to it, the Body Mass Index is often used by researchers and medical professionals to get a general picture of whether someone is overweight or obese. The BMI is a calculation based on height and weight. The percentages vary based on age, gender and activity level. Endurance runners typically will have a lower percent than swimmers. People living near the North or South Pole generally have more body fat than people living in more moderate temperature zones.

You can do equations, but there’s a BMI calculator at

Don’t take your reading as a blessing or a curse. It can be deceptive. For instance, if you are muscled, the chart will put you on the heavy side. You just don’t want to be too high or too low.

In general, 10 to 25 percent body fat is considered healthy in an adult man, and 18 to 32 percent body fat is considered healthy in an adult woman. Above and sometimes below these percentages can be warning signs. In children, body fat percentages above 25 in boys and 30 percent in girls are considered overweight.

He sees men and even high-school kids walk in with muscled chests and almost atrophied backs. They want to look the he-man so they bloat their pecs and biceps. Yet they don’t want to put the work into balancing out-of-sight muscles like the upper back and triceps.

“They are setting themselves up for injury,” O’Kane says. “I tell them they need to stop focusing just on mirror muscles.”

PJ Glassey, who operates three local exercise clubs, the X-Gyms, which use intense supervised weight training, says the older population isn’t immune to goal confusion, which he calls “Contentment Deficit Disorder.”

“When a person with CDD achieves a fitness goal, it suddenly isn’t good enough anymore so they move their finish line. This pattern is often repeated until they give up in frustration and then backslide until they are worse off than where they started.”

Those types miss that they passed goals several times before “failure.” If they could focus only on the task at hand, like Thompson, they could relish progress and eventually arrive at the ultimate goal. The trick is to incorporate balance. Keep limits in mind. As you age, the equation gets more complicated. You have to ask yourself, how can I get where I need to without hurting myself? And you have to come to grips with the fact you are not 23 anymore.

MARIA CHAPMAN, a soloist for PNB, watches a video of her lithe image twirling and swirling through the ballet “Concerto Barocco.”

“I’m trying to conserve my energy,” she says, looking at herself clad in all white and leaning on a male dancer. “I’m tiring, and it is difficult at this point, but you still have to make it look so beautiful.” Her image begins stepping again. “I’m trying to walk it out because the next movement is going to be difficult. Look how beautiful those girls are in the corps behind me. They are really tired.

“Here, you can see me breathe,” she says, laughing. Sure enough, there is a trace of a rib hiccup. “You try to minimize big expansion breaths.”

How many calories does it use up?

At 5 foot 6 and 112 pounds, Chapman is as graceful as Thompson is powerful. Where Thompson explodes, Chapman wafts. Yet, she is every bit an athlete, with focused power. Without her athletic ability, she couldn’t express her art, which demands conditioning and body awareness. She began her ballet study in earnest at 12, moved to New York at 15 and now, at 29, knows how to prepare — and that she must.

She injured her back five years ago and had to relearn the mechanics of movements she had performed for a decade, notably the arabesque, which requires arching the back and extending one leg back and up while balancing on the other leg.

She rehabbed at Seattle’s Olympic Physical Therapy and found herself doing all kinds of challenging movements, like balancing one foot on an unstable surface while tossing and catching a ball.

“I have to make sure I do things the right way,” says Chapman. “When I began my career I learned movements by imitating. What I did looked right, but the approach maybe wasn’t. I had to relearn some movements. I can’t do them the old way.”

She also became recommitted to preparation. Chapman the dancer is also Chapman the cross-trainer, swimming, biking, running and balancing on wobbly surfaces. She tailors her cardiovascular training so she is ready for those two- to three-minute peaks required in some performances.

She also gears her cross-training to the movements she will need to do in a particular performance, whether that means more deep lunges or quick jumps and footwork. That is her definition of function.

“One thing about ballet,” she says, “is that you need to find strength in another plane and then quickly prepare for the next.”

What she essentially means is that she must find a center of gravity while her body is reaching, twisting, balancing, jumping and landing. In the real world, this is often referred to, unglamorously, as “transferring loads.” You and I do it each time we play a sport, carry groceries, haul compost, even get in and out of the car.

John Rumpeltes, a physical therapist who worked with Chapman, says functional movement, whether it’s Chapman bounding across the stage or you hopping off a bus, requires your body to find balance. Static exercises like bench presses or leg lifts don’t get you ready, he and other therapists believe.

Bio-mechanical training often involves putting your body off kilter, say reaching while on one leg, and helping you understand how to keep your base aligned and supported.

Mental shape

Here are some tips from sports psychologist JoAnne Dahlkoetter ( on how to carve that mental edge:

• Focus. To make the most of your time, close your eyes, take 10 deep abdominal breaths and visualize what you’d like to happen before you begin. Tell yourself you can handle any situation, so when you practice, you can focus on making improvements.

• Emulate. Just before going to bed, watch five minutes of a professional athlete doing your sport. Close your eyes, breathe deeply and visualize the fluidity, gracefulness and speed.

• Chill out. Most people put too much pressure on themselves, which can cause them to perform and feel worse. Spend quality time away from your sport, get sleep, eat well and pamper yourself before a big event.

• Believe in yourself. “Beliefs give rise to reality,” Dahlkoetter says. “You’ll find that as your beliefs about your limits change, the limits themselves begin to move.”

“You have to match your needs to your training,” Rumpeltes says. “Joint range and the way your hip, knee and ankle work in conjunction, being able to coordinate all those linkage systems.”

It sounds a bit complex, but it is as simple as training the body to do what it was meant to do. Many of us have been shaped by bad habits, inactivity, work, stress, carrying too much weight and over-compensating for injury. In fact, here in the functional world, where our bodies are more inert than tuned, doing things the right way is even more important.

“Function forms us,” Rumpeltes says, “and we are a product of the environment we participate in. There are some people who never gain fitness — they have function, but haven’t optimized their functional capacity.”

We must prepare before jumping into the fray the same as Chapman does — sans the pink shoes.

SCOTT JUREK HAS a runner’s build at 6 foot 2 and 170 pounds, and he is at his peak at 32. He has a calm way about him. He is not cocky, like his idol, the late distance runner Steve Prefontaine was, but he is not falsely modest, either. Like Chapman, he blends his gift and skill with his lifestyle. He is a physical therapist, running coach, a spokesman for Brooks Running and a hard-core vegan.

It is tempting to write him off as a freak who bears no resemblance whatsoever to you and me. He’s won the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run seven years in a row. Last year, two weeks after demolishing the field, he won — and set a course record — in the 135-mile Badwater Ultra-marathon, run in the heat of Death Valley. (This year he is skipping Western States to see if he can break his own Badwater record.)

And he hasn’t had an injury to speak of in nine years.

So yes, we have little in common with him.

Yet, Jurek can teach us about not just training but recovering, about not just being physically fit but mentally strong, about not just challenging yourself but listening to your body.

“Many runners don’t listen,” he says. “They are so driven that they just keep plugging away not realizing that more is not always better.”

Some days, he is on the trails for seven, even eight hours. Some days his workouts involve four hours of stretching, lifting and running. He will also never miss a chance to multitask, incorporating workouts with errands. He consumes up to 10,000 calories a day in the heat of training. He gets lots of sleep.

This “lifestyle approach” to training has helped him keep going both physically and mentally. Many of us confuse mental fatigue and stress with physical fatigue and forget that nothing energizes the mind and body like exercise.

Jurek spends hours running on the trails, but takes one full day off to recover and recharge. He practices yoga and began incorporating weightlifting into his program about four years ago.

“Whether you run or bike or are in a fitness program or trying to lose weight or whatever, it’s not a good idea to do the same thing all the time or at the same intensity, whether that’s real easy or all out. It’s important to stay fresh,” he says.

Most people consider only the physical side of exercise, says sports psychologist JoAnne Dahlkoetter. And many blindly overdo it until they burn out. Those at risk tend to be Type A personalities who make training their only coping mechanism. They, and many of us, simply have no concept of intrinsic rewards, finding value from within, not from others.

Get results

• Change the method and intensity of your workout once in a while. That will help avoid plateaus as your body adapts to new movements and challenges.

• Exercise during the time of day in which you have the most energy. For most of us, that’s morning.

• Make goals. Compete against yourself, but don’t get carried away. You just won’t have it on some days. So be it. Get over it, move on and try again tomorrow.

• Consider using a heart-rate monitor to track just how hard your body is working and stay within your target heart-rate training zone.

• Rest and recover. More is not always better. Rest gives your body time to repair damaged muscle tissue and avoid injury. It also prevents overtraining injuries.

Dahlkoetter, who authored “Your Performing Edge: The Complete Mind-Body Guide For Excellence in Sports, Health and Life,” suggests keeping a log book to track progress and hold yourself accountable. Set both long-term and short-term goals like Thompson and, like Jurek, focus on the joy not the job of exercising. Using how you look as a motivator is a double-edged sword. Place too much value on what others think or what the mirror seems to be saying and you’re bound for a fall. But feel good about yourself and health radiates from you.

Peter Shmock, a former strength-and-conditioning coach for the Mariners and owner of the Belltown health club ZUM, focuses on a concept he calls “The Life Athlete,” which challenges people to not just commit to fitness but to take how they feel into account.

“The other day I went for a run, not a particularly hard one, but I was tired,” he says. “I laid on the couch after and wrestled with it in my mind: You shouldn’t be tired! Yeah, but I am. You’ll waste this nice day. There will be another. I have learned that ‘shoulds’ are often just not the way to go.”

What real athletes have that we don’t — beyond the obvious — is time. We have to incorporate fitness into our busy lives, but we can’t put it on the end of the daily chore list. If “health is the most important thing,” then why isn’t it at the top of that list?

Jurek is an extreme athlete, but says balance is critical, whether finishing a race or keeping up a fitness program or just being happy. Ask yourself, he says, as you head out the door for your workout why you’re doing it.

“You see athletes compete successfully for years and then they’re gone, whether from loss of focus or burnout or whatever,” he says. “Appreciating the aspects of my sport, the little things, have helped me find out about myself in both training and in races. It’s helped me get a better understanding of what makes me tick and,” he laughs, “what drives me to do this.”

POLLY PETERSON WILL NEVER run 100 miles at one time, or pirouette across the stage, or dig out thunderous spikes. She doesn’t have to. She needs to lose weight and build endurance. She needs to diminish her health risks, prevent her job from beating her down, and look better.

Peterson, who operates a personal chef business called “Polly Prepares,” is in the process of infusing her life with what top athletes enjoy the most: rhythm.

She knew about the health risks of being overweight and sedentary, but it wasn’t until her boyfriend ended their relationship because of her appearance that she decided it was time to change.

Excuses, excuses

Rather than using excuses to avoid exercise, use exercise to shelve excuses once and for all. “I’m too busy” is probably the most popular excuse. Here are a few retorts:

• Make an appointment with fitness and treat it the same as you would making any other commitment.

• Build exercise in everyday life, whether walking when you could be driving, or cleaning with a little urgency. Take the stairs. Instead of sitting around the coffee shop, get it to go and walk.

• Break your 30 minutes a day into manageable segments if need be.

• Don’t just sit there watching TV. If you must watch, balance on a wobble board, do some sit-ups, ride a stationary bike.

• Train for an event — lots of charity walks, rides and runs need your support. So multitask!

• Make it fun.

She hooked up with Always Running, a Green Lake conditioning center, a year and a half ago. There, she got a plan and motivation that took. She decided to compete in a triathlon. She did — and lost 70 pounds along the way.

Peterson began working with Studio122, a holistic fitness- and lifestyle-coaching boutique in Seattle, and learned how to eat more nutritiously. She also learned ways to move correctly and efficiently to reduce work-related aches. Studio 122 trainer Monica Donald and partner Steven Stanfield learned from Paul Chek, founder of the Corrective Holistic Exercise Kinesiology Institute, who is a guru of sorts about functional fitness.

Peterson lost 18 more pounds and is planning to do a 960-mile Seattle-to-San Francisco bicycle event to benefit the American Lung Association this year. Like Thompson, she has a goal. Like Chapman, she has learned a better way to move. Like Jurek, she has found joy in the process.

She will never run with the elite, but she doesn’t want or need to. She needs to make her life easier and happier. She has learned the power of goals and the addiction of exercise-induced endorphins.

Peterson’s back no longer barks at the end of each day’s work, and she looks forward to exercise instead of dreading it.

“I feel amazing,” she says. “I never thought I could do this. What I dreaded before, I find exhilarating now.”

Her heart and lungs are strengthening, her muscle-to-fat ratio is improving, and her risk of lifestyle-related illness is lessening. She has been overweight her whole life and still is, but she has momentum. For the first time in many years, she sees potential.

And she knows, just like the elite athletes know, she is a work in progress.

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.