Category Archives: General health

Primal Endurance: An approach to making low carb endurance running work

Image result for primal blueprintBack in 2011, famous Primal Blueprint guru Mark Sisson wrote a post about how he’d train for a marathon. Mark’s no novice when it comes to distance running: He is in fact a former marathoner! His conversion to the lower-carb, paleo-style Primal approach to eating and lifestyle is in no small part a byproduct of his experience training to race the longest run.

Sisson of course generally discourages any sort of endurance training, prefering a more biologically natural sprint-and-saunter approach to outdoor activity akin to our prehistorical ancestors. Like many paleo-minded humans he’s more into occasional high intensity low duration activity surrounded by lots of regular but very low intensity activity.

This level of activity is of course a better fit for a lower carb Primal style diet, as endurance training traditionally requires a very high carb intake… intake that Sisson’s experience and research taught him can be damaging to your long term health.

However, a lack of carbohydrates can compromise the quality of your endurance workouts, let alone your race performances, since your body typically utilizes glycogen for extended endurance activity.

Sisson historically has preferred to avoid endurance training entirely and focus instead on what he’s found to be a more long-term sustainable lifestyle. His 2011 piece was more of a hypothetical, ‘If I had to train as a Primal disciple to run a marathon this is how I would approach it.’ Sisson’s piece definitely hinted that he had far more intel behind it, and that there was probably a book in him on the subject.

Image result for primal enduranceWell, eventually he did write that book. Primal Endurance by he and Brad Kearns spelled out the ideal combination of the Primal diet and lifestyle with the ideal training approach to maximize your performance in a marathon without the usage of carbohydrates and their glycogen.

I’ve given the book a gradual read over time, and while a lot of it reads like sales-letter filler for the Primal Blueprint (which seems superfluous since you probably aren’t reading the book unless you already own, have read and believe in the Primal Blueprint), what remains after filtering through it is a compelling and well-written approach to training as a Primal endurance athlete.

Sisson of course is hardly the only believer that endurance athletes can succeed with a lower-carb approach. Many ultra-runners have sworn by training low-carb to train their bodies to maximize fat usage in their excessively long races. Other non-ultra runners have sworn by training low-carb as well (I even know a few!).

I’ve long since argued (as many do) that accepting this lifestyle and swearing off most carbohydrates does to some degree limit your capability as a distance runner. In principle, I still find that to be true.

But there’s no denying that long term the endurance diet and lifestyle does take a toll on your hormones and to an accordant degree your health. I recall half marathon champ Ryan Hall being forced to retire in his early 30’s due to wanting to start a family and his training lifestyle compromising his body’s ability to do so.

I do think there’s a middle ground, mostly that you train in cycles and that you take breaks from training and the diet it demands. However, Sisson and Kearns argue that their recommended lifestyle can be practiced year round, in and out of training, without damaging your race performance.

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Running coaches should coach diet and rest too

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Every running coach will give you a training schedule of workouts, when to do them, how to do them, and how to adjust those from day to day.

Very few running coaches will give you more than trivial, general feedback on how to eat between workouts, or on your resting and sleeping habits. This despite your diet and recovery being even more important than what you’re doing in workouts.

Without the nutrients of a sound diet, you will not recover properly between workouts. And without a proper amount of sleep, you will not recover properly between workouts.


So, there’s obvious complications to coaching a person’s diet and sleep along with their running.

What makes diet and sleep hard to coach is that, unlike what a runner does in their workouts, these are everyday-living factors beyond a coach’s control. A coach may or may not be able to stand watch over your workouts (many athletes are coached remotely), but there’s no way they can stand and watch your every move, let alone every meal, in your personal life. And they certainly can’t monitor when or how you go to sleep. Even if they told you what to do, chances are good you’d flake on a good portion of their instructions. And, of course, who wants to have their lives micromanaged? The advice probably wouldn’t be welcome for many.

Plus, there are countless different approaches to diet even within a given culture, let alone between cultures. Those who have tried to bean-count the caloric intake of athletes have produced more problems for those athletes than they solved in doing so. Never mind the substantial differences in a vegan or carnivore or Atkins diet. Even the macronutrient needs can vary from person to person, never minding their age/size/shape/health in general.

Most of all, coaching diet is considered the field of a dietitician, a field outside of the specialty of a coach better versed in crafting and moderating workouts.

Now, all of that said (and no, I’m not providing any scientific citations), I can posit that a large number of injury and burnout problems are in no small part a product of deficiencies in each said athlete’s diet and sleep. The vast majority of humanity, in all fitness levels, is deficient in one or more key nutrients, whether it’s as simple as protein or as micro-specific as a vitamin like magnesium or iron.


Still, you don’t need to be an RD to know that:

  • The first half hour following a workout is the best time to ingest protein and carbs
  • Clean unprocessed food is better fuel between workouts than processed food
  • On average you ideally consume as many calories as you burn in a given day
  • You need more protein than most would recommend if you’re going to train hard
  • The more intense aerobic effort you put in, the more carbohydrates you need to consume between workouts
  • The harder you work on a given day, the more sleep you need that night to recover most effectively

The only resource that I’ve seen address post-workout nutrition with any specificity is Matt Fitzgerald’s New Rules Of Marathon And Half Marathon Nutrition. The book’s recommended workouts are bookended by a recommendation of carbohydrate/protein volume to consume in the minutes following a workout. The book is written around learning to effectively fuel a workout, and the information in general is a bit dated (the book was published in 2013), so its use is a bit limited. But it’s still more feedback on training nutrition than most authors provide.

The subject of what to eat between workouts is a broad and sensitive one, granted. It’s one I’m not going to get into now.

But I do think it’s a subject that running coaches need to give more than mere typical consideration. It’d be helpful to at least get a baseline idea of how many calories a runner consumes, estimate how many they burn per mile and during other exercise, get a good grasp on what the runner prefers to eat, and come up with some sort of concrete plan of what they should eat between workouts.

(And if you do actually want to become certified, there is a path to that. It’s not free, and it does take time, study and effort, but you can do it.)

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How long will the offseason last?

So, two weeks after arriving in Las Vegas, it’s clear to me that finding time to run more than 10-15 miles a week will be tough until the temperature comes down.

Before beginning remote work duties this past week (I had the previous week off to move), I had no problem getting outside at 6am and getting at least 3-4 miles in before 7am.

However, most of my colleagues are 2-3 hours ahead in the Eastern US, and that requires I work an earlier shift. I get up at 6am PDT every day and starting work at 7am isn’t a problem. But it means that 6am runs are somewhat impractical. I did sneak out for a run during this past week, but I couldn’t go too far since I needed to be ready to work by 7.

Even though (for now) I usually finish up work around 4pm local time, by that point the Vegas heat has reached its peak. Running outside at all in those conditions is probably a suicide attempt.

Never mind the perceived heat index of the 105-115’F, 10-20% humidity conditions is around 120 degrees, akin to running in 75’F weather with 70% humidity. The mere temperature and abundant sunshine alone makes running outside at midday in Vegas very dangerous. The city has a handful of short, weekly 6pm fun runs, but even at that hour temperatures are over 100 degrees, and the sun will not go down for a couple hours. Even if do-able in short doses, it doesn’t lend itself to extended aerobic training.

Even the treadmill becomes difficult after about 10-20 minutes, and after my recent injury I’m looking to avoid using the treadmill for anything more than brief warmup runs or run/walking.

So this means:

  • More consistent strength training. Since my current gym now has a lot more space, a lot more machines, and is not nearly as crowded, I can fully strength train whenever I like rather than have to work around a crowd of Wrigleybros. I have settled into a pattern of doing a full strength workout every 2-3 days. Most work out on certain days of the week, but I prefer to space my workouts out by days-between.
  • A variety of cross training. I still have the ARC Trainer available, which is the best and closest approximation to running available. This new gym also has rowing machines and aerobic hand crank machines, allowing for extended aerobic upper body training that will leave my legs along while also giving my upper body a lot more dynamic exercise. We forget how much the upper body needs to work during running, so this is very helpful.
  • Extra time on the spin bike. I can either take a “rest day” by riding easy on the spin bike, or do some aggressive Anabolic Training intervals, a form of high intensity interval training similar to Daniels style repetitions: You go all out for 30 seconds, then ride easy for 2-3 minutes, repeat about 4-6 times. This form of HIIT is supposed to help generate helpful muscle-building hormones as well as test and improve your anaerobic capacity.
  • An offseason. I will still run at least a couple times a week, but I’m going to focus much more so on my cross training and strength training in the interim. I have and probably will gain a bit of weight, which is hopefully mostly added muscle mass. The cross training will help maintain general aerobic capacity and help maintain some fat burning normalcy.

I don’t need to begin training for Vancouver before January, and could begin some form of ramped up training as soon as early November. Since my new job poses enough of a challenge and adjustment in the short term, this is clearly not a problem.

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A Gluten Free Diet Is Actually Really Simple

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You cannot possibly eat gluten without eating something that is processed, period. Every food that contains gluten had to be manufactured from gluten-grains and other ingredients into its final form.

I always tell people that it’s actually very simple to eat a gluten-free diet… if you only eat meat, fruit, vegetables and legumes.

You could even eat some grains, such as rice. While processed, rice in its purest possible form can’t possibly contain any gluten.

The only chance you have of accidentally eating gluten is if you eat anything processed.

This unfortunately includes most restauarant food. Most of it is made from processed ingredients, and you don’t have control over its preparation. Obviously, following the above advice isn’t so easy if you go to a restaurant. You have to make adjustments and do some planning.

But if preparing food at home, and you know how to cook, you don’t have much of an excuse.

Even price is not a concern: Processed food is more expensive per pound, per calorie, than whole food from the produce/meat aisles in their purest available form.

If you need to follow a gluten-free diet, and you’re struggling to maintain it, you may find adherence a lot easier if you go clean and stick to meat, fruit, vegetables, and legumes.

(And of course if you’re vegan, you won’t eat meat. But the other three categories should cover your nutrition needs well. If vegan, I would make sure to include rice.)

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The ARC Trainer might be a runner’s best cross training tool

ARCTrainerI’ve cross trained with a variety of methods and machines over my time as a runner. There might be more runner-specific cross training methods than the ARC Trainer, but you won’t find one simpler and more readily available in most gyms.

The ARC Trainer is a machine developed in 2003 by a company called Cybex International. Your legs move forward and back on tracking similar to an elliptical, except the motion is more straightforward, and the angle is closer to that of running uphill. On some ARC Trainers the arms may move as they do on ellipticals, but on most (including the ones at my gym) the handles are stationary and only your legs are intended to move.

The ARC Trainers are usually empty at gyms where they’re available (including my current gym), and it’s a bit of a surprise they have stuck around this long given their limited popularity. But they’re still present in many big gyms, and after discovering them recently I quickly discovered that they’re my most effective cross training tool. When the gym’s packed and everyone’s crowding the weights, treadmills and ellipticals, the ARC Trainers are a widely available and welcome training option.

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The Quadathlon Long Distance Gym Workout

Are you a member of a gym? Does that gym have treadmills and at least three other different kinds of readily available cardio machines, like ellipticals, spin bikes, rowing machines, ARC Trainers, stair climbers… maybe even a pool (assuming of course that you can swim, and own a waterproof watch)?

Are you training for a long distance event like a marathon, an ultra, a bike race, a triathlon, or jury duty?

Then boy do I have a long distance workout for you!

Creative minds can look at all the information I’ve provided and immediately see where I’m going with this (and by the way ignoring a jury duty notice may technically be a crime), but I’m going to spell it out either way.

The Quadathlon is a 2-4 hour workout where you spend 30-60 minutes working at a sustainable pace on each of four different cardio exercises.

This of course requires that each machine or avenue of cross training is readily available: You don’t want to go do the stair climber section and find out they’re all taken or broken. So, of course, make sure the machines you want to use are available.

Also, how long you spend on each machine may be a function of a gym’s policies. Many gyms set a 30 minute limit for using a single machine. So then at a gym like that you do this as a 2 hour workout, period.

This also is a purely cardio/aerobic exercise, because the continuous aerobic activity is integral to the workout. A circuit of weight machines doesn’t work because, along with the stops and starts, trying to speed through these without stopping can be dangerous. It’s also very hard to find 30-60 minutes of continuous weight exercises (and the needed open machines!) that won’t leave you injured. Plus you have to adjust the weight of every machine. It’s a pain; don’t do it.

I recommend starting if possible with the most difficult apparatus first, and then finishing with the easiest, for obvious reasons: Your body will be freshest for the toughest exercise, and will reach the 4th and final one when you’re most tired. If this were intended to be a contest, I’d say do the exercises in reverse. But your goal is not to beat anybody: It’s to get a good workout that won’t injure you.

For example, because cross training is generally done as a soft-impact substitute for running, it makes the most sense to make running on the treadmill the 1st exercise. Running is fundamentally tougher to do than most other cardio exercises because you are bearing your entire weight throughout the exercise.

However, if one particular set of machines tends to fill up often while the others are empty, I would then start with the busiest machines first. Usually in gyms this is the treadmill, and that’s typically a logical starting point anyway. But gyms with rowing machines tend not to stock a lot of those despite being popular. So maybe if you want to row and that’s open you should start with that.

One exception: Some people consider swimming nice and relaxing, and may want to do that last. But if you struggle to stay afloat when tired, maybe don’t do that one last. I don’t want you to drown at the end of a 4 hour workout! Maybe do that one 2nd.

If you use the pool as one exercise, get your triathlete on afterward by quickly changing into gym-appropriate gear for your next exercise (probably the most difficult one). And vice versa: If switching to the pool, change quickly into your pool gear. Of course, don’t run or walk fast on wet terrain. Be brisk but be careful. Do all your rushing while sitting down.

A good exercise to do last, if available, is the exercise bike, especially if you opt for the easier recumbent (sitting) bike. It’s easier to maintain a basic aerobic effort when exhausted on the bike. Plus, more importantly, many tend to feel real stiff when they get off the bike after a long workout. You don’t want to get on another machine for 30-60 more minutes in that condition.

If your gym has it, you’ve used it before for more than a few minutes, and you’re up for it… another good final exercise is the hand crank, a sort of arm bike. The advantage to finishing with this is all the other exercises require your legs, and this one uses your arms instead, which should be somewhat fresher and won’t ask anything of your tired legs.

A good example of a common Quadathlon Workout would be this:

Event 1: Treadmill, at tempo, 30 minutes.
Event 2: Elliptical, easy/moderate effort, 30 minutes.
Event 3: ARC Trainer, first 3/4 easy, last 1/4 moderate, 30 minutes.
Event 4: Spin bike, whatever you can muster, 30 minutes.

Or, if your gym has a really popular rowing machine and it’s available:

Event 1: Rowing machine, moderate effort, 30 minutes.
Event 2: Treadmill, first 3/4 easy, last 1/4 at tempo, 30 minutes.
Event 3: Elliptical, easy/moderate effort, 30 minutes.
Event 4: Spin bike, whatever you can muster, 30 minutes.

Or maybe you cannot or don’t want to run at all this weekend.

Event 1: Swimming in gym pool, 30 minutes. Change into gym gear.
Event 2: ARC Trainer, easy/moderate effort, 30 minutes.
Event 3: Elliptical, easy/moderate effort, 30 minutes.
Event 4: Spin bike, whatever you can muster, 30 minutes.

Or:

Event 1: Jury duty, wait 4 hours, get sent home instead.
Event 2: Get to gym, get on treadmill…

… okay, maybe not.

For the most part, the Quadathlon is a challenging 2 hour aerobic workout, requiring differing ranges of motion throughout, and you usually only need to run 3-4 miles total.

This is an excellent idea for weekend “long run” workouts where you might not have it in you to knock out 10-20 miles that day but you do want to get in a long effort.

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Finally Getting Back In The Gym

I finally got a membership at the nearby Planet Fitness. Despite having a gym within a block from home that only costs $10 a month and is open nearly all the time, I balked at getting a membership for a variety of practical reasons that now finally are no longer the case.

The gym itself has pretty much everything I’d need out of a gym. They have a ton of treadmills, several ARC Trainers and ellipticals, several spin and recumbent exercise bikes, and of course a wide variety of free weights and exercise machines. And because of the no-judgment motif of the Planet Fitness brand, everyone working out seems cool and goes about their business without any passive aggression or peacocking you see at other gyms.

I’m digressing a bit. As I ramp into official fall marathon training, the gym provides me with a ton of benefits it turns out I really need this time around. I’ve been admittedly struggling with several aspects of training over the last few months, and the gym’s going to help with several of them.

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