Can being athletic help you be a better singer and artist? Conversely, can dancing make you a better athlete?

Oftentimes people tend to compartmentalize their lives and don’t make the connection between art, athletics, mindset and overall health, but when we take a more holistic view of our lives and our health, we start to realize how interconnected all of this is.

Joining me on the show today, I’m very excited to say, is my good friend, Mr. David Smith.

David is a coach, competitive athlete, Dartmouth and Harvard alum, artist, singer, a super freak of a man—and I mean that in a good way—and dear old friend. If you listen till the end of this episode, you can even hear a clip of us singing together on a long lost Abel James album from years ago.

On this show with David, you’re about to learn:

  • How being athletic could help you be a better singer and artist
  • Meditative aspects of creative or physical work
  • What it’s like to compete on a national and international level
  • How to recover from serious injury
  • And tons more…

Let’s go hang out with Dave.

David Smith: Artist, Singer, Rower, Friend

Dartmouth alum, artist, singer, and dear old friend. He’s—and I don’t say this lightly—one of the most talented people I know, and I don’t get to see him often enough.

So, Dave, thank you so much for being here, this is going to be awesome.

Oh my gosh, thank you for having me, Abel.

Abel: You are officially the first Dartmouth Aire on the show. Rick Silverman was on the blog way back in the day, because he’s so ripped. But congratulations, good sir.

Let it be known that is a fact.

Abel: Rick Silverman might still be more ripped than you, though.

Oh, by a factor of 20.

Abel: We’ll see at reunion. But let’s talk about that, let’s start with the multi-talented thing. Because going back to college, just for the listeners’ benefit, we were in the same singing group together, the Dartmouth Aires, which was kind of like a semi-pro/pro singing group.

We practiced a lot. Let’s see, it was usually at least 3 two-hour practices a week. We usually had at least a couple of gigs on the weekends, sometimes 4 in a day when we were on tour.

In addition to that, you were rowing like crazy in college. Oh, and going to an Ivy League school, getting good enough grades to get into Harvard grad school. You’re doing all these things at the same time.

And not to mention as a soloist, you’re a great soloist and performer, singer. You played piano in one of my bands for the fellowship project. You’re all over the place.

Most people would say this guy’s a freak, screw him, he’s just gifted or something. But could you explain maybe a little bit of how you see these different modalities and things that really nurture each other?

Yah, first of all, those are really nice things to say about me, that’s very generous. The way that I felt… I want to start with the Dartmouth Aires specifically.

I was one of the kids who was a little bit of a Dartmouth Aires nerd coming in. So myself and a couple of people that we know together, we already had the CDs. We were listening to the CDs.

I’m thinking of one of your classmates in particular—I think it was Zebo—he showed up and he knew all the parts already.

I showed up being like, “Well, I’m going to try out for one of these a capella groups, but probably not the Aires because I’m not really good enough to get in.”

And by some miracle, I feel like I just barely slipped in there, and it was a life-changing experience.

From that first moment of joining you guys, I thought, “Well, ok, I better raise my game to honor the group.”

And when it came to rowing in college, rowing for my coach at Dartmouth, Steve Perry, that was how I felt about that, too.

I did have a human body and it could do some things, but I wasn’t recruited heavily by a bunch of different schools or anything. I just knew that I really loved to do it, and it really helped me feel better about everything.

And then secondly, the best way that you can honor the team and your teammates is to just show up, and work your butt off, and just really give it everything you have.

The other guys in the Aires, the other people on our rowing team, I think they helped me mature. They were helping me raise my game and showing me a lot of my music tastes.

And then from playing in that band with you—you were the one who invited me and said, “Hey, do you play piano a little bit? You can do some back-up singing, come out for this. Let’s do this.”

And I still have the album that you did. That thing is amazing. I still listen to it.

To think back to college again, it was 10 years ago now, but the way I would rationalize it to myself. With rowing, at least at that point, it wouldn’t really do that justice to give it 98%, you had to be all in. You can’t just miss races.

The coach would have just said, “You’re out of here.”

But with the Aires, I knew that I could miss a couple concerts, I could miss a tour and, yah, some people would be bummed, and I’d be bummed, but you guys would be just fine. You’d be just fine without me.

When it comes to the rowing, you’ve got the boat with 9 people in it—8 rowers plus coxswain—you can’t just have a seat be empty there, and you can’t just slot somebody else in and say it’s going to be just as good.

Because there’s a pretty delicate balance. We weren’t that good of a team, we didn’t just have infinitely replaceable people.

Abel: Whereas the Aires can always get another tenor, just up the street someplace.

Yah, right, the generic. The middle.

Abel: Let’s talk about the group that we shared, the singing and performance group. Because this continues to happen in adulthood, too.

If you are an athlete and also an artist, then those things are somehow at odds with each other, in terms of the other people in those groups.

The artists will not like your other friends.

It’s kind of like being in elementary school. There’s your elementary school best friend, and then your best friend at summer camp.  

And so there are these things that are at odds with each other, whether it’s CrossFit and your work group, your community there, or whether it’s rowing and then some other group that you may be in, maybe your family that doesn’t agree with it, or you’re out rowing too much, or whatever.

How do you deal with other people, I guess, putting their beliefs on you in those instances?

You said it the perfect way. If you have multiple plates spinning at the same time, I think that anybody who operates in that way implicitly understands that it’s an inclusive thing.

If there is tensions then, unfortunately, it falls to you, it’s your responsibility to diffuse that.

Something that comes up a lot—I hear this at Pocock Rowing Center where I’ve been coaching for the past couple years.

It all started when my former supervisor came up to me, I was alone on the ergometer and she asks me, “Hey, David, how’s it going, what are you doing?”

And I was like, “Oh, I’m just doing steady state. Just long, slow distance training.”

And she was like, “Oh, yah, good.”

I was like, “Oh, do you need me to get out of the way? Are the junior girls practicing soon?”

She goes, “No, no, no, you’re fine, you’re fine.”

Takes two steps in the other direction. I go back to plugging away. And then she whips around and looks me right in the eye.

She goes, “No, but what are you doing? Like in life?”

I said, “Well, same answer, steady state. Steady state everything, I don’t really know.”

I had just moved back to Seattle, I’d been a total vagabond for seven straight years, and I’d just moved back with my girlfriend, didn’t really know what to do.

And she was like, “I want you to coach our men’s master’s team.”

And I was like, “Oh, yah, I’ll help out,” and she was like, “No, no, no, I want you to be the head coach,” of her men’s master’s team.

And I was like, “Well, I don’t have any real coaching experience.”

She was like, “No, that doesn’t matter.”

And basically the next day hired me sight unseen, and just trusted me to go off and do it. And a year or two later, we had 34 guys, and we’d started with one or two.

Abel: Really?

Yah, I’ve heard this a lot, and I want to just put it to bed.

People say, “Oh, I watch you out there. I could never do what you do.”

And it’s like, “No, you can. You’re learning to row. I’m learning to row. It’s not like there’s different levels with hard edges. We’re just bringing ourselves up.”

But I think you touch on that performance piece, especially with the Aires, and this is why I said that I was so lucky just to get in at all.

The threshold to get in that group was very high. You have to have put in a certain amount of work and a certain amount of singing fitness, whatever you want to call it.

So, I guess my point is that it’s got to be this inclusive thing in the same way that she recognized in me, this former supervisor of mine, she was like, “Well, it doesn’t really matter that you haven’t exactly coached before.”

She was saying, “I trust you to take something that you haven’t done before, and just throw yourself at it.”

So I don’t know if that really answers the question.

Resisting the Norms

Abel: Well, it does. Ok, so let’s go into this a little bit. You are resisting the norms of adult American society, big time, in all sorts of different ways.

I read something just yesterday, I don’t recall exactly what the number is now, it’s like 65%-70% of us are overweight or obese right now.

By 2030, it’s going to be 85%.

I read that and I’m like, “What? 85%?!”

But you’re still in great shape, in excellent shape. You’re not following those norms.

How have you been able to follow a different path, and what does that look like for you? It’s not always easy. It’s not always tons of money, and tons of cars, and cool stuff and whatever.

It’s a different type of adulthood, right?

I have no idea what you’re talking about, I own multiple Ferraris.

No, no, again, for anyone listening, I have no Ferraris. I do have one Subaru.

If you want to keep going, especially with any kind of a passion that involves your body, whether it’s singing or yoga, because singing uses muscles, it’s also something you can work out.

I got to admit, dude, I’m a little bit badly out of practice in terms of the piano playing and the singing. I had some people over the other night and we just sounded bad.

Abel: Old man tenor now.

I knew it sounded bad, because I caught up with a friend at his birthday last weekend, and I was like, “Oh, yah, I play the piano.”

And he was like, “Dude, you’re not that good though.” And I was like, “You’re actually right.”

No, but with the rowing thing, to use a concrete example, even just this week, I raced at the head of the Charles two days ago.

But unfortunately I had been flying a little close to the sun, and I had a back spasm thing flare up.

I knew how to take care of it. I rested it, heated it, iced it.

But as we’re getting a little bit older, if you want to push your body to the limit, it’s no longer sufficient to just show up like we did in college on little sleep, maybe a little hungover and a little smelly from the night before, and you just kind of show up and wing it. You’re in a war with your body.

You’re reaching down inside yourself and pulling something out instead of saying, “Well, I’m going to do all the things. I’m going to stretch, roll, I’m going to get my fascia loose.”

And I think that only in the last two or three years—since going off a little bit and doing my own thing and applying my own ideas—have I understood how wonderful it is to be in the human body.

To understand it a little better. To explore a little bit less conventional training methods.

I used to really prioritize weightlifting, and just getting in the gym. I was very concerned with how much I’m deadlifting.

Now I’m more concerned with what’s my hip mobility. Because I know that in the boat if my hip mobility is a couple degrees off, it means that my lower back is going to get tight. It means that I’m not going to be able to compress at the catch, at the front part of the rowing stroke.

Now, we’re compounding that every stroke down the course and I’m getting a little bit less distance per stroke. I’m going less fast overall, and I’m working harder to do it; it’s this sort of thing.

And nobody cares if you show up to a race and you’re like, “Hey, I deadlifted 350 pounds.”

They’re going to be like, “That’s cool, I’m nice and loose and I’m 23. I’m going to kick your butt.”

And it’s interesting, this past summer I was at the World Championships. I’ve been doing that since 2012, and back then, the first time I was there, I remember showing up and feeling like I am the shortest, weakest, most totally terrified and least experienced person here.

I’m so in over my head in every way, to every single other athlete at this thing. Thank God the other guys in my boat are just legends, living legends.

Bow seat goes, if you’re a rower listening to this, 616 on his 2K, weighing 141 pounds. Which, if you extrapolate that watts per body weight, VO2 max, cyclist crunching numbers, is just unprecedented in rowing.

I’ve actually never heard of anybody else going that fast being that light.

Abel: He’s his own boat.

Yah, Shane Madden. So fit. He could just row.

He would row a little rough and ready, and you could feel him bring the boat a bit to a stop and then just rocket it forward and bring it to a stop and rocket it forward. He got a lot smoother over the summer and he’s phenomenally skilled.

At the time, stroke seat and I were discussing it, and we were like, “The problem with his technique is that he doesn’t get tired.”

We row like that, we get tired, we’re mortal. He has this engine where he’s able to just like bam, bam, bam.

But we get tight and we have to roll out, and all this other kind of stuff.

But I guess I have to thank my parents. I’m an only child. When I was a very young kid, I was always a shy kid, doing my own thing, mostly doing drawing, doing art.

They were always really encouraging. They’d be like, “Do your thing, do your art.”

And I found that that was my way to relate to people.

Instead of saying, “Hi, it’s me.” It was like, “Hey, this is a drawing I did.” And they always understood that.

And that’s where I could feel like, “Oh, there are friendships here.”

So after college, I went to the Harvard Architecture School, and my friend Max Schneider. This guy listened to speed metal on his headphones so loud at his desk while cutting models, while building these architecture models.

He was constantly being told to turn his music down, but he’d make these precise, beautiful, amazing models.

And him and Paul Estrella and Aiden Ackerman, they’d be like, “Dude, why do you look so fit? What do you do? Why are you always showing up sweaty and stinky in class?”

And I was like, “Oh, I didn’t really want to tell anyone, but, yah, I row at 5:00 AM every morning.”

And they were like, “What does that mean?”

And I was like, “It means I’m out in the water grinding away in the dark with my friends and we’re trying to win races.”

And they’re like, “What? You’re insane. Why are you doing that?” But they weren’t like, “Oh, stop doing that.”

It was more like, “Yes, dude, you have to do it so hard.”

And they’d come cheer me on at the head of the Charles, and they were always supportive.

And they understood that if you want to self-actualize or be complete, if you love doing something, just go do it.

If you love doing something, just go do it. Click To Tweet

And it doesn’t even matter if you’re necessarily good at it or not. But if you really love it and you keep doing it, all of a sudden you look around and you’ll accidentally be good at it.

And that was an experience that I had at the 2018 World Championships.

To the credit of my pair partner, Tom Foster and our coach, Clive. We all helped each other so much.

I showed up at the World Championships and I was like, “Wow.” In the space that we had and the time that we had, we did everything we could.

Tom’s doing everything he can, I’m doing everything I can. And just that feeling of readiness is something that you can’t fake, you can’t sports psychology yourself into.

And we talked about this way back in college, it’s something that literally starts in your physical body and then spreads outward.

And if you’re in some kind of a war with yourself or if you’re proving something to yourself or if you go in with self-doubts about, “Man, should I be doing this? Is this worthwhile?” It just won’t work.

How to Win by Not Thinking About Winning

Abel: Let me ask you, what’s the difference between you in college when you were not a coach, and you now, not a spring chicken anymore, but still racing, and now a coach.

What is the difference in the way that you row, generally speaking?

That’s a great question. In college, the coach’s task is to bring the boat up to speed as quickly as possible.

One of the things that Steve Perry did so well with us was, we didn’t waste a second at practice.

He said, “I want you guys to come down, practice starts at 4:00AM.”

That means you’re there at 3:30am, you’re warming up by 3:40am, you’re in the bays at 3:55am. If you’re in the bays at 4:00, you’re late, your boat’s not going out, you’re sent home, that’s it.”

And with a couple initial mishaps, everybody got on that page really, really quickly.

And we just killed ourselves on the water. We were out there, Steve was just talking at us constantly about technique, power, and mentality.

It was extremely intense practice.

Abel: And learning.

And, at the same time, he said, “The second we’re done, we put the boats away on the racks. When you shower and change, you can be talking about practice and how it went.”

He’s like, “But when that door clicks shut at the boathouse behind you, I want you to just go stupid and forget you are a rower at all, and spend the rest of the 22 hours of your day just being a college student at college.”

Abel: That’s cool advice. You don’t hear that very often.

Actually, Steve had me out this year very generously to his program that he’s coaching now in Dallas, and we got to talk and catch up a bit.

And it was interesting to hear his take on what was he going for with that. Because that was however many decade ago.

And he was like, “You know, I said that specifically for you. I said that so that you would just chill.”

He’s like, “Because otherwise you’d be thinking about it, and trying to row the boat and get faster just 24 hours a day. You would not turn off.”

And I was like, “Well, that was exactly what I needed to hear.”

Because even within those practices, I wasn’t there thinking about how do I be efficient, how do I save energy, how do I calm down?

I was thinking, “How do I do exactly what Steve is asking? How do I get more out of myself?“

I’m like a sponge. Is there any way that I can squeeze a last drop of soapy water out of myself? Is there any shred of energy that’s being left on the table today?

And then because we’re in college, and we’re invincible, go to bed, wake up sore and tired, and do it the same the next day.

I don’t think that’s a sustainable model forever. But it worked because we had such a short season.

Yes, you’d train year round for crew, but we’re not thinking, “Oh, we have the Olympics in 8 years,” or something.

We’re thinking, “We want to win this spring, and we only have five or six practices a week to do it.”

The coach also has to sort out who’s going to be in what boat. He’s got to teach us to row. There’s a checklist of things that’s actually pretty long, and there’s only a couple hundred days where you have those chances to do it.

So, we tried to really work things up to just a fever pitch in practice and just have a blast.

And by the time we go into races—this is what I really loved—at races I felt supremely calm, because I knew that we would just show up and there was nothing we were going to do in a race that we hadn’t done hundreds, if not thousands of times before.

I’m not exaggerating that. Lterally, when it came to the execution of the race, it was almost routine and a little bit boring. And you could get excited with it, but there was no need to pump yourself up.

I think now, for better or worse, I’m a little bit turned loose. I don’t usually work with a coach, I get to express my own ideas, and I get to take the training as it comes and be realistic, throw in rest days when I need to.

Here’s an example: Left to my own devices preparing for the Charles, apparently I’ll spread myself a little too thin.

And I still raced, it went ok, but man, I just wish I’d had somebody there to be like, “Dave, you need to back off a little bit, you need to chill.”

But there’s been other times when it’s been really, really rewarding and fun.

For example, in the summer of 2016, I saw there were a couple of my contemporaries who were basically petitioned to go to a World Cup.

In rowing you got the World Cups, those lead up to the World Championships. There’s nothing in it, it’s just another opportunity to bring your gear up and go fast, have fun, go to Lucerne, do whatever.

I’ve never been to one of those events. It seems like it’s a hell a lot of fun. Also a good time in Europe. It’s like a little mini-vacation for some of these crews.

I’ve heard that a couple of my contemporaries had just sent themselves in the singles and had done ok.

And I was like, “What the heck! How come I don’t get to do that?”

I was like, “I’m here at Pocock alone,” and so I was like, “You know what?”

At the same time I’d read this great book. If you’re a rower listening, you’ve got to read the book that the Kiwi Pair came out with. These two guys, Eric Murray and Hamish Bond from New Zealand, game changers.

Surprisingly few of my rowing contemporaries have actually read their book, but they have a book called The Kiwi Pair. It’s amazing.

And you always read the books or the words of your heroes looking for some kind of secret. There isn’t any.

Their secret was a lot of hard work.

Abel: There’s a humdinger.

We’re talking thirty-kilometer rows twice a day, every day, for a long time.

So I was like, “Ok, here’s what I’m going to do.”

I’m all fired up. It was Hans’s wedding where I saw those two grad school buddies of mine, Hans and Max. I saw them together and we shared ideas.

Came back to Pocock, and I didn’t even get in the boat because I was like, “Step one, I’ve got to be fit.”

I was like, “If I’m going to take myself seriously, I need to be world-class fit. I know I’m not.”

So, I put myself in ergatory. I got on the Concept2 Rowing Ergometers, set it up for 12 km, cranked that down.

Set it, took five minutes, drank a whole bunch, set it up for 12 km again, cranked that down, and then did that twice a day for six weeks. And then gradually fed back in the rowing.

But I came out of that, and at the end of the summer, went off to Canadian Henley, which is this really fun race.

For any rowers listening, if you’re thinking about doing Canadian Henley and you haven’t, find a trailer, find a boat, get yourself out there, it’s so fun. It’s a great race.

And I ended up in really generous conditions with a big tailwind breeze, and ended up going faster in my little single, than I ever had before, by 10 seconds or something.

I’d only ever done 7:10 and ended up getting to go 6:58.

And at least for rowing, just again for the non-rowers, even though Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile years and years ago, if you can crank out a sub-four-minute mile, that’s pretty legit.

It’s not the pinnacle of the sport. I think the world record for the lightweight single is 6:41, set this year.

So, I’m not that level, I’m not close to that, but…

Abel: But you were seconds away.

Yah, but it’s still a huge gap.

But for me, that day, that was an interesting thing, because I was so nervous for that race. I was a wreck.

I didn’t think that would happen at all, but I just put my head down and did my thing.

And it was just a totally different way of racing than in college, where we were racing and beating ourselves up so much that you’d just show up and do your thing.

Abel: Were you practicing or racing more back in the day? Or did you practice like you race? I guess I’m trying to dig in a little bit.

Back in college, we were always competing in practice; every single day was competitive.

There was no, “Oh, go out and do an easy cross-training day.”

If we were cross-training, it would mean laps of lunges.

We’d get two guys across, the whole team deep, and we would lunge, stand up, lunge with the next leg forward. And it had to be the whole team in time.

And if somebody got out of time, the whole team had to start that lap over, and we would do 10 laps of the track and field.

So, that’s not cross-training if you’re a triathlete or something and you’re going for an easy bike ride.

No, this was like, “We’re going to find a way to hurt our legs. We’re going to find a way to make ourselves mentally and physically more prepared.”

Even at the time, Steve, our coach, the mastermind of this stuff, he would tell us to our faces as we we’re doing it.

He’d be like, “This isn’t going to make you better at rowing.”

We were like, “Yah. Yah.” And we were into it.

The reason we did it was, if you’re in college, either you haven’t done any so you’re a walk-on, or you’ve done another sport, or you rowed in high school and you think you’re the big dog.

But actually you stink because you rowed in high school. You’re not that good. You’re ok, but it’s still high school crew.

If any of the junior rowers that I coached are listening to this, they’ll know that I told them over and over this past year,

“Guys, don’t be intimidated by the competition, because I’m not.”

I look at all you guys, I look at the best junior crew in the world, and I think, “Ya, that’s a junior crew.”

Because in crew, there is a real performance-level difference between high school crew up to college.

Even some of the slower college teams are still way above the fastest high school teams now. You’re just bigger, stronger, and more capable.

But anyways, so we’re out there, and what you realize by doing something like laps of lunges—especially if you’re just a total green kiddo—you have no idea what you’re capable of, something that Steve would say to us a lot, and so you get a first lap in and and your legs are just on fire.

And you get the second lap in, and you’re like, “I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be able to continue.”

But you don’t actually get to the point of failure. Never once did the least strong guy on the team just totally collapse and not be able to continue.

Ya, it stinks, it’s really hard, your legs are on fire, but you get to this point where your body and mind are telling you it can’t continue, but it totally can.

And then you can bring that knowledge, that self-knowledge, into the boat when you’re coming up at halfway to the race and you have all these feedbacks from your legs.

Your legs are telling you, “Oh, you can’t continue,” or you’re right about to not be able to continue.

And you can say from here down, “No, I’m actually good, this is right where I want to be.”

And you’re into it, and it’s exciting. It’s an exciting feeling rather than being fearful.

Abel: And that’s something that you need to go through to know about, right?

Yes.

You absolutely need it. And not only that, I think that as you age, you still do need a little bit of that, but you definitely don’t need as much.

But you do not want to be coming up in your athletic career, and be thinking too cautiously and not explore. I think you really should explore your limits.

You really should explore your limits. Click To Tweet

But unfortunately, as we can get a little bit on in our years, if we explore our limits every day, you’re looking at being hurt.

Abel: And it’s interesting, because you were talking about how a weakness turns into an advantage, and I think that’s definitely true for me in health.

In college, actually, my health was starting to falter a little bit. And then after college, I started getting fat and sick before a lot of my friends did, and that’s what made me more conscious of what was happening.

So, like you said, that beast who’s just going rough and strong and bam, bam, bam. In a way, I’m glad that I didn’t have a body that could put up with anything, where I could eat anything and I’d always be healthy.

I think maybe that’s one of the things that comes with experience or advancing age or what have you, is you start to appreciate that feedback from your body that you grew up ignoring. Go hard, go hard, go harder.

But as time goes on, you realize, “Oh, this is supposed to be in balance, all of this, because if I get hurt, that’s a big problem.”

And being a runner back in the day, if I got hurt, I would have to take weeks off and get slow again. It’s the worst.

You could be in a bike race and fall and crash and have some road burn, but conceivably still win the race.

If you’re a runner and you hurt your leg, if you’re a rower and you hurt your back, there’s no way to just baby it and not use it.

You could be in a field sport, and do something to your wrist and work through it and work with it.

You look at many professional athletes, they have the Kinesio Tape all over.

And you see a remarkable number of not even necessarily more mature athletes, but sometimes the less mature athletes at the World Championships, they’ll have the Kinesio Tape all over themselves.

And I’m like, “You’re 19, you should still be at that indestructible phase.”

But also the flip side of that is, I don’t see that as a limiting thing, it’s almost like one more challenging piece.

Because sometimes I have to remind myself to look back in time a little bit, and in rowing this is really easy, because I keep a very detailed training log of everything I did since 2006.

So I can go back to any given day and just look at what the numbers were on the rowing machine, how I felt about it, who beat me, argh.

And sometimes you’ll look at the numbers and be like, “Oh, that’s actually slower than I thought, or faster than I thought or whatever.”

Part of the reason that I went faster in 2016 in the single than I did in 2006 or 2008 was because, again, I was approaching it from that mentality of just fight the boat, bash yourself along, do it, do it harder.

So here’s something I just want to share that only in the past couple years, I see the value in both.

It’s a difficult thing because you always wonder, “Well, man, what if I had this knowledge with my young body?”

And it’s like, “Ya, but this is where we’re at now.”

Abel: The knowledge might not have meant anything back then, right?

Yah. And sometimes the junior crews would be asking me, they’d be like, “Dave, what do you do for this workout?”

And I’m like, “I’m doing what I’m doing now because I’m at this point.”

“You’re doing what you’re doing now.”

We’ll just have you guys do 10 by three minutes all out because that’s what you need right now.

And you’re not going to hurt yourself. If you were going to hurt yourself, we wouldn’t have you do it.

I hope that anybody who’s listening doesn’t think, “Oh, well, injury’s part of it.”

No, injury is not part of it.

And just for the record, I never had any injuries all through high school, all through college, up until three years out of college, when I was finishing grad school.

Abel: Wow.

That’s when I had what should have been a rowing career-ending disc injury to my lower back.

Abel: From rowing?

From birth to death, we live our whole lives in the same skin, the same bag of electricity and water and whatever else is going on in here.

Nobody really knows, by the way, exactly how exercise works. We don’t know. But we have some good guesses.

I had just been pushing it hard, trying to get my degree, I had been a little bit overweight, definitely not eating healthy for a lightweight rower.

I had cut out a lot of the stretching and core training and sensible strength training that had kept me healthy for so many years.

I had not recognized that those were the things keeping me healthy.

And at the moment when my back really went, when I had this bulging disc go like that, I had never been stronger on the erg; the rowing machine numbers had never been better.

But I was also just so tight that in the boat I wasn’t fast at all, and my legs were so tight that just a tap on the quads sent painful waves of electricity down my leg.

So, the fascia was just all kinds of locked up. But I didn’t even have the vocabulary for that.

From my point of view at the time, I was like, “I’m killing it. Stronger than I’ve ever been. I’m a little tight. Not rowing that great, but whatever, I’m a little overweight, but whatever.”

And then it was like, oh, there’s this pain in my back that is not going away, and it’s getting worse, and now I can’t move.

So, it all hit it once. So, that was a hard lesson, because you think you’re invincible, and you are, until you’re not.

All of a sudden you’re not, but it’s not like there was just one thing.

And I want to really stress that again for anybody that’s maybe going through injury.

Maybe you’re listening to this right now and you’re like, “Man, I’m really at the bottom of my game, my body hurts,” whatever, it’s not just one thing; it’s going to be a bit of a lifestyle change.

It’s the reason why right now when we’re talking I’m not slouching in my chair, and I don’t have my left leg crossed up like I used to all the time. Because things like postural habits are so important, especially as you get older.

I can see that you’re sitting up pretty straight, too. That’s no accident.

Good Posture & Other Tips to Being a Better Athlete

Abel: Ya, I’m standing, actually.  I do all these interviews standing, because if I did them sitting then I would feel like crap by the end of the day.

But if I do them standing, it’s like hanging out at a party, except sober, having a conversation standing up. I can do that all day.

But you’re right, it starts to add up. If I were slumping like this a little bit, it would be a rough day. It’d be a rough life.

Yah. And just one of the things that, again, with the 20-20 hindsight, when I first moved to Boston to start up the grad school program in 2008 out of college, I had made a commitment to myself.

I’m going to take grad school really seriously and I’m going to make an attempt to be social and have a social life and make new friends.

And I’m going to row, but rowing isn’t everything. It’s fall of 2008, the Olympics just happened. At the time I was thinking like, “Ok, I’d love to make the Olympics in 2012.”

That’s a goal, but I just started grad school. Grad school is where my energy and focus has to go. So anyway, I’d had a great summer of rowing, so I wasn’t looking to prove myself at that moment.

So, the result was I fell in with this team out of Riverside Boat Club coached by Bruce Smith.

It was really fun, but he had all these afternoon training workouts, and I was like, “I don’t have time for that.”

I’m just rowing once a day, I’m doing a little bit of light lifting maybe three to six times a week.

But at night, there’d be social events. There’d be chances to go out, there’d be chances to dance. There’d be Halloween parties and all this stuff.

And I would go out at least once a week, maybe twice a week, and just dance my butt off.

Abel: Talk about hip mobility.

Sweaty head to toe, hip mobility, alternating movements, doing things that are movement-based that have nothing to do with rowing, that have nothing to do with that one repetitive forward and backward movement which is very hard on the back.

And at the time, I just remembered a feeling of skill and tactile sensation and looseness in the boat that was even better than what I’d had in college.

Abel: Interesting.

And at the time, I didn’t credit the dancing enough for what it was doing for me.

That’s why maybe this is a little bit of a funny admission, but it’s something that I go out of my way to do now. To find those opportunities either to dance or to move or to do other stuff that’s not just that rowing training.

I go out of my way to find those opportunities to dance. Click To Tweet

Even this very weekend there was a big social dance thing after the head of the Charles, and I went there with a couple of friends.

It was probably the first time in a couple of years that I felt like, “Man, I’m pain-free.”

This is part of the physical therapy, to dance our butts off a little bit.

Abel: Well, it is, yah. That’s cross-training. People don’t, and I didn’t either, appreciate the slow training.

But for example, if you want to play fast on guitar, you have to play slow first.

You need to train your nervous system to clean out all of those overly aggressive actions such that when you get out of your own way and dance, you do things that are so fast that you didn’t even realize that you could do.

That comes from letting go instead of forcing it harder.

That’s where fluidity comes from in movement.

You’re completely right.

I have an aunt, my mom’s sister Amy Ernst, she’s a former professional modern dancer and now teaches at the University of Arizona, and has for a number of years.

She’s won all kinds of awards. She has students that go on to do Broadway and work with professional dance companies. She danced with Bella Lewitzky back in the day. So dancing kind of runs in the family.

I’m not a good dancer, by the way. I love it, I absolutely love it.

And even thinking back to college, I’m not going to say that going to a college party is healthy for you, but if you go and you’re not having that much substances that are bad for you and you’re just there to dance, that’s actually a pretty healthy, natural thing to do for your body a couple of times a week.

Even in the Aires, we had some sort of loose choreography we were doing the whole time.

You have to have pretty good posture just to produce sound with your voice to make a good note come out.

Abel: Your body is an instrument.

Totally, and what you said about the proprioceptive skill stuff. The vast majority of the training that I do in the boat is performed at a very low, mellow pace.

And one of my favorite drills that I think anybody who’s listening to this who’s rowing should do is, you should work on the top 1-inch of your stroke.

A couple of years ago when I moved out here from Boston, I realized, “Oh, the way that I’m moving in the boat, this isn’t what I’m going for.”

So, I spent the last years, and I’m still always working on this, you realize, “Ok, I’m sitting up at the front of the stroke.”

This is where I ideally would want to begin the stroke, but if you really slow it down and look at what your hands are actually doing, there’s a huge difference that’s made by subtle millimeters of movements.

And if you just are always going fast, thinking “I’ve got to race, I’ve got to go, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to beat this other guy,” you’re not going to get into that very subtle millimeters of movement-type thing.

Abel: Almost hypnotic and meditative, right?

Oh completely.

Especially when I started, back to the ergatory or doing these longer workouts for that summer. My favorite workout to do on the water, and it still is, is just 20 kilometers.

So you just get in the boat, you do your technique warm-up, you make sure that in the first four or five minutes you’re able to move pretty well and you’re loose.

And that involves doing a little bit of loosening up on land beforehand.

But you’re out there, you’re ready to go, and you basically just go at 20 strokes a minute, which is a very low. It’s about 15 or 20 beats below race cadence.

You go out for 10k, you stop, you spin around, you get in the water for five minutes, and then you just come back and that’s it.

It’s not a magical thing. It’s long enough where when I’m out there, I don’t feel like, “Oh, I have a long ways to go,” and this and that.

I noticed something happen when I kept doing these workouts day after day after day, and it gradually compressed to where I wasn’t thinking ahead or behind, I was just gradually thinking more about what’s going on in this stroke.

What’s going on for this one stroke? Ok. Now this one stroke.

And so eventually you’re having fun; I would equate it to…

Rowing is like dancing except there’s only one dance move, and you’re just trying to perfect it, you’re trying to just get it just right.

You’re trying to do your Michael Jackson thing, but there’s just one thing over and over and over.

And if you can really get into that, it can be this fun sustainable thing, and you can be cruising along, breathing, and relaxing, and doing it just right.

And you start to notice these millimeter details that you totally wouldn’t if you were like, “I got to get my workout in. Where am I? What’s my heart rate?”

Abel: Being in the moment. Eastern again. I can’t believe it but we’ve already used up all of the time.

Abel: So we’re definitely going to have to schedule another one of these. because, man, there’s so much to talk about, I’d love to check in with you after your next few races and all of that.  

I’m so proud of you, man.

For those who are listening, where can they find you? What are you working on next? What are you psyched about?

Oh my gosh. Well, I’d say If you’re going to look at one thing and one thing only, I’m on Instagram @dosdesignsltd. And that’s where I put all my artwork, which we didn’t even really talk about.

Abel: We never even talked about, but it’s incredible. You did some of the Aires’ album artwork yourself. Definitely check out his Instagram.

Oh, man, I totally forgot about that. Yah, well, again, that’s very nice of you to say, but that’s how I’m making my way right now.

You can also checkout my art and even purchase prints at davidosmithartist.com.

And I have a blog that more deals about rowing at http://davidosmith17.blogspot.com/.

So if you’re curious about what am I actually doing training-wise, you can check everything out there.

One of the things that I started to do this year was at the end of every week I just put up exactly what I did.

Abel: I’ve got that right here, too, it’s awesome. You’ve got all these spreadsheet charts.

They’re just very bad screen captures of a Google doc, or whatever.

Abel: I thought you were a designer, Dave.

Hey, they look ok.

Abel: Well, anyway, Dave, it has been so much fun having you here. Thanks for taking the time, and we’ll have to have you on again soon.

Thank you so much for having me, this was really, really fun. And best wishes with this. It’s so cool to see you out here doing this.

Abel: Thanks, man.

Before You Go…

Here’s the Review of the Week. This came in from Nellie on Amazon.

She says:

Two 80-year olds are full and 6 pounds down the first week.

I am 81 and my husband is 84. We have lost 5 – 6 pounds in 9 days with no exercise. Solid weight loss, not water.

Yes, I have to COOK but I do easy stuff — Dad’s favorite is a bag of cooked shrimp with 2 bags of frozen veggies and a box of organic chicken broth for the liquid cooked down for an hour.

Yes, I have to spend more money on organic food, but we save money by not buying any processed or junk foods.

WE FEEL GREAT and have thoroughly enjoyed Abel’s writing style. We can see why this is becoming the “only diet book you need.”

We took one of his options, and decided to “fast” 18/6. All that means is we skip breakfast and no eating after supper. Simple. Not hard because you can eat all the protein and veggies that you want during your meal, and don’t forget some oil or butter.

EASY? YES! If you want it to be! I told “Dad” that if he lost 5 pounds the first week, I would make Abel’s carrot cake and Alyson’s coffee cake from the book. All the recipes are delicious and quite easy. Today I’m baking the carrot cake!

Good eating, solid old fashioned foods, no preservatives, all organic, and even recipes for our 14-year old dog. Yay! To your health!

– Nellie.

Nellie, that just warms my heart in such an incredible way. It’s rare that I get notes like this.

I mean, you two are doing it and so many people make up excuses for why not to eat their veggies or cook again, and I’m glad that you’re simplifying things. Because that’s really what it’s all about.

And imagine, not eating that breakfast means you don’t have to prepare it, take the time to actually eat it, or clean up after either. So, you’re right, a lot of people wind up saving some amount of time and money in various ways.

You’ll find out how to do that over the course of time, and maybe your dog will even love it, too.

Thank you so much. Congrats to you and your husband. Keep it up, and also keep me updated.

Now, for anyone who’s listening and they’re wondering about that carrot cake, it’s a very tasty dessert. Totally worth sharing with your family and friends who aren’t afraid of vegetables.

You can find the recipe by clicking on this link: Wild Carrot Cupcakes (scroll down in that post for the Carrot Cake recipe, or check out page 257 in The Wild Diet)

And if you’re looking for more Wild dessert recipes to share with your family and friends this holiday season, check out the Recipes section, and be sure to sign up for my newsletter for more recipes, videos, coupons, fat-burning tips, and tons more. As a bonus, I’ll send you a seven day meal plan and a quick start guide so you can get rolling right away.

And if you’d like an easy way to “eat your veggies” like Nellie and her husband, I have some very exciting news.

We recently became our own sponsor and launched our new superfood greens powder called Future Greens, to make it easy to get organic, nutrient-dense veggies in every day, no matter where you are.

Future Greens is packed with vitamins, minerals, and filling prebiotic fiber, from whole organic veggies, sprouts, algaes and berries, including kale, beet, parsley, collard greens, cauliflower sprouts, broccoli sprouts, spirulina, chlorella, blueberries, raspberries, and much more.

Future Greens makes getting nutrition easy and it tastes great, if I do say so myself.

It’s a smart and convenient source of nutrition for disaster preparedness, road trips, camping, athletics and more. And it travels great in the car, on the plane or in a spaceship (just make sure you activate artificial gravity before opening).

Basically, it’s like vegetables from the future.

So if you’re looking to increase your energy and health without the crash from caffeine or sugar, meet your new best friend, Future Greens.

And to celebrate, we’re giving listeners like you a deal on our brand new goodies from Wild Superfoods. Right now you can save over $128 bucks off your purchase of our Ultimate Daily Bundle by selecting Subscribe and Save.

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