Realizing the Key to Growth: A Marathoner’s Primal Story

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-1-2Running can be painful. When you are injured – it is even more painful. But despite all this, I love the sense of freedom and movement that running brings. I have lived for over 12 years as an Englishman with my family in a multinational environment in Singapore, and there is plenty of scope to travel. For me, this meant the quest for the next dose of agony – leading me to the start line of a dozen marathons and over 20 half marathons. With much attention on training plans, and even more time spent running laps on the track, I progressed to a reasonable standard three years ago (1:26 half and 3:21 marathon). Still, there were several things that kept holding me back. I found it hard to control my weight (around 70 kg/154 lbs, at 1.73 m or 5′ 8) no matter how far I ran, and I would always break down in training if I tried to run more than 75 km (45 miles) a week. On top of that, running had become even more painful, and this meant it would soon be time to leave it to others – those both younger and less injured.

20x30-AMAM4244 (1)During one of my injured spells, I decided to read The Primal Blueprint (following Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It), and it’s fair to say that the effect was inspirational. Law One (Eat Lots of Plants and Animals) was the first to be applied – I moved to a low-carb, high-fat diet, and also began to consider the interrelationship between food and my training. I made sure I had protein after work-outs and avoided sugary drinks in longer runs (and at any time!) and took electrolytes without sugar/sweeteners instead. I also completely rethought my running plan and tried to complete nearly all of my running with a heart rate below 75% of HRmax (Law 3 Move Frequently at a Slow Pace) – and I only ran higher heart rate sessions on very specific occasions in the build up to a race. I also went to the gym two to three times a week (Law 4 Lift Heavy Things). Against my pain loving nature, I recognised there were other big gains to be taken from sleeping more and playing as much as possible with my kids. Maybe my brain had finally recognised that it was time to avoid making stupid mistakes!

The results were huge and positive. Within weeks my weight fell and stabilised around 65 kg (143 lbs), 5 kg (11 lbs) lighter than before). Over time, my strength increased and I rarely got injured. The consistency of my training and running longer distances at lower heart-rate gave me a much greater base. This base and my strength made me faster too – even though I had rarely completed any speed work. Not surprisingly my times improved, but more surprisingly, the pain started to lift. Running didn’t hurt! Beyond my running, eating had become much more pleasurable (no more bloated feeling!) and family time was even more fun.

For a while, I thought this was the end of the story, until I noticed after a couple of years that I wasn’t improving anymore. I went back to Mark’s Daily Apple to see what I might have missed…and I had missed a lot! Somehow I had overlooked the advice on sprinting completely. This has to be one of the most pleasurable experiences that I had missed out on for over 30 years. Also, I had not considered intermittent fasting – not eating once a week for 24 hours has really made me appreciate my food more. Finally, I decided to try life without regular caffeine and alcohol. These are now just in my life around race time – caffeine right before a race – and alcohol several hours after!

DATAx1_1800-7-1_3169-1759920_DATAx1 (1)This time the results were significant – but maybe less dramatic. My weight fell further to 62 kg (136 lbs) and my times began to improve rapidly again. My most recent times are 1:22 for a half and 3:05 for a marathon – but it’s nice to think at 45 years old that I have a good chance of running faster times again.

My experiences have shown that there is much to learn from the Primal movement – and almost as much to learn when re-thinking the approach a second time. I am sure there are still plenty more ways to grow when I am ready to accept them. Maybe most importantly, I started to reflect that my running habit and desire to run fast might not be so unhelpful after all – for me these were the key to my attempts to grow.


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37 thoughts on “Realizing the Key to Growth: A Marathoner’s Primal Story”

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  1. Good for you, David! I love hearing from another happy, healthy, injury-free Primal runner.

    1. +1…I would never be able to train for, participate in, and recover well from ultramarathons without utilizing the Primal Blueprint principles…truly amazing!

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    So bummed out by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines. But more importantly seemingly intelligent folk like Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, that cannot get out of their own preconceived notions.

    All these Drs. congratulating themselves on doubling down on meat is bad and saturated fats are bad. It makes me want to scream.

    So I really needed a Friday success story. And yours is great (they all are).

    Awesome job. I hope you are helping people around you (that have an open mind). I am giving up on the ones that do not. I can only do so much and they drain my energy.

    But lets keep the peer to peer revolution going!

    1. Thanks Larry – I couldn’t agree more!

      I have shared my ideas and I have found the same as you – some people are just not good at listening. Luckily there are a few who are – including my closest social and running companions (and hopefully me)

  3. Im a primal runner too- I would love to hear about what you fuel marathons with both before and during a race. Congrats on the fabulous achievement!

    1. Thanks Karen

      In training, I am low carb all the time – I rarely let that slip.
      In the day or two before a race, I now have a very small amount of extra carb for a day or two before the race – I am talking just 1-2 apples extra and one slice of toast. Nothing more. I tried oatmeal and muesli and it made me feel terrible!
      During the race, I take gels. For 10k or Half Marathon, I will take a gel 15 mins before the start and again after 30-40 mins have passed – the sugar high can’t be allowed to fall! With a marathon, I will take a first gel after I am already 10k into the race and again every 30-45 mins to the finish.
      I hope that helps – there is definitely a need for experimentation to get the nutrition right – good luck!

      1. Vinnie Tortorich finds he can ‘fuel’ during an endurance event just with a lifesaver. Since you are fat adapted, might want to experiment.

        1. you are right Larry. It is possible that I don’t need the sugar for longer races. Something to investigate…..

  4. It’s nice to hear a story of how running and a Primal lifestyle go together, with the talk of running being bad.

  5. David, nice work! Your running form also looks way better. In the first photo you are clearly heel-striking with a straight leg out in front of your body. Not only does this cause bigger impacts on your body, but it also slows you down because you are applying force forward.

    In the second picture you’re in a different point in the stride, so harder to say for certain, but it looks like you are setting your front foot down underneath you – a lot better (less impact and more efficient). Did you you do some work on your running technique or did occasional sprinting just help you in that regard?

    1. Thanks – it’s good to see that comes over in the photos.

      My form began improving by itself first of all. The strength training on my legs was probably the main reason. The sprinting was also another big factor.
      I have been focusing more attention on my form lately and reading some books just for this purpose. However, the strength work and sprinting were still the cornerstones of my improvement

      1. Agree with skinny comment, it looks as if you are not heel striking.
        Can you give more details on it?
        Yours is a very inspiring story for other runners (and not runners also)

  6. This is good because distance runners need to carry as little weight as they possibly can for both speed and injury prevention. This is true for all endurance athletes.

  7. I’ll tell you how this is good. He WANTS to be at a lower weight for running and now he is. His performance is better. He has achieved what he wanted to achieve…for now. If he changes his mind, I have no doubt he’ll be able to do it.

    If it’s not aesthetically pleasing to you, OK. After all, that is the most important thing, to make sure you look a certain way to please other people

    1. He is aesthetically pleasing to me in the AFTER photo. I truly think folks are desensitized when it comes to perception of weight and health. Check out any movie or video from the 50’s or before, folks are not fat or even a little overweight.

  8. Good to hear from a runner. I’m into the weights more myself but it’s great to read how the Primal way helps an endurance exerciser. I will return to endurance stuff someday and I have been searching for a good way to survive it when I do. It’s nice to see how Primal helped you.

  9. I had a similar reaction (having fought for years to get from 135lb UP to 160) but he mentioned an increase in strength and fewer injuries, so I suppose it’s good. If he chooses, he could move from marathoning to shorter distances later in life, and rebuild some of the body mass without any penalty in performance in what he wants to do.

  10. OK. Call me crazy but two or more years ago the primal goal seemed to quit the crazy marathons etc. and take an easy, sane approach to exercise and fitness. That’s why I started following this site. And now we’re eating bugs…hmmm.
    I guess it’s whatever floats your boat. Take the basics and work with them I guess.
    Glad you reached your goal tho.

    1. That’s the wonderful thing about the Primal community; it’s large and generous enough to support everyone’s individual goals and how they implement the principles to support their success without passing judgment.

        1. +1 as well. Vegetarian for 28 years but my diet would be considered primal. Primal doesn’t mean you have to eat meat. Or give up marathons if that makes you feel good.

    2. Bugs are different. They’re a nutritional powerhouse, poised to revolutionize the world (both nutritionally and ecologically).

      However, I agree with your sentiment: Primal is not about marathons. The whole premise Mark dictates in PB is that he learned the “hard way” that humans aren’t meant for endurance events such as marathons; It punishes the body with no meaningful physiological use (cue all the marathon Kool-Aid drinking junkies). “Primal runners” is tantamount to losing tons of weight via conventional wisdom: good for you, but wrong platform

    3. I liked the fact that he slowed down which built a better base, which then helped his performance in the marathon. Also, less pain and injuries. Sounds very primal to me! David, good going.

  11. Awesome stuff David!

    I had to laugh at one comment you made about caffeine before the race and alcohol afterwards. That reminds me so much of our Taekwondo events. We’ll do what we can to get amped up before the event and then afterwards, we all go out to a restaurant to eat….but mainly drink. We’re all so beat up and sore, we just want to drink the pain away! lol

    1. The same applies to surfing, skiing, club sports, ultimate frisbee. Come to think of it I can’t think of any friendly competitive event or play activity that does not begin the day with caffeine and follow the event with the social consumption of alcohol.

      1. same thing applies to womens competitive soccer when you’re 42, a mom of two, playing Keeper, and are on the “Bad News Bears” team of the league (lots and lots of action….) French press pre-game, porter afterwards! But now I’m anxiously awaiting my grain-free meatloaf… lol…

  12. Because he feels healthier and better, and is that way because he followed a primal lifestyle. He is injury free and performing better at a sport he loves. With all due respect, how is that NOT good??

  13. Many thanks for the positive comments. It is an honour to have my story on MDA having learnt so much from it!
    My form began improving by itself first of all. The strength training on my legs was probably the main reason. The sprinting was also another big factor.
    I have been focusing more attention on my form lately and reading some books just for this purpose. However, the strength work and sprinting were still the cornerstones of my improvement

  14. Is respectful discussion no longer allowed on MDA?

    Why were my comments deleted?

    Having been a reader since 2006 I have never posted a comment that was inappropriate.

    Whats going on folks?


  15. From one 45-year-old marathoner to another: Congratulations! I’ve had similar struggles with weight and other issues until I cleaned up the eating and replaced high carb “runner foods” with nuts, avocados and other healthy fat sources.

    I’ve also used lower heart rate training (Maffetone’s Big Book of Endurance Training is unbelievably thorough) with good results, although I’m not nearly as fast as you.

    Congratulations, again!

  16. Mark has a a lot of experience athletically. Doing lots of walking is the “bread and butter” of his recommendations. There are a lot of people out there creating phony arguments about “Chronic Cardio”.

    Lots of walking is encouraged. It’s the many miles a week of running done most days of the week that is discouraged because of a host of negative effects including inflammation ad reduced capacity of the immune system.

  17. Loved seeing this success story. I’ve been running long distances for over 10 years now (12 marathons, 21 halfs). I came across MDA about three years ago and the awareness itself has caused a shift in my attitude towards long distance running; however, I am still running long distances and usually it’s not without some form of questioning what I am doing. I praise Mark and all the information he has offered everyone about the Primal lifestyle. This knowledge has improved my family’s life immensely through better eating habits, etc (not to mention my husband looks better than he did in high school!). Many of the older runners in my running club are injured or carrying too much weight around their middle sections… all indicative of poor lifestyle choices. They are resistant to changing their old ways. I don’t want to be one of them.
    I am planning to stop long distance running when I hit 50 two years from now but continue the primal tenets of movement. Hopefully menopause will be an easy passage without all the heavy mileage. It will be my biggest challenge. I enjoy long distance running and have always been injury free. David’s story reminds me that it’s okay to run long distances and be a follower of the primal movement at the same time. I am going to look at slowing the heart rate down on those long runs. Great idea. Great story. Thanks.

  18. Let’s be honest here, he looks healthier in the before picture.