Four years ago, I had a memorable interview with retired Olympic triathlon gold (’00) and silver (’08) medalist Simon Whitfield. As we sat on the rocks overlooking the bay in his hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, Simon offered deep insights about an evolved approach to endurance training, and life. I asked him about the often-difficult transition from being wholly focused on Olympic gold for nearly 20 years to pursuing recreational fitness goals. Simon mentioned his passion for extreme standup paddling, where he solos for hours way out into the ocean, careful to avoid the shipping lanes where giant container ships which could easily suck him and his board into the abyss. Simon is one of the most reflective athletes you’ll ever see, and he emphasized the need for balance and sensibility at length during the interview. This exclusive footage is available as part of the Primal Endurance Mastery Course, but we excerpted one of the great sound bites of all time on this YouTube clip: “Today, I’m coached by my eighty-year-old self.”
Striving for Olympic gold entails obsessing about making incremental gains that have nothing to do with health, and would surely make anyone’s 80-year-old self cringe. On the outside, 45-year-old Simon looks like he could still line up at the Olympic triathlon start line, paddling, yoga, and sensible fitness endeavors have taken the place of the extreme stuff. With his 80-year-old self calling the shots, Simon is now honoring his ideals to, “…be aware of self regulation, including moderation,” and knowing when to, “…turn the dial back a little bit to give my mental well being a chance to recover.”
Along these lines, I enjoyed listening to Dr. Peter Attia on a School of Greatness podcast episode describe how his training decisions today are informed by his goal of participating in his personal “Centenarian Olympics.” These are physical feats he wants to be able to complete when he turns 100. Attia mentioned hoisting himself out of a swimming pool, hopping over a three-foot fence, squatting with a kettlebell of similar weight to a grandchild, and so forth (he promised to convey all 18 in his long awaited book about health and longevity.)
Honoring your 80-year-old self and setting distinct performance goals along the way is a beautiful way to inform your day-to-day workout decisions, not to mention all other life decisions. I’m reflecting on the concept more than ever as I battle a minor knee injury that’s been messing with beloved sprinting and jumping workouts for several months. After participating in a real track meet for the first time in years in early 2020, I became enamored (okay obsessed!) with the high jump. I ramped up my workouts ambitiously and made great progress for six months. Whenever I show up at the track for a full-scale workout of jumping drills, short all-out sprints, and high jump technique practice, I am super-excited and able to deliver a peak performance.
One time my college athlete son joined me for my template session and remarked at the end, “Dad, that workout was hard for me! And then you’re doing more high jump drills at end—maybe that’s too much for a 55-year-old.” I didn’t have any reference point for workout degree of difficulty since I’d always gone solo! Indeed, over time I had drifted across the red line of balance and into breakdown, as evidenced by the knee injury taking hold and not going away. Right now, my 80-year-old self is wondering why I was in such a hurry to squeeze in an extra jump workout here and there instead of being patient and content to make steady progress. Completing a handful of “extra” workouts over a six-month time period have cost me dozens of missed workouts over the ensuing months. My 80-year-old self is nodding his head with the wisdom that we can always rise to the occasion to deliver a peak performance, but that some negative repercussions can be felt if performances, or a string of performances, inch beyond one’s current level of capability to not just deliver the efforts but also recover optimally.
Erring on the conservative side instead of the aggressive side seems like a great idea for any masters athlete in any sport. For young athletes in the ever-escalating sophistication and seriousness of high school and collegiate sports, the same edict is relevant. I’m astonished to see the level of attrition and breakdown in young competitors driven too hard by organized programming that creates a survival of the fittest paradigm. It’s been going on for decades with no course correction in sight, despite the supposed improvements in exercise science and biofeedback technology. Chris Kelly of the cutting-edge NourishBalanceThrive.com health consultation program offered up a brilliant insight on the matter: “Reproduction, growth, repair, and locomotion are a zero sum game. Load up too much on one and you compromise the others.” This is true the week you catch a cold from too much training, sugar, or travel and not enough sleep, and it’s true over your lifespan when you burn the candle at both ends for decades.
Was It Walter’s Genes? Or Golf Slacks?
If you aren’t the competitive type and have no interest in being a senior Olympian, we can at least admit that keeping fit and strong is a great way to avoid or minimize royal pain and suffering that likely awaits if we don’t make an effort to maintain physical fitness. Just the thought of losing competency in the years ahead can be a tremendous motivator to put in the work and make good choices today. It was inspiring to observe the excellent healthspan of my father, Dr. Walter Kearns, who passed in 2019 at the age of 97. He was devoted to healthy eating, regular exercise, and a low-stress temperament his entire life. Walter also benefited tremendously from maintaining passion and competitive intensity for golf deep into his 90s, and was almost certainly the top golfer in the world over age 90 for several years. At age 92, he shot a near world-record 16 shots below his age with a 76 on a championship course, and achieved golf’s vaunted “shoot your age” standard nearly every time out for decades since he shot a 4-under 66 at age 67.
When my dad faced a health scare at 80, I made a personal pact that I would travel frequently to play more golf with him, knowing these opportunities were going to be increasingly precious and scarce. Little did I know that my commitment would result in some 15 additional years of ass whuppings on the golf course! Walter went through two complete sets of golf buddies at different country clubs, having outlasted or outlived all the characters in phase 1. One of his phase 2 golf buddies delivered a classic quip when Walter expressed frustration about his macular degeneration inhibiting his ability track his shots in the air. “Walter, the reason you can’t see is because you hit the ball too damn far. I can see all of my shots just fine because they’re 10 feet off the ground!”
Walter and I played our final 9-hole round together when he was 95. Afterward, Walter expressed his disappointment for the 43 he shot, proclaiming he should quit the game. He did. The competitive edge that kept him sharp was the same edge that compelled him to hang it up. Walter’s ensuing and final two years were a graceful and nearly pain-free slide to the finish line. His longtime morning half-mile walk around the park with standing pushups at the picnic table gradually morphed into a quarter-mile out-and-back effort at a slower and slower pace. The awesome protective benefits and quality of life enhancement of walking a half-mile every morning and being passionate about pars ran their courses perfectly. The decline of his physical body was in lockstep with a decline in motivation such that the journey was free from the usual drama and frustration that individuals and their families experience when life plans get rudely interrupted by decline and dysfunction.
I can’t count how many times people commented about Walter being genetically blessed, a freak of nature. Frequently overlooked was the consistency of his health routine. For example, he quit smoking on the spot in 1964, when the Surgeon General said, “don’t smoke.” And he also stopped eating eggs back in the day before MarksDailyApple set health enthusiasts straight! His ability to stay calm through unexpected events on and off the golf course; and of course his devotion to competitive goals.
Time For A Consultation With Your 80-Year-Old Self
Here are some common categories where you may be drifting beyond the balance point and borrowing against future health and well-being:
Go easy on the hard stuff: Properly conducted brief, explosive physical efforts made a great contribution to health, fitness, and longevity, but a little goes a long way in this category. Many respected progressive voices in fitness are emphasizing this idea like never before. Read Dr. Craig Marker’s landmark article, HIIT vs HIRT about minimizing cellular destruction with properly conducted intense workouts. Try out noted HRV expert and MMA trailer Joel Jamieson’s Rebound Workout, where you can actually speed recovery with a special protocol that stimulates parasympathetic function. Learn why top MMA trainer Firas Zahabi recommends never getting sore, training within your capabilities at all times instead of trying to crush it. Some quick instruction for your sprint workouts from Dr. Marker (these recommendations changed my life!): Sprint for 7-20 seconds (never longer than :20); take “luxurious” rest intervals between explosive efforts (a 6:1 work-rest ratio at least.) Honor the long-standing Primal Blueprint recommendations to conduct high intensity sprint sessions only when you are 100 percent rested and motivated to deliver a peak effort; once a week is plenty.
Pursue age-appropriate challenges: The Primal Endurance movement is all about slowing down to go faster, balancing stress and rest, periodized and polarized training, and taking many other measures to preserve your health while you pursue endurance goals. But a careful approach can only take you so far when you’re competitive goals are so difficult and time consuming that they are essentially antithetical to health. I contend that organized endurance competitions should implement a sliding scale where the distances shrink as the age groups rise. For those on the other side of 50 who still wanna go long, perhaps a “marathon” race should be 13.1 miles and an “ironman” should be the 70.3-mile total of the half-ironman event. Would anyone be worse for the (reduced) wear?
My grand idea reminds me of the real-life birthday challenge streak of old-time Chicago triathlon race director Tom Cooney. Every birthday, he would run the number of miles corresponding to his age. He was in his mid-40s when he explained to me that his future ambition with the streak was to run a nice solid 50-miler at 50, then shift the streak into reverse so he would run 49 miles on his 51st birthday, 40 on his 60th, and so on until he could finally relax and not have to run at his Centenarian Olympics!
Downsizing to age appropriate goals works for any fitness endeavor. If you’re in the gray hair demographic, you might consider stepping out at the two-thirds mark of your boot camp, Spinning, CrossFit class. If you are inclined to plan and adhere to tidy weekly training schedules, consider making your “week” nine days, with extra recovery days thrown into the mix around your staple workouts. This is an incredibly effective strategy that relieves the inherent pressure to be ready for your long run every Sunday and your personal trainer session every Wednesday. Many fitness enthusiasts and competitors misinterpret the importance and application of “consistency” in training. Of course it’s essential to maintain fitness and devote the time and energy required to make steady progress. However, this ain’t the linear process of completing a review course for the state bar exam. Your body is a living, breathing, dynamic organism that progresses, and regresses, in an often fractal and unpredictable manner. Your intuition has to take priority over rigid scheduling, especially as you age and have less wiggle room to overdo it on occasion.
Re-evaluate medication: Medications have their place, but every now and then, it’s reasonable to ask your doctor if it’s all necessary. It stands to reason that any prescription or over-the-counter medication that you take to relieve symptoms related to lifestyle behaviors is going to come at a cost to your 80-year-old self. Neither this article nor this blog are meant to be interpreted as medical advice, but I can ask you to reflect upon your mindset toward medication. If you let the inflammatory process run its course instead of popping an NSAID, maybe your body will become more resilient against inflammation in the future instead of less resilient. Maybe experiencing pain and stiffness instead of masking it will help you restrict your activity and protect you against further insult and injury. Maybe a 21-Day Primal Reset can eliminate the need for some of the meds in your cabinet, with the blessing of your doctor via the correction of blood test risk factors. This includes the massively popular categories of statins, antacids and even sleep meds.
Countering creature comforts, conveniences and luxuries: Modern humans have literally gone soft due to the elimination of the primary environmental selection pressures that drove human evolution for 2.5 million years: starvation and predator danger. The essence of healthy living today is to model the lifestyle behaviors of our hunter-gatherers to trigger optimal gene expression. You’ve heard plenty about this in the Primal Blueprint! Of course you can integrate this objective into modern life to order grassfed beef on the internet instead of have to hunt for it yourself, or lift weights with numbers on them instead of lifting boulders to build a shelter.
Ancestral living enthusiasts seem to be doing a good job sourcing healthy hunter-gatherer fare and pursuing broad-based fitness goals, but we have a huge deficiency in experiencing many brief, primal-style hormetic stressors that have made Homo sapiens strong, resilient creatures. One of the most prominent disconnects today is our existence in temperature-controlled environments 24/7. Our ancestors were subjected to temperature extremes throughout life, and the hormetic benefits were profound. Today, even slight disruptions to an ideal weather experience trigger negative attitudes and self-limiting behavior patterns; the treadmills become full and the park trails are empty.
It’s easy to dabble in therapeutic cold exposure by commencing some intentional deep breathing and then cranking the shower handle to full cold for the final 30 seconds of your shower. You’ll feel instantly exhilarated without suffering from any adverse effects that you may be fearing. Your tolerance will improve quickly to where a few minutes of cold water will give you a fabulous boost in energy, mood and cognitive function to kick off your day. I’m hoping you’ll quickly become a huge enthusiast, as I have over the past four years. I actually look forward to my morning chest freezer cold plunge for not only the instant hormonal boost, but how it makes me more disciplined and resilient against all other forms of stress and distraction I face in daily life. Sauna therapy is exploding in popularity as well, with the health and hormonal benefits of heat exposure similar to cold exposure. Interestingly, I’ve noticed visitors are much more interested in trying out my sauna than in trying a stint in the chest freezer. Go figure.
Beyond cold showers, there are many opportunities for hormetic stressors to both mind and body. “Do something that scares the shit out of you every day,” says Brian “Liver King” Johnson, founder of Ancestral Supplements and one of the most authentic ancestral living humans you will ever find. Brian and his wife Barbara are fond of quarterly five-day fasts to prompt wide-ranging metabolic and cell repair benefits. But get this: Instead of commencing their fasting clock with a huge meal, they perform a “failed hunt”—an extreme workout to fully deplete glycogen. As Brian describes, “This is to simulate the fasting circumstances of our ancestors, and trigger a genetic reset of sorts. It provides the mind, body, and spirit a framework for real struggle. Remember this… comfort is not good for the organism.”
Setting specific, exciting, do-able goals: The best goals are specific, within reach and incremental (instead of grand and potentially overwhelming), and that stimulate positive emotions. Mark Manson, number-one bestselling author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck explains that the emotional “feeling” brain rules over the rational “thinking” brain, even though our rational brain likes to convince us that this is not the case. Only emotion motivates us to action, but the emotional and rational brain need to work together to keep you both excited and focused over the long run.
Can you conjure some Centenarian Olympics events you’d like to participate in, as well as some checkpoints you’d like to hit along the way to the big 100? Can you cultivate passion and deep meaning around these goals so that you’ll stay on the path no matter what? John Assaraf, bestselling author of Innercise and an expert in brain training, told me during an interview that his workout regimen today is informed by his long-term goal of teaching his grandchildren to ski, and enjoying time on the slopes in his 70s, 80s, and 90s. In classic Assaraf style to facilitate maximum brain and behavior impact, his goal is extremely precise and envisioned with great clarity and emotion. How can you flake on your future grandkids?!
Consider the categories mentioned, and add any others that come to mind during your detailed consultation with your 80-year-old self. Share some ideas in the comments! Resolve to check in with the best coach you’ll ever have on a regular basis to make sure you are honoring his or her wishes and suggestions. Maybe I’ll see you at masters track & field meets in the years ahead. I have my eye on the current world record in the high jump for 95-year-olds. The standard is 1 meter (39 inches), about the same clearance as jumping into bed!