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In-Your-Face Fitness

Drummer Neil Peart's body is finely tuned instrument

The drummer for Rush cross-country skis, swims, cycles and does yoga.

July 25, 2011|By James S. Fell, Special to the Los Angeles Times

"If it's cross-country ski season, I'll be out doing that, or snowshoeing up in Quebec," he told me. "In my California home, I go to the local Y and I like doing yoga. It's been hugely beneficial to me in injury avoidance." I know some yoga fans who are going to love reading that.

He's also an avid cyclist and swimmer. He lifts weights as well but keeps it light because, again, he's focused on training those slow-twitch fibers.

Even though he's consistently active, that doesn't mean he's always road ready. Touring requires an additional level of sport-specific training, a.k.a. endless drumming.

I get that: I run long distances and lift weights throughout the winter, but when the snow melts and I break out my bicycle, it still takes a few weeks before things come together on the bike.

Then Peart showed me his "radical calluses" that he needs to build up for touring, which are significantly bigger than the ones on my feet from running. I experienced an attack of callus envy.

"Playing a three-hour Rush show is like running a marathon while solving equations," he said. "My mind is as busy as it can be, and so is my body; full output all the time."

Even while he's on tour and working hard on stage in the evenings, Peart still fits in exercise. Last summer in Colorado, he took a day off between shows and hiked up one of the fourteeners — a mountain peak that exceeds 14,000 feet. And I thought I was special when I used to go for a run after a day of trade show booth duty.

Peart thinks, with apologies to their parents, that drumming is a good physical activity for kids.

"Years ago I got involved in a charity trying to help troubled kids and came up with a slogan: 'If you've got a problem, take it out on a drum.' I can't do it professionally because it's so disciplined — I've got to control the band and tempos — but there is such a thing as getting a kid's aggression out on a drum set."

Plus, he said, drumming is a way for young kids to build up stamina without risking injury from contact sports. And it's a good choice for kids who hate sports but like music.

For parents dreaming of a golden child with a Johnny Unitas flattop who captains the football team, a pierced and purple-haired teen pounding out his version of Excedrin Headache No. 17 on a drum kit may seem like a bad trade. But drumming is physically active and creative, and it beats having a kid whose passions are Doritos, weed and Mario Kart.

Just how physically active is it? Peart told of a study done on Clem Burke, the drummer for Blondie, on the metabolic effects of drumming. The research, conducted by Marcus Smith of the University of Chichester in England, found that Burke's heart rate averaged 140 to 150 beats per minute and at times would spike as high as 190 — well beyond the recommended "maximum" for his age (he's now 57). Smith concluded that being a top drummer required the same stamina as being an elite-level soccer player.

No wonder Peart trains hard. He's also aware of the need to eat "sensibly and nutritiously" to fuel his endeavors, extolling the virtues of a healthful breakfast (balanced with a single-malt whiskey after each show).

It was thrilling to hear he takes exercise seriously enough to keep his body a high-performance machine. Peart is the epitome of fighting a valiant delaying action against age and refusing to slow down; I see him as a musical Jack LaLanne (hey, it's not like I used Rush lyrics for my high school graduation quote or anything).

Later that evening, I got to see Peart's athletic performance up close. Acting as an embedded reporter on the front lines of the Rush concert, I witnessed the drumming version of LaLanne swimming Long Beach Harbor while towing a string of 70 rowboats.

The band played for 80 minutes, then took a 40-minute break because members were considerate of their fan base's urgent need to use the bathroom and get more beer. Then they powered through another 90 minutes. The second set contained an astounding 71/2 -minute drum solo.

For almost three hours, Peart pounded on his kit with a combination of disciplined vigor and finesse that mesmerized the crowd of 13,000 fans. One of the songs the band played was "Marathon" from its 1985 "Power Windows" album. Peart is also the band's lyricist, and the closing lines he penned for the song are, "You can do a lot in a lifetime, if you don't burn out too fast/You can make the most of the distance/First you need endurance/First you've got to last."

Peart understands that when it comes to making things last, humans are the exact opposite of mechanical systems. If you own a classic vehicle (say, an Italian Barchetta-style sports car), to preserve this old machine you need to keep it in storage most of time, perhaps taking it out only for Sunday drives. Biological entities are different because we have self-repair built in. And for a rock drummer to keep his engine responding with a roar for 50-odd years, he needs to rack up the mileage.

Physically pushing the body makes it better, makes it stronger, makes it last. Sitting on the couch is what causes it to burn out too fast.

Though he's an aficionado of many endurance activities, Peart admitted he doesn't like running. But since I do, forgive me this metaphor-o-rama to describe his penultimate performance for the band's Time Machine tour: He completed a marathon and wasn't gasping toward the end. His rigorous training regimen gave him the endurance to sprint across the finish line. Yeah, I'll proudly wear my concert T-shirt to the gym.

And to my fellow road warrior who put up with my neuroses for that crazy 48 hours: I love you, man.

Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, Canada.

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