Finding The Kairos Moments in Fitness

Originally posted for Invictus Boston

About ten years ago, I was reading a book and came across the word “Kairos.” I didn’t know what the word meant at the time, so I looked up the definition; this definition inspired me to go on a road trip around the country which lasted about a month and a half. The experience certainly had lasting impressions on me, even inspiring me to get “Kairos” tattooed on my right leg. Pro tip: if you are going to get an obscure word tattooed on your body, be ready to explain that word’s meaning many, many times.

So here’s what I say to people: “Kairos is an ancient Greek word for time, but a certain sort of time. They had two notions of time: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is chronological and quantitative — one hour, two hours, three hours. Kairos is a qualitative view of time that can have different meanings in different contexts, but is generally viewed as a time where you are making a decision or a choice.” Aristotle described Kairos as ‘the blank space between steps in a logical proof where you are making the connections that will lead you to the next conclusion.’ When Kairos was depicted in Greek mythology, he always had long hair in front, with the rest of his hair very short; this signified that if he was passing by, you needed to grab him by the front or the opportunity would be lost. Some draw parallels between this and the concept of ‘carpe diem’ or ‘seize the day.’ During the Enlightenment, Christian theologians applied the term to moments when they believed God was testing an individual with an important decision. I try to think about time in reference to this qualitative sense, rather than a quantitative one. I consider myself a sum of the life choices I have made, rather than the number of years I’ve been on the planet.”

At this point, you may be thinking, “Coach Nate, that’s super neat. Really, interesting and thoughtful stuff. But what does any of it have to do with fitness?” Great question, because it has absolutely everything to do with fitness. It is often easy to look at fitness strictly through a quantitative lens. This is one of the things that makes what we do attractive to those with a scientific or rational mind. How heavy did you lift? How fast did you go? How many pounds did you add to the bar? How many pounds did you take off of your body? These are certainly good questions to ask; they are all helpful in evaluating your fitness journey and in taking stock of your current position. However, do they really encapsulate the entirety of the experience? Of course not.

What does it look like to take a Kairos perspective to fitness? Let’s take a hypothetical example and contrast the Chronos and Kairos perspectives. Say we have someone who does the first CrossFit Open workout from 2012: complete as many burpees as possible in 7 minutes. They complete the workout and get 100 reps. From the Chronos, or quantitative perspective, the workout lasted 7 minutes (420 seconds); 100 reps were completed; one burpee was completed every 4.2 seconds. From the Kairos, or qualitative, perspective, there was a moment of doubt before the workout: the athlete thought about not going into the gym at all because they hate burpees. They decided to challenge themselves regardless. At first, the burpees felt pretty good and the athlete decided to speed up their pace accordingly. In the middle of the workout, the athlete’s shoulders and lungs were burning; they questioned why they decided to come to the gym at all. Towards the end, the athlete looked up at the clock and saw they had one minute left; they thought about just mailing it in, but then thought about how much they had already accomplished, and decided to truly push for as many reps as they could complete in those final moments. Finally, when the workout was over, the athlete laid on the floor, resolving to never do burpees again. More importantly, they were very happy that they had decided to work out that day.

Which viewpoint more fully describes the workout? Both are valid, but I would argue that the story is not complete without including the qualitative, Kairos, perspective.

How then, do we apply this perspective to future workouts? How can we enrich our fitness experience by looking outside of the standard, quantitative approach? Remember, Kairos moments are those where we are given a choice. Try to identify the choices you make in fitness and what those choices reveal about your character. Do you make the decision to sign up for class even when the workout includes a movement you don’t enjoy? Do you make the decision to add weight to the bar even when you know you will be compromising form to lift it? Do you make the decision to do the prescribed recovery work following the workout that you completed? All of these decisions matter, and being mindful of their weight will impact the quality of your fitness experience.