Take It Easy, Increase Progress: How to Make Your Training More Primal

Take it Easy FinalI recently had the pleasure of interviewing my friend and business and training partner Brad Kearns for the upcoming Primal Endurance Online digital course (more about that later). It was more of a discussion, really, and we kept coming back to the same three elements for constructing any successful training program. I’m going to present them as they came to me—as bullet points, as tangentially related thoughts. Then I’ll expand on them from there.

Without further ado…

You don’t really need to train the heart to beat faster. The heart easily responds to exercise stress by elevating rate and stroke volume, even in an unfit person walking up the staircase! Anyone who’s ever had to speak in public knows that your heart rate jumps up to 150 BPM 10 minutes before its your turn without you doing anything overtly physical. The heart knows.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do hard stuff. You can train the heart to withstand greater demands and you can increase lung volume as well by doing very specific, strategically placed high intensity workouts (sprints, intervals, tempo runs). But when you train the heart “hard” you do it sporadically, not every day, not even more than once or twice a week. We used to think you trained the heart at high heart rates every day, or several days in a row, to get the cardio part dialed in. We know now what’s more important is focusing on the biochemistry and energy production at the level of the muscle cell. And to dial that in, we must engage in copious amounts of low-level aerobic activity at or below the 180-minus-age fat-burning heart rate zone to build more mitochondria. The more mitochondria you build at the muscle site, the more efficiently you produce energy, and the less you have to rely on your heart pumping faster and harder and in so doing risking all the fallout (high stress hormones, decreased immunity, burnout, injury, etc). With more available mitochondria turning fuel into energy, each pump is more efficient.

You don’t need to train the brain to suffer. The brain will be ready to suffer when it’s asked to. This is the fight or flight response after all. 

Suffering is overrated.

We’re set up to respond to stressful situations with a flood of hormones that support and enable a suitable response. Those responses are hard wired in us, which is why you hear about the 130 pound mother lifting the back end of a station wagon off her kid, the man rushing into the burning building to save someone without thinking, the newbie conscript performing medal-worthy acts of bravery on the battlefield. They didn’t train for those specific situations. They rose to the occasion. Those responses don’t go away because we don’t train them three times a week.

And if you’re not competing, why suffer?

I get climbing Mt. Shasta with your pals on a long weekend. I understand running the ultra, or going for a deadlift PR, or doing a Spartan Race, or slipping on your own sweat on the final rep of the CrossFit WOD. Those quiet feats of elective heroism are important in a safe, sterile world that no longer demands we place ourselves in mortal danger just to survive. To feel human, to feel alive, we need to overcome obstacles, even if we have to erect them ourselves.

Just save the suffering for those heroic efforts. Save it for the race. Training shouldn’t cause suffering, only discomfort. Training shouldn’t simulate competition.

After you build the aerobic base, all that’s left is to train the muscles to perform the desired activity: run a fast 5k, a slower marathon, or perform well at the Crossfit Games.

First you build the aerobic base—or actively pursue it—and then you train your muscles for the desired activity.

As it turns out, skeletal muscle fiber physiology dictates this training approach. There are two primary types of muscle fibers: slow twitch and fast twitch. Slow twitch muscles aren’t very exciting. They contract slowly, making them perfect for aerobic, everyday activities like walking, controlling your posture, standing up from a chair, gardening, shopping. Anything you do without being out of breath utilizes slow twitch fibers. Fast twitch muscles contract quickly and are used to perform high-intensity, explosive movements like sprinting, jumping, throwing, and lifting. Some of us have more fast twitch muscle fibers than others, while others trend toward slow twitch dominance, but the fact remains that everyone has and needs both types.

Slow twitch fibers recover faster than fast twitch fibers, which is why we should walk but not sprint every day, garden but not squat heavy every morning, and do housework but not run a 5k daily. This physiological reality—that sans external aids slow twitch fibers can handle more frequent utilization—underpins Primal Blueprint Fitness and Primal Endurance. A ton of slow easy movement (walks, hikes, light runs) interspersed with infrequent bursts of intense activity (strength training sessions, sprinting, CrossFit workouts, race-pace runs) really does get you stronger, fitter, and faster while allowing ample recovery for the muscle fibers used in each session.

Training those slow twitch fibers through aerobic base-building isn’t only for endurance athletes. When you build a base, your cardiovascular system will grow and adapt and become more efficient at shuttling blood and oxygen to your tissues, aiding in recovery and performance. Your muscle fibers will have more mitochondria willing and able to do their bidding, and any type of training becomes more fruitful, more productive, and easier with more cellular power plants at your disposal.

That’s why the aerobic base is so crucial: it builds those mitochondria that power your efforts and turn fat into fuel.

Sprinters need an aerobic base.

Lifters need an aerobic base.

CrossFitters need an aerobic base.

To get the aerobic base, you need to take it easy. Go slow and go long. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again because people never believe me: make your long workouts longer and easier.

I can already sense the emails coming in: what about breakthrough workouts? According to the post I wrote on breakthrough workouts, there’s real value in pushing past the sticking point, in going harder, farther, and faster than you ever have before. Breakthrough workouts are extraordinary efforts that produce psychological and physical training effects, building mental and muscular toughness with lasting benefits for your performance.

But breakthrough workouts are few and far between by design. They only work when laid atop a foundation of regular, consistent training sessions.

But the pros, Sisson! The professionals aren’t taking it easy! They’re leaving it out on the track/in the weight room/on the court/etc every single day. Right? The pros do a lot of things wrong. They get away with it because they’re the pros. They often have superior genetics that allow quicker recovery and resistance to injury. They “know” their way is correct because it’s how everyone who came before them have always done it. They’ve also got their egos to contend with—the need to be tougher and put in more miles every week than the other guys. Doesn’t mean it’s optimal. There’s little doubt in my mind that the ultra-marathoners I know who insist on doing all-day hard runs every weekend in preparation for the Western States 100 (a 100 mile ultra run through the Sierras at the end of June that draws the best of the best) would be better off sleeping in and doing an easy longish jog 3/4 of the time.

Besides, the professionals are coming around to smarter, more sensible training.

I agree with Phil Maffetone, who thinks that the path to a 1:59 marathon will be a counterintuitive one: once the elites start training less and going easier, they’ll break the record. Ego is a mighty dragon.

It’s time to slay it.

So I’ll end with an ask. I want everyone to try something new and a little counterintuitive the next time they have a hard workout session:

Quit while you’re ahead. Cut it in half. Drop the weights. Don’t finish the WOD.

Keep up the intensity. Go hard. Just not for so long.

If you’re running hill sprints, don’t go till you puke. Leave a little in the tank.

If you’re mentally preparing for a CF WOD after you get off work, maybe Fran, maybe AMRAP clean-and-jerks of varying weights in 20 minutes, plan to cut the session in half.

If you’re doing a tempo run in preparation for a race, maintain the pace but cut the distance in half. Don’t run a facsimile of the race.

What you notice is that cutting your hard workouts short end up making them harder, more intense, and—wait for it—more effective. You lift heavier weights, and the reps feel more smooth. You run at race pace for thirty minutes instead of the hour you’d do otherwise, and you get the training effect without the cortisol cascade that impairs you for days afterward.

Try that and let me know what you think.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!

TAGS:  prevention

About the Author

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.

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30 thoughts on “Take It Easy, Increase Progress: How to Make Your Training More Primal”

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  1. Thanks for this one, Mark. I definitely agree with building an aerobic base in the way laid out in Primal Endurance. I spent too many years burning myself out for diminished returns.

  2. Breaking my workouts into short duration, high intensity practices has not only been more effective, but more efficient. Honestly, I feel like many of us have spent untold wasted hours chasing gains and progress only to end up exhausting ourselves (and impeding both).

  3. More mitochondria + more efficient circulatory system to delivery oxygen and nutrients = better results. I’m all for it.

  4. This all rings true to my experience. There’s a threshold in my workouts where I know I’ve reached my limit. Pushing past it always runs the risk of pushing me into prolonged recovery, which eats into my subsequent workouts. I’ve learned to be attentive of that limit and not to overshoot it. Hence, I don’t get burnt out and I’m able to stay consistent in my workouts without extra down time for recovery.

  5. “Anyone who’s ever had to speak in public knows that your heart rate jumps up to 150 BPM 10 minutes before its your turn . . . .” My pacemaker/defibrillator is monitored by my cardiologist’s office. Two days after a recent public performance, the physician’s assistant called to say that my heart rate had jumped to 150 exactly when I performed.

  6. Quit while you’re ahead. Cut it in half. Drop the weights. Don’t finish the WOD.

    Keep up the intensity. Go hard. Just not for so long.

    If you’re running hill sprints, don’t go till you puke. Leave a little in the tank.

    The way I hear these suggestions is to actually enjoy movement in the moment, and stop while I’m still there.

    This makes intuitive sense to me, and always has. I’ve just always tended to buy the latest kool-aid instead.

  7. I’m a wildland firefighter. A lot of wildland firefighters do a lot chronic cardio, either long runs pushing themselves into the “black hole” or lifting weights, but not heavy enough and for to long. I love this primal way, I hate running but love walking, hiking and slow jogs, so to learn that what I love is better for me is a great!
    I’m 40 years old and have been primal for 4 years. I thought back into 2012 that I was going to have to find another career because of the pain in my hands and knees, my Dad suggested a paleo diet and within 4 days I was pain free. I am sold on the primal life style and have be refining it for myself ever since. I have been able to keep the muscle on at 40 and have had comments from others on my muscle tone. Love it!

    1. Love this Susan!! I’m about to turn 50 and someone at the pool just asked me about how I maintain my muscle tone. The funny thing is I don’t do much. I just move because I like to. Lots of long walks with my dog…pace varies. Bike rides while at the beach because it’s fun. Climbing up the steps to the water slide. I do want to start some type of sprinting because I hear so much about the benefits.

    2. Like you Susan, I find walking to be of great benefit. I am fortunate to have been genetically lean all of my life. And have always stayed fit having a dancer’s muscular build through ballet and dance mainly. I too have noticed a change when eating primarily paleo. I have more energy and less pain. Staying active is more enjoyable when eating healthy!

  8. All you crossfit people who are constantly in and out of rehab … ya might wanna read this article. 🙂

  9. I’m a runner with rheumatoid arthritis & following this advice (slowing down, doing less, adding resistance training when I can, and occasional sprints) has helped reduce my overall pain and exhaustion levels. It’s the whole cortisol connection I’m sure. I’ll be honest, it was hardest to get my ego out of the way than to run sprints or lift heavy objects 🙂

  10. “I agree with Phil Maffetone, who thinks that the path to a 1:59 marathon will be a counterintuitive one: once the elites start training less and going easier, they’ll break the record. Ego is a mighty dragon.”

    Ego is a mighty dragon for sure. I’ve been on again off again injured for over 8 years. If it’s not one thing hurting, it’s another thing. And ego drives a lot of that. I’m training for a half marathon and it’s so hard trying to focus on what I need when people all around me are going hard all the time – “no pain no gain”. I try to keep all the primal I can within my endurance training and I’ve been doing well so far. Trying to keep my ego in check..

    Thanks for this post Mark!

  11. Love this article! I’ve recently (within the past month) have drastically decreased the volume of my workouts and have been working smarter. I have not only been setting some nice PR’s weekly, but have actually started enjoying the workouts more.

  12. Glad to see you making allowances for tempos and race pace as well as intervals. Primal Endurance left them out and it’s frustrated me. Why were they not included? There was a lot of ink spilled on trying to scare you out of letting your HR go above 60% for fear of early death.

    I’ve been slowing down on the long and recovery runs and it has been boring. But I’m giving it a shot.

  13. My alma mater’s football coaches seem to have come to the same conclusion. Instead of going hard in practice all day every day, they take a more relaxed approach to practice during the season and condense the sessions down to keep the guys fresh for Saturday. The result is that in the fourth quarter of big games, they’re still able to go hard on every play and wear out the other team.
    The coaches discovered this when they put trackers on every player to see distances run and just how much activity payers were enduring. A lot of these guys were running ten miles per practice and dead-legged by the end. So they eased up and prospered.

  14. As a fitness director who has tried every workout in the book and use to workout 6 days a week for several hours I have to completely agree. I now walk everyday for as much as I can, lift weights 1-2X per week for 20 minutes tops, try to sprint once a week (sometimes it does not happen) and just do more low level movement and I am in the best shape of my life with probably 70% less pain and suffering. You nailed it Mark, following these steps have saved my life and body and given me so much more time.

    And for the record folks the 6-pack is still there!

  15. Two comments to supplement yours about why the pros do it differently:
    1) Goals. Pros are looking for results that will carry them through a relatively short number of performance years, so they can up the intensity to further their brief career. We’re looking for a fitness solution that will carry us through a lifetime, or at least through several decades.
    2) Time. Pros have the training as their job, so their off time can be spent with the massive recovery protocols necessary to offset their intense training. Our jobs are our livelihood, and it’s often deleterious to good health (such as sedentary office work). Our off time is where we squeeze in the training, and also our recovery. So we have less time we can devote to recovery, and a lot of our training time has to be spent undoing the damage we’ve done at work.

    1. Might want to add that most pro’s are getting help from some ‘special supps’. Love the fitness articles, more on strength training would be c0ol!

  16. I couldn’t agree more!

    I have been rowing competitively for 10+ years now and I have recently started making leaps and bounds in my sport since decreasing my days on the water from 6 to 3! I would hate some college practices and when all was said and done maybe enjoy just 1-2 practices per week… Now that life has forced me to row less I make each session on the water count. I’ve been able to walk and lift more on my off days and find that I’m healthier than ever!

    Thanks for being my guide Mark!

  17. “10 minutes before its your turn with you doing anything overtly physical.”

    Looks like “you” should be ‘out’.

    Another good article.


  18. I am 64 and a long term runner. I tried doing a short workout maintaining a HR ~120. Running a minute causes the rate to go to 140. I typically run ~150. It was harder for me to cycle through short, extremely slow segments of running with walking while attempting to keep my rate 116-126 than a normal run would be.

    Is it not the case that my aerobic threshold is higher than 116 as a conditioned endurance runner? Would you recommend doing a VO2 max result to calculate training zones?

  19. About 15 years ago I used to do boxercise, advanced step aerobics and a tri aerobics class (aerobics, step and aerobics with weights) as well as regular gym sessions pounding the treadmill etc. I ended up with a pulled ligament in my ankle and have been very wary of high impact ever since.

    Currently, I walk lots, do weights and have started daily yoga since January. I need to do some sprints too, really but I don’t think I would ever go back back to the high impact it is too hard on your body!

  20. Great advice! I love walking and need to go back to my long leisurely evening walks pronto – found it be beneficial both physically and mentally.

  21. Hmmm, wish this was working for me. I have slowed down quit a bit over the years. Less running more walking; less HIIT workouts more strength training and all I’ve got is higher body fat, tighter clothes and decreased self esteem….

    1. Andria, Don’t forget that the key is: 80% eating 20% Training. As well as many factors: genetics, age, lifestyle… Don’t give up!