Last year I completed Ironman Canada. It took me nine hours and 36 minutes. That's relatively fast for an Ironman. Not "get a paycheck" fast, but fast. However, in preparing for the race, I only trained 8-10 hours a week. That's about one third of the training volume of my peers.
I don't have amazing genetics and I don't use illegal performance enhancing drugs; nor was I wearing roller skates for the run. I simply live my life by a defined set of rules that give me an optimum amount of strength, stamina, and health that allow me to do things like an Ironman triathlon at the drop of a hat. I call these "The 10 Ancestral Athlete Rules."
Why "ancestral"? Look at it this way: Your ancestors wouldn't have planted their ass in a chair for 8 hours a day and then, at the end of that day, driven a car to the gym, wandered in, huffed perfume and deodorant under fluorescent lighting, and destroyed themselves for an hour with a chunk of perfectly symmetrical steel or iron. Instead, they would've engaged in light, low-level physical activity throughout the day, such as hunting, gathering, foraging, etc. They would have slept more, stressed less, and then occasionally run from a lion or lifted heavy stuff, often outside and in unpredictable situations.
So here are my rules for living like an Ancestral Athlete:
If you're into fitness, diet, or healthy living, then you're bombarded every day by new workouts, fat-loss methods, training templates, camps, clinics, diets, phone apps, biohacks, research studies, and a mind-boggling variety of ways to enhance your body. But to truly know whether the latest fad is going to be naturally healthy and meld perfectly with your ancestral self, you must look at everything through the lens of health vs. performance. In other words, you must not only question whether any particular method is efficacious, but also question what the long-term health or longevity results will be.
Take fat loss, for example. You've probably seen the story on TV. An obese person, often in excess of 400 pounds, is subjected to weeks of calorie restriction and extreme levels of physical activity comprised of hours of exercise each day, and the fat melts off like magic. But if you want this "Biggest Loser" style weight loss, you need to be careful. With the combination of extreme calorie restriction and excessive exercise, you need to prepare for long-lasting metabolic damage, accompanied tissue loss of vital organs such as your heart and liver, and a drop in your metabolism by nearly 30%! Sure, there are fat loss "performance" benefits, but the long-term health implications are dire when compared to a slow, steady, and patient weight loss.
Or take the available evidence that a very high carbohydrate diet and carbohydrate loading results in superior performance in endurance athletes. While this statement is certainly true, it only applies to acute performance and has significant long-term downstream implications such as pancreatic failure, nerve damage, or chronic inflammation. If that's worth it to you, then you're either mildly masochistic or you've decided that you value performance much more than health. If you desire a long, quality life, you may need to use a new lens.
On the flipside, a very low carbohydrate diet has been shown to improve metabolic efficiency, but in many people - especially females - chronic, excessive carbohydrate depletion can cause hypothyroidism and other hormone imbalances, so once again, you must use the lens of health vs. performance, listen to your body, and question long term health implications. In this case, the consequences of low-carbohydrate intake can be mitigated with sane amounts of carbohydrate intake, while avoiding excessive restriction.
At a recent Ancestral Health Symposium, I attended a talk by Nassim Taleb, the author of Anti-Fragile. Nassium illustrated how just as bones and muscles become stronger when subjected to variety, stress, and tension, many things in life benefit from stress, disorder, volatility, and turmoil. In other words, it's okay (and perfectly ancestral) to be uncomfortable and to have randomness in your life. Ancient man didn't have air conditioning and central heating, so it's okay for your bedroom, your office, or your car to sometimes be too hot or too cold.
Refrigerators haven't always been around, so it's okay to sometimes be hungry, sometimes fast, and sometimes eat completely random meals you'd normally never eat (breakfast for dinner, anyone?). Sometimes lions and bears jump out and chase you, so it's okay to skip that aerobic bike ride and instead do a short, intense, 4-minute Tabata set, and vice versa.
So be uncomfortable. Expose your body to occasional, sane amounts of natural stress and disorder. This will fight fragility, keep you alive and vibrant, and allow your lungs, muscles, and heart to gradually adapt to the demands you place upon them.
Yes, I've purposefully listed rule number 3 to stand in stark contrast to rule number 2. After all, constant discomfort is the equivalent of chronic stress. A warrior doesn't constantly fight; he rests between big battles. And the best athletes on the face of the planet know their biggest gains come from the days spent resting between the tough sessions. In contrast, the times they feel most worn down are when the body gets dug into a hole from constant tough sessions with no breaks. This is the whole concept behind splitting a training year, month, and week into specific periods that include both work and rest.
But instead, we often try to make every workout a masochistic, pain-cave experience that leaves us gasping for oxygen for hours. Or we avoid that red-hot intensity and instead wear the body down with long junk miles for hours on end. Either way, we never quite feel satisfied unless we roll out of bed with a slight degree of soreness or end the day having burnt as many calories as possible. This happens in life, too. For example, we set aside time to play with our children, but we have a smart phone in our pocket that's constantly vibrating with notifications from work, Facebook, or Twitter. Similarly, we go out to a supposedly relaxing dinner, but strategically place that same phone beside our plate, just to satisfy our addiction to work and a need for constant productivity or stimulation.
But sometimes, your body and mind simply need to be comfortable. To rest. To be allowed to be lazy. Nerve cell repair, formation of memory, recovery of the adrenal glands, muscle building, and removal of inflammation all occur when your body and mind are in a peaceful state. And yet, many of us simply don't know how to stop working. The ability to relax and rest is a positive habit that must be learned and it often requires breaking your hardwired drive for constant productivity.
My father-in-law is a skinny rancher who manages a sheep farm. His daily routine starts with an early morning feeding of hungry sheep, followed by a day of walking through pastures, lifting farm machinery, and fixing equipment. If you're lucky enough to be a farmer, a builder, a personal trainer or have any other profession that involves daily periods of moving, lifting, bending, rowing, pushing, pulling, lunging, or squatting, then you know how the body feels after a day of this kind of work - energized, awake, and alive. It's a much different feeling than the stale, burnt-out, fried state most people are in after long periods of time spent slouched in a chair staring at a computer screen or hunched over the steering wheel of a car or truck for hours on end.
You don't need to quit your office job, but you do need to hack your job to simulate the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as much as possible. Get a standing workstation or treadmill desk. Install a pull-up bar in the door of your office. If you work from home, keep something heavy in your garage, like a sandbag or barbell that you can go lift every now and again. Never sit for longer than an hour without standing and doing jumping jacks, body weight squats, or some hip-opener stretches. After all, research has shown that when it comes to your health and longevity, it doesn't matter how hard you exercise at the end of a long day of work if you're spending the rest of the day in a seated position. So simply think about how you can adjust your daily routine so that your body is in a constantly active mode.
"A fertile man is a healthy man" the saying goes, and this makes perfect sense. Whether you're a man or woman, the loss of the ability to mate or to propagate future generations is a sure sign that your body is degrading and that you're running low on the hormones, vitamins, and minerals to sustain life. For example, due to the relatively small size of the femoral artery compared to the larger arteries feeding the heart, poor circulation, or blood-vessel blockage from arginine deficiencies, low nitric oxide, or excessive plaque from mineral imbalances, will often manifest themselves in erectile dysfunction or lack of blood flow to sexual organs long before an actual heart attack takes place. This is simply the "canary in the coal mine."
We're lucky enough in our modern era to be able to test fertility hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, DHEA, sex hormone binding globulin and other compounds that - if low or imbalanced - result in impotence, infertility, a lack of sexual drive, or an inability to experience sexual pleasure. Even if you don't have access to fancy quantitative testing protocols, you can still keep your finger on the qualitative pulse of your fertility by paying attention to your libido, your orgasms, your monthly cycles, your erections, and your fluid production.
As a man, I can attest to the fact that my best athletic performance coincides with those weeks where my sexual performance peaks. Along the same lines, in my consults with many women, I've noticed that the loss of a menstruation often comes several months before the stress fractures, overtraining syndrome, and drop in athletic performance begins. So make it your goal to not simply survive, but to thrive, and thriving means maintaining a potent ability to make babies, whether or not you actually act on that ability.
To keep my body in a maximum state of fatty acid utilization, I personally use a combination of medium chain triglycerides, amino acids, and very low amounts of high molecular weight carbohydrates when I'm competing in an Ironman triathlon. But the truth is that although this cocktail is relatively healthy compared to some sugar-laden engineered beverages, gels, bars, and gooey alternatives, I save it for my workouts.
You see, I don't sit around my office sipping on Jamba Juice, sports drinks, and energy bars. I save those for extremely insulin sensitive situations such as pre-, during and post-workout. The rest of the time, I'm far happier simply eating food that comes straight from the earth in its real, recognizable form.
You can call this Primal, Paleo, Ancestral, Perfect, Just Eating Real Food, or any other fancy name you'd like, but the fact is that eating naturally should form the crux of your athletic fuel, and your supplementation should be aimed and timed like a sniper rifle, not dropped like a cluster bomb on you the entire day. Save it for the times when you're actually doing something relatively "unnatural," like trashing yourself with a monster workout, rowing a half marathon at the CrossFit Games, or toeing the line of a marathon or triathlon.
Many athletes and exercise enthusiasts go years without cleaning up their insides, but you significantly stress the detox and waste removal pathways in your liver, kidney, pancreas and gut from the thousands of calories you must consume to support consistent exercise or difficult feats of physical performance. When you combine this with the inflammation, ammonia-based toxins, and metabolites that build up in your muscles and bloodstream during tough workouts and life stress, you must at some point allow your organs the luxury of being cleaned and de-stressed.
Your ancestors didn't always have a steady, never-ending influx of calories, and sometimes had to simply eat fewer calories and move less. In other words, training to eat and eating to train was not a standard 365 day-a-year routine that many of us practice.
Fasting and detoxing are potent strategies for taking out the trash that builds up in your vital organs and cells, but I've witnessed many athletes only take this information halfway to heart, and simply use the daily consumption of an antioxidant, gut flush, or liver cleansing supplement to justify continuing to eat as much as possible and exercise at maximum capacity each day.
The fact is that to truly empty your body's trash, you must combine these kinds of detoxification nutrients with complete rest and low-calorie intake. I recommend choosing one day of the week or month, one week of the season, or one month of the year to be a period of time that combines low levels of restorative physical activity with low calorie intake and a detoxification protocol. You wouldn't let the trash accumulate, ferment and rot in your kitchen, office, or bathroom for years on end, would you? Treat your body similarly.
There are some athletes who take the idea of "living ancestrally" a bit too far. They never use supplements, they avoid expensive recovery technology like electro-stimulation and compression gear, and they never go near a heart rate variability monitor or self-quantification device. They argue that their behavior constitutes natural, unplugged living.
Ironically, these same athletes then expose their body to extremely unnatural situations such as running for miles on hard pavement beside diesel-truck polluted roads; sitting with their delicate reproductive organ tissues on a hard bicycle saddle for hours on end; swimming in chlorinated water; pumping iron in a gym bombarded with cleaning chemicals; eating herbicide-tainted fruits and vegetables grown in mineral depleted soil; and drinking weekly gallons of fluoridated water from the local municipal water supply.
The fact is that unless you're a monk living on a pristine mountaintop in the Himalayas, you sometimes need to accept the fact that you live in a post-industrial era and that you're often exposing your body to relatively unnatural activities, foods, and environments, and you may actually need a bit of better living through science.
Your ancestors weren't dummies. If they didn't have a chance to eat coldwater fish every day, I bet they'd consider popping that triglyceride-based fish oil supplement. If their muscles were racked, sore, and swollen from a day of hiking, hunting or gathering, I bet they'd actually appreciate a bit of compression gear, cold thermogenesis, electrostimulation, or some other fancy "unnatural" modern recovery protocol . If they were hurdling through the sky in a metal tube with wings 40,000 feet above the ground to a destination six time zones away, I bet they'd consider using an earthing device or taking a melatonin supplement. So be smart and use science when it makes sense.
How many times have you found yourself eating lunch while simultaneously reading a blog post, playing a podcast, and responding to an e-mail? How many times have you been at the gym, riding your bike, or even taking a relaxing bath and found yourself texting, Tweeting, or Facebooking? How many times have you found yourself listening to the radio, driving a car, and taking quick glances at the e-mails on your smart phone... all at the same time?
This kind of multi-tasking not only gives you fuzzy thinking, poor creative production, sensory overload, neurotransmitter depletion and chronic stress, but it's also downright dangerous. If you've ever tried to start a fire in the mountains, gut a deer after a kill shot, or fight off an assailant, then you know that these activities require intense concentration. Yet we actually train our minds to constantly become distracted and full of fleeting, random thoughts, tasks, and ideas. There's new evidence that suggests this is actually the equivalent of training ourselves to form a unique kind of attention deficit disorder. This type of multi-tasking also creates decision fatigue that distracts your brain's cortex from being able to allow you to tap into high levels of physical performance, thus causing you to fatigue faster.
You simply won't thrive and survive if you're always distracted by what you're going to eat for dinner, how you're going to respond to an e-mail, or when you're going to schedule a meeting. So focus on one task at a time, and be mentally and physically present, especially when it matters most - such as during a workout. If you need to, keep a pen and pad handy and assign specific tasks to specific days. Plan wisely for the future, but live in the present with a clear head.
I'm jealous of my wife. She doesn't think about her carbohydrate, protein, and fat ratios. Ever. With an almost childlike innocence, she simply goes out to the garden, opens the refrigerator or cupboard, and eats real food when she wants to. She wouldn't know what a gram of carbohydrate looked like if her life depended on it. In contrast, I always have concerns about things like ketosis, protein toxicity, or oxidation at the back of my mind.
She doesn't plan her workouts or write things down in a calendar. When she feels the urge to exercise, she grabs our dog Blitzen and heads out on the trails. When she's sore or tired, she doesn't "push through." In contrast, I adhere to a rigid schedule that has me pressured to complete the day's workout, no matter how I feel or the intuitive signals my body is sending me.
She doesn't set an alarm, use a sleep mask, cover up ambient noise with a phone app, or take sleep supplements. She just goes to bed when she's tired and gets out of bed when her body feels rested and refreshed. In contrast, I wear my nerdish blue light blocking glasses at night, feel guilty if I'm not in bed within several hours of sunset, and pop out of bed wide awake at the identical time each morning.
Is this simply because the two of us are "hardwired" differently? I doubt it. Watch any child who hasn't yet been tainted by life stresses, subjected to peer pressure to build a better body, or been brainwashed about diet, and they behave much the same as my wife. They eat, sleep, play and exercise when they feel like it. I'm not arguing that there's no value to rigidity, self-control, knowledge, and self-discipline, but I suspect that if we both stay on the same path, my wife will probably outlive me and have a higher quality of life in the process. So it's my goal to fret less and live more. This may not make me a better athlete per se, but being an athlete isn't how I pay the bills. The last thing I want written on my tombstone is "He was really good at exercising."
What about you?