Grant Peterson and I are cut from the same cloth.
By that I mean Grant, owner and operator of Rivendell Bicycle Works , is a card carrying challenger of Conventional Wisdom. While my beef is with flawed and outdated health and fitness paradigms, Grant questions modern bicycle design.
In a time when bicycle sales are driven by the latest high tech materials (and by which brands pro cyclists are riding) his bikes are decidedly uncomplicated, approachable, sensible, useful and comfortably low tech. His handmade lugged steel bespoke bikes are truly a work of art. Check ’em out here .
I’ve had the pleasure to get to know Grant in recent months after he contacted me upon taking a personal interest in the Primal Blueprint . He was kind enough to conduct and publish an interview with me in his company newsletter, the Rivendell Reader. (Thanks, Grant!)
Here is an excerpt from the interview. For the full interview follow the link at the bottom of the post.
In Reader 40 there was the “cave man article,” written by Mark Sisson about what he calls the Primal Blueprint way to eat and exercise. He is confident of his assertions, and thereʼs not a lick of evidence that suggests heʼs off the money. Itʼs based on what people did as hunters and gatherers, and the idea behind it is that yes, that seems like a long time ago, but evolutionarily it was yesterday, and despite our modern swankiness and savoire-faire, our bodies are still back there, expecting this kind of exercise and that kind of food. Yet we generally provide it with the opposite.
For cyclists, this stuff is threatening and mind-boggling. Itʼs tempting to write it off as extremist quackery, but once you understand even a smidgen of it, itʼs impossible to do that. It not only makes sense, but it feels right, everything about it. There is a swell of change out there, and Mark and a handful of others have been leading the charge and all saying the same thing. The best part is, itʼs easy and fun. Way better than oatmealing up for a 70-mile ride, washing down an energy bar or two along the way with some blue electrolyte replacement drink, eating a low-fat pasta-and-salad dinner, and waking up hungry and stockier the next morning.
Whatever the case, I thought a follow-up interview with Mark would be a good thing. It is long, and there is repetition by design. If you read the same thing more than once, itʼll stand a better chance of sinking in. Markʼs site, by the way, is marksdailyapple.com. It is a fine place to dwell. —Grant
Questioning the benefits of aerobic exercise seems like a good way to make lazy people like you and most athletic types discount you as a nut. In an age when grandmothers run marathons, it seems like a cry for attention. I imagine the first question that comes to most peopleʼs mind is: Who is this guy, and what are his qualifications? With as little humility and as much candor as you can muster, why should anybody listen to you?
I donʼt know…but I didnʼt just get into this. I have had a life-long obsession with health and fitness. I pursued a pre-med curriculum at Williams College and got a BA in biology. All during my extended career as an endurance athlete, I researched ways in which the body best responds to exercise and diet, and the damage done by overtraining, etc. I wrote the Runners World Triathlon Training Book in 1983 and by then had already recognized that all of us in the endurance community trained too much. Later, in my book Training and Racing Duathlons (1989), I proposed cutting the longer workouts and focusing on occasional
brief “Breakthrough Workouts.” When I started my supplement company twelve years ago, it was to acknowledge the damage done by training and to find natural, legal ways to mitigate the damage (particularly oxidative damage) and still compete. I spent 15 years as the head of the International Triathlon Union Anti-Doping program (responsible for drug testing triathletes around the world) trying to prevent the athletes from using steroids and other drugs whose main purpose was to enhance performance by speeding up recovery and repairing damage quicker. So Iʼve been doing this a long time. Over the past ten years Iʼve averaged about two hours a day of reading research on diet, exercise and health.
How do you research it, and who writes what you read?
Damn the Internet. Just when you find a great article and settle down to read, you see a link to another one thatʼs just as relevant or even more so. And then another link. The internet changed everything when it comes to research.
And youʼre sure itʼs reliable.
Yes. Most of what I read is written by scientists or science writers who have been doing “behind the scenes” work in niche areas for years, but few in the mainstream know about them. Just going to PubMed and entering something like “cardiac marathon” returns 344 possibilities. So when I suggest that too much running or cycling can be bad, I can access 20 or 50 research papers that offer evidence of this, as well as Google a few bloggers who have made similar discoveries and tap into their knowledge base, too. As far as my diet philosophies, thereʼs nothing really new (Good Calories Bad Calories, The Great Cholesterol Con, The Paleo Diet, hundreds of other great books). I condense it into life plan—a blueprint—people can understand. My job is explaining in simple terms how so many of the things weʼve taken as gospel could be so wrong. Chronic exercise is just one of those.
I find all of your warnings against long, hard exercise kind of a bummer, since I spent 40 years riding painfully hard for health, and itʼs a drag to think it was counterproductive. Iʼm glad to know I can slack off some for the next 25 or 30 years, and get healthier for doing it.
Everybody “knows” thousand-mile months ridden at 75 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate are better for you than casually 250-mile months ridden at 65 percent., and weʼre still told this. How can so many experts be wrong? When your book comes out, theyʼre going to hate you.
Hey, donʼt hate the player—hate the game. First off, I want to clarify one point: There are benefits to aerobic exercise. Our ancestors lived a life of low-level aerobic activity their entire lives: walking, migrating, foraging, climbing, hunting, and so on. I agree that that form of totally aerobic, fat-based activity is great for health and longevity. But when you say “everybody knows thousand-mile months at 75-85 percent are better than 250 at 60 percent”, what do you mean better? If “better” means being able to perform better in a race, that may be true (it may also not be true). But what about better for health, energy, productivity, body composition, and illness avoidance? Iʼm saying whatʼs unhealthy is the “chronic cardio” stuff, where we get out there day in and day out, keeping our heart rates elevated and requiring massive amounts of glucose and glycogen to fuel that kind of exercise.
I think I can back that up. We didnʼt evolve to handle that amount of glucose throughput, that continuous oxidative damage, that amount of repetitive unbalanced motion. To train that way for health doesnʼt make sense.
Yet for every one of you saying long hard cardio is damaging, there are twenty-five other authorities saying itʼs good for you.
Thatʼs true, I know. But the majority is wrong in lots of areas concerning health. Cholesterol is a good example. The most up-to-date evidence strongly refutes so many of todayʼs givens: That cholesterol causes heart disease; that itʼs acceptable to take statins to lower it; that avoiding saturated fat is a major cause of it. I donʼt believe any of those “givens,” not because Iʼm a skeptic, but because Iʼve read the much more compelling evidence suggesting otherwise. The ADA says type 2 diabetes is not caused by excessive carbohydrate consumption, and that diabetics can eat dessert, no problem. I donʼt believe that, either—and yet “experts” continue to repeat it. So when some of us suggest too much exercise is probably not healthy, we are going against a majority that has just looked at grossly oversimplified studies comparing people who exercise with people who donʼt do squat. Iʼm saying that among people who exercise, those who do too much strenuous cardio in the pursuit of better health or longevity are fooling themselves and making some erroneous assumptions about the effects of exercise at chronically high levels. And what constitutes chronically high is different for different people.
How does somebody determine how much and how hard? Is “feels about right” good enough?
It depends on your own personal starting point and family history. Itʼs different for a 300-pound guy getting into shape for the first time than it is for a 140-pound woman whoʼs been spinning for years and wants to lose another 10 pounds. Remember, Iʼm not talking about training to race. When you train to race, you agree to take on some unhealthy aspects of exercise and diet in pursuit of that ego-driven task. And even that is a continuum. Some race for fun and train easy. They might give it all once or twice a year and then cross-train in between. Others live to race and every workout pushes the envelope. They are the ones Iʼm most worried about. In my book and on my blog, I address those who want to be fit, healthy, productive and happy. I assume they want to look and feel the best they can on the least amount of work possible. Not going out every day and putting in extra credit mileage or feeling guilty because a planned three hour ride was cut to two. Itʼs ironic that most people who knew me when I was a top athlete tell me I look healthier today at 55 than when I was one of the fittest guys around. That says a lot to me about the physical wear and tear and
the chronic muscle breakdown that comes with “chronic cardio.”
All that hard work, and it hurts you. Are people just stupid exercisers?
Thatʼs a little strong, but we are certainly the only animal that voluntarily expends inordinate amounts of energy doing something that has no immediate tangible reward (unless a trophy is your thing). Chronic cardio, as I like to call it, is new to us. A hundred years ago, nobody would have run six to ten miles a day at 80 percent of maximum heart rate—without a clear immediate life-altering objective. But itʼs not a matter of being stupid. Unlike other animals, we have advertisements and testimonials and hype to deal with, and our tendency is to believe, not to doubt, so we are more susceptible. But that unnatural exercise requires an unnatural amount of carbohydrate to fuel it. Itʼs a vicious cycle, where high carbs allow you to exercise for long periods of time, but regular high carb intake can lead to more fat unless you burn off the carbs and the fat. So there you are, training every day to stay “slim” but you have to eat a lot of carbs to be able to train hard. Sucking down sugar snacks so you can stay on the treadmill. Itʼs like digging a hole to place the ladder in to wash the basement windows.
How did it get this way?
None of this nonsense was possible until 10,000 years ago, when we learned to plant grains and stopped hunting and gathering low-carb foods.
OK now—you used to run marathons. How did you get into that, how long did you keep it up, and how fast were you?
I started running distance at 13—because I was too scrawny to play other sports—and became a fairly good runner. I had no speed, so the longer the race, the better I was. My VO2Max was only 68, but I had a high threshold. I ran over 100 miles a week for several years in the late ʻ70s, raced 10ks and marathons many, many times and finished fifth at the last AAU National Championships in 1981 with a time of 2:18:01. After classic overuse injuries and a high-carb inflammatory endurance diet cut my marathon career short, I migrated to triathlon where I did well in the early days. I could ride well and my running background allowed me to hold my own in the run without a lot of training miles. For a short time I held the world record in the Versa-Climber mile climb (5,280 feet in 22:30). But I stopped competing at anything 15 years ago, and my health and fitness have improved each year since.
VO2Max of 68 isnʼt bad. Itʼs not Greg Lemond, but itʼs not slouchy, as you know. You did the Ironman in 1982? Wasnʼt that the year Julie Moss crawled across the line?
Yes, and that was the race that put triathlon on the map. I went from 80th out of the water to 10th off the bike to 4th. If that race had just been another 20 miles longer…
You got fourth? Wow. So, you must know Scott Tinley, Mark Allen, Dave Scott, all those old tri-guys. Are you still in touch with them, and whatʼs their take on your new religion? Are you the apostate now?
I know them all and respect everything they have done for the sport. I donʼt stay in touch, mostly because I retired just as they were coming into their peaks and I was headed into administration (I was executive director of TriFedUSA for 3 years). More than an apostate, I was the antichrist when I led the charge to allow drafting in the Olympic triathlon. But I digress.
At what point did you start to question aerobics? What set you off that way?
Well, Iʼve addressed that some already. But understand that questioning aerobics isnʼt like questioning a tradition that goes back thousands of years. Aerobics were first presented as a sort of “more is better” paradigm in the late ʻ60s, with Kenneth Cooperʼs book, Aerobics….
To read the rest of the interview visit this page  and click the PDF link. The interview begins on page 26.