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The Evolution of Endurance Training - By Brad Kearns

Posted Oct 01 2008 9:23pm

My former coach and one of the greatest endurance minds on the planet Mark Sisson and I have been talking recently about the healthiest fitness regimen to pursue for a lifetime. Having both ended our competitive careers long ago (Sisson is a former 2:16 marathoner and placed 4th in the 1982 Ironman), it’s clear that what we did in our primes is neither healthy nor reasonable or desirable to pursue for the long term.

In fact, endurance training, when pursued even at a seemingly sensible level, can be unhealthy and depleting to your body, mind and spirit. To say nothing of the overtraining syndrome that seems to be par for the course among triathletes and distance runners of all ability levels. If you’ve been paying attention, much has been written in the endurance world about fallout - an alarming frequency of heart trouble among elite and amateur athletes, negative consequences of consuming too much sugar (the endurance athlete's bread and butter, and a key culprit why endurance athletes are not necessarily lean athletes), the training-induced breakdown of the immune and musculoskeletal system and finally as my friend and former national champion amateur triathlete Dewey says eloquently, “the fact that people sell out their families for the sport.”
Sisson argues that endurance training is, “counter to our basic caveman physiology, where were are programmed to produce shorts bursts of life or death energy – to avoid a predator or feed our families with a kill - balanced by the downtime of a simple, hunter/gatherer primitive life. It’s clear that endurance training causes a steady reduction in testosterone levels, along with a corresponding increase in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. High cortisol/low testosterone level causes a very distressing chain reaction of negative events. The immune system is suppressed and the body stays in a catabolic state. Taken to the extreme in the classic overtraining state, an athlete’s muscle will literally waste away – identical to the ‘dying of old age’ scenario,” Sisson explains.

The free thinking scientist/athlete Art DeVany has produced some interesting posts on his blog about a concept he calls “Evolutionary Fitness”. Briefly, it means aligning your diet (as with the popular caveman diet trend) and training methods with the nature of human lifestyle over the course of thousands of years. DeVany suggests a workout regimen where once a week you go absolutely all out “like your life depends on it, very short and intense...lasting no longer than 15 minutes. It must be no more than once a week; you cannot recover adequately if you do it more often and it is too taxing. Pick a random day. Don't do it on the same day always” and offers the obligatory caution to keep it safe by practicing proper technique and not accumulating tension in the body.

Today Sisson, at 53, maintains a fighting weight of 164 pounds at 8% body fat “with no special effort or emphasis on a strict diet or fat loss”, despite virtually no “endurance” training. He explains, “These days I lift weights on a schedule that works body part groups every four days. My endurance activity is cycling for 40 minutes, twice a week. This session includes some extremely intense intervals, such as 5 x 1 minute at maximum wattage. It’s a drop in the bucket in comparison to my old training days, but I feel healthier today than I have been since I was 13. (He recently bench pressed a stunning 275lb! Must be some kind of record for a former top-5 Ironman finisher over age 50. Take that, Dave Scott, ya girlie man...). I believe that training for more than an hour a day destroys your immune system and that the more hours you train, the worse it gets.”

This kind of talk may not sit well if you are currently pondering a 2007 season with World’s Toughest Half and Ironman Couer D’Alene on the calendar. And to be sure, the way to succeed in endurance sports is to approximate the challenge of your race in your training. However, this does not mean racking up weeks upon weeks of high mileage. This old school philosophy is simply inferior to pursuing competitive goals, even extreme endurance goals, with a balance of stress and rest and a constant respect for your health. I talk extensively about Key Workouts in my book, Breakthrough Triathlon Training, where you occasionally push the body with a challenging workout that stimulates a fitness breakthrough and is aligned with your competitive goals, and balance these challenging workouts with plenty of moderately paced exercise and complete rest.

Let’s take an oversimplified example: Fred Flatliner is training for a marathon, running eight miles a day, 56 miles a week. He will surely get you in decent condition, but likely suffer from injury, illness and burnout due to lack of stress/rest balance. In contrast, consider Sam Seismic, who follows a weekly mileage schedule of something like: 2 – 14 – 4 – 7 – 0 – 10 – 3 = 40 miles, with the 14 mile day steadily increasing up to 22 miles before the marathon. Who do you think will be better prepared for the marathon? Even though Sam will, over time, will complete hundreds of miles less in training than the Fred, the answer is obvious. Since a week is an arbitrary block of time, we also have to constantly think big picture too – the balance you achieve annually and over the course of your career.

For example, if you are hard-core immersed into your glorious amateur triathlon career, is it necessary to do 10-15 races from May to October, or centerpiece around an ironman event, every single year? How about a down year every three or so, where you pursue alternative health, fitness and lifestyle goals and give your mind and body a chance to rejuvenate? Remember Mark Allen in 1994, coming off five consecutive Hawaii Ironman victories and no doubt massively incentivized to defend his title. Instead, he announced he would pass on the race to give his mind and body a break. Yep, he came back the next year and won in a new record time to culminate his career. Which is a hell of a lot better than ending his career with a 5th and a 3rd, eh?

The point is, feel free to experiment with your training methods so that they align with your lifestyle, your intuition and your caveman physiology built for occasional heavy stress balanced by down time. Understand that your obsessive/compulsive tendency to accumulate measurable results, every day in every way, flat out contradicts and sabotages your ultimate athletic potential and compromises your health. If you feel like resting or backing away from your ambitious plans, do so. If you feel like doing an extreme workout that challenges your mental and physical limits, take that Felt out for an all day ride in the mountains once in a while. Or roll over to the Tuesday night group ride, launch a one-man breakaway at mile three and hold on for dear life. Notice how this alteration in training perspective and behavior may stimulate breakthroughs in fitness, body composition, general health and well being.
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