Dr. DeVany’s title quote has haunted me for years; I typically ponder the significance of this deadpan assertion during my morning jog. “Come on, this can’t be dangerous, can it?” I assert that my morning jog helps me enjoy nature, clear my mind for the impending busy day in front of a screen or microphone, and seemingly contributes to both my fitness base and my health.
But only if I go slow!
That is the revelation I have come to appreciate over decades of devoted endurance training. Walking is perhaps most health and longevity promoting activity of them all, the ultimate human experience of life and planet that our genes require daily for healthy functioning. This is especially true as you age. A UCLA study of the elderly revealed that walking more than 4,000 steps a day makes for a thicker hippocampus, faster information processing, and improved executive function.1 Sedentary folks were found to have thinner brains, lower overall cognitive function and increased disease risk. From a base of frequent daily walking (and other forms of low level movement like yoga), if you are fit enough to jog at a heart rate below “180 minus age” in beats per minute, there is pretty strong evidence that you are boosting health. If your “jogging” routinely drifts above that important MAF cutoff (surely the context for DeVany’s warning), you are likely actualizing the quote and endangering your health.
This article details how I destroyed my health during a six-month binge of high volume aerobic exercise (playing Speedgolf, where you run around five miles while playing 18 holes as fast as possible) after a long layoff from real training. I overestimated my aerobic maximum heart rate by 12 beats (and exceeded that beeper limit on the golf course frequently as well!) and experienced that familiar steady spiral into declining energy and burnout. First, I delivered a free testosterone reading that was clinically low—as in, a candidate for hormone replacement. Next, on the heels of a two strenuous workouts in 100-degree temperatures over four days, I found myself in the hospital with extreme dehydration, a ruptured appendix and emergency surgery. Months of complications and follow up surgeries ensued. Doctors might assert that an appendix will blow out randomly, but I’m certain that my problems were driven by the six-month chronic cardio binge.
With five months of enforced rest and trading my slightly too difficult cardio for easy jogging and walking (after surgeries), I doubled my testosterone levels—going from clinically low to exceeding the 95th percentile for my age. In the aftermath of the ordeal, which coincided with me hitting the big Hawaii 5-0, I turned my attention to fitness goals better suited for longevity: building power, speed, explosiveness, flexibility, balance, and mobility. I increased my devotion to sprinting and strength training, and integrated the wonderful drills and skills highlighted in the basic running drills and advanced running drills videos and morning flexibility/mobility exercises video. I’ve gone from an aging ex-triathlete still capable of jogging or pedaling (increasingly slowly with each passing year) to high jumping at a world class level for my 55-59 age group. Granted, attrition in this event is a driving factor in my positioning in the rankings, but in many respects I am a fitter, stronger, faster human than the narrowly adapted endurance athlete I was decades ago.
Here are some ideas to trade steady state cardio sessions for sessions that deliver broader fitness benefits and are more fun, more challenging, and more rewarding.
What to Do Instead of Steady State Cardio
Morning Flexibility, Mobility, Dynamic Stretching, and Core Strengthening
The sequence of exercises that I present in the video take about 12 minutes, and I’m on a good streak of daily execution for nearly four years now. What’s happened with my recent transition away from my consistent morning jog is that I continue to add more and more fun stuff to the daily template. At first, it’s extremely important for habit forming to design an initial routine that’s easy and doable, meaning short in duration. Once you build some momentum, you can add to the complexity and degree of difficulty of your routine. Today, I burn up at least 45 minutes with an exact sequence of exercises that I repeat every day. I regularly add, subtract, and modify the sequence, but it’s important to have a repeatable routine that doesn’t require creative energy. This way, you can relax and get into the zone of simply counting out the desired reps of each drill and move on to the next. You’ll see this same dynamic in a flowing yoga class.
I’m not suggesting that you squeeze a 45-minute routine into your already busy mornings, but starting small with a 12-minute session can be a great way to broaden your fitness experience. For me, the lengthy and quite strenuous morning routine has pushed my morning jog into the “optional” category. As mentioned in the previous post about the paltry requirement for optimizing aerobic fitness (Dr. O’Keefe’s Goldilocks Zone), shifting from daily jogging to a few per week causes no loss in aerobic conditioning. Furthermore, an ambitious routine of flexibility/mobility drills without break from start to finish is aerobic in nature. I obtain all the cardiovascular benefits of jogging in addition to all the additional flexibility, mobility, core strengthening, and balancing benefits.
Walk – Jog – Jump
We’ll discuss the broad-based benefits of jumping in a future post. Mark says, “Nothing cuts you up like sprinting,” due to the profound genetic signaling that occurs from brief, all-out high impact sprinting on flat ground. Any act of jumping falls into the same esteemed category. You are building bone density, improving the resiliency of your muscles and connective tissue, and sending a strong genetic signal to reduce excess body fat.2 The reason for the latter is the same as with sprinting—the penalty for carrying excess fat is severe when you are trying to get off the ground.
Head out the door for your session on the roads or trails at your aerobic jogging pace. After 10 minutes of warmup, do some jumping drills of your choice. You can simply stand in place and jump up and down off of two feet. Dr. Michael Roizen, co-author with Dr. Oz of the popular You: The Owner’s Manual book series and Chief Wellness Officer at the Cleveland Clinic, recommends jumping up and down 20 times every morning and evening to preserve bone mass in the spine and lower extremities. “Jumping is thought to create an electrical current that stimulates the bone and thickens internal bone mass,” says Roizen.
Options for jumping abound, pun intended. You can get a three-step running start and jump off of one foot like you are going for a slam dunk, land and repeat three times. You can do some explosive skipping, trying to maximize the height of each leap into the air. You can try the bicycle drill as seen at 1:18 in the Advanced Running Drills video below. Perhaps you’ll want to try some vertical jumps onto a park bench or retaining wall, jump over a bush or traffic cone, or other appealing challenges along your route.
Remember, your explosive efforts should last between 10-20 seconds and no longer. Review the HIIT versus HIRT post to understand why 10-20 seconds is the sweet spot. After you do your jumping sequence, walk for five times as long as your burst lasted—so that’s between 50 seconds and 1 min, 40 seconds. After you feel fresh and recovered, resume your jogging pace slowly and eventually work back up to your “180 minus age” heart rate. After 1-3 minutes of jogging, initiate another jumping sequence.
Cardio Plus Calisthenics
If your go-to workout is on a cardio machine in the gym, do you thing for 5-10 minutes and then take a quick break for a set of burpees, squats, pullups, mini-bands, TRX moves, or other exercises you’re fond of at the gym. Take your time returning to your cardio exercise, and resume at a very slow pace. Work up to your usual aerobic training pace for a few minutes, then dismount again for different activity.
You’ll completely bypass steady state cardio in this session; you’ll either be walking or jogging very slowly (20-40 beats below your MAF heart rate), or doing a 10-20 second explosive effort. This could be an uphill sprint, a set of stadium or building stairs, or a few kettlebell swings if you are taking laps around the block and returning to your garage every ten minutes.
For those dutiful endurance athletes monitoring training heart rates to stay below MAF, note that the explosive efforts in each of the aforementioned formats will cause your heart rate to exceed aerobic maximum. You’ll hear the beep somewhere between the middle and the end of your burst, and it may take 30-60 seconds for heart rate to return to MAF or below. This is nothing to be concerned about and will not hinder your aerobic development like exercising for sustained periods above MAF at many workouts. Exercise physiologists call the heart rate zone above MAF where you still feel pretty comfortable but are burning more glucose and less fat the “black hole.” This is a no-man’s land where you are sabotaging desired aerobic benefits but not going hard enough for a truly anaerobic effort that can stimulate performance breakthroughs when done occasionally and correctly.
Let’s put in a plug here for trading the occasional jog for a walk. The common fitness edict of, “consistency is key” can easily be misapplied to the extent that the daily and weekly application of exercise stress is not adequately balanced with recovery time and down time. I’d like you to view the “consistency is key” principle over a wider time frame that the typical obsession with delivering a tidy weekly schedule of repeat template workouts (e.g., Sunday long run, Tuesday night track intervals, Thursday spin class, etc.) Realize the body is really good at preserving fitness even with the occasional week or month of drastically reduced training. Popular studies from renowned exercise physiologist Dr. David Costill of the Ball State University Human Performance Lab reveal that extreme tapering delivers outstanding results. One decades-old Costill study of elite swimmers revealed that reducing swimming volume by 67 percent for 15 days delivered a four percent performance increase! A study from McMaster University in Toronto of serious runners averaging 50 miles per week showed the control group that cut volume by 88 percent (six miles a week, but featuring hard intervals) improved performance by 22 percent!
If you are reluctant to embrace any workout that doesn’t introduce discomfort and sweat, realize that a brisk walk still delivers an outstanding aerobic training effect that will support peak performance efforts at all faster speeds. Envision a cruise ship with 12 massive turbine engines. On the open seas with all 12 at full throttle, the mighty ship can hit 25 knots. When cruising into port at two knots, imagine only two engines are running at half power. However, those two engines still make a contribution to the effort when cruising at full speed. You are easily doubling your resting heart rate during a walk recruiting the same aerobic enzymes and muscle fibers to perform that you call upon when you deliver a peak performance effort. For endurance athletes, walking is a low stress way to build and build more fitness without the risk of breakdown and burnout from black hole workout.
Hopefully these suggestions will get your creative juices flowing when you head out the door for future workouts. You can let your imagination run wild here, unleash your childlike spirit, and look for forgotten ways to engage your body with nature for physical challenge. Take inspiration from Nutritious Movement queen Katy Bowman, MS—here’s some people having fun on one of her “Move Your DNA weekends.”