This is a guest post written by Brad Kearns, my long-time friend and integral member of the Primal Blueprint team. He’ll be speaking at this year’s PrimalCon, instructing athletes and non-athletes alike on how to properly train for endurance events the Primal Blueprint way.
Greetings MDA readers. It’s been a wonderful experience to work closely with Mark Sisson over the past two years on the Primal Blueprint book and the many ambitious projects we have announced for 2010. I look forward to meeting PrimalCon attendees in April and discussing the application of Primal Blueprint principles to endurance training. Mark and I go back over two decades, when we first crossed paths on the professional triathlon circuit in the 80’s. Mark was my coach and mentor for the majority of my professional career, helping guide me into training and lifestyle practices that were counter to Conventional Wisdom (sound familiar?) and basically save me from the extreme burnout risk that was (and still is) endemic to training and racing at the elite level.
What an amusing journey it’s been! Mark and I used to debate the intricacies of interval workouts and swim technique on 100-mile training rides. Today our workouts are beach sprints or quick, intense plyometric sessions, and debate is about the ingredients for our post-workout BAS (Big Ass Salad). Having both been through the hard-core endurance scene, spit out the other end, and catapulted headlong into the Primal world, we share a valuable perspective of both appreciation for the passion expressed by endurance athletes, and also a conviction that the Conventional Wisdom approach and mindset toward endurance training and racing is deeply and dangerously flawed.
As Mark has mentioned often on the blog and in the book, trying to apply the Primal Blueprint Fitness principles to a gung-ho endurance athlete with extreme and highly specialized goals is a challenge. As the landmark post, A Case Against Cardio explained in detail, serious endurance training is detrimental to your health, period. However, there is a way to do this stuff correctly, have fun, preserve your health, and enjoy all the benefits of the endurance experience which is so popular these days. Anyone who has browsed through the Primal Blueprint or read much of the blog is aware of Chronic Cardio‘s drawbacks, and the benefits of integrating the three Primal Blueprint exercise laws (Move Frequently at a Slow Pace, Lift Heavy Things, and Sprint Once in a While) to achieve well-balanced, functional fitness without compromising health. This stuff is all fine and dandy until you catch the fever and sign up for a marathon or half-ironman triathlon. Then, as most of the magazine articles, books and coaches will tell you, you have to get focused, put in the miles, be consistent and basically struggle and suffer in the name of preparing for your daunting fitness goal.
The promotion of this approach and mentality is a massive scam, preying upon the frailties of the Type A personality drawn to extreme challenges, and fed by the hype and marketing influences of those who stand to make a buck off of people struggling and suffering. For example, consider the “Ironman”, which today has evolved from a description of a triathlon race distance to a multimillion dollar global brand with dozens of events replicating the original Hawaii “product”. Let us not forget that Ironman is an arbitrary distance, entirely inconsiderate of the health, lifestyle factors and overall best interests of those who participate. What if the distance around Oahu was only 56 miles? (the derivative of the 112-mile Ironman bike ride is the 112-mile ‘Ride Around Oahu’ bike ride) Or what if the standard marathon distance (born from the legend of Pheidippides running from Marathon to Athens, Greece to announce a battle victory) was only 13 miles instead of 26, and thus the Ironman was actually a half-ironman? It might be a superior competitive event and would surely be a more sensible competitive and peak performance goal for the vast majority of the participants.
The contention I have is the media and corporate influence that have lured the masses to believe that running a marathon or finishing an Ironman is the ultimate endurance achievement. To me this seems backwards – to get persuaded by hype, mystique and peer pressure into an athletic goal and then re-arrange your lifestyle in order to pursue that goal. It makes better sense to make a careful analysis of your life circumstances, responsibilities, obligations and potential impact on your family, career and overall well-being, and then choose an appropriate competitive goal. Aspiring to a less challenging event that requires less training time and less physical stress might be a win/win situation all around. For comparison, look at the sensibility of a community soccer league, where field size, game length, and number of players escalate steadily as the kids get older and more competent. If instead we put Under-6 kids on an international 100-meter field for 90 minutes, what might happen? They’d probably become exhausted and burnt out, something that happens with alarming frequency in the endurance world. As an endurance athlete, you must take control of your destiny, choose appropriate goals, and train according to some simple guidelines that will allow you to protect health, moderate the stress of an extremely stressful endeavor, increase your enjoyment of the endurance experience, and finally, believe it or not, actually improve your competitive performances.
Throw out the fancy log books, graphs, magazine articles, books and Internet coaches spitting out detailed 6-week or 12-week training plans designed to produce peak performance. Get a spiral notepad for 99 cents and start keeping score of these three markers with a simple 1-10 rating each day: 10 being outstanding, 5 being medium, and 1 being terrible. Conduct and rate your workouts similarly, with 1 being an easy recovery effort and 10 being a maximum effort. Strive to match up the energy/motivation/health numbers with the workout degree of difficulty scores, and realize the long-term negative repercussions of misaligning these markers. When you rate your workouts, include psychological components as well as physical. Cutting short sleep for a swim session on a brisk early morning, followed by a hurried drive to work while inhaling a processed snack for breakfast is far more stressful than the same workout on a more relaxed time schedule. Govern your workout decisions by asking yourself, “Is this healthy?” and be clear with your specific purpose for every workout: recovery/rejuvenation, fitness maintenance or fitness improvement.
The world’s foremost expert on your training program is you, even if you are a complete novice. No one will ever be as skilled at rating and aligning the numbers described in item #1 as you are right now. I counsel the endurance athletes I coach to make every workout feel effortless. I’m obviously taking license with the literal definition here, but the goal is to make training decisions based on gut instinct, biofeedback, even visualization – in order to promote physical and mental ease rather than struggle. Physically, workout pace and length should be dictated by factors discussed in #1 – energy, motivation, and health. Mentally, you want to nurture your passion and your will at all times, and never abuse these attributes in the name of your ego or insecurities. If you don’t feel like working out, this is a powerful message to reflect upon and honor. Sure, sometimes inertia is involved and you feel better once you get out the door and get moving, but often developing the discipline to hit the snooze button and sacrifice the instant gratification of logging more miles is what can take you to the next level as an athlete. Restraining your obsessive/compulsive tendencies and rejecting the unhealthy influences of Conventional Wisdom and peer pressure offers a tremendous growth experience that can translate to many other areas of life. Conversely, a lack of restraint and intuition will cause your athletics to become just another outlet to express your insecurities and obsessive/compulsive tendencies. The choice is yours!
The recommendation for consistency is the context of athletic training is deeply flawed. Extensive research suggests that your body will plateau and even regress unless you vary workload carefully. While most everyone agrees with this basic concept, I believe that we haven’t taken it far enough. Experts touting sage advice like “rest one day a week”; “build three weeks, then recover one week”: or “never increase your mileage more than 10% per week” are interpreting only a narrow slice of a very big picture. The balance between stress and rest is a constant challenge, represented best by our waking days and sleeping nights. When it comes to training, it’s difficult to predict the ideal stress/rest balance, and most people err on the stress side. Partly to blame are the elite athletes who serve as de facto role models and share their secrets with eager enthusiasts. An Olympian who eats, sleeps and runs 130 miles a week has little in common with someone immersed in busy family, career, school, and community life. While exercise is an excellent “stress release” from other forms of mental and emotional stress in your life, it’s merely a different form of stress, pulling on the very same adrenal glands that service your boardroom presentations, domestic arguments, and financial concerns.
Understanding the Primal Blueprint exercise laws, it makes sense to promote optimal gene expression by reducing the stress of your endurance workouts (by limiting heart rate to 75% of max or less), and reducing the frequency and duration (but possibly even increasing the difficulty) of high-intensity workouts. The body does not require a consistent application of stress to thrive, but rather a strategic balance between stress and rest. Make your easy-to-moderate workouts much easier and shorter, and make your hard workouts much less frequent and in many cases, harder. Don’t be afraid to spike that graph more than Conventional Wisdom suggests, and do everything you can to run screaming from the “flatline” approach that has produced widespread burnout.
Applying these three principles requires a skill set that, quite frankly, tends to be a little deficient amongst the masses of endurance enthusiasts. However, an evolved training program is well within your reach, and can pay great dividends starting immediately. Once you expand your horizons beyond the “struggle and suffer’ paradigm, and see how fun it is to train intuitively, healthily and Primally, there is no turning back, believe me!
Brad Kearns is a noted speaker, author and coach in the health & fitness world for over two decades. Over the past two years, he has worked closely with Mark Sisson on Primal Blueprint projects, editing the Primal Blueprint book and DVD, and co-authoring the upcoming Primal Leap 30-day weight loss program Guidebook. Brad has written nine other books on health, fitness, and peak performance, including Breakthrough Triathlon Training (2006, McGraw-Hill), which offers a healthy, balanced approach to triathlon peak performance, and How Lance Does It (2007, McGraw-Hill), which details the attitude and behavior qualities of the Tour de France legend and how you can apply these attributes to your own goals. During his nine-year career as a professional triathlete, Brad was a 2-time national champion and ranked #3 in the world in 1991. Brad produces the Auburn, CA Triathlon annually, and is the Founder and Executive Director of a non-profit organization promoting cardiovascular fitness for kids called Running School. Brad graduated cum laude from UC Santa Barbara in 1985, majoring in Business/Economics and minoring in running injuries and surfing. He enjoys coaching youth sports and dominating sixth graders in both soccer and basketball. Brad’s offbeat competitive outlets include high jumping and Speed Golf. A 3.7 handicap, Brad placed 8th in the world Speed Golf championships, shooting 80 on a regulation 18-hole course in 40 minutes. In spring 2008, Brad attained a lifetime best high jump of 5’5”, which would rank him 13th in the USA Masters 40+ track and field list.