Are Elite Athletes Inadvertently Training Like Grok?

Sunset RunnerModern elite athletes have different goals than our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Their training loads are higher and their physical activity is contrived and somewhat artificial. But for the most part, elite athletes are working with the same metabolic and neuromuscular machinery as Grok. The activities and movement patterns that benefited and shaped the evolution and performance of our hunter-gatherer ancestors should thus prove useful for contemporary humans seeking optimal physical performance. According to a recent paper (PDF), many top athletes have settled upon the hunter-gatherer fitness modality as optimal for performance. Even highly specialized athletes without much room in their routine for generalizing – like marathon runners who have to be able to log insane mileage at high intensities above all else – are incorporating aspects of paleolithic fitness to improve their training. These athletes and their coaches aren’t combing the anthropological records to devise their programs; they’re inadvertently arriving at similar conclusions because that’s where the latest exercise science points.

What movement and training patterns am I talking about, exactly?

Shift away from “one size fits all” periodization.

Grok didn’t follow a predetermined workout routine or fitness program. Instead, ancient humans autoregulated their physical activity according to energy availability and expenditure. If yesterday was a heavy day of hunting, butchering, and carrying the food back to camp, and food was plentiful for the next few days, what would be the point of going out again and expending more energy? Heck, he might take a deload week if he could get away with it. The only reason we train hard on consecutive days is because the program says to do it. Because we think we “have” to workout. If we listened to our bodies, like hunter-gatherer ancestors had to, we’d take a lot more rest days and we’d actually get more out of workouts.

Unfortunately, “one size fits all” periodization makes for easy programming. Instead of coming up with personalized routines for each athlete, you hand everyone the same program. Sometimes this works. Total novices respond well to any kind of physical activity, and they’re coming from a similar starting position, so a general program will work for them. That’s one reason why beginning strength routines like Starting Strength can get anyone starting from scratch fairly strong fairly reliably. But to optimize performance and training adaptations, you’ll have greater success with dynamic programming that heeds the athlete’s dynamic needs.

These days, the advent of heart rate variability tracking is allowing modern elite athletes to monitor the state of their autonomic nervous system activity, avoid overtraining, and adjust their training accordingly – and they’re getting better results than athletes who follow predetermined training plans that fail to account for the day-to-day fluctuations in rest/recovery balance.

Growth of polarized training.

You know how I’ve always said make your long, easy workouts longer and easier and your hard workouts shorter and harder? The foundation of Primal Blueprint Fitness is lots (and I mean lots) of low level activity. Easy walks, hikes, cycling, even jogging (depending on your base fitness level) all qualify, as long as you avoid dipping into the medium-high intensity zone for too long and too frequently. We punctuate this slow, frequent movement with infrequent bouts of extremely high intensity – strength training and sprinting. From the available anthropological and ethnographic evidence, this seems to characterize the likeliest activity patterns of paleolithic humans. Humans were obligate walkers, with modern foragers putting in an average of 6 to 16 kilometers a day (PDF). And when they weren’t walking, they usually still had to constantly move in order to perform the day-to-day tasks required for survival. Bursts of intensity – lugging a heavy carcass, throwing a spear, climbing a tree to grab honey, sprinting after something – were relatively infrequent but no less crucial in shaping our fitness.

Modern endurance athletes are beginning to incorporate something called polarized training, which is characterized by spending 80% of training volume in the low intensity zone and 20% in the high intensity zone – extremely similar to the projected patterns of hunter gatherers. Comparisons between polarized training and more conventional threshold training (with 57% of volume as low intensity, 43% as medium intensity, and none at high intensity) in trained cyclists found that polarized training resulted in greater systemic performance adaptations. And in runners, cyclists, triathletes, and cross-country skiers, polarized training resulted in greater endurance performance adaptations than threshold training, high intensity training, and high volume training. At first glance, this seems paradoxical because most endurance events occur in that medium-high, lactate metabolism zone that polarized training appears to neglect and threshold training specifically targets. But the results speak for themselves; training the extremes (both high and low) can improve performance across the spectrum of intensities.

“Train low, race high.”

Paleolithic hunter-gatherers couldn’t hop on down to the grocery store for food. They had to expend energy to obtain energy – they had to “exercise” – and they often did it without fully-stocked muscle glycogen stores. This is familiar territory for any regular reader of this blog, but rather than focus on how this discrepancy might explain modern conditions like obesity and diabetes, I’m more interested in how it affected our adaptation to physical training. When you train, or hunt, or forage in a glycogen depleted state, you augment the normal adaptations to exercise. You get better at burning fat for energy and conserving muscle glycogen during physical activity. You increase mitochondrial biogenesis.

Modern athletes have taken this concept and run with it, creating the “train low, race high” modality. From cyclists to marathoners to triathletes, endurance athletes have begun including low-glycogen training sessions in order to improve their fat burning capacity and glycogen conservation. Then, when it’s race day, you load up on glucose, fill your muscles with glycogen, and enjoy the benefits of fat adaptation. You can go longer without dipping too much into your precious glycogen, and by the time the last leg of the race rolls around, you have more glycogen left over than the next guy who’s bonking. The latest exercise science agrees: athletes should incorporate “train low” days in order to take advantage of this ancestral metabolic pathway.

Importance of strength training for endurance athletes.

Back when I was competing, endurance guys dabbled in strength training, but a lot of it was for show and primarily focused on the upper body. A belief that training the legs with heavy squats or deadlifts would only tire you out, slow you down, or run the risk of injury ran through the community and so people neglected their lower bodies. Plus, after the kind of heavy, chronic sessions we’d frequently put in, the last thing anyone wanted to do was lift something with their legs.

While strength training myths persist in the endurance world, the tide is changing. The research has confirmed what Grok “knew” eons ago: everyone can benefit from strength training, even, or especially, endurance athletes. Concurrent strength and endurance training improves running economy, peak velocity, force development, and overall performance in endurance athletes of all stripes. There’s even evidence (PDF) that an endurance session acutely potentiates a subsequent strength session, as if our bodies expect us to lift and manipulate heavy things (carcasses?) after running (or chasing/hunting something down?). Wild.

I don’t know about you guys, but I’d say this is all a very strong sign that we’re on the right track with all this “heed the lessons of the past and run them through the prism of modern scientific research” stuff. Wouldn’t you?

Thanks for reading, everyone. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns about today’s post, let’s hear it in the comment section below!

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TAGS:  Grok

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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53 thoughts on “Are Elite Athletes Inadvertently Training Like Grok?”

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  1. While I’m far from an elite athlete, as a marathon runner and running coach who eats paleo I completely relate and agree with all of this. I can’t speak for everyone but this approach to marathon training has kept me healthier mentally and physically than anything else. Great info.

    1. I have never and never will run a long distance and I can probably give you many sound reasons why but a hidden yet prevailing reason is because I’m JEALOUS! I Won’t even try now but when I did THAT WALL would knock me back every time. The cerebral cortex in distance runners must be supersized because of the shear will it takes. Kidding aside, this site often takes a negitive view towards longer cardio workouts but from what I hear you guys achieve a mental sense of peace and clarity most of us simply can not.

  2. I was looking at cross fit competition on tv the other day and the guys looked more like body builders and it figured when none of the events involved fast twitch movement. In a real world environment Grok would RUN circles around these guys and would use their ever expanding brains to actually leverage large boulders.

    1. I would agree that looking at the Crossfit games on TV might seem to lack the fast-twitch muscles, however, the games do last for three days and vary from strength workouts to endurance workouts to speed workouts. The games want to find the “fittest on earth” and thus vary their workouts to find the all around athlete.

      1. Good point Dan, tv seems to slow down sports compared to watching or competing live

    2. Crossfitters (mainly the male crossfitters) are usually made fun of for being too small and fat by the body building world, haha.

  3. “you have more glycogen left over than the next guy who’s bonking…”

    Er…in the UK, um, we don’t treat that sort of thing as a competitive sport…

    (Embarrassed silence. Then recommends British dictionary to Sisson)

    1. Reminds of me of when my software company introduced a product called ‘Randy’ to the AUS market…. doh.

      Great article. If only more marathoners and triathletes would read and internalize this stuff!

      1. Or when Americans talk about “rooting” for their team. They must be very enthusiastic indeed!

  4. I had bloodwork done when I was in triathlon shape in 2012 then again earlier this year when I was about 3 months in to primal eating and focusing on strength training… the numbers speak for themselves. Total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, Triglycerides, blood pressure and fasting glucose improved across the board (LDL went from 79 to too low to measure!).

    …Still not enough to convince my marathon-running friends to do some squats…

    1. Hey now, I’m a marathoner who also does Crossfit and lots of squats. I hang on Marks every word. Except for the cardio one, I can’t help it!

      1. I always interpreted Mark’s chronic cardio warning to be about people who do so much cardio that they negatively impact their health and lifestyle. I don’t think it’s a one size fits all thing. For some people running a couple miles every day would wipe them out and for some it’s a leisurely day off. I’ve been surfing for almost 30 years. I surf every day for usually at least an hour and half. So surfing for me is not that hard. A beginner would spend an enormous amount of energy doing the same thing because of their lack of conditioning and skill. I can sit on my board effortlessly all day long but a beginner is in full balance mode the entire time while they figure it out and develop all the supportive muscles need just to sit on their board and not capsize. A beginner spends far more effort/energy paddling than I do. For me paddling is hardly more taxing than walking. And surfing is a mostly low level activity punctuated by extremely intense bursts of sprinting and carving. So is surfing an hour and half or more everyday, year around, a chronic exercise issue. It depends. For me, it isn’t.

        And then you can’t discount fun. Surfing is insanely fun. More fun than is possible to put into words. Plus the ion exchange, the fresh air, the salt water, the wildlife…this all matters and the health benefits of these additional elements can’t be discounted.

        Likewise, I’d say running in the forest everyday can’t be compared in any way (both physically and psychologically) to running on a flat street or on a treadmill. Context matters.

        1. Well said Clay. I totally agree. As a runner, I prefer the most natural environment, though not always possible because I live in the city. And the different terrains affect my body differently, using different muscles.

  5. I think that training modalities certainly have and are evolving. The history of training is varied and many different methods have proven successful to some degree. When you take a close look at Ernst Van Aaken (german physician and coach) his slow gentle training and methods seem to have “come back around”–interesteding stuff.

  6. What a great read! I might be biased because I have always loved lifting over running/cardio–but this stuff really excites me. Sure, time and place for running. For most athletes though, it seems we are better served through intense strength conditioning 2-3 times a week instead. Plus, a good diet of plants and animals. Wish this was more the norm when I played collegiate volleyball. I was often told to not focus on lifting as much since I was naturally strong, and to instead spend more time doing cardio. Uffda.

    Thanks again Mark. These kinds of things really make me want to switch careers and go into health/nutrition/fitness.

  7. Is there any science on whether the walking has to be a certain threshold to contribute to a fitness effect? Is it any walking or a particular exertion of walking?

  8. I read an article 30 years ago, pertaining to Olympic cyclists, and training in “no man’s land”, i.e. heart rate around 85% of max (don’t be there, basically). Been training my cardio that way ever since. Long, slow distances, and sprints to achieve my max heart rate, presently anything over 170 bpm. Feels good, but not as good as training at 85% feels, I have to admit.

  9. I love the primal blueprint because it allows me to feel and look my best without becoming a gym rat or sacrificing my entertainment or study time. High intensity, low intensity for the win!

  10. Since starting Primal Blueprint Fitness I am trying to ‘listen’ to my body more rather than follow a strict routine. I believe this is key to optimal health, only time will tell…
    Another great post, thanks Mark!

  11. What about strength specific sports (i.e. Powerlifting)? I am frequently reading lately that slow frequent movement (walking) combined with high intensity bursts (occasional sprints) are great for endurance athletes and improving marathoners, triathletes, cyclists, etc. However, if I am a powerlifter will walking and sprinting in between four days per week of heavy lifting sessions help to increase my strength or lifting capacity? Is there any data on this?

    It annoys me that all these training studies seem to be done on cyclists, lol.

    1. I am a 60 year old female olympic weightlifter and I also am inquiring about the data on walking and sprinting in between sessions of heavy lifting.

      P.S. – I’m on my second month of “Grok’s” diet. I really enjoy the challenge of eating the right food. I’ve gained more energy, muscle and sleep and lost the fat around the middle! Thanks for the wonderful insight and common sense into eating healthy.

  12. I’m wondering, how do we know the Paleos were in excellent physical condition? I know the diet works, but now I read they discovered that they did eat grains. That’s unrelated, but my question is, how do we know that they didn’t just struggle along to keep the tribe fed in sub-par condition and die young?

    1. We DON’T know! There’s some science, and a lot of speculation and romanticising, but if that gets people off their bums and off junk food, why not?

      I have a friend whose Kiowa great-grandmother outlived seven husbands (at the end of the 19th century). They all died in hunting accidents. Sounds pretty paleo to me.

    2. Of course they ate grains (grass seeds)as they wandered but seriously, how much?. Have you ever eaten wheat ( as in chicken food) ? It’s not bad, but you can only have a little, which is the complete opposite to our intense wheat based diet nowadays (for many people).

      1. Weston A Price used to feed his patients freshly ground grains, ie with an intact germ c/w all its oils (theoretically not rancid). Living food. Modern grains have the germ destroyed to stop it going off, all that is left is the starch.

  13. Does polarization need to be separated by workout (fully slow workouts and separate sprint workouts), or can it be within workouts? Does the research address this?

  14. So how often do you suggest spring or strength training. I know it doesn’t have to be routine but what would be the minimum amount needed to make strength gains.

    1. I do a sprint session every 7-10 days. Great for fat loss as well as power, explosiveness, speed, etc. Been sprinting for approx. 3 years. I do a “super-slow” (body by science) weight training protocol once per week. Been doing this for approx. 3 years as well. Difficult in the gym on questionable equipment though. 4 months ago began working with a personal trainer and med-x equipment and, wow, amazing results and strength gains.. it blows my mind how effective these two measures along with plenty of low level activity are. Oh yeah and what’s also nice is the sprint session from start to finish is about 35 minutes in length and the weight training takes about 20 minutes. This stuff is intense enough I don’t bother doing anymore than necessary.

  15. “If we listened to our bodies . . . we’d take a lot more rest days . . .”

    Well if I was on the fence about going to the gym today, reading this has certainly caused me to fall off into the couch + TV side.

  16. I think this is way off. We improve ourselves by shattering records after records every year, because we are able to push past the point of failure and we don’t listen to our body when it is screaming to quit. The reason why we are able today to perform far beyond previous expectations is because we are able to develop programs that are scientifically tailored to push our bodies to levels that are otherwise unnatural. So no, modern athletes don’t train like Groks, at least not the professional ones. If we did we would still perform the same way they did.

    1. Pushing past the point of failure??? It dependes on the task at hand. Not a good idea when trying to get an extra squat in with heavy weight.

      1. Not if you have a spotter that knows what they doing. And I know cause I do it routinely.

        1. Absolutely it’s about momentary muscular failure. I don’t care how someone might get there but I know I certainly want to reach that point safely. Then I let the recovery phase do its thing, add more weight next training session, and do it again. The muscular response and adaptation is really quite remarkable.

  17. Exactly Rob. And you don’t need heavy weights to achieve failure anyway. Even with squats. Using drop sets works quite nicely. You can start with heavy weights and push through a certain set of reps then lower the weights and safely push past failure with a good spotter without risking injuries.

  18. Hello Mark.

    I am reading almost everything you write and I am looking forward to your upcoming book about primal endurance. Your website is a true resource. Thanks for that!

    Living in Sweden I have since I was very young competed in cross country skiing and have participated in training camps (when younger) with world champions as trainers and coaches. What you are advocating above was legio 30 years ago in the elite community. Long very slow workouts for 1.5 to 3 hours depending on fitness (including stops to enjoy the scenery, drink some water etc), and short (1-5 minute) sprints above lactate threshold. Everything combined with a rigorous body weight and sometimes weighted strength training session once or twice a week.

    I honestly cannot see the “new” in what you write. A recent blogpost (which is in Swedish unfortunately) from Anna Haag (olympic champion in 5 km relay skiing) also supports what you are saying – these people have been doing this for years and years…

    My bet is that the overall majority of skiers in Sweden, Norway and Finland tries to train their bodies in a similar way.

    1. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Scandinavians wrote and spoke English, their wisdom would be more widespread. At least the creators of the language are just ‘down the road’ and some of them don’t bite (unless you ask them nicely!)

  19. My wife and I did an “84 week challenge” last year which involved a lot of dancing/prancing around doing ” aerobics”. Bored the heck out of me, and we felt we were just going through the motions. Totally “unfunctional”. Is that a word? It is now.
    I love lifting heavy things, balancing on rocks and sprinting, (not all at the same time, but there’s an idea…) randomly along a beach or bush path.
    Feels so natural.
    And I think when we do that we touch into something deeper than “getting fit”

  20. Really good article, Mark. This makes a ton of sense to me. Just basic weight training and a primal diet made me stronger on the bike for sure. I was racing this year in higher ability categories without seemingly more effort being expended on my part and I also did a couple of obstacle course races. First time I was able to run pain-free for several years now (just a few miles). I attribute that to taking gluten out of my diet and stregthening up my feet!

  21. Apart from your last paragraph about strength training, the text was mainly rubbish. Examples:
    “If yesterday was a heavy day of hunting, butchering, and carrying the food back to camp, and food was plentiful for the next few days, what would be the point of going out again and expending more energy?”
    “If yesterday was a heavy day of hunting, butchering, and carrying the food back to camp, but nobody did not find much food for the next few days, what would be the point of going out again and expending more energy?” Answer: to actually find food.

    ” The only reason we train hard on consecutive days is because the program says to do it.” “Because we think we “have” to workout.”
    ” The only reason Grok “train” hard on consecutive days is because the circumstances (like no food) make to do it.” “Because Grok have to workout.”

    “…athletes who follow predetermined training plans — fail to account for the day-to-day fluctuations in rest/recovery balance.”
    Too awful to answer.

    “Modern endurance athletes are beginning to incorporate something called polarized training, which is characterized by spending 80% of training volume in the low intensity zone and 20% in the high intensity zone”
    No. They have incorporated for years. A long time before your daily apple came to internet. Also, se high intensity zone isn’t sprinting, it’s high intensity: pace at VO2max, somewhat lower and higher.

    “The latest exercise science agrees: athletes should incorporate “train low””
    Those 3 guys in the paper indeed do that. What about others? Not many, I think. What about kenyans who are better at marathon than the rest of the world together? No, they eat so much carbohydrate (about 70% of EE) that it is really hard to “beat” them.

    1. I think Mark’s posts stimulate thought on subjects, some of which some people may not agree with. It is a blog, not a manual. Many thoughts come to mind when I think about the abilities of Kenyan long-distance runners. A higher carbohydrate diet is not explanatory unless put into context of exactly what they eat. They are less of a bunch of Pottenger’s cats. Like Brasilian street kids who end up as professional footballers, they have a ‘hunger’ westerners can only imagine. Training at altitude, or even living at altitude may help. I don’t run BTW.