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From the Strain of Conventional Wisdom to the Ease of Going Primal

It’s Friday, everyone! And that means another Primal Blueprint Real Life Story [1] 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 [2]. I’ll continue to publish these each Friday as long as they keep coming in. Thank you for reading!

Malc from England here, sharing my Primal Blueprint success story.

It’s not a headline grabbing tale of huge weight-loss, cured illnesses or drastic transformation. It’s about longevity and in particular enjoyment of strength training balanced with starting a family and growing older.

It begins almost 15 years ago when I went off to university. I was 20 and ready to enjoy myself away from home. I threw myself into the lifestyle of 4am bedtimes, mid-day wake-ups, booze most days (if not every day) and plenty of it, accompanied by the obligatory fast food. I’d never been the thinnest of kids, but I’d always played football (soccer) and been reasonably active, so I hadn’t previously struggled with my weight. Of course the new lifestyle took a toll. I reached the heaviest I have ever been (175 pounds at 5’7″).

By the spring term I wasn’t happy at all with my appearance and knew that I wanted to make a change. Luckily one of my good friends was a rugby player at a decent level who spent a fair bit of time in the gym. So I started going to the gym with him. I didn’t know a lot about working out, but I would just crank out “chronic cardio”—i.e., hard running on the treadmill or x-trainer, stationary bike, etc., and a few accompanying exercises on the resistance machines. As I was a student with time to burn, I went 3-5 times a week and did manage to shift some of the timber. But I was having to work damn hard to do it. As Mark says, I was “digging a hole to put a ladder in, so I could climb up to wash the ground floor windows” by exercising hard but undoing it all with diet, booze and lack of sleep.

At the time I actually started to really enjoy the chronic cardio, so over the next year or so I spent less time in the gym and more time running outside, entering 5k and 10k runs, eventually leading to me running the London Marathon in 2004. I trained hard for that marathon and tried to make sure I ate correctly. Or at least according to what Runner’s World, the internet and conventional wisdom said was the correct way to eat. I ate lots and lots of rice and pasta accompanied by small amounts of meat, veg and fruit because “everybody knows” that you need lots of carbs to fuel yourself through those long runs don’t they?? I experimented with carb loading and all the rest of it. But despite the fact that I was “fit” in terms of my ability to run long distances moderately fast, I didn’t look it. I was podgy and pasty looking. Surely I should have been a lean whippet given that I was running 40/50 miles a week in training. Hmmm, what was wrong?

By the time I’d completed the marathon I was a bit bored of all the cardio, so for the next couple of years I returned to the gym sessions, still doing quite a bit of cardio, but starting to scratch the surface of strength training. I read several books about training and with more work in the gym, became a little more muscular but also bigger in general, due to the sheer amount of food I was eating. I now knew that I needed to eat some more protein to help my training, but also thought that I still needed tons of carbs to replenish all the energy I was burning in the gym. At this point I was about 25 and had just graduated with fairly few commitments outside of work, so I would go to the gym five or six days a week, usually doing three strength sessions and two or three cardio sessions. So I was still in fairly good shape, because the amount of training I was doing was balancing the amount of food I was eating.

I was enjoying discovering how deep the rabbit hole of strength and conditioning knowledge goes, and educating myself more and more. I was also in a badly paid, dead-end job that I hated. I had some money left from an inheritance so I decided, “sod it—I hate my job, I love training and I can support myself for a little while. I’m going to quit work and do a course to become a personal trainer.” Three months of full-time learning about the body, exercise and nutrition—what could be better?

Looking back, doing the course was really useful. But not really in the way that I intended at the time. I did learn a heck of a lot about how to train properly. And that is still certainly useful to me today. I also learnt a lot about nutrition, but unfortunately, mainly from the viewpoint of conventional wisdom and “bro-science.” Funnily enough, looking back through the course materials, they do briefly touch on a “caveman” diet which was quite forward-thinking considering that this was in England back in 2006, when the ancestral health movement was virtually unknown. The course leader was also already an advocate of the caveman diet, I remember her talking about it a few times, but as she was a slightly built woman from a tennis coaching background, and most of the guys on the course were focused mainly on strength training, it was only briefly discussed and of course we all rather dismissed it thinking that we needed to be eating a lot of carbs, some protein and not much fat to get the best results.

By the time I finished the course I was disillusioned with the idea of becoming a personal trainer. What I had failed to realize beforehand, is that although it looks like a fitness related career, it’s primarily a sales job which isn’t really me. But it had at least taken me out of the rut I was in with my old job and I had developed a lot of knowledge that I could put to use on myself. Over the next three or four years I trained hard with some reasonable results, but unfortunately I was still sticking to conventional wisdom around nutrition. I thought that I was doing the right thing by eating food that I had cooked myself, sticking to brown rice, bread and fresh pasta to accompany other fresh ingredients. I still didn’t realize that I was offsetting all my hard work with what I was eating. Slowly doubts started to creep into my mind. I was moving towards my thirties. How was I going to continue training this hard as I got older? I felt like I was starting to grind my body down. What would I do when I couldn’t train so much? Would it all just go to seed?

And then about five years ago I came across The Paleo Diet linked from a health and fitness blog that I read. A lot of the initial reading I did chimed with me as I was already on board with cooking fresh unprocessed food, except that at the time I didn’t understand that things like rice and pasta weren’t unprocessed. However I was still a bit skeptical. Would it provide me with enough carbs to fuel all my workouts? Could I really function with what I perceived as so few carbs in my diet? Conventional wisdom really was “ingrained” in me, pun intended! But I thought what the hell, I’ll give it a try for a while and see how it goes, I can always go back. It wasn’t too big a transition to take out the grains. I bought Robb Wolf’s book and that gave me a much clearer understanding of the principles behind the lifestyle.

Further reading led me to MDA. I became completely hooked. Mark describes everything in such an easy and non-patronizing way that makes complete sense. I read through virtually every article on the site. Now I was really completely on board and an advocate for the lifestyle. Of course, all the while I carried on with my training. It was like someone had given me a new lease of life. Suddenly I felt really, really good. Instead of carrying around a layer of puppy fat like when I was following conventional wisdom, I was actually genuinely lean. It felt pretty nice to have some abs going on for the first time in my life. And as I was turning 30, it was like time was going the wrong way! But the best bit of all was that I no longer had to try, it felt effortless.

For a while I almost tipped over the edge into being “that guy,” militant about persuading people and following the guidance 100%, but over time, I’ve mellowed and allowed a little more leeway back towards the 80/20 rule. I took the advice about training and chronic cardio from Mark, Robb Wolf and others, and throttled back a little. I cut down my strength training to two or three times a week, replaced all my cardio, other than football, with walking (with my wife and son whenever possible) and now I just cruise. I still play football semi-competitively and despite doing no other “cardio,” I have no worries about being able to keep up with the game, despite the fact that most of my opponents are much younger. I’ve also unhooked from the gym. Over the last couple of years, I’ve got really into body-weight strength training. I go to the gym when I fancy and when I don’t, I just use my doorway chin up bar and rings at home. I like being the weird older guy in the gym who wears five-fingers and does handstands, chin ups and pistol squats, while all the younger lads are checking out their guns in the mirror between sets of shoulder presses on the Smith machine and shrugs on the squat rack.

The lifestyle has also provided plenty of peripheral benefits. I sold my wife on the idea early on and she lost a load of weight too. We love putting our five-fingers on and going walking together. Just over 14 months ago our son was born. We’re now following baby-led weaning using a primal eating plan, and he’s a really healthy and happy little soul. Of course the new demands of fatherhood have had a large impact on my free time available to train and quality of sleep available to recover. In the past that would have been a problem but not now. It’s easy to stay as lean and strong as I want to be just by using the minimum effective dose of training and sticking to a primal lifestyle. I’ve replaced the car commute by cycling the eight miles each way to work, which is time efficient, combining low level frequent movement and the commute in one go. Most of my colleagues thought I was absolutely nuts when I told them I was selling my car at the beginning of winter to start cycling to work. But it’s no bother. It was great to know that I’d have no problem in terms of being fit enough to commute reliably and quickly, when many of my peers simply wouldn’t have the option due to poor general health and fitness levels.

I’m almost 35 now and the primal lifestyle has enabled me to find a happy niche that I feel confident I can sustain for many years to come! I have no doubt that barring an unforeseen catastrophe, I’ll be able to maintain my lifestyle pretty much as long as I want to. I’m not worried about training my body into dust, becoming sedentary or sliding into a cycle of insidious weight gain and associated deteriorating health. I’m really looking forward to being able to enjoy playing with my son as he grows up and be able to keep up with whatever games and running around he wants to do, while of course raising him into a comfortable 80/20 primal lifestyle.

So all I can say is a huge thank you Mark for not only sharing your wisdom, but doing so for free!

Malc