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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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October 22, 2014

Are Elite Athletes Inadvertently Training Like Grok?

By Mark Sisson
53 Comments

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

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53 Comments on "Are Elite Athletes Inadvertently Training Like Grok?"

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Michele
1 year 11 months ago

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.

victor
victor
1 year 11 months ago

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.

Anthony S.
Anthony S.
1 year 11 months ago

excellent read. Thanks

Groktimus Primal
1 year 11 months ago

When ever I do get some exercise I always favored strength training and walking. It seemed natural and the most fulfilling.

Lindsay Tupper
1 year 11 months ago

Same here!! I’ve always hated running long distances and aerobics. I’m so glad that I never have to do those again 🙂

Shary
Shary
1 year 11 months ago

Walking. Yes!

victor
victor
1 year 11 months ago

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.

Dan
Dan
1 year 11 months ago

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.

victor
victor
1 year 11 months ago

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

Kristin
Kristin
1 year 11 months ago

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

Will Honeycomb
Will Honeycomb
1 year 11 months ago

“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)

Elizabeth
1 year 11 months ago

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!

SumoFit
1 year 11 months ago

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

Tim
Tim
1 year 11 months ago

Let’s not mention fanny. Oh,…

Jeff
Jeff
1 year 11 months ago

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…

Summer
1 year 11 months ago

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!

Clay
Clay
1 year 11 months ago
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… Read more »
michele
michele
1 year 11 months ago

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.

Fred
Fred
1 year 11 months ago

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.

jose
1 year 11 months ago

Great post. I think periodization is essential for training.

Thanks!

Stacie
1 year 11 months ago
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… Read more »
bill reinecke
bill reinecke
1 year 11 months ago

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?

Rick
Rick
1 year 11 months ago

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.

Jamie Scott
1 year 11 months ago

This is a topic I’ve written extensively on over the years and it was my presentation topic at the Ancestral Health Symposium in 2012.

http://vimeo.com/m/52863615

Jamie Scott (previously, That Paleo Guy)

M
M
1 year 11 months ago

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!

Brynn
Brynn
1 year 11 months ago

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!

Jennifer
Jennifer
1 year 11 months ago

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.

mary
mary
1 year 11 months ago

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.

Jennifer
1 year 11 months ago

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?

SumoFit
1 year 11 months ago

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.

Jennifer
Jennifer
1 year 11 months ago

Good answer. Thank you. I agree!

Tim
Tim
1 year 11 months ago

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).

Kit
Kit
1 year 11 months ago

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.

Tony
Tony
1 year 11 months ago

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?

Dan
1 year 11 months ago

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.

Rob
Rob
1 year 11 months ago
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… Read more »
Dan
1 year 11 months ago

That is interesting. So once a week is enough for weight training?

Austin
Austin
1 year 11 months ago

“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.

Kit
Kit
1 year 11 months ago

Sit on the couch, just skip the TV.

Jules
Jules
1 year 11 months ago
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… Read more »
Daivd marino
Daivd marino
1 year 11 months ago

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.

Jules
Jules
1 year 11 months ago

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

Rob
Rob
1 year 11 months ago

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.

Rich
Rich
1 year 11 months ago

I think Jules has missed the point completely.

Jules
Jules
1 year 11 months ago

And what is the point? Please enlighten me.

Jules
Jules
1 year 11 months ago

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.

Glen
Glen
1 year 11 months ago
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)… Read more »
Kit
Kit
1 year 11 months ago

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!)

Tim
Tim
1 year 11 months ago

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”

Corey
Corey
1 year 11 months ago

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!

Pinetown Chiropractor
1 year 11 months ago

Mark, how would you apply the same principal to less functional sports or training goals such as bodybuilding?

Pena
Pena
1 year 11 months ago
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?” OR “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. ”… Read more »
Kit
Kit
1 year 11 months ago

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.

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