Pneuma, a balance of four humors and no sex. 10 tips from ancient Greek athletes?

It is said that one of the ancient Greek fighters could puncture the skin of his opponent’s stomach during a fight and tear out the intestines with his fingers spread. Another was known for his habit of breaking his opponent’s fingers at the beginning of a fight. But we do not respect them for this. The Greeks were not only good at philosophy, wars, and the Olympics. They were able to combine all of these to achieve success in everything – winning in debates, battles, and sports competitions. And behind it all was a sophisticated system that we might want to learn something from.

Here is a 10-step guide to help you understand how Greek athletes prepared their bodies and minds for competition. Legend has it that the ancient Greek athlete Milo of Croton was so strong that he could break a rope tied around his head with a single movement of his eyebrow. He could carry a four-year-old bull on his shoulders, and no one could bend his little finger or snatch an apple from his palm. In the 6th century BC, he was known as an invincible fighter, having won six Olympic tournaments. Apparently, Milon of Croton had amazing control over his muscles: during a fight, he could voluntarily tense and relax certain muscle groups depending on what his opponent was doing. How did he get so strong? Athletes in those days did not use protein shakes. It is said that Milon of Croton’s method was unusual, but very effective. For training, he used a growing bull as a barbell. As the animal grew, its weight increased, making it harder to lift. When the calf became a full-grown bull, Milon of Croton carried the Olympic wrestling arena on his shoulders along with the bull, and then he killed the bull with one blow and ate it in the same day. Considering that an adult bull can weigh from 500 kg to a ton, it is hard to believe such a feat of gluttony. But what is even more remarkable is the following: Milo of Croton’s training method clearly resembles the current progressive overload method (gradually increasing the difficulty of the training). Well, this is Milon of Croton, one of a kind. Or is he not the only one? How did other athletes train in ancient Greece?

Yes, sports technology at that time was undeveloped, to say the least, and sports psychology as a science did not seem to exist… However, the methods of athlete preparation were much more advanced than anyone could have imagined. The first “pan-Hellenic” Olympic Games were held in 776 B.C., initially with only running events. Then vaulting, wrestling, fist fighting (a form of boxing), and competitions in the now-forgotten martial art of pankration, a kind of modern mixed martial arts, were added to the program. The fights in pankration often resulted in injuries and even death.

On the jar found in the tomb of one of the famous athletes, there is a scene of a fight. Note the protruding bellies: does this mean that the athletes used special breathing techniques? We explain quickly, simply, and clearly what happened, why it matters, and what happens next. The Episodes The end of the story. Podcast Advertising. Historians have gathered data on how ancient athletes prepared for such battles from very scarce sources – excerpts from books, images on pottery, and so on, says Clayton Leman of the University of South Dakota, who has studied the training of athletes of the period. “The inscriptions on the pots proved to be very useful because they vividly depict moments of training and competition”. One of the few specialized sources that has come down to us is the work “On Gymnastics” by the philosopher Philostratus of Athens. Philostratus does not go into the details of daily training, he writes about sports as a noble occupation. But sometimes he mentions quite interesting details about the preparation of some athletes: while training their body and mind, they chased animals, bent iron plates, or swam in the sea in full battle armor.

So what are the 10 most important points in the training of a Hellenic athlete that we can highlight based on this and other ancient Greek sources? To build muscle, there were other methods besides carrying a young bull for several years. For example, I practiced one such method: holding on to four horses (which could pull the athlete in different directions). Training with other athletes who tried to push you off or stretch your fingers was popular. Wrestlers trained with bags filled with sand, while those who were weaker used bags filled with flour or seeds. The wrestlers lifted heavy stones (the weight of which far exceeded the weight of today’s sports equipment). In the city of Thera (on the island of Santorini), a 480 kg piece of volcanic rock was found with the name of the strong man carved on it.

A small stone called a “galter” was used for both training and jumping. Athletes trained in sports halls and gyms, but that wasn’t all. Preparation also took place in libraries and lecture halls. The ancient Greeks believed that it was the duty of every citizen to improve both the body and the mind. Sports were considered another form of wisdom (sophia), along with the arts, philosophy, mathematics, or astronomy. So it was not surprising that muscle strengthening and mental training happened in the same place. As Leemann points out, many of the dialogues of the great philosophers of the time took place in the gymnasium, which helped foster a more open form of democracy (albeit only among the male elite of society). “The favorite place for ancient Romans to communicate was the baths,” says the scholar. “For the ancient Greeks, it was the gymnasium and the palaestra.”

The gymnastics teacher in ancient Greece was called “pedotrib” (from the words “child” and “train”). However, the second word can also be translated as “rubbing in,” indicating the importance given to massage. Wrestlers rubbed themselves with oil, both during practice and competition, and then sprinkled sand on their skin to improve grip. After training or fighting, they scraped the oil and sand from their bodies with a special scraper made of wood, bronze, or iron. “Such scrapers from the bodies of famous athletes were highly prized,” LeMann explains. “They were often sold in bottles: sweat and sand from the body of a great athlete.”

Scraper to remove sand, sweat and dirt from the skin In those distant times, Philostratus lamented the decline of athletic tradition in the Hellenic world, describing his contemporaries – athletes – as weak and effeminate (doesn’t that remind you of today’s complaints about lazy athletes who receive unjustifiably high salaries?) Philostratus elaborated on this division between athletics and military affairs, the growing greed for money and luxurious food. The philosopher described the ideal mental attitude for an athlete and how to achieve it. He emphasized that fiery, irritable athletes need to control themselves, while phlegmatic, overly calm ones need to be driven. And what about melancholics? The philosopher considered them totally unfit. Abstinence from sexual activity was strongly encouraged. Philostratus called sex a “shameful pleasure” and a “corrupting form of luxury, unsuitable and harmful for athletes. “He even compared sex to greed as a source of cheating and decadence among athletes,” writes Heather Reid of the University of Moningside (Iowa State), who studies the relationship between sports and philosophy in antiquity. There is evidence that athletes consciously avoided sexual temptation. One of the champions of pankration “turned away when he saw dogs mating in the street and left the feast when men began to discuss their sex lives – all in order to maintain inner strength and concentration,” writes Lucas Christopoulos of Hiroshima University in a study of ancient Greek martial arts.

Women were forbidden to attend men’s training sessions and competitions, although the story of Callipatera is known, who sneaked into a fistfight to watch her son perform. She was so happy about her son’s victory that she found herself. Kallipater should have been executed, but in the end he was pardoned – just because her father, her brother and her son were Olympic champions. There is evidence that the ancient Greeks also had female athletes. As noted by historian Betty Spierz of the University of Massachusetts, a vase from the 6th century B.C. depicts a woman named Atalanta wrestling against men, and a figurine from 500 B.C. depicts a female runner. Some noblewomen also participated in chariot races. There are also examples (quite rare) of descriptions of the training of girls in running, discus throwing, and javelin throwing. According to a philosopher of the time, it was important for “the fruit of her womb to have a strong root in a strong body.

The ancient Greeks knew how to get stronger, but their understanding of the physiology of the human body was somewhat mystical. They believed in the need to harness the ethereal substance known as pneuma (vital breath, spirit, something like the Chinese qi). To do this, it was necessary to hold and control the breath, tensing the respiratory muscles and relaxing the abdomen and diaphragm, thus “pushing down the excrement,” as Lucas Hristopoulos says. Using this technique, one of the participants in Pankration seemed to hit his opponent’s stomach with his spread fingers so hard that he could pierce the skin and tear the insides. Another was known by the nickname “Fingertips” because he had a habit of breaking his opponent’s fingers at the beginning of a fight.

The techniques used in Pankration were brutal: a competitor could be crippled for life. The popular system, named after the tetrad (from the Greek, “a group of four”), had much in common with modern athletic training systems that alternate periods of intense physical activity with rest and recovery (interval training). According to Leman, the schedule called for a day of short and intense classes, a day of heavy work, followed by a day of rest, and then a day of moderate exercise. But not everyone liked the system. Some criticized it for its lack of flexibility. One athlete died after the trainer forced him to resume intense training after two days off.

It is interesting to note that the ancient Greeks were apparently aware of the principle of supercompensation used in the training of modern athletes. Outside of the gym, ancient Greek athletes used anything they could find to train. Philocrat described how athletes climbed trees, climbed ropes, pushed carts, ran on soft (or, conversely, hard) sand, and developed leg strength. One athlete from Tanos swam around his home island (about 50 km), while another became famous for stealing a bronze statue from a temple at the age of nine and bringing it home, says Christopoulos.

Joseph-Benoît Suve was one of the artists who depicted the death of Milon of Croton. It is worth remembering that sport was largely seen as a preparation for military combat – and vice versa. As a famous philosopher of the time said: “No citizen has the right to be an amateur in physical training: it is part of his duty as a citizen to keep himself in good shape, ready to serve his country at any moment. The instinct of self-preservation also demands this: how helpless is a state whose youth is ill-prepared for war and danger! Before he was eaten by predators, Milon of Croton was said to have eaten eight kilograms of meat a day. On the other hand, clear and unambiguous recommendations regarding nutrition did not reach us athletes before us. Initially, athletes’ diets were vegetarian-they were advised to eat figs, fresh cheese, pasta, and barley porridge, says Christopoulos-but by the 5th century BC, beef and pork were firmly established in athletes’ diets. The trainers experimented with different diets. “Sometimes it was a protein diet and sometimes it was a carbohydrate diet,” Lemann says. Sometimes you eat fish, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you eat white bread, sometimes – bread made from coarse flour. “They lurched from one extreme to the other. I have no doubt that each of these diets had its place, but the nutritional science of the time bore little resemblance to that of today.” The ancient Greeks focused on maintaining the balance of the four humors (fluids or juices) – blood, phlegm (mucus), yellow bile, and black bile. One piece of nutritional advice from the past, however, we can confidently follow. Leman quotes a philosopher who shared an ageless truth: “If you want to win the Olympics, follow the rules and avoid eating sweets.

Famous for their strength and skill, many ancient Greek athletes were no less revered than today’s sports stars. But unlike most modern athletes, the ancients earned their fame not only for their victories, but also for the ideals they espoused, Heather Reid points out. “The credo of modern athletics, crammed with electronics that measure heart rate, oxygen consumption, and everything else, boils down to the noxious idea that the goal of sport is merely the continual improvement of all these numbers,” she writes. But the ancient Greeks believed that an athlete could embody virtue. In ancient ethics, this is called “kalokagathia” – moral beauty. “Although sport has changed a lot since ancient times, the criteria of beauty and morality for athletes have remained unchanged. And it is not about money, it is not about honor, and it is not even about victory – it is about a high ideal”. So for the ancient Greeks, sports were not just entertainment or a way to stay in shape. They were a pursuit of an ideal, of what it meant to be a true Greek. As a philosopher said: “What a pity it is if a man grows old without realizing how beautiful and strong his body can be! It is the duty of a citizen to develop this beauty and strength to the maximum.

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