I know this because I’ve been doing a lot of them lately. If you don’t know what a burpee is, you can watch this short video. It is a simple exercise in which you lie down on the ground in a prone position (chest on the floor,) then pop up to standing as quickly as possible and then jump up in the air. Then repeat . . . usually until you collapse.
I’ve been doing burpees because I have been training for my second Spartan Race, an obstacle race which imposes a penalty of 30 burpees on any participant who fails to complete one of the obstacles. To get a full sense of this, I challenge you, dear reader, to pause this article right now and do 10 burpees. If you are extremely fit or brave, you can try to do thirty. If you aren’t an elite level Spartan competitor, you will probably find that your body will be finding all sorts of ways to tell you that this is not something you should be doing.
And burpees are only one part of the fun of Spartan training. You also have to carry ridiculously heavy things that are awkward and uncomfortable to hold. You have to climb and hang on all kinds of apparatus designed to first create callouses on your hands, and then to slowly rip them off. And you have to crawl, scramble and immerse yourself in all kinds of the foulest smelling mud imaginable.
But the interesting thing about the Spartan Race is not how challenging it is. It is that this is a leisure activity—something people pay money to do in their spare time. Somehow, it actually is fun. In fact, I enjoyed my first Spartan experience so much, I have already signed up for more abuse. My next Spartan Race is in just a few weeks.
The Spartan Race is just one of many of these kinds of obstacle course races that have been soaring in popularity worldwide. A recent article in the South China Morning Post predicts that the industry will grow to over $1 billion dollars. The Tough Mudder, one of the most popular events has already had over 2.5 million participants, each paying over $100 U.S. for the privilege of enduring the punishing course.
And they are punishing. Each race has its own mechanisms for torturing competitors. In the Spartan Race it’s burpees; in the Tough Mudder, some of the obstacles include electric shock inducing wires; in the Legion Run, the course includes a submersion in ice water, and so on.
The South China Morning Post article asks, “Why pay to be electrified?,” citing new research from Cardiff University that examines why people pay for painful experiences such as the Spartan Race. They find that painful experiences help people to reconnect with their bodies, they provide a “temporary relief from the burdens of self-awareness,” and particularly in the age of social media, they help people craft a life narrative with values that transcend the reality of how people spend most of their time in the information age.
Obviously, obstacle course races are not the only way that people seek to improve their lives through “pain therapy.” Tattoos, piercings, cold shower therapy (see also here and here,) and hot yoga (which I sometimes refer to as “extreme uncomfortableness training”) are all examples of people putting their bodies into painful and uncomfortable situations for the sake of some long-term benefit.
I think these behaviors and motivations speak to a simple fact about the human experience: life is painful. This is the “first noble truth” of Buddhism. Suffering is unavoidable. We, and everyone we know, will get old, get sick, and die, and there is nothing we can do about it. The best that we can hope for is to prepare ourselves somehow—to become accustomed to the pain.
In other words . . . do more burpees.
by Jeremy McCarthy