Can Endurance Training Ever Really Be Primal?

Can Endurance Training Ever Really Be Primal in lineFor over a dozen years, I’ve railed against what I call “chronic cardio“—the excessive, unrelenting endurance training I did for the better part of three decades. Most of my health issues cleared up when I stopped stopped running and training for marathons and triathlons, removed the refined grains and sugar I ate to support my endurance training, and began taking it easy. Explore the MDA archives and you’ll read all about the downsides of chronic endurance training, as well as my experiences in that world. Next to Primal living, most people probably know me best for being against “chronic cardio.” It’s kinda my thing.

As a result, a lot of people have this idea that any type of endurance training is verboten and totally antithetical to the Primal way of life.

That’s a misconception, albeit an understandable one. But it’s persistent. I have been outspoken against chronic cardio. I’ve also released a book called Primal Endurance.

How do I square my distaste for chronic cardio with the fact that I wrote an entire book devoted to endurance training?

First, what am I talking about when I say “chronic cardio”?

Chronic cardio is excessive. The occasional big effort doesn’t count. Even running a 10k on the weekends isn’t enough to qualify. Running a marathon once isn’t chronic. Running marathons every month and training for them 3-5 days a week, making every workout a breakthrough one, and running every single day are all examples of chronic cardio.

Chronic cardio exceeds the aerobic threshold. An easy run through your favorite forest trail, a long hike, or a basic jog on the weekend with a buddy, both of you holding a conversation the entire time, are great ways to pass the time. They allow you to stay under the aerobic threshold where you’re predominately burning fat and away from the anaerobic threshold where sugar burning dominates. That’s the type of slow moving I encourage.

For endurance training to qualify as chronic cardio, you have to engage in day-in, day-out, moderate-high intensity, high volume training. It’s not so intense that you can’t keep it up for 5-10 miles, but it is intense enough that you’re burning primarily sugar. That’s the no-man’s land of chronic cardio—not too hard, not too easy, just right (wrong).

I hesitate to offer a quantitative definition.

I’ve tried to give a few rough guidelines, like “don’t burn more than 4000 calories a week through exercise.” But there’s no red line in the sand, where doing x number of miles per week catapults you into chronic cardio territory. It’s relative. It depends on your fitness level, health status, and age. 

It’s often qualitative.

Does your endurance training leave you feeling mentally exhausted and depleted? When it’s over, are you dreading the next one? Do you actually enjoy the session as it’s happening, or is it sheer misery from start to finish?

You know it when you see it, in other words.

Why is chronic cardio bad for us? Isn’t all exercise good?

Sorta. But some types are definitely better than others. For instance:

Chronic cardio causes chronic inflammation. Any training session acts as a stressor and increases oxidative stress. Endurance exercise works by triggering a stress response that we must overcome and get better at overcoming. This is the training effect. But for the training effect to occur, we must rest and recover.

Because they train so hard at a high enough intensity, people engaging in chronic cardio never fully recover from that initial burst of oxidative stress. Not only does this impair training gains, it heaps stressor upon stressor, inflammation upon inflammation, and causes damage down the line. Acute oxidative stress stacks up and becomes chronic.

Chronic cardio enthusiasts often have undiagnosed heart issues. Excessive endurance training can cause excessive hypertrophy of the heart tissue. More than a few friends and colleagues over the years with whom I trained and competed have had to install pacemakers and defibrillators before the age of 40 to stave off heart problems stemming from this. Others have lost cardiac function. Some have even died. These are the super fit, the cream of the crop. And it’s not just my own anecdotes. Evidence suggests that long term chronic cardio increases the risk of atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter.

Chronic cardio makes you fatter, not fitter. We’ve all seen (or experienced) it. Overweight person attempts to not be overweight, picks up a running habit, sticks to it, is always ravenous, feels they’ve “earned” a brownie or small fries or chicken nuggets because they ran that day, rinse/repeat, stays the same size if not a little chubbier around the middle.

Chronic cardio turns you into a sugar-burner who always needs a fix and can’t go two hours without eating. It turns you into an inflamed stress ball (not the kind you squeeze). You’ll probably lose weight, but it’ll mostly be muscle. A recent paper even found that replacing some of your aerobic activity with 20 minutes of weight training each day resulted in the greatest reduction in waist circumference—perhaps the best marker of fat loss without getting a DXA scan.

So…endurance training is off the table?

No, but it’s important to do it right.

Brad Kearns and I wrote Primal Endurance to provide a better, safer, gentler way for endurance athletes to keep doing what they love. The coolest part of all is that it’s ultimately more effective than the the old chronic cardio way, which is to brute force your training. Go hard as you can, as long as you can, as often as you can, and your times will improve. And it “works”, but many fall to the wayside, only the strong truly thrive, and even they come up limping to the finish.

So PE is partly a mitigating force. Endurance athletes are a stubborn breed. I certainly was (and still am). You have to be to put up with all that pain and suffering. And the vast majority of them are going to run (and bike, and swim, and all the rest) despite what studies and experts and oftentimes their own bodies are telling them. It’s addictive, and it can be very rewarding. I’ve been there.

Primal Endurance offers a way for endurance junkies to maintain their habit, make it healthier and perhaps even more effective.

But you do have to embrace the entire program for it to work. A successful (and by successful, I mean performs well and stays healthy) Primal endurance athlete must:

  • Pay attention to sleep, recovery, stress. Sleep is where fitness develops.
  • Exercise patience, build up slowly. They can’t get ahead of themselves and go too fast too soon.
  • Focus on aerobic work. The long, easy, slow stuff is where the magic happens and the base develops.
  • Supplement their aerobic work with supplemental inputs. Aerobic work is necessary but not sufficient. They have to strength train, include some high intensity work, do mobility work and stretching, get massages when possible or spend some time on the foam roller. And don’t forget to have fun, to play and engage in leisure activities. 

By all accounts, it’s a superior training method that builds an incredible aerobic base and allows you to reduce your training volume and intensity while compromising neither health nor performance.

Ultimately, Primal Endurance is a response to traditional forms of chronic cardio. It repudiates and replaces chronic cardio. It provides what so many seek when they strap on the jogging shoes, sign up for the 10k, or train for the half marathon—increased fat-burning capacity, improved aerobic fitness, greater fuel efficiency—without compromising health or performance.

The major impediment to widespread adoption of the PE methods is disbelief: It’s hard to believe that going easier can improve your fitness, performance, and health. That doing less can actually be more.

But it works. And things are changing. Elite athletes are adopting more Primal-friendly methods. The book is selling really well, and we’ve developed a comprehensive multimedia online course for folks who want to become fat-burning Primal Endurance beasts.

That goes for everyone, not just the elites or dedicated amateur athletes. Newbies and laypeople and weekend warriors and total non-athletes can all benefit from having a broad aerobic base and improving their fat-burning capacity.

The reason PE works for everyone is that it tailors the intensity to the individual’s ability. I don’t care if you’re Lance Armstrong, Rich Froning, Serena Williams, or grandma. If you follow the Primal Endurance training philosophy and keep your HR at 180 minus your age for the majority of your training, you’ll build a sturdy aerobic base and gradually increase your aerobic efficiency. This is good for runners, cyclists, triathletes, wrestlers, CrossFitters, Spartan racers, gardening enthusiasts, power walkers, sprinters, weight lifters, P90Xers, basketball players, and yard putterers.

To sum up, endurance training is Primal. You just have to do it the right way.

I’d love to hear how you’ve incorporated endurance training into your Primal way of life? What worked, what didn’t, what changed?

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!

Primal Kitchen 7 Days, 7 Salads Challenge

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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17 thoughts on “Can Endurance Training Ever Really Be Primal?”

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  1. Primal Endurance was a really life-changing read for me. I never had a chronic cardio problem, but as a new triathlete, many around me were training 2 hours a day every day and racing all season. I actually saw a huge performance improvement when I focused on sleeping, nutrition, and taking active rest days (like hiking with my dog instead of another marathon cycling trip or sprints in the pool).

  2. Thanks for this post Mark! Primal Endurance has had a permanent spot on my bedside table since I received my copy of it, but it hasn’t been until the past two months that I’ve fully jumped in.

    I’m a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor (think Judo, but with more wrestling on the ground) and my biggest crutch in the past had been not slowing down and trying to keep my heart rate from skyrocketing during practice with my main training partners. I’m currently in week 6 of 8 for keeping all workouts (including Jiu Jitsu practice, walking, hiking, and the “7-minute Workout”) at 180-age, and I’m anxious to see how much I improve my MAF results when I add in some sprints and MSP deadlifts at the end of the month.

    My question is this: I know you encourage conducting only aerobic workouts during the base building perios, but is heart rate the only thing to consider as to whether a workout it aerobic or not? Or is any sort of strength training at all (even reduced intensity to keep heart at 180 – age) a no-no for aerobic base building?

  3. Of course its tough to do endurance on high fat / low carb – you start off beyond the “wall” and that makes for 26.2 long miles! Otherwise your main argument is to train smart, which is good advice no matter what you eat.

  4. I’ve never been one for chronic cardio. I’ve also never liked the idea of “no pain no gain.” My motto is, if it hurts don’t do it. Or at least taper off until it doesn’t hurt any more, and then build back up more slowly. But I suspect most women have a less obsessive notion of endurance training than men do.

  5. I no longer run or tangle with the eliptical. I truly hike and walk as much as I can, strength train when it feels right, and get in my sprints most weeks! I move more, exercise less and overall am in the best shape I have ever been in. This stuff works and is so life changing if you work it!

    1. Exact same thing with me. Used to run or train 4-6 days per week. Now I walk more, lift 2-3 times per week and sprint at least once (lately in the pool!). Never felt better and stronger. ?

  6. Yes! Learning to train primally for a recent endurance race changed my perspective on running. I used to tell people, “My body doesn’t react well with endurance sports,” because I’d get sick or injured after training. Now that I’ve focused on building my aerobic base, I sing a different tune. I actually love to run and the freedom of listening to my body. Thanks for the resource!

  7. Mark, this piece hit home for me. I never exercised to the levels and frequency of what I feel would qualify as endurance training, however, what I was doing was becoming a detractor to my overall wellness. I experienced a few of the potential negatives laid out in your article.

    About 2 years ago I had grown tired of my weight training routine at the gym and had been becoming more interested in jogging. I let my gym membership lapse and decided to double down on my growing affinity for jogging to commit to running as my primary and full-time means of exercise. I was consistently going on 3 to 5+ mile runs with an occasional 7 mile run mixed in. I was gaining stamina and increasing my mile per minute times. All the while, though, my body type was slowly starting to devolve and I was becoming emotionally more lethargic to the prospects of getting out the door and running. The mental part was especially concerning because I had always enjoyed my workouts.

    I finally realized all this jogging, for me, was amounting to a net loss for my overall wellness. I ditched the jogging for brisk walks, ordered some kettle bells to have at home, and completely turned around an unwinding physical and emotional situation.

    My jogging was nowhere near the levels you laid out that would qualify as chronic or excessive training but I do feel I felt some of the harmful ramifications as such.

    Enjoyed the article. Thanks for posting.

  8. I think one of the most confusing things about Primal Endurance is that the advice that you “have to strength train, include some high intensity work” is directly contradicted in the book. The book claims that you should only do high intensity work or weight lifting during the few weeks each year when you are in competition mode. Maybe the book could have used some more editing, but the contradiction between the advice in Primal Endurance and the standard Primal Blueprint laws of movement is very confusing and could use clarification.

    1. I don’t find the general advice to “strength train, include some high intensity work” to be contradicted in the book. It just needs to incorporated at the appropriate time, and generally not before a solid aerobic base is established. For runners both experienced and inexperienced, the aerobic base building phase is the most important by far. Strength training and intensity can be added once that foundation is solid.

      1. I can agree with both of your stances on the issue: moderation and periodization I think are the biggest stumbling blocks I’ve come across. Realizing how much stress we accumulate and really listening to our bodies is much more nuanced than I originally thought it would be.

        It is much “harder” to find the balance and exercise the patience needed to allow your body to recover and adapt to “easy” workouts than you would think. I can bang out multiple days of hiking 8+ miles a day with no seriously ill effects in HRV, but I think the overall volume may be too much for me to recover from, so even though I feel fine I’ve found I have to be smarter about how I actively recover. It is hard for me personally to recover and adapt to walking if I’m always pushing the envelope, even if its “easy”.

        That being said, I can’t wait to be finished with my aerobic base building efforts and actually get some sprints in. My hikes for base building efforts may turn into recovery efforts eventually, that is what I’m shooting for.

  9. Mark I’m a little confused. Here you say 180 BPM minus your age which is 154 for me. In another article about low level steady state cardio you mention staying between 55 and 75 percent of your max HR which would be from about 107 to about 145. Is there something I’m missing as far as the contexts for these different ranges or have your opinions changed?

  10. Maffetone method plus some sprints plus strength training.
    Is really no way to this combination brings any prejudice for health?

  11. Great article on a very serious subject impacting lots of people negatively. I’ve long ago stop performing excessive aerobic exercise and have also educate and encourage personal training clients to do the same keep results ongoing.

  12. Am I the one odd person who doesn’t benefit from the PE method?? I started running eight years ago at age 40 and have always been slow (I realize now I was consistently running in the “no man’s land zone”) I do two – three half marathons a year, just for the fun of it. Almost a year ago I read Primal Endurance and started training with the 180-age heart rate training and had to slow down so much that I was walking as much as running. In almost a year I haven’t gained any speed. It’s been very frustrating. I do aerobic training (mostly running) 3 – 5 times a week. Strength training once or twice a week. Long walks several times a week as well as yoga. I’ve focused on getting great sleep as well as a fantastic primal diet 95% of the time. After six months of nothing but aerobic training I changed up one of my runs to a hill or sprint interval session.
    All that and I’m still at a 14:00 pace. It’s very very frustrating and I’m ready to throw in the towel. Any suggestions would be very much appreciated.

    1. Kathy, did you hear anything back on this? I’m in a similar boat in terms of not shedding many seconds off my “cardio-zone” workouts over about a 6-month period. I’ve not competed yet, so maybe I’ll perform better having avoided the fight-flight response heart rate zone. Not sure, just curious what you’ve learned since this post. Thanks.