For a busy guy who’s been up since the predawn, James Newbury is in high spirits: loquacious, solicitous – and apologetic, even though I’m the nong who’s forgotten about the time difference between the eastern seaboard and his home city of Adelaide, and phoned early. Turns out his mood’s copped a boost from his having just eaten for the first time today – at 10am – breaking a fast that had started early the previous evening.
“I have an eating window now,” says Newbury, who’s juggling tasks at Soul 365, the inner-city gym he’s owned and run since 2013. “With all the training I do, and the amount of oxidative damage that I’m doing to myself, I feel I need to go through a daily period of fasting to activate the purge of cells that aren’t working quite the way they should be anymore.”
That’s a sound indicator of how Newbury operates. At 28, he’s been one of Australia’s best athletes for seven years, placing 18th in the world at last year’s CrossFit Games. By virtually any yardstick, he’s a stellar performer. But he wasn’t satisfied. At the gym and in the kitchen, he was convinced he could do things better. And on the back of various refinements, he’s aiming for a career-best showing at this month’s Games in Wisconsin, beginning August 1.
“I definitely think I’m going to be in the best shape I’ve ever been in,” he says. “I want to go out and show my best, which I don’t feel I have at my first three Games. I think this year will be a very different story. In terms of placings, I’d be happy if I was in the top 10. I’d be stoked if I could be in the top five.”
While you mightn’t be bound for Trump’s America to perform in torturous events alongside some of the world’s most imposing physical specimens, tapping into Newbury’s quest for continuous improvement will help take your fitness and health to new heights. The takeout: there’s no endpoint in this game, just steps along the way to getting closer to your best self.
CrossFit competition is like a school exam: you don’t know what’s coming. As a result, you have to be prepared for anything. Certain components of fitness come naturally to Newbury, who in his teens was eyeing a career in the NRL. Running, for example: he can cover 400m in 53 seconds and five kays in 18:44. He’s strong on a bike and excels in bodyweight workouts. But if he’s had a weakness it’s been the Olympic lifts – hoisting Hurculean loads above his hirsute noggin.
Rather than accept this as an unfixable deficiency (and hope like crazy it wouldn’t be exposed), Newbury chose to attack it, late last year hiring six-time CrossFit Games veteran, Montreal resident and “pocket rocket” Michele Letendre as his long-distance strength coach.
“I just got back from a week’s training camp with her and I’ll be heading back over there to do a monthlong camp before the Games,” says Newbury, who credits Letendre for raising his maximum clean and jerk from 150kg to nearly 160kg and his peak snatch from 120kg to 128kg. “She’s very small but super strong,” adds Newbury. “She’s also very smart and analytical.”
How do you improve at something? You do it more often for starters. You prioritise it, says Newbury. “I’m in the gym for 10 sessions per week. And each session lasts anywhere from 1-3 hours. Right now, for me, 60 per cent of those sessions are heavily focused on weight lifting. Because that’s what’s required.”
You’d struggle to find an athlete in any sport more clued up than Newbury on the finer points of recovery. An early adopter of floatation, he uses it not only to infuse his muscles with DOMS-alleviating magnesium, but also to disconnect from all electronic stimuli.
Floatation is, he says, the perfect environment for an advanced form of visualisation. “As someone who’s about to compete at my fourth Games, I know all the sights and sensations I’m going to experience,” he explains. “And I can replay them back in my head while I’m in the float tank. So when it comes time to compete, everything’s familiar. By the time I’m there, I already know what it’s going to feel like, what it’s going to smell like, so I can just attack straight away.”
Regular doses of sunlight. Earthing. Ice baths. Yoga. Nose-only breathing during moderate aerobic exercise. Sauna. Meditation. All these have a place in Newbury’s regimen. Does he believe that, collectively, they give him an edge? “This is stuff I’m super-passionate about,” he says. “I’ll always have an open mind to new ideas, whether they end up being true or false. My feeling is a lot of the other guys are being told to jump into a sauna, say, but they don’t truly understand, or buy into, its potential benefits.”
FUEL THE FIRE
If any of the above practices belong on the fringes of sports science, Newbury’s much nearer to the centre with tweaks he’s made to his diet. In this area he has an ally – partner Kayla Banfield is the brains behind the online nutrition service The Method. Until recently, Newbury says, with the best of intentions he was eating too much fat and protein and not enough carbs. “But having reintroduced carbs ina higher quantity, it’s helped me to max out during those high-intensity workouts that last between 10 and 15 minutes.” Carbs such as berries and bananas, potatoes, basmati rice, organic Canadian maple syrup and raw honey now comprise 60 per cent of his total kilojoules – or about 400g daily.
But he’s most excited about his foray into intermittent fasting. For now, his eating window is about 10 hours. He’d like to extend that to drill deeper into the process of autophagy, where your energy-starved body starts gobbling up damaged cells. But right now, while he’s training 3-6 hours a day, he believes he needs a longer eating window to cram in the 16,700kJ he consumes daily.
“I feel like fasting’s a natural process for our bodies to go through,” says Newbury. “I feel like it’s going to invigorate my mitochondria to work better and it’s going to activate all the things I need – better hormonal production, better sleep, a longer period dedicated to repair rather than digestion.” It’s certainly delivered more tangible benefits: the shedding of about 3kg of surplus tissue that has left an 87kg Newbury “moving better in the pool, running and riding better while lifting heavier”. Recent testing put his body fat at an abs-popping 7.8 per cent.
As he matures as both athlete and man, Newbury is looking beyond his next competition to his prospects for a long life. Presently, for example, he feels he needs 2-3 servings of meat per day for strength and repair. But when he finally hangs up his knee sleeves, he’ll cut that back to one serve per week, he says – maybe even one a fortnight. And while his current training load is massive, only 10 per cent of it involves redlined intensity.
“I want to play the smart game,” he says. “For me, longevity is key. If I wanted to be smarter about things and live to 110 years old, I wouldn’t be doing the amount of training I currently do. But in saying that, I go above and beyond what most people do in terms of recovery. I’ll push myself hard when I need to, but it won’t be at a cost to how I can operate when I’m 50.”