7 Habits of Highly Successful Primal Endurance Athletes

7 Habits of Highly Successful Primal Atheletes FinalThings have been busy for the Primal Endurance movement since I released the book back in December. People have been eager to learn more about this novel form of training, so we’ve been answering a lot of questions. Much like how The Primal Blueprint received a lot of attention because it bucked against Conventional Wisdom, such has been the case for Primal Endurance. Lots of head scratching, balking, but then, after learning the science and seeing the results, a healthy curiosity or full blown conversion. So what’s Primal Endurance training all about? What are the fundamentals? Who’s practicing it? And where can you learn more about it?

To get the message out as wide as possible, in the wake of the book we created a dedicated Primal Endurance podcast to gather an assortment of captivating guests to talk all things endurance-related. If you’ve tuned in, you’ve probably heard Brad’s series of shows detailing each of the book’s chapters. The book has been very well received and we’ve already commissioned a second printing after selling out the first print run. So why the buzz? I think there are a couple things at play.

First, the endurance community as a whole is waking up to the exciting and scientifically validated concept that a high fat diet might offer performance and health advantages over the traditional high carbohydrate diet.

Part of this shift results largely from work done by the heroic Dr. Timothy Noakes, Ph.D. in South Africa, one of the world’s leading endurance exercise physiologists and author of the epic Lore of Running (944 pages of all you need to know about the physiology of endurance running). A lifelong runner and leading proponent of the carbohydrate/glycogen burning paradigm as it relates to endurance performance, Noakes has bravely second-guessed his life’s work in recent years, prompted by being diagnosed as pre-diabetic despite careful attention to a healthy per-conventional-wisdom grain-based diet and serious lifelong commitment to distance running. He’s taken a bunch of heat from resistant folks stuck in the carbohydrate paradigm, but is making great progress toward evolving the perspective in the scientific community. The South African public is now embracing what Noakes calls the Banting Diet (after a guy in the 1862 who went low-carb and lost weight). You can listen to my talk with him here.

The amazing athletes profiled in our book are also making great progress in shifting the dated philosophy about carbohydrate paradigm endurance training.

A few notable people include:

Ultrarunning legend Timothy Olson (listen to his episode on the podcast here).

National champion 100k man and prolific blogger Zach Bitter (who burns fat at a higher rate than any athlete ever tested, nearly double the limit of what was previously thought humanly possible before Dr. Jeff Volek’s vaunted FASTER Study).

World age group champion triathlete Sami Inkinen (who showed with precise laboratory data that he could improve his “time to bonk” from 5.6 hours to 87 hours in a few short months of primal-aligned eating).

And prominent primal/paleo physician and self-experimenter Dr. Peter Attia, whose scientific insight is paving the way for change.

Second, people are really resonating with my and Brad’s personal story.

As many readers know, Brad and I hail from the endurance sports scene—it’s where we first connected 28 years ago, when I became Brad’s coach during his career on the pro circuit. While assorted endurance training fads have come and gone over the years, certain themes have held steady. Unfortunately, an overly-stressful, overly-regimented chronic approach to training is one of them. Even though Brad and I have been out of the game for a long time, we’ve been stewing on the sidelines, exasperated at how little progress has been made over time with the hot button items like chronic training patterns, overly stressful heart rate zones, recurring illness and injury as routine instead of unusual, high burnout rates, elevated disease risks (including many of our former peers on the racing scene suffering from serious cardiovascular events in later years; here’s my sobering post about it), and finally, excess body fat concerns among endurance athletes despite their many hours of training.

Nearly three years ago now, Brad and I were lamenting the popularity of the latest craze on the endurance scene: the “hacking” of the process of building a base of endurance competency by engaging in high intensity workouts. As in, “why bother with those grueling 20-mile runs when you can do a bunch of box jumps and power home the final six miles of the marathon!” Don’t get me wrong—resistance training can indeed benefit your endurance performance, but it must be carefully integrated into a foundation of aerobic base training to prevent breakdown and burnout.

At the same time, we were seeing some elite and recreational athletes alike experiencing better health and better performance pursuing their endurance goals while honoring the ten laws of the Primal Blueprint. It seemed like a perfect time to leverage the general health and fat burning beast elements of the primal approach and present a comprehensive, revolutionary approach to endurance training that would address the flawed and dated conventional approach successfully. We worked very hard to provide a simple, easy-to-read, but powerful message about how to transform your approach to endurance training, slow down to go faster, have more fun and less stress, and last and often not least, finally lose those final five, 10, or 20 pounds of excess body fat that hang around despite your devotion to training and eating sensibly.

All that said, I want to share with you an excerpt from the book that you might enjoy called the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Endurance Athletes. It gives you a bird’s eye view of what Primal Endurance is all about. It’s a great takeaway for anyone looking to improve their training, whether you’re an endurance athlete or not. But if you want some more of the specifics, read on through the end, since I have an exciting project in the works that may interest you.

1. Sleep

Yes, sleep is number one—the next frontier of performance breakthroughs in all sports, especially endurance sports. Your athletic pursuits require you to sleep significantly more than if you weren’t training. Reject conventional wisdom’s “eight hours” recommendation and individualize your approach, honoring these two maxims: minimize artificial light and digital stimulation after dark; and awaken each morning, without an alarm, refreshed and energized. If you are training more, sleep more. If you can’t honor the aforementioned maxims, stop training until you can. If you fall short of optimal sleep one day, take a nap the following day—instead of your workout!

2. Stress/Rest Balance

Primal-style endurance training allows you to reach for higher highs (via breakthrough workouts) and observe lower lows (more rest, shorter, easier recovery workouts, and staying below aerobic maximum heart rate at the vast majority of workouts). This approach will appeal to your competitive intensity by allowing you to focus on peak performance and recovery, instead of focusing on the flawed notion of “consistency” in the context of improving fitness through training. Furthermore, realize that virtually all endurance athletes, from novice to elite, do too much training and not enough rest. Consider backing off on both your mileage and your intensity, and integrating more sleep, recovery, and complementary practices into your “training” routine.

3. Intuitive and Personalized

Your training schedule is sensible, intuitive, flexible, and even spontaneous instead of regimented and pre-ordained. Respect your daily life circumstances, motivation levels, stress levels, energy levels, immune function, and moods. This means backing off when tired, but also pursuing breakthrough workouts when you feel great! Experimentation is necessary to dial in the best approach that works for you, and entails some trial and error. Also, what worked for you last year may not work in the future, so be open to flexibility. The top priority is to enjoy your program and feel confident that it works well for you.

4. Aerobic Emphasis

Endurance success is primarily dependent on aerobic efficiency. Aerobic base building delivers by far your best return on investment, and is best achieved by strictly limiting heart rate to aerobic max or lower during defined aerobic workouts and training periods. Stay out of the black hole (sustained cardio workouts at heart rates above the “180-age” max aerobic calculation), and don’t venture into high-intensity training blocks before you have a strong base.

5. Intensity Structure

Intensity can deliver exceptional results for endurance athletes, when a strong base is present, when workouts are brief in duration and really intense, when they are conducted only when you are highly motivated and energized, and during defined periods that are short in duration and always followed by a rest period and preceded by an aerobic period.

6. Complementary practices

Increased general daily movement, spontaneous, unstructured play sessions, mobility work such as technique drills and dynamic stretching, movement practices like yoga and Pilates, and high-intensity strength training are essential for success, because we live sedentary lives of extreme physical ease. Remember, in endurance competitions, you have to “endure.” Cranking out your daily hour-long workout and then sitting at a desk, in a car, and on a couch the rest of the day is not preparing you to endure anything except perhaps a beatdown on the race course at the hands of a more all-around active human. Expand your perspective to embrace total fitness and an active, energetic lifestyle.

7. Periodization

An annual program always commences with an aerobic base period (minimum eight weeks). With success, high-intensity periods can follow—a few weeks is plenty before taking a bit of rest, a bit of aerobic base rebuilding, and then a return to a brief intensity/competition period. The annual training calendar program always ends with an extended rest/off-season period. The new calendar starts with an extended aerobic base period. This general overview offers plenty of flexibility, but you have to respect the need to engage in blocks of specific training focus as an immutable law of endurance training.

Well, there you go!

Even if you’re not a big time endurance athlete, these tips can help you navigate the challenge of balancing hectic modern life and ambitious fitness goals.

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse of the Primal Endurance philosophy.

Grab the book in print, digital, or audio format (audio listeners get the added benefit of Brad’s humorous ad-libbing) and subscribe to the podcast to go deeper.

And if you’re really interested in taking things to the next level, we are developing a comprehensive multimedia online education course to bring the Primal Endurance book to life. It’ll be there to help endurance folks more deeply understand and implement the training and lifestyle principles with the help of world-leading experts on specific topics.

I’ll keep you updated as we aspire to trend further in the direction of multimedia with Primal Blueprint Publishing.

But in the meantime, you can sign up here to stay tuned.

Thanks for reading, everyone. What’s your experience with training after going Primal? If you’ve already purchased a copy of Primal Endurance, any questions contained within I can help answer?

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

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 “7 Habits of Highly Successful Primal Endurance Athletes”

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  1. Great tips, Mark! I’ve been meaning to for a while, but I’m grabbing my copy today.

  2. Periodization is a good one, which I’m sure relates to non-endurance exercise as well.

  3. Sleep, sleep and more sleep! If I don’t get enough, my whole mental and physical fortitude breaks down. So many people may focus on the diet and general training elements, but really, they all lead to nothing if you’re not getting sufficient sleep.

  4. There are some people who want lots of structure in their training, hence why they throw intuition and personalization to the wayside. There’s a sense that if you’re not going by the mold, then you’ll somehow get diminished returns. Glad to hear you’re proposing intuition as a prominent part of training.

  5. I’ve certainly burnt myself out before. When you have your eye on the prize it’s difficult not too. That’s probably a general rule for anyone striving ambitiously for anything. You have to know when and where to back off, because if you don’t, your dedication and enthusiasm can end up working you to exhaustion (and against your goals).

  6. So glad you made this book, Mark! Like the PB, you took your personal experience and turned it into something people can/should learn from. I’ve seen those pics of you back in your endurance days. Yikes! Way to turn it around and use your time as a teachable moment

  7. I’ve set new PRs all while NOT using gel packs and killing my body in the way I used to. Thank you for this book!! I’m definitely interested in learning more/getting the comprehensive media experience. I’ll stay tuned!

  8. One part of me admires people who do long distance running and the other part of me thinks “why?” … 🙂

    1. i have been doing long distance trail running for 3 years now and a huge part of it is community. it also peels back the layers we tend to put on as adults and makes me feel like i am most myself when out an adventure run. it isn’t about speed but rather adventure. i also think there is a HUGE difference between ultra road and trail running. don’t knock it til you try it!

  9. I’m totally not an endurance athlete, just someone with an active lifestyle. But these tips pertain to everyone. Thanks for putting sleep at the top of the list… That’s one I really need to prioritize. Oh, and being a fat burner definitely keeps me going strong all day. That and some pastured beef liver!

  10. So excited about the online course in the works!

    I’m not an endurance athlete (my last go at it was years back, when I was fuelled on carbs and sugar rather than the low-carb, high-fat primal eating plan I follow now). These days, I stick to yoga and crossfit.

    But I work with many clients who are very into endurance training and would so benefit from the upcoming course. Love that you’re offering more and more resources for that crowd.

  11. A very timely post especially since the Olympics in Rio are going on right now. Would be really interesting to find out how the athletes competing train in contrast to Primal Endurance and get their perspective of how it would/would not work for them, etc.

  12. Another fantastic article. These are great guidelines to live by Mark… Since I never had much body fat, this has allowed me to stay in shape without to much burnout and over working exercise. It has allowed me to tap into my creative side and plan and enjoy my regimen as part of my life adventures.

  13. These are great! I particularly like the emphasis being placed on recovery (sleep, not doing tons of volume, etc.) and complimentary practices. I’m currently training for a marathon (my 1st) and I’m finding the suggested training protocols to be very demanding. I’m staying on the low side of most of the distances recommended and taking days off to focus on stretching, mobility and playing basketball instead. I feel this is making the training much more tolerable and I’m not burning out.

  14. It’s funny but sometimes I feel wrecked after a night’s sleep. Depending on the dreams I had I can feel like I was really put through the ringer. I wish sleep was a rejuvenating thing where I woke up in the morning with a smile on my face, stretching out, looking forward to the day ahead. Unfortunately it’s like, thank god that’s over and let’s start by moving our feet.

    1. Wow – I thought I was the only one that had this problem. Sometimes I wake up after having the worst dreams – they’re not nightmares, but they sure as hell aren’t pleasant. I’m almost glad I woke up so I won’t have to live thru the same dream over and over. Like you, I feel drawn out/worn out by the experience. Tried eating carbs, not eating carbs, eating protein, not eating protein, etc. etc. to try to alleviate the problem. No luck—- also, I don’t take prescription meds so that can’t be the problem.

      1. Here’s a tip. You folks who have trouble sleeping at night might try raising the head of your bed 6 inches. It sounds weird but a lot of people have benefited from this including myself. Many also claim other benefits such as; less snoring, less nasal and head congestion, better circulation in the lower body, faster recovery from exercise, etc…the list goes on.

        For a sophisticated site like this I”m surprised someone hasn’t mentioned it before. You can google it, “Inclined Bed Therapy” and find lots of info on it. Good luck.

  15. I’m not an endurance athlete, but I like taking epsom salt baths to help speed the recovery of my muscles. In addition to faster recovery time, you also get boosted levels of magnesium and sulfur.

  16. As a professional drummer I find these training/lifestyle tips critical to keep from breaking down physically. Pros and my students tend to fall into the trap of more and harder is better… I will share these suggestions with my community- thanks Mark!

    1. You are quite talented, I checked out your website. I too am a musician and benefit greatly from staying physically and vocally fit. Keeping a good balance of training only enhances your potential.

  17. Phil Maffetone is another coach/nutritionist working successfully with elite endurance athletes in the LCHF zone… got some great stuff on his website…

  18. I started using the Primal Endurance program 10 weeks ago. I can now train mid morning for 1 to 2 hours after having gone without food for 15 hours. I have lost 1.5kg of body fat and 12cm from my waist. At 57 years of age I have been able to go from 22km per hour on the bike to 27km per hour and still sustain my heart rate at 128 ( I added 5 more points as I am very fit). I have also increased my running pace from 6.6km per hour to hover around 7.4km per hour at aerobic pace. Last year I entered a 1/2 Ironman and could not finish due to illness, so this year I decided to try the Primal way. So far I am feeling fresh and enthusiastic each day and I just love how the body fat has melted away. Thanks Mark

  19. The sleep part interests me a lot; minimising artificial light after dark makes sense, but what if sleeping in naturally gives you different wake times every morning? Will that lead to an inconsistent circadian rhythm at all? You always hear that you should maintain the same wake-up time every morning to promote a routine; it’s rare to hear that sleeping in is actually advised over waking up on-time.

  20. Love the book! It has really helped me prepare well for an MTB-endurance event I’ll be doing a month from now!

  21. Practice high-intensity Cycling and LowCarb. I feel tired, sounds like regressing in yield. Think I need to decrease the intensity for about 10 days in lightweight Endurance pace? I’m going to the cause is that faster pace requires Carbohydrate and not fat?

  22. If we don’t get proper sleep on a particular day then we should sleep for another day so that our body can get some rest,it is essential for our well-being.

  23. Great article as always! One of my secrets to deep sleep is to wear earplugs, even when the room is fairly quiet. When I don’t have them on I always find myself waking up in the middle of the night. When I do, I sleep like a baby until morning.

    And then I wake up using the “Sleep Cycle” app. You can choose a time frame in the morning you want to wake up and your phone can detect movement in the bed to figure out if you’re ready to wake up or are still in deep sleep. It also calculates your sleep quality in a nice chart. When my sleep quality is under 80% I’ll try to squeeze in a 30′ nap mid-day or I’ll feel so tired!!

    As you can probably tell, I love my sleep. Lol

  24. I’m really excited by the primal endurance angle but was wondering if anyone has any thoughts on muscle specificity- I have a bike competitive bike ride coming up, then in the winter lots of ski-touring. Mark talks a lot about cellular adaptation to fat burning, but is there a more general adaptation? In other words, can I run as part of my training, and get faster on the bike? Can I cycle and thereby prepare for skiing uphill? Or do I have to do the specific movements all the time to get the most benefit?

  25. What about women? Do the same applications still apply related to food and endurance? All studies have been on men, men are the ones exceling.

  26. I never had much of body fat, so I always remained in shape without having any need to worry about exercise routine. Great article again!

  27. > Reject conventional wisdom’s “eight hours” recommendation and individualize your approach

    That’s easier said than done. If we were to target a number, does science still say optimal is 7-8 hours for recovery/hypertrophy/etc?