If you’re a type-A, hard-driving peak performer, my hope is that this post will stop you in your tracks.
Today I want you to completely rethink your basic philosophy about how you manage both your fitness activities and the assorted stresses of hectic, modern life. This post was inspired by a great article from training expert Joel Jamieson of 8weeksout.com titled, “All Pain, No Gain: Why The High Intensity Training Obsession Has Failed Us All.” Joel’s message set off a firestorm of internal dialog among members of the Primal Blueprint team. (Catch Brad Kearns’ recent interview with him for the Primal Blueprint Podcast.) After much back and forth and additional research, I’m eager to get you reflecting and commenting on the genuine nature of recovery from an entirely new angle.
We only have a certain amount of energy we’re able to expend each day. No matter how hard you try to burn additional calories through crazy training, or express your type-A, workaholic tendencies to get more done across the board, you’re ultimately constrained by your own personal daily maximum caloric expenditure.
This assertion is supported by a well-publicized study of the Hadza, modern-day hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. The study revealed the shocking insight that we modern slackers burn a similar number of calories (pound for pound, of course) as our seemingly harder working, traditionally living counterparts. The authors of the study, which was published in the journal PLoS One, reported that, “The similarity in [total energy expenditure (TEE)] among Hadza hunter-gatherers and Westerners suggests that even dramatic differences in lifestyle may have a negligible effect on TEE.” I’d consider this mind-blowing.
The idea that we have an energy expenditure limit is known as the “constrained model of energy expenditure,” in contrast to the popular, but now seemingly disproven belief that we operate on an “additive model of energy expenditure.”
In the additive model embraced by conventional wisdom, your impressive morning workout adds to your total daily energy expenditure, seemingly promoting fitness gains, a faster metabolism, and a reduction in excess body fat. While logical at first glance, the additive model is being exposed as inaccurate.
In the constrained model, when we bump up against our max, the body compensates. The downward slope of the “other” section is you glued to the couch watching Netflix all afternoon, too worn out to even answer the doorbell on the heels of your 10k run that same morning.
Figure Source: “Constrained Total Energy Expenditure and Metabolic Adaptation to Physical Activity in Adult Humans”
This is an extreme example of compensating with slug time when you do something really strenuous; however, there are more subtle, nuanced ways we subconsciously adjust our behaviors when we bump up against our daily max.
I also speculate that we might best look at a bigger timeline than a single day. As longtime Primal enthusiast and Newport Coast, CA fitness legend Dave Kobrine observes, if he strings together a good week or two or three of impressive workouts and busy daily schedules, he often eventually experiences a need for some sincere downtime: less exercise, less work (overburdening his brothers in the family business in the process), more sleep, and more recovery. Keep this concept of “borrowed time” in mind when we discuss recovery debt shortly….
This commentary supports the compensation theory that I’ve discussed at length in Primal Blueprint books in relation to calorie balance and weight loss. The theory contends that calories burned during exercise lead to a corresponding increase in appetite and a decrease in general activity levels, as your body tries to preserve energy and recover. Particularly if you exercise in chronic patterns, the appetite stimulation can exceed the calories you burn, such that your overly-stressful workout patterns will actually compromise your weight loss goals.
As I like to quip to lecture audiences, “Your brain is saying, ‘I better stuff my face in case this clown tries to do this again tomorrow.’” In all seriousness,there are profound implications to this maxim, especially for avid exercisers who get frustrated when they can’t shed excess fat.
Besides the appetite and hormonal dysregulation from excess exercise that promotes sugar cravings and fat storage, the compensation theory suggests that you get lazier and eat more calories over the course of the day as a consequence of your workout. This happens consciously, such as when you enjoy a hot fudge sundae as a reward for your “big” workout. It also happens subconsciously, where you might default to the couch for longer than planned; generally move more slowly and feel less motivated to do routine chores in the aftermath of one of those big workouts. Brad Kearns offers a great example of this from when he was training full-time on the pro triathlon circuit. He would drive the 0.6 miles to his mailbox—too tired from hours of training to bother walking or pedaling there. You might also zone out at work and take longer for routine tasks when you are stretched too thin by family, fitness, and fun; and/or snack more frequently with less discipline or awareness than usual.
These assorted compensatory reductions in metabolic activity on the heels of strenuous exercise and generally hectic living are typically outside of your awareness. On his Primal Blueprint podcast appearance, Joel Jamieson references research that athletic types paradoxically have a slower metabolic rate at rest than those who exercise less. Who knew!
The Recovery Deficit
Here is the other glaring omission from conventional thinking about stress and rest, the centerpiece of Joel’s argument for what he calls “recovery-based fitness”— recovery and restoration require energy in and of themselves!
Our flawed rat race, “no pain, no gain” perspective about peak performance in fitness— and in life—is that we should go, go, go until we collapse in a heap at the end of a productive day. We take rest and restoration for granted, instead of allocating a necessary slice of the daily energy expenditure pie for it.
Reflect carefully on Joel’s contention that our daily energy resources are allocated to three main functions:
1. Vital Biological Functions: We prioritize basic daily survival with assorted homeostatic mechanisms that require substantial energy—firing brain neurons, digesting food, breathing air.
2. Workouts and General Everyday Stress: Yes, these have to go in the same category. Realize that whatever energy you wish to allocate to fitness ambitions must compete with your commute, busy workday, jet travel, and shuttling around to the kids’ weekend soccer games. Exercise may be a great “stress release” from a hectic day at the office, but it’s also another form of stress to the body.
3. Recovery and Restoration: Surprise! Restocking depleted muscle glycogen, optimizing immune function, and replenishing the sodium-potassium pumps in your brain neurons and exercised muscles all require significant energy expenditure.
It follows that a type-A hard driver trying to dispense big energy to career, family, and fitness endeavors is playing with fire, constantly challenging the body’s maximum energy expenditure ceiling each day and consequently incurring what Jamieson calls “recovery debt.”
This is where your big expenditures on objectives #1 and #2 compromise what you have left for #3. Perhaps your immune system will break down and you’ll catch a cold. Maybe you’ll take nine hours to put together your audit report or quarterly marketing plan, instead of the six (with fewer mistakes!) it might take if you were firing on all cylinders during the work day. Maybe you’ll blow out a hamstring or strain your shoulder during a workout—not because the workout was beyond your abilities and not because of bad luck or an insufficient warmup, but because you weren’t fully repaired and prepared for your physical effort.
Relax, Records Are Made To Be Broken
One exciting element about this discussion is how it might foretell the future of athletic peak performance. They say records are made to be broken, and we have seen improved performance in team and individual sports in recent years due to increased economic incentives and refined training techniques. Tiger Woods single-handedly generated massive increases in money and attention to golf, and now we have droves more superfit, super competitive players from all over the world competing for unimaginable fame and fortunes. NBA and NFL players are bigger, stronger, faster, and more skilled than in decades past (sorry, Jerry West, it might be time to update the NBA logo!), thanks to the aforementioned economic forces.
However, we’re clearly approaching the ceiling of human potential in many prominent professional and Olympic sports. The exploits of LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant are not going to be trivialized in 50 years by 8-foot tall superhumans sinking 35-foot “four-pointers.” Nor will Usain Bolt’s world 100-meter record of 9.58 (that’s a human running at a top speed of 27.8 mph for the uninitiated) be considered pedestrian in 50 years.
Consider that the current high jump world record of 8 feet (yes, a human can clear his entire body over a bar that is the height of your ceiling!) has held now for 25 years. Forget the famed four-minute mile, the current record of 3:43 (c’mon, watch it on this video, it only takes a few minutes…) by Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj has held for 18 years.
“El G,” who at 5’9” was estimated to have the cardiovascular system of a man 6’6”, the inseam of a man 6’2”, and the upper body of a man 5’2” (“a machine,” said commentator Craig Masbach, a former 3:52 miler himself) was also motivated by deepest of callings; he believed that it was his destiny in the eyes of Allah to become the greatest middle distance runner in history. After an upset loss in the Olympics he reported that, “I was unable to eat or sleep for a week.” He didn’t lose again for several years. Tough guy, and experts that predict that in 100 years, the mile record may only drop a couple seconds at most. But I digress…
Where are we headed from here? How will future athletes actualize the
“records are made to be broken” maxim when we have already seen such superhuman feats? I speculate that future performance breakthroughs might be attained by athletes who train less than the current mindblowing standard of the world’s elite athletes.
Remember the legend of Jerry Rice, considered the all-time greatest NFL wide receiver? His off-season hill-sprint-till-you-puke regimen gained legendary status amongst fitness enthusiasts. “He worked harder in the off-season than anyone! No wonder he lasted in the league ’til he was 40!” the thinking went.
Today, in the aforementioned bigger, faster, stronger league (with consequently more severe impact trauma), we have exhibit B, Atlanta Falcons All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones.An article about him caught my eye because of his trending toward Primal-style eating, but another statement from his interview was the real revelation: “I don’t have an offseason workout regimen. I don’t lift weights. I don’t run. I don’t do anything. I let my body rest. I just eat good. I actually eat great.”
Please don’t scoff and say “genetic freak.” I think Jones is giving us a glimpse into a future in which elite athletes (and enthusiastic everyday folks pursuing peak performance) will do more chilling, take longer off-seasons during which they log more beach time in Hawaii and steer clear of any fitness or lifestyle regimen that gives off a whiff of anything chronic.
Maybe we’ll even see pharmaceutical influences drive record breaking. The Tour de France guys love their drugs, right? What if they pedaled like crazy for 1,000 miles over 10 days, and then the team docs hooked them up to IV bags to enter medically induced comatose states for 72 hours of blissful recovery. Altered States II here we come!
Yes, the tide is turning. The Primal Endurancemovement is being well-received by the endurance community that has long been mired in the overtraining, carb dependency paradigm.The Primal Endurane Mastery Course portal is filled with video interviews from leading training experts and champion athletes pounding the theme that there is such a thing as too much. In his Mastery Course videos, Olympic gold and silver medalist Simon Whitfield echoes the need for restraint when he says he is currently coached by his 80-year-old self!
Dr. Phil Maffetone—whose MAF method of aerobic-emphasis endurance training is finally getting its due after 30 years of stubborn resistance by tightly-wound endurance enthusiasts—promotes this theme beautifully in extensive interview commentary in the course. Here’s a sneak preview of his interview footage.
In Dr. Maffetone’s book, 1:59 Marathon, he argues that breaking this magic barrier will happen when an athlete actually does less mileage and less intensity than today’s elite, but improves running economy, optimizes rest and other lifestyle factors, and learns to race barefoot (because of reduced weight and improved explosive force per stride… once the feet become conditioned of course!). The current marathon world record is 2:02, a pace of 4:42 per mile! If you want to fully appreciate how amazing this is, go to a local track and try to complete one lap in 70.5 seconds. Good luck. Then imagine carrying on at this pace all the way from your house to downtown, or whatever other distant landmark you have in your town. FYI: you can’t approximate the marathon record pace on a treadmill because they max out at five minutes per mile pace!
The MMA world is also slowly but surely discarding the old school boxing mentality and ushering in an era of highly sophisticated training and recovery strategy. World champs are sparring much less, and spending more time in float tanks thanks in big part to the influence of the forward-thinking podcast king, MMA event host and standup comedian extraordinaire, Joe Rogan.
But let’s bring it back now. How about you? Are you willing to allocate a generous slice of your daily pie chart of energy allocation to recovery and restoration? What about taking down time on a park bench during your work day, taking an evening stroll with the dog instead of an elliptical session at the gym, turning around at mile 25 instead of mile 45 on your bike ride, and going to sleep instead of going to the email inbox? What if these choices might be paths to future breakthroughs in peak physical and cognitive performance? Yes, it requires some reprogramming away from conventional wisdom, but isn’t that what we all do here?
That’s it for me, everybody. Thanks for reading today, and I’ll look forward to hearing your questions and feedback on today’s post—and all things fitness and recovery based. Happy hump day.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.