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!
I 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 CrossFit.com 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 CrossFit.com to a number of other coaches involved in mixed-modal (CrossFit-style) fitness. Around June of 2012, I found James Fitzgerald’s site OPEXFit.com. 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.
To 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!