The Primal Blueprint: Maximizing Through Moderation By Mark Sisson
Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: Endurance training is antithetical to anti-aging. So it amazes me when guys in their 40's and 50's who are training for a marathon or Ironman suggest that doing so will keep them young. It won't. Endurance training speeds aging almost as fast as watching TV, drinking sodas, and eating potato chips. In some cases, it speeds it up even faster.
I know, I know, you've been told that exercise is the fountain of youth, and the more you do, the greater the benefits. Well, science is starting to disprove that, and I suspect the evidence in support of my thesis will accumulate exponentially now that the first generation of aerobic overdoers has started dropping prematurely.
There is a middle ground, a perfect balance of diet and exercise that will lead to the longest, most productive life.
First, a history lesson
Humans aren't designed to work for extended periods at 80-90% efforts. Our evolutionary blueprint, the last draft of which was completed well over 10,000 years ago, set us up as great slow-movers and occasionally fast sprinters.
We have two primary energy systems:
(1) fat based, which allows for long, slow steady walking across the savannah;
(2) ATP-based, which gave our ancestors 20 seconds of balls-out sprint speed to escape the saber tooth tiger (or let grandma lift the '67 Ford truck off gramps when the cheap jack failed).
Just because we weren't designed to operate at high revs for long periods doesn't mean we can't. Clearly, we can train in amazing endurance - but because it's not in our evolutionary nature to exercise that way, doing so extracts a huge cost. Even our hunter-gatherer ancestors probably relied more on superior tracking skills and walking than they did running for hours or days after their prey. The energy costs of doing the latter would almost guarantee extinction: You run after an antelope for four hours, and he gets away. Now you not only don't have any food, you've used up all your glycogen and, oops, there's that saber-toothed tiger licking his chops and ready to pounce.
But our bodies are among the best in nature at adapting to hostile environments and self-destructive lifestyles. It's that capacity to adapt that allowed our ancestors to pass along their DNA blueprints to us, but it's also what allows us today to weigh 500 pounds when we overeat a little, or allows addicts to thrive on 60 Vicodin a day, when you or I would die on ten.
During the Irish potato famine, many went from living on nothing but 10 to twelve pounds of potatoes per person per day, to living on nothing but seaweed and shoe leather for months. That's adaptation!
Back when games were invented, it was a natural alpha male thing to want to test the endurance of one guy against another. It may have aided in mate selection. And because the first real endurance games probably happened around 10,000 years ago when we learned to grow crops so we didn't have to chase down food every day, you could say that it was most likely because of these new-fangled high-carbohydrate grains that we could first fully test out our adaptive endurance mechanisms.
You could even argue that grains and sugars fueled the endurance fire as our early frat-boy ancestors attempted to one-up each other every generation until today, when we have type-A's doing triple-ultra Ironmans back-to-back. Sure they burn a little fat here and there, but most of it is based on a maladaptive second-rate carbohydrate energy system that was never contemplated in the original design prototype!
What do endurance contests have to do with aging?
Lots: Carbohydrate metabolism is an inefficient and costly way to move for long periods. Your muscles and liver can hold only 500-600 grams of precious glycogen. That's only two hours worth of fuel when you're running sub-six minute miles. So if you're an endurance athlete it behooves you to consume lots of carbs - the simpler the better - and to accelerate the burning of fatty acids if you continue training and racing.
That's where the philosophies of endurance training and anti-aging agree to disagree. You need carbohydrates for fuel, but carbohydrates require an enormous amount of insulin be produced and circulated to help store it.
Anti-aging scientists tell us insulin is one of the best markers of longevity in all animals… that the less you produce (type 1 diabetes notwithstanding) the longer you live.
Chronic high-level training naturally depletes glycogen, which causes the body to release the adrenal hormone cortisol to cannibalize muscle tissue in order to help make new glucose (gluconeogenesis). Besides tearing down valuable muscle, chronic cortisol release carries with it a litany of negative effects. It suppressed immune function, which opens the door not only for short term upper respiratory infections, but may leave the door open for longer term, more serious issues (asthma, cancer, and heart disease, which we know has a strong inflammatory component.). Chronic cortisol release also reduces the ability of your bones to take on calcium, so it's not surprising that so many runners/triathletes - especially women - have low bone density. Anti-aging experts say that among elderly, low bone density is a pretty fair predictor of mortality. Break a hip when you're older and your chances of dying skyrocket.
Speaking of cortisol, not only does training and racing tend to produce it, but even the training meals can produce it. A meal high in sugar and other simple carbohydrates can cause a dramatic rise in cortisol (as part of an insulin-adrenaline cascade). That's one reason why sugar is a powerful immune suppressor.
The beta-oxidation of fats during heavy training generates oxidative fallout (also known as "free radical damage") at a rate that is often 20 times what you generate at rest. Oxidative damage of cellular constituents such as DNA, proteins and lipids can result in progressive destruction of cells and tissues. This oxidative damage is believed to be a contributing factor to many diseases including cancer, heart disease and aging in general. Your body had natural anti-oxidant systems designed to keep pace with your normal low-level fat-burning systems (walking and at rest) and even your occasional ATP-based "life or death sprint" systems, but it really wasn't designed to compensate for hours of high-level aerobic performance. Oxidative damage to cellular DNA is usually cleaned up by the immune system, but a compromised immune system may set the state for major problems later on. The cumulative effects of oxidative damage are why many long-time mileage junkies look older than they are.
Lean mass is a major predictor of longevity. "Dying of natural causes" is better described as "dying from organ failure due to loss of organ reserve and lean tissue." Organ reserve (the functional capacity of any or all organs necessary to support life) and skeletal muscle mass increase or decrease together depending on the stimulus or lack of it. So, anything you do to build muscle tends also to build or improve your heart, liver, lungs, kidney, and kidney tissue. Similarly, anything you do to diminish muscle - like, by not using it - tends to have a negative effect on your vital organs. We call it "atrophy" and it's what "use it or lose it" is all about. When you work, your body adapts to do more work. Stay in bed for a few weeks and you'll lose both muscle mass and organ reserve. If you're young, you can build both back with diet and minimal exercise. If you are old, it's often the beginning of the end.
Exercise is a great way to increase muscle mass, and hence, organ reserve. We were, after all, designed to move. But our DNA blueprints were fine-tuned to work best when we walk long distances, sprint like hell now and then, lift boulders, and climb trees. The benefits of true low-level activity are many: We develop an extensive capillary network and reduce the chances of heart attack or stroke. We burn more fat, we increase our anti-oxidant levels and slow aging. We regulate insulin better and our bones get stronger. Surviving run-ins with the saber-tooth tigers makes you stronger, better adapted to do it again.
Many age group endurance athletes overtrain in their exuberance to excel at racing, and eat too many carbohydrates to stay fueled. Over the years, their muscle mass, immune function, and testosterone levels decrease while their cortisol, insulin, and oxidative output increase. Do this long enough and you'll age faster. That's why I stopped racing and training ten years ago and why I prefer hiking, sprinting, and weight-training today.
Readjust your training to fit your DNA blueprint. If you're not getting enough exercise, step it up. If you're training hard and long for grueling endurance competitions, back off. On the bike, sprint more and rest more. Break it up and have fun. Lift weights, do yoga, and there's a good chance you'll be healthier and look better.
Here's list to review - and many of these are people I know or knew personally:
- Marathoner Brian Maxwell, ranked #3 in the world at one time and founder of PowerBar, died of a heart attack at age 51.
- Alberto Salazar, probably the greatest American distance runner ever, had a heart attack at age 48 that left him clinically dead for 8 minutes (his heart stopped several more times on the way to the hospital).
- Greg Welch, one of the most versatile, all-around triathletes ever (he won Ironman Hawaii, the ITU World Championships and the world Duathlon Championship) was forced to retire at age 37 due to severe heart problems. He has had over 10 open-heart surgeries and wears a pacemaker.
- Mark Montgomery, who was a top pro triathlete for many years, had a pacemaker installed at age 46 as a result of V-tach issues.
- Johnny G, the developer of the popular "Spin" classes and a RAAM racer, has had severe cardiomyopathy and recently had a pacemaker installed.
- Maddy Tormoen, 3-time Duathlete-Of-The-Year, and 35-year old triathlete Emma Carney, twice ITU World Triathlon champion, each now have defibrillators implanted in their chests to correct life-threatening arrhythmias.
- Chris Legh, and Julianne White, both Ironman winners, have each had entire sections of their colon removed immediately after a race due to "ischemic conditions" where the blood supply to the GI tract was rerouted for so long (as the body diverted the blood to it's periphery to cool itself) that whole sections of the colon literally died from lack of oxygen and nutrients.
- John Walker, one of the greatest milers of all time, was diagnosed with Parkinson's at age 46.
- Marty Liquori, another world-best miler was diagnosed with leukemia at age 43.
- Bruce Balch, Steve Scott, and Lance Armstrong (all top endurance athletes) got testicular cancer after a few years of competing.Most of the top runners from the 80's don't run anymore; many can barely walk due to arthritic conditions.
- Gyorgy Kolonics, a gold-medalist canoeist from Hungary, died weeks before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, of apparent heart failure while training, at the age of 36.
The "less is more" concept is taking hold among many former endurance athletes. When you cut back miles and start throwing in a few short - but intense - interval sessions each week, you start to realize a few things you hadn't until now:
1. You are training as Primal Man lived.
2. Ironically, you feel less "beat up"
3. It takes less time to accomplish.
4. It's just more fun than slogging out long miles.
Research now also confirms that this method is far more effective at improving cardiovascular fitness and promoting HGH release than the long, hard rides are.
One other thing: the high mileage training sort of requires that you replace all that lost glycogen with a diet high in carbs. If you follow the Primal blueprint, you know that's highly inflammatory and leads to other undesirable effects. All in all, I'm thrilled to have discovered that I can be healthier and "fitter: - I can't race quite as well, but who cares?
Mark Sisson is a former 2:18 marathoner and 4th place Ironman Hawaii finisher. He has coached elite runners and triathletes and is the author of "The Runners World Triathlon Training Book" and "Training and Racing Biathlons". He served for 13 years as chairman of the ITU (International Triathlon Union) anti-doping commission, and liaison to the IOC Medical Commission. He's just released a book called, "The Primal Blueprint", available on Amazon.com. His website is: