Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
8 Feb

Dear Mark: I Hate Running

Treadmill RunningHey Mark,

I’m in the Army National Guard. I would really like to follow your workout guidelines, especially with regard to cardio (I actually hate running and I’m not very good at long distance), but with regard to the Army Physical Fitness test, which I have to pass, I have to run 2 miles in a set amount of time, less than 16 minutes essentially. I feel like the only way I can maintain this is to do sustained running sessions about 3 times a week for about 20 minutes a shot (Again, I hate running, haha). Do you think if I follow all of the workout advice in the Primal Blueprint, I can still pass this test?

Great question, and I’m glad you asked. The endurance training question presents a conundrum that plagues many of my readers, I’m sure, no matter how often I sound the drum against Chronic Cardio. Conventional Wisdom can be a nagging, persistent shrew, after all. So, how can avoiding long distance moderate-high intensity cardio in favor of slow moving (walking, hiking, etc) and sprinting possibly increase one’s aerobic capacity? On the surface, it defies logic. Train long to race long; train short to race short and fast, just like you lift heavy things if you want to move heavy things and get strong… right? Not quite. Or, rather, not necessarily. Read on.

I recall a little over a year ago, a somewhat similar question from a reader popped up. She wanted advice on training for a cross-country run (literally – she wanted to run across the entire United States) while sticking to the Primal laws. I had to be frank with her and withhold my blessing. Running a few thousand miles simply isn’t something we’re meant to do. Walking? Trekking? Hiking a thousand miles? Sure, Grok ranged far and wide. How else did human populations span the globe? But our ancestors did not make like Forrest Gump and run simply for the sake of running. It may have been bad news to her, but it was the right advice.

I’ve got some good news for you, though: the Primal Blueprint Fitness program is tailor-made for situations like yours. See, I was in a similar boat when I embarked on my initial Primal journey (You think running for 20 minutes is bad? Try running 1-3 hours straight, day after day for a decade!). Like you, I eventually decided I wanted to maintain a basic level of overall fitness, one that’d allow me to run a 10k (in the rare case that I actually felt like running one) without much trouble. I wanted to have a good strength-to-body weight ratio, and I was insistent on sparing my joints from overuse injuries and basic wear-and-tear (which should be anything but “basic”!). I wanted to be able to play fast, fun sports or to snowboard all weekend and be able to bounce out of bed on Monday without debilitating soreness. I did not, however, want to devote fifteen hours a week to the gym or the track. I was interested in shortcuts, in research-based fitness hacks that would keep me strong, fast, and fit without massive time commitments. I suppose I wanted it all, physically – who doesn’t, though? It’s completely natural, totally healthy, and – in my opinion – absolutely required for optimum health and happiness. The physical side of life needn’t be fraught with hesitance and plodding progress. You want to bound up the stairs, not hold on to the guardrails for dear life (or take the escalator).

You, reader, want to have the ability to run for moderately long distances without actually having to run moderately long distances. In short, you want to have your cake and eat it, too. This is entirely possible (ironically, you’ll probably have to give up sweetened, cereal grain-based baked goods for best results), even (or especially) within the confines of the relatively minimalist Primal Fitness regimen. You don’t actually have to engage in a hated activity to get better at performing said activity. You hate running, so don’t run much. It’s a pretty simple concept, but it’s one that too many fitness gurus ignore in favor of mantras like “No pain, no gain.” There’s some validity to that line of thinking – you do have to push yourself and keep up the intensity to get the most benefits from certain kinds of training, namely strength and sprinting – but to apply it blindly to all aspects of fitness is folly. For one, not everything (like sustained, low-level walking or hiking) should be performed at maximum intensity, and secondly, a fitness program has to be sustainable for it to be successful. If you make a trainee hate his or her life every workout session, chances are high that he or she will eventually stop coming.

But enough pontificating. Exactly how do Lifting Heavy Things, Moving Frequently at a Slow Pace, and Running Really Fast Once in Awhile positively impact your “long distance” endurance capacity? How do you get better at something without actually doing it often?

You’re probably familiar with Dr. Tabata’s famous experiment; I’ve mentioned it before. Tabata had subjects cycle in what has become known as Tabata intervals – eight sets of 20-second intervals of maximum intensity followed by 10 seconds of rest – every weekday for six weeks (abstract). Compared to the subjects’ modest aerobic gains on a traditional 6-week moderate intensity endurance program, the Tabata subjects saw gains in both anaerobic and aerobic capacity. They got better at endurance training without performing classical endurance training, whereas the guys doing moderate intensity endurance training only improved their aerobic capacities.

In a more recent study by Kirsten Burgomaster, two weeks of sprint interval training, for a total of six sessions, were enough to increase muscle oxidative potential (resting muscle glycogen content) and aerobic endurance capacity in trainees. Subjects performed four to seven 30 second “all out” cycling reps, each separated by four minutes of recovery time. VO2 max was not increased, but this strangely didn’t impact or impair their aerobic capacity, which “increased by 100%.” That’s right – just fifteen minutes of actual sprint training was enough to double endurance capacity within two weeks’ time.

Burgomaster wasn’t through, though; in a 2007 study, she discovered that the metabolic adaptations produced by low-volume sprint training are remarkably similar to those produced by traditional endurance training. Two groups of “active but untrained” (that’s a fairly representative demographic, wouldn’t you say?) men and women were given six weeks of either sprint training or endurance training. Sprint training consisted of thrice weekly, four to six rep sessions of 30 second sprints/4.5 minute rests; endurance training consisted of 45-60 minute continuous cycling sessions, five times a week. The sprinters spent about one and a half hours each week (with most of that time spent resting) on the bikes, while the endurance subjects gave up four and a half hours each week (with most of that time spent pedaling). Huge time commitment discrepancy, and yet there was no discernible difference in metabolic outcomes. In fact, the authors conclude that sprint interval training is the more “time-efficient strategy” to obtain the benefits of endurance training. You don’t say.

How about arterial stiffness? Long distance Chronic Cardio has always been touted as the most “heart healthy” exercise regimen, but another study showed that sprint interval training is just as effective at improving arterial stiffness and flow-mediated dilation (FMD analysis is useful for early detection of atherosclerosis).

And how about actual performance outcomes? Another study found that low volume sprint interval training conferred rapid adaptations in skeletal muscle and exercise capacity – similar to those obtained via high volume endurance training.

Plus, there are other benefits entirely unrelated to increased endurance capacity that accompany sprint training. Sprinting increases anabolic hormones, including GH and testosterone (while keeping cortisol constant). It also improves insulin sensitivity quickly and efficiently, an especially relevant benefit for an otherwise sedentary or time-strapped populace. Simply put, it’s a quick way to get a fantastic workout without disrupting your strength training progress or your endurance training. In fact, weekly sprints are the perfect accompaniment to any regimen, which is why I include them in my Primal Blueprint Fitness program. It’s most likely the reason Grok was always fit enough to run long distances when he had to – without ever training specifically (i.e. Chronic Cardio) for that ability.

Bottom line: You don’t have to jog for half an hour every day to improve your aerobic endurance. You don’t have to waste your time doing something you hate. You can – and should – seek out fitness shortcuts whenever possible. They make staying fit more manageable and more sustainable, and they free up time for more leisurely, pleasurable pursuits. In the end, physical fitness is a tool; it serves us. We should never become slaves to the iron, to the track, or to the stopwatch. Work hard, yeah, but work fast and make it as short and as sweet as possible.

You’ll definitely pass the test. Increase the sprints to twice or thrice weekly, just to be safe (if you’re really worried). Then, maybe once every few weeks, test yourself in that two-mile to measure your progress. Let us know how it goes!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Why isn’t he interested with doing more than just ‘passing’ the test… There goes the common conception of the National Guard… Anyways, I’m in the Active Army Component and have been doing shorter distance runs and sprint routines with the very occasional longer (2-3 mile) run and have been doing the 2 mile test in the 13:45 range consistently without much other work. Most of my time is spent weight training with the occasional ‘play’ day of cycling, swimming, mtn biking, trail run, etc.

    Ryan wrote on February 9th, 2010
    • I am just curious – what common conception of the National Guard are you refer’g too? I did not know there was one other than we have to meet all of the same requirements as our active duty counterparts; as well as train for a State Mission as well. Oh yeah, and we deploy as much as the AD..

      Tom wrote on February 13th, 2010
  2. Actually I LOVE to run. Although I agree with almost what you say on this blog and I also live the primal life style, I reject your writings about running. You only write in that respect about your self. Looking at your past running, yes, i can imagine that you hate running with that kind of Sowjet regime of running: linear, always the same, no fun, no joy. For me it´s a way to be in nature, to have contact with nature, especially thru my feet because I am a barefoot runner and I run naturally in fractals= variations ALL the time. No schedules, no plans, no striving, no goals, just mindful enjoying how my body runs. I think it´s irresponsible from your side to warn people against running, because you´re such an expert and authority on so many areas as far as health is concerned. People might follow you also here and cut them off of great natural experiences in their life. Even Art De Vany runs…of course in fractals!

    George wrote on February 10th, 2010
  3. George, I’m not sure where you get that I hate running. The above headline was taken from the reader’s question. I don’t hate running. I actually love running and do so two or three times a week (in the form of two hours of Ultimate or beach sprints or a short trail run (always barefoot or in VFFs). I just don’t run to train – I train to run. What I rail against is the idea of running long and hard most days as a primary means of training. I rail against all forms of “chronic cardio” (cycling, swimming, etc) as a focused prescription for fitness and health.

    Mark Sisson wrote on February 10th, 2010
    • “I just don’t run to train – I train to run.”
      – That was awesome. I am approaching prepping for my first Ultra in that manner. I am following a theory I’ve read called “low mileage” training protocol. They seem to advocate a lot of cross training and one LONG “run” on the weekends. Bear in mind that’s “ultra” style running, which is basically speed hiking as I translate it. Crossfit Endurance is even more on the line of PB. They advocate short intervals and “2 a days” and do virtually no long runs.
      Anyway, I loved the way you said that. And I will be pulling that out on all the people that tell me I’m training the wrong way. Nicely done.
      BTW, Thank you for the site!

      Jay Jack wrote on February 11th, 2010
  4. Ok, fair enough, thanks for the expalnation!

    George wrote on February 10th, 2010
  5. I think all the advice about doing this or that to avoid the drudgery of running makes some sense. The best way to prepare for a PT Test however, is to simply take one every weekend and track your scores.

    Weights, sprints, jump rope, treadmill, intervals . . . there are a million things you can do. Even kettlebells will help your aerobic capacity.

    But the 2-mile run carries its own unique challenge! If it’s down and back (i.e., a mile one way and another back) you have the challenge of seeing people spread out and run far ahead . . . you also have the challenge of seeing the finish line and not appearing to make progress! You might also have small hills . . . and you know how tough even a small elevation can be when you’re tired.

    If it’s laps (like eight laps on a track) you have the challenge of seeing people pass you . . . and lap you. You also have the challenge of the 5th lap . . . being winded and knowing you have three more to go!

    So you have to run. You have to practice the mental side of it and get used to the pounding and strain on your ankles, calves and feet. You have to figure out where the hot spots are on your feet, what kind of socks are best and what your strategy is . . . slow at first then fast . . . or fast then slow.

    And heaven forbid you take the PT test in brand new running shoes! Make sure you break them in.

    I don’t know any soldier who “hates running” unless they are unfit. I suspect that maybe that’s the problem . . . too much body fat, not enough exercise, etc.

    You’re a soldier . . . don’t avoid your demons. Fight them.

    jwint wrote on February 11th, 2010
  6. Jwint,
    Mark said, “…once every few weeks, test yourself in that two-mile to measure your progress”…so I think he covered your “…take one every weekend and track your scores” comment.

    darc wrote on February 15th, 2010
  7. Hey all, I’m a cadet in Army ROTC and I can tell you first hand that training PB-style will definitely carry over into other things, like the 2 mile.

    The 2 mile has always been my weakest event, and I always hated it because it was so hard for me. I’ve got about 6% body fat and am decently muscled (6’0″ 165 lbs.), so people always wondered why I couldn’t run. I thought its because I didn’t put in enough long runs, until I started reading MDA.

    My best time in the 2 mile was 14:56, but that was over a year ago. I typically ran it between 15:15 and 15:30. Not very good when the max is 13:00.

    I was determined to get better at it doing it the PB way. I started off this semester on profile (hurt), and couldn’t do any runs at all. I simply went to the pool one or two times a week and did swim sprints instead. Let me tell ya, those get very hard very quickly. I would always go home barely able to walk.

    I tried to eat as close to Primal as possible, which is pretty much impossible as a college student. However, I figured I was still eating better than I would have before, so it was still a good thing.

    I was first able to really start running about 3 weeks before the PT test. I did sprints about 2 or 3 times a week. I ran as hard as I could for a few sets, until I felt tired. I would run on the grass, or run up a hill when I went hiking. Just random stuff. My fellow cadets started to notice how I was doing better in PT, especially in some of our rare sprint workouts.

    Anyways, it came time to do the PT test, and guess what i got? 14:25!! I get a 30 second PR from doing a few wind sprints a week for less than a month. Imagine that! I told everyone I could about my PR and how I trained for it, but they just find it too hard to believe.

    To make a long story short, you CAN train for long distance events by sprinting. It is much more efficient than doing long runs multiple times a week, it is more enjoyable, and you get the benefits of training the anaerobic energy pathways and increased HGH and testosterone. Whats not to love?

    Adam wrote on March 6th, 2010
  8. I used to hate running as well. But after doing some biking and resistance training, I’ve grown to like running as well.

    Jeff wrote on November 11th, 2010
  9. years ago, I decided I needed to run. Everyone runs, right? Well, I ‘did it right.’ worked myself up to a mile (ok, quit laughing; yes, just one mile) and just stopped. I mean stopped. I walked back to the Y and told the instructor I really didn’t like to run and so I wasn’t going to any more. I signed up for her aerobic dance class instead and, along with walking, got quite comfortable. Then I got pregnant and, interestingly, my nurse and doctor kept checking and re-checking my blood pressure because it was so LOW! Even later in the pregnancy. The Doc would occasionally say, “oh, yes, you’re the one who walks and does aerobic dancing.” So, I still don’t run, but I really love to walk.

    Mary Anne wrote on January 26th, 2011
  10. i am training for my PRMC
    there are 2 main running tests
    bleep test (shuttle run) 13+
    1.5mile group run in 11.30 mins, 1 min rest then 1.5 mile personal best sub 8.15 top marks
    there are more tests but those are what im worried about

    should i do tabata sprints three times per week or the 30sec on 4 min off sprints OR alternate?

    or would that not work for me

    andy wrote on July 29th, 2012
  11. I’m 72, love sprinting, hill bounding, sprints on the bike. I’m friends with Clarence Bass, the former over-40 USA Most Muscular Man and author of nine books on strength and fitness. I love his ideas, and I love what Mark is doing.

    I realize I’m very late to the party in this discussion. But I just have to comment. While I accept that sprinting is a great way to improve VO2Max and actual performance at distances all the way up to 10K and possibly even beyond, I absolutely cannot accept that it’s the best way for elite distance runners to train, even at distances down to 400 meters.

    As Peter Snell, three-time OG gold medalist in the 800 and 1500 said, in response to the claims of interval advocates, “Where are the results?”

    My point is that when it comes to elite distance training, making exaggerated claims for interval training is foolish. The results simply are not there. You don’t run a 2:04 marathon by interval training.

    I knew of a runner in the 1970s who trained exclusively with intervals. He was famous for doing sessions of 10 miles of 100-yard dashes. His name was Bill “Mad Dog” Scobey, and his best marathon time was 2:15 – quite mediocre at the elite level, even for that day.

    The fact is, today’s Lydiard-style endurance-trained elites absolutely blow away the times of the interval-trained runners influenced by the German coaches of the 1940s through 1960s. The world 10K records of the early 1950s, set by interval trainers such as Emil Zatopek, are easily bested by the best US college runners today.

    Don’t get me wrong – I dig sprinting, absolutely love it. I believe that Mark, and guys like Pete Magill, the oldest runner to run sub-14 for 5K, are right on the … uh, mark with their recommendations for hill-bounding, skipping, short sprints, etc. But when it comes to fitness and neighborhood-level success at the 5K and 10K, versus elite world-level competitiveness, we’re talking (Mark’s) apples and oranges.

    BTW, Peter Snell still holds the New Zealand record for the mile, which he set 50 years ago on a grass track.

    runbei wrote on July 17th, 2014

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