Cool Dads

Elite Fitness Trainer Kelly Starrett’s Secret To The Good Life

The CrossFit guru, author, and dad to two teenage daughters seems to have it all figured out.

Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images, Courtesy of Kelly Starrett
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Kelly Starrett’s got moves. The 50-year-old dad of two teen daughters (14 and 18) has built an empire on the fine art of rediscovering how a body can reach its maximum potential. His bestselling books, his gyms, and his vast fitness consultant business have influenced the way pro athletes (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, the U.S. Olympic Team) and elite forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard) and, yes, the rest of us approach fitness. He’s a guru who walks the walk, with his family along for the ride.

Well, not exactly along for the ride. His wife, Juliet Starrett, is a whitewater world champion herself who co-founded the Ready State and San Francisco CrossFit with Kelly. So it’s a family business, which is, in a sense, how it all began for Starrett.

Starrett grew up in the Bavarian Alps, in Germany, with a single mother he describes as “an adventurer” — athleticism wasn’t just encouraged during his childhood, it was at the center of everything they did. (“Do you remember cross-country skiing with your mom to middle school?” Starrett asks me. “I do.”) Once Starrett got seriously into Alpine ski racing and kayaking, his mom was there for it all. “She did not miss an event, not one ski race, and supported all the zany things I did.”

He took his athletic prowess to the University of Boulder, where classroom studies were maybe not as core as the lessons gleaned from the rivers and mountains. “If you asked my wife what I majored in [in] college, she would say you majored in kayaking and telemark skiing,” he quips. Juliet and Kelly — who first met during the World Rafting Championships, in Chile — realized through their shared passions that they had a fitness philosophy with the potential to change the athletic world.

That philosophy is available to all and perfectly elucidated in their books: Becoming a Supple Leopard will change the way you view recovery, preparation, and really how your body movements all work in unison; Ready to Run will help you avoid running injuries forever; Deskbound crisply explains the uphill battle we all face, thanks to chairs and our sedentary habits; and Built to Move, which came out last month, will completely flip your fundamentals on what it takes to be happily in shape. (Hint: It’s not exercise.)

But if you want to look for bigger life lessons from the Starretts — how they balance fitness, parenting, and the woes of the world outside the gym — Kelly has an allegory: “Juliet and I were both professional river guides in college,” he says, noting that’s in no small part how they paid for college. And during that time, they learned a lot about leadership. “[Good] guides see what needs to be done, they help out, they’ve already made the coffee by the time you wake up in the morning, and they actually contribute to just general bliss of the small group dynamic. You want to hire guides in your workforce where they have to read the room and contribute and make the environment better.”

That’s just what they did for the CrossFit world. And now what they want to do for their kids. “What we want to raise are two young guides who can drop into a situation.” How? With, first-and-foremost, go-get-’em enthusiasm. In his work, Kelly runs into a lot of younger stars and athletes who are nervous about starting a family. His words for them? “You have no idea how rad your life is going to be. It just gets better and better.”

What’s your favorite thing to do together as a family?

I would say, we go on the river, we take river trips. One of the things that we share with our kids is just the love of being on multiday river trips. I mean, we took our daughter down the Grand Canyon, our youngest daughter, when she was 9 years old.

And both our kids have gone to guiding school, and we see the river as an important way to fulfill and teach a lot of crucial skills: being uncomfortable, having to negotiate a difficult rapid, to plan for a river trip, to cook and to clean, and to be self-sufficient.

If you have one hour to yourself, what are you doing?

Juliet would say I’m reading. I love to train, of course. And I am a family person and in my family, I’m responsible for the laundry, for example. But if I have a chance to be by myself as a single child, I will bury my nose in a book.

Give us a book, record, movie, or TV recommendation.

Well, I’ll tell you that the most important book and the book I’ve read the most as a human being is Dune, Frank Herbert’s book. And what’s interesting is that the first time I read Dune, I thought it was about the hero’s journey and then the second time I read Dune, I thought it was about the dangers of charismatic leadership. The third time I read Dune, I was like, Oh, this is a book about deep ecology. And then the fourth time I read Dune, it was like, Oh, this is about the danger of institutionalization and institutions. I mean, I just keep coming back and I’m blown away by what I keep learning about myself and the world through Dune.

And I’ll tell you, I think the best Frank Herbert book is actually The Dosadi Experiment, which I find few people have even heard of.

Name the most important skill you’re passing down to your kids.

Their ability to talk to strangers. Talk to people they don’t know. We get a lot of feedback that our kids jump in the car and start asking the adult, the driver, questions, asking the parents questions. I think that’s a gateway of becoming curious, and Juliet and I feel like people are what’s most important on the planet right now. And having children who are adept at recognizing that and thinking about that it: Can our kids talk to people they don’t know?

What’s your favorite piece of clothing or accessory that you own?

My favorite outfit, if you pin me down is a vest and a pair of shorts (no shirt). That’s my happy place. One of my besties is this guy named Laird Hamilton, and when I was at his house a long time ago for the first time, we went a whole day and he didn’t put a shirt on from the morning training to lunch to doing errands around town, working around the house and even having dinner. The whole thing was done shirtless.

And I really thought that that was just a supreme goal. My friend Matt Vincent, the company is called NDY, Not Dead Yet, but he makes this short called the GOAT Short, Greatest of All Time Short. And that short now has been to a whole lot of different continents on a whole lot of different adventures. Even if I’m ski touring, man, I have a pair of his shorts with me. That’s the short, it’s my training short, the short, a pair of black trunks.

If you could give one piece of advice to your former kid-free self, what would it be?

The first one is that the glacial pace is the breakneck pace. You want everything to hurry up and that’s not how anything is done. You just cannot develop any skill overnight. You can’t develop any capacity overnight. It takes so many reps. We’re just hugely impatient.

And then I think the follow-along to that is probably be consistent before you’re heroic. It just takes a long time. And the magic is in real consistency. When I was a young racer I asked this superstar paddler what was his secret (just, what a naive question to ask a master) and he literally just said, “Laps.” And he walked away, and I was like, “Laps? What kind of laps. What do you mean ‘laps’?” It just takes forever to become worth a sh*t at any rate.