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10 Rules for Becoming an Ancestral Athlete

Posted Aug 25 2013 6:39pm

bentattooThis is a guest post from Ben Greenfield. Ben is a strength and conditioning coach and sports nutritionist who teaches athletes and exercise enthusiasts how to achieve amazing feats of physical performance without destroying their bodies. He is the head triathlon coach at Pacific Elite Fitness, blogs and podcasts at BenGreenfieldFitness.com , hosts the Get-Fit Guy show , and has a new book coming out called “ Beyond Training “.

Among other things, Ben is known for conducting self-experiments – often on very fringe ideas – to learn what can give him and his clients a competitive advantage. His next challenge that flies in the face of conventional wisdom is to win the amateur division at Ironman Canada in a fully ketogenic state. His experience training and competing at a high level using an ancestral framework is what I am particularly interested in, and I think you may be too. Now, enter Ben…

If you’re into fitness, diet or healthy living, then you’re bombarded every day by new workouts, fat loss methods, training templates, nutrition supplements, camps, clinics, diets, phone apps, biohacks, research studies and a mind-boggling variety of ways for you to enhance your body.

But for you to truly know whether the latest fad is going to be naturally healthy and perfectly meld 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 with 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 organ loss of vital regions such as your heart and liver and a drop in your metabolism of 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 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 are either mildly masochistic or you have 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 the recent Ancestral Health Symposium , I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Nassim Taleb, the author of the excellent book  Anti-Fragile . In the talk, 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 OK (and perfectly ancestral) to be uncomfortable and to have randomness in your life. Ancient man did not have air conditioning and central heating – so it’s OK for your bedroom, your office or your car to sometimes be too hot, or too cold. Refrigerators have not always been a luxury of mankind – so it’s OK 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 OK 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 overcome gradually adapting to the demands you place upon them.

Yes, I’ve purposefully listed rule number 3 to be in stark contrast to rule number 2. After all – constant discomfort is the equivalent of chronic stress.

A warrior does not constantly fight. They rest between the big battles. And the best athletes on the face of the planet know that their biggest gains come from the days spent between the tough sessions. In contrast, the time 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 hour 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 the whole time, we have a smartphone in our pocket with vibrating notifications from work, Facebook or Twitter. Or we go out to a 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. I’ve written about how 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 acquired, and often requires breaking your hardwired drive to be constantly productive.

My father-in-law is a skinny, ex-Montana rancher who now spends his time managing a sheep farm at University of Idaho. When our family goes to visit him, I get to witness his daily routine of an early morning of feeding hungry sheep, followed by a day of walking through pastures, lifting farm machinery, and fixing equipment. Perhaps this physical work experience was passed on to his daughter, because during the spring and summer, my wife rarely exercises. Instead, she spends her day in our backyard garden, pushing a heavy wheelbarrow, digging holes, moving rocks, planting trees and pulling weeds.

If you’re lucky enough to be a farmer, a gardener, 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 wheels of a car or truck for hours on end.

I’m not saying that you 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 entire 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.

I believe it was Tim Ferriss who I first heard say “A fertile man is a healthy man”.

And this makes perfect sense.

Whether you’re a man or woman, the loss of 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 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 mine”.

We’re lucky enough in our modern era to be able to test hormones of fertility, such as testosterone, estrogens, progesterone, DHEA, sex hormone binding globulin and other compounds that – if low or imbalanced – result in impotence, infertility, a lack of sexual drive, 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, your fluid production.

As a man, I can personally attest to the fact that my best athletic performance come during the same week’s when my sexual performance peaks. In my consults with many women, I’ve noticed that the 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 Superstarch, X2Performance, Essential Amino Acids, VESPA Wasp Extract and MCT Oil when I’m competing in Ironman triathlon. But the truth is that although this cocktail is relatively healthy compared to sugar-laden engineered beverages, gels, bars and gooey alternatives, I avoid it at all costs unless I absolutely must consume it.

Instead, I’m far happier simply eating food that comes straight from the earth in its real, recognizable form. Whether I’m heading out for a bike ride with a ziplock of raw almonds in my jersey, chomping on a sweet potato before a weight training session, or simply letting the real meals that I spread throughout the day fuel any physical activity I may do, I try to avoid taking the trouble to worry about advanced fueling science or engineering “pre and post-workout nutrition” unless absolutely necessary – such as when aerodynamics, weight or time spent to consume fuel becomes a performance consideration.

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. The idea of mixing up a shake from your gym bag, unwrapping a factory-made energy bar, or dumping powders into a bike bottle should be a strange, foreign and rare activity for you that you save for the times when you’re actually doing something relatively “unnatural”, like 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 did not 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.

I’ve written before how 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 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. So choose 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 or fancy blenders, they avoid expensive recovery technology like electrostimulation and compression gear, and they never go near a heart rate variability monitor or self-quantification device.

They argue this is natural, unplugged living.

But ironically, these same athletes then exposure their body to extremely unnatural situations, such as running for miles on hard pavement besides 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 electromagnetic frequencies and 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, 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 in your refrigerator. 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 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?

The fact is that this kind of distracting 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 in survival or potential life-and-death situations.

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. I’ve written about how there’s evidence that 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 or when you’re devoting time to your family or children. If you need to, keep a pen or pad handy, assign specific tasks to specific days, and use all of the other mind-clearing productivity techniques I’ve written about before .

Plan wisely for the future, but live in the present with a clear head.

I know I’ve already talked about my wife, but I’m going to do it again.

I’m jealous of her. 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 would 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 we’re “hardwired” differently. I doubt it. Watch any child who hasn’t yet been tainted by life stress, peer pressure to get a better body, and diet brainwashing, and they’re the same way. They eat, sleep, play and exercise when they feel like it.

I’m not arguing that there is no value to rigidity, self-control, knowledge and self-discipline. But I do 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. As I’ve said before , the last thing I want written in my obituary or on my tombstone is that “I was really good at exercising”.

What about you?

I wrote this entire article while hurtling down a highway in the passenger seat of my Toyota on the way to compete in Ironman Canada, with an EMF blocking pad under my Macbook, techno music pumping through my earbuds, and a Wi-Fi hotspot device just two feet from my head.

So I’m chuckling to myself as I reflect on the fact that I’ve penned a piece on ancestral living while living quite un-ancestrally.

But we’re about to pull into a truck stop for a break.

And when we do, I’ll reach into a paper bag in the back of the car, grab a ripe, juicy tomato I plucked from our garden before we hit the road and bite into its juicy flesh, wiping the juice from my chin as I step out of the car and into the warm sunshine. I’ll grab my twin boys and go exploring in the lush trees behind the gas station. Maybe we’ll chase a rabbit or quail. I’ll take a long, lazy, lunging stretch. I’ll kiss my wife. I’ll take a few deep breaths of the fresh wind whipping up the hills behind the highway.

Then we’ll get back in the car and keep driving, but from those few fleeting moments, I’ll feel my ancestral roots thriving for hours afterwards. Will you?

To learn more about Ben, check out his blog and podcast at BenGreenfieldFitness.com , visit his coaching website at Pacific Elite Fitness , and stay tuned for his upcoming new book Beyond Training .

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