From Overtraining to Success with Primal Blueprint Fitness

It’s Friday, everyone! And that means another Primal Blueprint Real Life Story from a Mark’s Daily Apple reader. If you have your own success story and would like to share it with me and the Mark’s Daily Apple community please contact me here. I’ll continue to publish these each Friday as long as they keep coming in. Thank you for reading!

real_life_stories_stories-1-2I come from an endurance background—lots of 5Ks, some middle distance—and so my exercise before I found the paleo diet was mostly running—and lots of it. I did enough of it that I developed tendonitis and had to stop competing, which was probably for the best because I was even more mentally drained than I was physically. Around the time I embarked on a primal diet, back in September of 2010, I switched to CrossFit workouts. Actually, CrossFit is what I found first. I had done a CrossFit workout once before without knowing anything about it, and while I hadn’t begun working out that way, it stayed on my mind (as CrossFit workouts can). When I found and saw the workouts CrossFitters were doing and how athletic they were, I wanted in.

CrossFit’s website recommended that you “base your diet on garden vegetables, especially greens, lean meats, nuts and seeds, little starch, and no sugar.” It seemed very simple, and very odd. My endurance days had depended on plates of pasta, lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (on wheat bread, for health), and lots of milk for bone strength. Yet, I had seen the workouts CrossFitters were doing, had even tried one myself, and they seemed at least as intense as my hardest running workouts and races. But these athletes weren’t eating pasta. Their diets were not 80% carbohydrate. I started researching this bizarre diet, and found “primal eating.”

Back in 2010, primal eating was much more fringe than it is today, but it had some real scientific support and cogent underlying logic: “eat what your body is designed to process.” I was convinced and switched to primal eating. I’ve gained about ten pounds since switching to the primal diet, but I’m very active and attribute that to lean muscle gain. My weight had never been an issue for me, though. What I was after was athletic performance, and I had always understood that what I ate was a major component of that. Now, I had a diet that was enhancing my performance rather than dragging it down. Finding an exercise approach that similarly enhanced my fitness in the long term took a bit more time.

I began CrossFitting on my own at home and at a local non-CrossFit gym. My training plan was predominantly light-weight thrusters, kettlebell swings, burpees, rowing, and wall balls, performed intensely in rounds (or cycles as I think you call them) for durations of 3-15 minutes, plus a fair amount of barbell based strength work. I would characterize my workouts then as “Intense Aerobic.” Every workout was challenging and exhausting, but I never hit maximum intensity—even on my barbell work—and I rarely went easy. It was the kind of CrossFit program that a chronic cardio person would put together. My fitness certainly improved (as it would for any novice in the adaptation phase) but not astoundingly. In pursuit of better training ideas, I ventured beyond to a number of other coaches involved in mixed-modal (CrossFit-style) fitness. Around June of 2012, I found James Fitzgerald’s site Based on what I learned from OPEXFit, from September 2012 to May 2013, I focused on shorter, more intense mixed-modal workouts of 3-10 minute durations, and heavier strength training. I also really enjoyed rowing, which I found through CrossFit, and decided from May 2013 to July 2013 to focus on lowering my 2K PR (personal record). I switched back to a strength and mixed modal focus from August to December 2013.

In December of 2013 or January of 2014, I rediscovered Mark’s Daily Apple when I passed along an MDA article to a friend who was curious about the Primal [Blueprint] diet. I had read a few MDA articles when I first started eating primally, but MDA didn’t become one of my health and wellness resources—don’t worry, it has now! I was fascinated by Mark’s thoughts on exercise: lots of easy aerobic plus strength work (bodyweight and barbell) and occasional max effort sprints or high intensity mixed modal workouts. This coincided with my reading about polarized training on OPEXFit, and I knew then: I had been overtraining as an endurance athlete, and I had brought that same overly intense aerobic training to mixed modal fitness. Perhaps I could make more gains in less time (and, more importantly, spare myself the feelings of exhaustion, lethargy, and even depression that I had experienced in my days of excessive medium and medium-high intensity endurance training), if I made my training more polarized, more primal. I decided to switch to Primal Blueprint Fitness. The transition was not an immediate, 180 degree turn to the light, but I did begin to incorporate the principles Mark laid out. By May 2014, I was a completely Primal Blueprint athlete. My intense days were much more intense and much less frequent, my easy days were much easier (which took conscious effort and practice, actually), and I began to consider my 45-60 minute walks with my dogs a part of my overall fitness plan. I felt better; more relaxed about my fitness, more playful and happy with it.

And I want to stop to emphasize this point. I really enjoy mixed modal training—the diversity, both within an individual workout and within a mixed modal program, which requires competence in a broad range of movements. But when I was in my Intense Aerobic mixed modal phase, I wasn’t enjoying every workout because I was too tired to want to work out. I felt like I had to do it, and every workout was a max-effort race against the clock. I didn’t know what else to do. Moreover, when I was at my most tired, I believed I had to push the most. This is a precept endurance athletes everywhere will recognize. Though pushing past one’s limits is necessary for a race, or a specific time period, it is a grueling, harmful principle when practiced day after day. Letting go of that need to push hard every single time allowed me to experience my workouts as joyful expressions of movement, rather than as rungs on a ladder to the next personal record.

I’ve been on the Primal Blueprint Fitness path since. I work out at home, with a barbell, kettlebells, a rower, and a pull up bar I built in the garage, to which I added some gymnastic rings for dips. I also put together some farmer’s walk handles. On sprint days, I pick something intense, whether it’s from a mixed-modal training program on OPEXFit or another site, or one I’ve come up with. The rest of the days, I’m lifting heavy or walking around, or doing some easy aerobic mixed modal work, like burpees and rowing at an easy pace with lots of rest. In the last two months, I’ve become more strength-focused, and I’ve begun to incorporate sprinting and farmer’s walks—two powerful, simple, primal movements that have made a tremendous difference to me. As part of my playful, primal approach to fitness, I also joined a CrossFit gym, intending to go every other week as a fun test—like a 5K for mixed-modal athletes—and to meet other people in my community. I felt like I was getting stronger, and I felt more capable when I tried something different (like dropping into a random CrossFit class, or sprinting with my dogs). The joy of being active and the sense of confidence in taking on the unknown were all the reason I needed to follow PB fitness. But then my CrossFit gym hosted a Grace workout to raise money for breast cancer awareness, and I had the opportunity to test my fitness.

Grace is a CrossFit benchmark: 30 Clean and Jerks for time at 135 lbs. I used 115 lbs, based on my estimate of my 1RM power clean and jerk (CrossFit workouts are typically modified to suit the ability of the particular athlete). At the shout of “3-2-1 Go!” I power cleaned and push pressed 115 lbs 30 times in 3:05. When I got home, I looked at my workout log. The last time I did that workout, I did it with 115 lbs, in 4:05 on July 1, 2012. I had just hit a one-minute personal record! And I hadn’t been specifically training for that workout, or even for a CrossFit workout in general. I had been following Primal Blueprint principles: lots of walking, lifting heavy things, and conducting the occasional maximum intensity work.

Intrigued, I reviewed the two months of training I did before my 7/1/2012 Grace, and the two months of training leading up to my recent Grace personal record. To summarize them: preceding the July 2012 test, my workouts were primarily “Intense Aerobic.” They were hard enough so that I was exhausted after, but not anywhere near max effort intensity. They were essentially threshold mixed modal workouts. Of 39 workouts, 18 were intense aerobic. I also had a fair amount of body weight and barbell strength work during that period, but I did zero max effort intensity work (whether sprints or mixed modal). In the two months leading up to my recent Grace personal record, I had: three Intense Aerobic workouts out of 30 (notice I worked out nine fewer times—a near 25% drop). The rest were strength, or easy mixed modal aerobic work (kettlebell swings and squats at an easy pace), four max effort sprint sessions, and two aerobic strength sessions (farmer’s walks). That produced a one minute personal record in 30 Clean and Jerks at 115 lbs. And I think I could have gone faster—I did the first 10 reps in 21 seconds, and then had to back off. Remember the first time you ran a 5K and set a mile PR in the first mile of it? That’s how I paced my Grace. I was just so excited to be working out. I had a blast. My lungs were burning, I was working out with other people, and my wife was there to cheer me on. To see that all of the fun I was having as a PB fitness athlete was also making me fitter amazed me. It just confirmed my feeling that what I was doing—thanks to Mark—was working. I have more fun working out, spend less time doing it, and get better results. I’m at my primal best.

Jay B4B Grace copyTo anyone reading this story who is curious about Primal Blueprint Fitness, I recommend this: try it for a month. It’s really fun. Sprinting: I haven’t sprinted all-out just for fun since I was a kid, and it’s awesome. Letting go of having to hit every workout intensely has made exercise truly enjoyable. Letting go of a set plan makes working out easier. Variety is now part of the game rather than a threat to the training plan. That’s part of the reason I started sprinting and added farmer’s walks. They aren’t part of a set plan—I do them because they are challenging and fun. Also, you’ll start to find fitness everywhere, which will make you feel more active even though you don’t have an hour for an eight-mile run. Feel like walking the dogs and sprinting up a hill? Go for it. Thinking about joining a recreational league team? Do it. Have to travel? I bet you’re doing farmer’s walks through the airport with your duffel bags. The people who, like I was, have been going at an intense pace will have the most trouble doing this. It took me some time before I didn’t have to consciously be aware of easing up on an easy day, and I still have to be aware and slow down when I sense my intensity picking up. I think the first step is to ditch the watch. Don’t time your workouts. Go with what your breathing and heart rate are telling you.

I’d love to write more about this, but now I have to render lard from some pork fat I picked up at the farmer’s market. If folks have questions for me in the comments, I’ll be happy to answer as many as I can!


TAGS:  guest post

About the Author

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

23 thoughts on “From Overtraining to Success with Primal Blueprint Fitness”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Congrats Jay! Figuring out the fitness schedule was the hardest part for me but you’ve given me new inspiration to have fun with it. 🙂

  2. Perfect article to read this morning. I need to be reminded from time to time not to over train. Working out is something very enjoyable to me, but I can get caught up in the “moment” and put the metal to the pedal which we know causes issues down the road.
    Thanks for sharing this Jay!

  3. I’m curious about your Farmer’s Walks weight/to body weight ratio. In other words, what is your body weight, how much weight are you carrying, and for what distance and/or length of time? Thanx.

    1. Here is the info on my farmer walks, I am sure more people will reply with their values

      Weight: 185
      Height: 6′
      When I do farmer walks I use cast iron dumbells of 100 lbs each and do at least a 25 m walk with them. If I feel really good I do it twice (with several minutes rest within).
      I remember the first time I saw a guy doing it in the gym, and I said “I want in!”. I started with a pair of 85 lbs dumbells, doing like 10 meters before the dumbells fell from my hands (no grip). Now I am happy with my 200 lbs 25meters walk (the grip does not bother me anymore). What I like of this exercise is that you “keep it”: you get better at it and you can stop doing it for a while and when you come back you have not lost it.

    2. Hi there! Jay here. Great question on the farmer’s walks. When I decided to add them, I spent a fair amount of time searching for the perfect weight. What I found is that FWs work whether you go heavy or light. They’re also not a very scientific movement – there is no 5×5 or periodized plan for Farmer’s Walks. Just pick up some weights and go. The key is distance. Lighter FWs should be used to build strength endurance – think carrying 45 lbs/hand for men, 30 for women (or 24 kg and 16 kg kettlebells respectively) and going for longer distance, maybe building to 400-500 meters of total distance. Or go heavier and not as far, like 70 lbs/hand for men and 45-50 for women. The latter is my approach and I shoot for 200-300 meters of walking with 70 lbs per hand. Dan John has suggested starting at 85 lbs/hand for men and adding weight and distance as needed. Whatever weight you choose, keep your chest tall and take small, quick steps. Also, regardless of weight, you’ll find that grip is the limiting factor and that can guide you in how far you go. Play around with weights and distances. Have fun. You’ll quickly find the weight that feels right and the distance you want to cover or build to.

      1. Thanks for the answer (wildgrok, too.) Wasn’t really sure if there was an “ideal” formula for these. Simply because the plates at my Y go up to 45-lbs, that’s what I carry. Here’s my personal routine:
        Frequency: Every Monday
        Reps: 12 times around the perimeter of the gym (don’t know the distance, I’m terrible at estimating distances.) Brief (5-second) rests between laps of putting them down and shaking my booty and arms.
        Weight: 2 45-lb plates
        My bodyweight: 130 (I’m female)

        All I know is that if I skip a week, my core strength drops. I think of it more as a core-strength than an arm exercise, because of the effort required to not sway around while walking with the core muscles.

      2. By the way, have fun with the lard rendering. I did it with tallow once; what a mess!

  4. Great story. I especially love this line: “Letting go of that need to push hard every single time allowed me to experience my workouts as joyful expressions of movement, rather than as rungs on a ladder to the next personal record.” thanks heaps.

    1. Wow farmer walks and lard in the same post – like it!

      “I have to render lard from some pork fat I picked up at the farmer’s market. “

  5. Congrats Jay, sounds like you are doing better.

    From your title though, it appears to me you are still obsessive/compulsive about training.

  6. The way you track and review your workouts makes me happy. I like logging also because how can you change or tweak a routine without knowing what you did before? Your Grace time is a perfect example. You probably thought you did better afterwards, but 1 min better? Amazing results btw. Personally, I yoga has helped me slow down and change my definition of fitness. Also, you are 62?! I never would have guessed that from your photo. 🙂

  7. My bad, I see that was someone else!!! lol You look great, no matter your age!

  8. I’m wondering if you ever thought of or looked at MOVNAT? Not as intense with the weights, like Crossfit, but good results and functional.

  9. Jay! Just saw your article. So cool!
    I’m happy you could experience one of your ‘test’ days at CFBeacon. You were a Grace pro! Congratulations!
    Coach Annie 🙂

  10. Thanks for sharing, Jay! I especially love your line “Though pushing past one’s limits is necessary for a race, or a specific time period, it is a grueling, harmful principle when practiced day after day.” I’ve been trying to tell a family member this (he works out HARD every day) but he just doesn’t buy it.

  11. Hi Jay,

    I’m not one to comment much, but here I felt compelled to write. Where you have come from is exactly where I’m at…Coming from a heavy endurance background (I never even used to consider any exercise a proper workout unless it lasted for hours and involved me feeling absolutely exhausted just to repeat it all over again the next day), now I’ve also slowly been transitioning to more bodyweight/kb’s/crossfit type workouts…Just like you, I’m having difficulty breaking the vicious cycle of overtraining – going submaximal for too long and not being able to take it easy. Any advice on how you made yourself accept the change?

    1. I asked myself what was impelling my need to push hard every time. If you can find that answer in yourself, and become aware of it when it’s starting to drive you, you can begin to move away from it. Realize that you’ve trained your mind and your body to expect, even depend on, intensity. You will have to retrain yourself to go easier. To do that for myself, I made a few changes – one, I practiced becoming aware. There were many workouts back then, and even workouts now, where I notice myself starting to step to hard on the intensity lever. I consciously back off when that happens. Second, I chose happiness and fun. Grinding everyday wasn’t fun for me, but trying new workouts, being competent in a few different exercise, and living like an athlete rather than like a competitor was very fun. I felt better and happier. I decided I would rather feel better and happier than push for a PR. I also changed how I think about goals. My goals became – I want to be able to run, jump, climb (do pull ups) and carry heavy stuff in the same day or in the same workout. Having to be good at a few different things meant I couldn’t focus too heavily on event and thus couldn’t over-train in any one event. Finally, I started learning about the benefits of easy fitness ( as a way to support what I wanted to be doing.
      So, be curious about what is driving you to push yourself to exhaustion, become aware of it, consciously retrain your body and mind, and determine what your own priorities are.

      1. Hi Jay, your story led me to writing to MDA and I got posted this week. Something you said really inspired me..I quoted you in my bio.

      2. I just read that long duration, low intensity article. Snooze fest. (No offense)..I say just do it all, THAT makes sense. Go fast, go slow, go long (when you are up to it), lift light, lift heavy, do Tabata, do Karate and then….do nothing and rest.

  12. Hi Jay,

    Thank you for your post! I come from an intense training background: Russian Classical Ballet. 13 years of pure dedication. Since stopping my career due to an injury, I’ve been searching for exercise that is truly health-centered. However, as a forever ballerina, I regularly get caught in the PR rut. I’ve been eating Primal for five years, and absolutely love the benefits. Now I just need to get my exercise ‘routine’ established once and for all.

    I can really relate to this part of your story: “Moreover, when I was at my most tired, I believed I had to push the most … Though pushing past one’s limits is [sometimes] necessary, it is a grueling, harmful principle when practiced day after day.”

    Can you give me some tips on how you plan your workouts? When Lifting Heavy, how many exercises and reps do you perform? Set amount of time in-between exercises? I am currently focusing on bodyweight right now, and light barbell and kettlebell. (Again, because of another injury.)
    During HIT days, do you also pick several exercises, going all out to a set amount of time?


    Read more: