Why are so many runners and endurance athletes overweight?
Sporting a pot belly seems strange when you’re running 50+ miles a week. Could it be that “carb loading” with pasta, sugar, and other carbs is terrible advice?
If you’ve struggled to maintain low body fat during training (or even in your everyday life), this show is about to blow your mind.
Today we’re here with bestselling author of The Primal Blueprint and head honcho at Mark’s Daily Apple, Mr. Mark Sisson.
You’re about to learn a revolutionary way of training so that you can run, swim and bike faster with less effort. What’s the secret? Programming your body to use fat instead of carbs as the primary fuel for your training.
So if you want to be a fat-burning man or woman, don’t miss this show.
We’re talking about:
- How to program your body to burn fat (instead of carbs) for energy during workouts
- The dangers of overtraining for heart health and longevity
- Why you should train slower to race faster
- How to run a marathon without carb-loading, and much more…
MARK SISSON: THE ORIGINAL FAT-BURNING BEAST
Abel: Today I’m honored to have Mark Sisson return to the show. He’s the bestselling author of The Primal Blueprint and the brand new book, Primal Endurance. He’s also the original fat-burning beast, an Ultimate Frisbee Warrior, and one day, he hopes to play piano well enough to earn tips at a lounge bar.
Once again, you’re turning the sugar-burning, overtrained fitness world on its head. In your new book, you mention that 30% of marathon runners and triathletes are overweight or obese, no better than most couch potatoes. What in the world is going on?
I asked myself that question a lot. It’s what prompted this book.
I started to notice 10 – 15 years ago that people would line up at the starting line of the L.A. or New York Marathon or local 10k’s or even Spartan races and they had a lot of weight to lose… 10, 20, or even 30 extra pounds despite fact that they were putting in the training and sweating off the calories.
There’s something kinda weird about the notion that you’re training hard and your ability to go fast in the race sort of depends on how light you are, and yet the training doesn’t bring you to your ideal body composition.
THE CARB MYTH: WHY ENDURANCE RACERS SHOULD BURN FAT
Turns out, many of these people are stuck in this rut where they become so dependent on carbohydrates for fuel, on glycogen in their muscles, and also on exogenous feedings of glucose throughout training and racing that they never really get to be good fat-burners. Some of them become fairly good sugar-burners, and some perform pretty well provided they’re given a constant supply of sugar in a race. They can perform for a while until their digestive system shuts down 4 – 5 hours into the race.
It used to be all about carb management. How long can you go and retain glycogen in the muscles before you hit the wall and bonk? How can you manage glycogen stores? It was carb-loading the night before a race, consuming carbs during a race, taking in liquids and staving off walls by continuously adding more carbohydrates.
I realized ten years ago that the way to manage glycogen is to become good at burning fat. The more you can do that, the less you need to tap into those glycogen stores to use that glucose as fuel.
If you trained in a way that promoted fat-adaptation, and ate a diet that would reconfigure your enzyme systems to upregulate so you’d burn more fat and less carbs, you could become a fat-burning beast and keto-adapted. So, now you can use the fat and the ketones to unburden yourself from having to take in all this external glycogen.
How does this relate to overweight people racing? When they are on that carb-and-run cycle, they overeat just a little carbohydrates and the body tends to store that as excess calories. It’s a constant battle of going out to run hard tomorrow to burn off the calories you take in today. It’s a never ending battle for a lot of people.
If you become good at burning fat, then all of that shifts and now you’re burning fat for fuel even when you’re walking around the house doing nothing. When you’re training, when you’re racing, you’re burning stored body fat. You’re always coming down to that body fat level that allows you to become a proficient performer. It allows you to race at a proficient “racing weight” rather than carrying around that ten pound backpack of fat.
It’s a beautiful thing if you can figure it out. That’s what we’ve done in Primal Endurance. We’ve figured out how to get you in that space where you’ve become a fat-burning beast. You become efficient at burning fat and less dependant on glucose and glycogen. You can train less now because you don’t have to constantly go out and “burn off” calories. It’s more about having fun and loving life.
ADVANCED HEART RATE TRAINING TO IMPROVE PERFORMANCE
Abel: When you adapt to burning fat, you can feel it. You’re basically increasing your “cruise mode” capabilities. Everyone who’s ever been active knows the difference between “I could do this all day” and “I’m dying.” How do you manage the extremes during training?
At the low end, you want to become more efficient at burning fat. Let’s talk heart rate: 180 minus your age gives you a pretty good idea of where heart rate should be for long low-endurance activity.
I’m 62 and I’m going to add 5 points for being a lifetime athlete. So, 123 – 124 is the high end of where I should spend most of my time training if I’m trying to increase my aerobic endurance capacity. In the old days, I’d train at 155 – 170 all day long. I was good at it and I raced pretty well, but I was always beat up and tired.
When you limit that heart rate to the low end, that’s the heart rate at which you can put oxygen through so efficiently you could be running and breathing through your nose, or having a conversation with your training partner and not get out of breath. That’s where you’re putting enough oxygen through your body that you’re burning fat.
It might be that at that rate, you can’t go very fast. Some people train all day at a heart rate of 155 – 160, and now you’re asking them to train at 130 – 140. Now they realize if they limit themselves to that heart rate, they’re only doing 13 minute miles. How can that be? Well, you’re not very good at burning fat.
As you train at this level and eat right, over time, you stay in this zone. Then it drops to 12, 11, 10—literally you can get down to 7 or 7 ½ minute miles at that pace where you’re mostly burning fat.
Two decades ago, we thought that was literally impossible. Now we’re seeing it in the lab with endurance athletes and ultra marathoners.
What we’re doing is training the efficiency of the body to become faster and faster at that rate where you burn mostly fat. That gives you the base from which to add layers—the speed and the strength, and the things that come later.
Abel: This reminds me of when I first started experimenting with non-traditional approaches to running. I discovered Danny Dreyer of ChiRunning—he’s brilliant. I started focusing on nose-breathing and bringing a meditation to my runs. So, you’re in cruise mode instead of looking at the watch and constantly stressed about the numbers.
On one marathon training run, I decided to do the first half in that cruise mode, breathing through my nose nice and easy. Then, the second half I decided to really race and watch what my pace looked like while paying attention to the way that I felt and what came naturally for my body. The first half was bliss, the second half I was gunning it.
But after the intense race pace runs, I was trashed – immunosuppressed, exhausted, and slightly broken. For the next few days, I was sore. You see a lot of things that go wrong when you race that hard.
Not to say you shouldn’t occasionally go on the line and hammer it. That’s was I did for years. I was an elite racer. You can train to the point that your training is comfortable so you’re not beaten up and not spending days sore from your last training episode.
Forget the racing. What we say about racing is you’re preparing for an event—something that’s a challenge greater than what you’d want to take on daily.
So, as long as the daily training gets you to where you need to be performing, then we’ve succeeded. But the training has to keep you fit and healthy.
I spent so much time injured or ill when I was training. Now, I see the big picture. I see it’s possible to enjoy the training, and enjoy the life between training.
When you’re an endurance athlete, it’s usually eat, sleep, train, eat, sleep, train.
It’s empowering to know I can have fun training, I can put in less struggle and suffering than my officemates who are going to enter that 10k with me and I’m gonna kick their ass just because I know how to train.
Just like when you ran that marathon. The first half was bliss because you were in fat-burning mode. You could breathe through your nose. You’re going at the rate at which we know oxygen is coming through enough to burn fat, you’re not building up lactic acid. When you’re building up lactate, which is a sign of going into that overdrive glycogen thing, that’s when you’re out of breath because you’ve got to recycle oxygen to recycle lactate.
In the old days, I’d train in the black hole: 170 – 190 beats a minute for hours. I could do it, but I was hurting. I wasn’t going slow enough to train my aerobic system, but I wasn’t going hard enough to train speed or power at the top end.
The black hole of training is where you’re doing the work but not getting anywhere. That’s why so many people will have been a marathoner for ten years and yet they’re still running 3:45, 3:48, 3:42, then 3:45—they never improve and yet they’re doing the work. If this is your pursuit, you ought to be getting better every race.
Abel: How do you maintain fat-burning (aerobic) mode without pushing too far into the anaerobic zone?
Wear a heart monitor and use an upper limit to keep yourself honest. If you’re reaching a hill and your heart rate is going too high, you walk the hill. Use the heart monitor to keep you honed in on that zone. The more acclimated you become, the more you can go into that zone and come back. All isn’t lost. When you’re building a base, you need to spend time doing that.
I can go out and play Ultimate Frisbee every week, and it’s an intense game. I build my base all week and then I go out and play Ultimate Frisbee, and I’m sending my body different signals. It’s not going to damage the work I did on the fat-burning side, and it will improve the speed side… and the most important thing is that I’m having fun. I’m bringing all these parts together in an event I enjoy.
Abel: In the book, you bring up Dr. Timothy Noakes. His carb-loading philosophy took an about-face when he became prediabetic. He was gung-go with carbs and he’s since come over to the dark side of fat-burning. How the science changing?
Dr. Noakes was the go-to guy in the science of carb management, glycogen management, and the endurance field for years. He was cited more often than anyone else. He wrote a book called The Lore of Running—a 900 page tome that explored all aspects of what it took to become a good endurance athlete, and it mostly centered around glycogen management.
How do we use carbs to feed muscles? How do we use the stored form of carbohydrates, which is glycogen? He helped create one of the first glucose-replacement products on the market. He was the guy. I used to cite him all the time.
He was also an athlete. He ran marathons and was training a lot, incorporating the techniques he helped derive. Then he realized he was becoming a type 2 diabetic. He’s like, “What’s going on here? I’m doing everything I think is right to prevent myself from going down that path.”
He started to do the research and had this epiphany: “I’ve been taking an entirely wrong approach.” He turned it around. He said he was willing to eat his own words. We all thought that glycogen management was the be-all end-all, but now we realize it’s in fat-burning.
It’s the opposite end to get to the same point. You go through the carb door this way to feed it, and the fat-burning door to spare it.
To me it was heroic for him to say, “I’m sorry. I messed up.” He’s caught so much grief for it, it makes me sad. But he realized the science shows you can become good at burning fat by lowering the amount of carbs, especially the simple sugars and processed starches.
By eliminating all those, you become healthier and perform better. The old problem with endurance training was that you can get really fit as a sugar burner, but your health is compromised. Now, we see you can get really fit and improve your health.
HOW TO TRAIN FOR HEART HEALTH AND LONGEVITY
Abel: Dr. Noakes is a professor, and he said “50% of what we teach at any given time is wrong. The problem is we don’t know what 50% that is.” So, our job is finding out what that 50% is and hopefully correcting it as science evolves.
It takes a lot of courage for someone to do an about-face on something they’ve built their career on. Dr. James O’Keefe talks about how it’s much better for your health to focus on a low heart rate during training…. as opposed to being a sugar burner gunning it and eventually causing so much damage you have a heart attack.
We’ve been seeing heart issues in the endurance community for along time. It started with my generation in late 60’s early 70’s, when the running boom took off.
Some of my contemporaries are still trying to race. Trying to train. They’ve got this mindset that they’ve gotta get out there and build endorphins, etc. We are seeing a lot of heart attacks. I used to keep a list of friends that used to be world record holders and gold medalists who’ve had heart attacks and died, or lived and needed pacemakers, or had to get open heart surgeries or had heart problems later in life. It’s from keeping the heart at that high end for so long.
I probably maxed my heart out four times a week for thirty years. Back in late 80’s I set the world record for a mile climb on the versaclimber—I did 5,280 feet in 22:40 minutes. I held my heart rate at 186 beats/min for 22 minutes. That’s a really long time. It’s almost max heart rate. I did things like that my whole life, which I’m regretting now. I get skipped beats from damaged cardiac muscle. You’re not going die from it, but don’t go out and train hard like you used to because you could die.
When you train low and then race high, you build that efficiency. Now, when you’re getting to the point where you can run a 7 minute mile, you get most of your energy from burning fat. That’s your baseline so that when you drop it down to 5:30 minute miles you’re still burning fat at a much higher rate than the guy next you you who’s burning all sugar.
Abel: Say you can get to the point where you’re burning fat at the 7:30 minute mile, do you see that your heart rate comes down when you run at a 5:30 minute pace when you’re fat adapted?
The heart is a demand organ that operates based on the requirements of all muscles and signals of the brain. The brain says, “I’m going to run faster, make the legs work harder.” And that generates a requirement for more blood to be pumped to the areas.
The heart says, “I can do that.” So it pumps more blood. It’s providing nutrients: carbohydrates, oxygen, fat, ketones. So, you’ve got this demand situation and the heart will become more efficient.
If you’re able to run 7 minute miles at 140, but prior to being able to do that you could only run 13 minute miles, you’d have to race your heart up to 180. Now you’re starting from a lower base. Your heart becomes more efficient mostly because it doesn’t have to pump as much.
The heart doesn’t get much stronger as an endurance athlete than it is right now. You don’t want a larger heart muscle, you just want it to pump less because the demands are less. So, the diet and training are contemplated to make demands less. Because the fat is already in the muscle, the oxygen is easy to put through because the more mitochondria you have the more fat you can burn, and it just unburdens the heart from having to work so much.
There’s an argument that you don’t want the heart to get stronger, like when it gets larger and larger because of the demands you put on it. If you go to the gym and try to do 150 bicep curls at 75 pounds, your biceps are going say, “I’m out.” But the heart isn’t able to say that. It just keeps beating and keeps beating.
There’s a max at which it can beat, and it won’t beat beyond that. But if the demands continue, the heart becomes scarred. It will get stronger, but at some point you don’t want it to get stronger because that means the walls are thickening and that means there’s scar tissue forming… and that’s when the electrical activity in the heart gets compromised.
That’s what AFib is.
There’s an epidemic of atrial fibrillation in endurance athletes. Some is genetic, but a lot is from straight overuse.
Having run that heart up as high as I possibly could and using the brain to overcome the sense of pain—no-pain-no-gain—and training to struggle and hurt… it has some value in a stoic kind of sense, but it’s not the most efficient way of becoming a good athlete.
Abel: Kind of like what’s happens to a car when you’re running high on the tachometer. If you’re red-lining for the majority of your training, that’s a far cry from cruising on the highway. It gets ugly fast.
You have an example in the book where you talk about training low and racing high, can you expand on that?
A race should be something that you wake up that morning and you’re like, “Oh my god, I’ve got a race!” You’re nervous, you clean out your GI tract. You have butterflies. A race should be that opportunity to put all those component parts together that you’ve been working on.
What happened to me in my career is I’d have these amazing workouts, I’d finish them and be drained and sick the next day. Then I’d go line up at the start of a marathon and I’d be at 70% of what I could have been because I’d trashed myself so much in my training. I left all my good efforts on the track.
Even in your marathon experience, you went hard that second half and had a hard time recovering. When you go hard, you pay the price for the next couple of weeks. There’s no way you’re going to go out and train at the same level without recovering.
Imagine if it’s your training strategy to beat yourself up every day. You almost never get a chance to fully realize the benefits of your training because all you’re doing is “practicing hurting.”
Abel: I always went back and forth between a type A “gun-it!” runner, and “let’s just chill and enjoy.” But I saw how the no pain, no gain approach played out for some of the elite-level guys around me… That might look like a hip replacement at age 30, or simply not being able to hang out with friends and family because they’re always either training or exhausted. I was really happy to find out there’s another way.
When you go out for an easy, long run of 2 or 3 or 4 hours and punctuate training with intense sprints, it allows you to train with less injury and more joy.
From a mental, emotional standpoint, for someone who wants to gun it, what do you recommend to take next step to train in a healthful way?
There’s no right answer here, there’s just choices. I talk about this a lot. I’m not here to tell you my way is better, right or wrong. I’m giving you an option. If you’re interested in reading about the science, here’s a way of becoming more efficient at burning fat.
There are people whose day is not made unless they’ve run ten miles and felt that endorphin rush and collapse on the couch. That’s their choice. But if they come to me and say they like the idea of more enjoyable training, less time training, and more time enjoying their family, that’s mental focus. The ability to enjoy your life has a lot to do with these other things, other than training.
Some people live to train and get their workout every day. God bless them. But if you’re going to the gym every day, I guarantee you’re not training effectively and getting the results you could. It could be you’re going because it’s your social hour, and that’s fine.
I’ve offered up a lot of choices that allow you to play more. I’ve got people that have been marathoners for ten years, and now they hike on the weekends. They’re enjoying their hikes, and they’re wearing their heart monitors. They’re feeling better and racing better.
My CFO is a top cyclist. He’s 55 and been doing this his whole life. He knew about this strategy, but it wasn’t until 4 months ago that he started eating and training this way. He said, “My Saturday ride used to be 2.5 hours of hammerfest, balls to the wall, eyes popping out. Now we’re doing five hours, talking, having fun, enjoying the day… and we’ve all become faster.”
It blew his mind that you could become faster by training slower.
You’re more efficient. You’re training to be really good at burning fat. So when you do decide to drop the hammer, you’re starting from a fat-burning baseline that’s so much more advanced than everyone around you.
HOW TO STAY YOUNG
Abel: You bring a lot of energy to everything you do. How do you stay young?
A lot of it is attitude. I still think I’m 25. Some of that has to do with the fact that I train with young people and I’m able to keep up with them. It’s also music. I like young music. I surround myself with young and forward-thinking people.
Attitude is the #1 thing. When I was a kid, 62 was almost dead. It’s crazy how old it seemed. And now, because I’ve maintained my physical ability to move through space and the world without pain, I haven’t had that filter layered over me that says, “You can’t do this.” All I think about is what I can do.
I’ve got this new food company Primal Kitchen, which has just taken off. I’ve got two flavors of mayo and dark chocolate almond bars, and a meal replacement drink. I’m having more fun with that. We also have a Primal Kitchen franchise restaurant taking off.
And I’ve got something to say to the world, and if I don’t say it, I’m not sure who’s prepared to say it the way I would. I have a sense of joy in sharing that with people.
Abel: We met 4 to 5 years ago, and it’s incredible how primal/paleo has gone mainstream. Where do you see it going in the next 5 years?
I think the concept of ancestral eating, watching sugar, and cutting back on industrial seed oils, eating clean proteins, green veggies… all this comes together. Now there’s enough science and critical mass in the buying public that’s seeking products that it will grow substantially. I think also medicine is coming on board… this is the way to cure diabetes, autoimmune disease, obesity, and maybe lop dollars off the nation’s health budget.
WHERE TO FIND MARK SISSON
His blog, Mark’s Daily Apple, has paved the way for Primal enthusiasts to challenge conventional wisdom’s diet and exercise principles and take personal responsibility for their health and well-being.
BEFORE YOU GO…
If you’re coming to my stomping grounds in Austin, Texas for the Paleo f(x) Conference, check this out…
We started an online community with members from all over the world… and we have an exciting announcement. Many of you have been meeting up in person in your respective cities, which has inspired us to up our game.
Alyson and I are having an in-person meetup in Austin during the PaleoFX conference for members of The Tribe—and we’re so stoked to meet you!
So if you’d like to meet me, Alyson, and other Tribe members for our first-ever kick-butt Wild party, join the Tribe now!
We’ll let you know when we get all the details hammered out. See you in Austin!
To stay in the loop about our first Tribe meetup, and to get a jumpstart on your fat-burning, Wild journey, join the Tribe today.
When you join the Fat-Burning Tribe, you’re going to get brand new complete 30-Day Meal Plans every month (a $47 value)! They’re full of Wild Diet favorites plus new yummy fat-melting dishes from our kitchen.
You’ll never have to worry about what you’re cooking for dinner again. With mouth-watering recipes like fall-off-the-bone Short Ribs, Chicken Parmesan, Bacon-Wrapped Scallops, Pad Thai, Chop Salad with Ranch Dressing, Cookie Dough Truffle Fat Bombs and so much more, you’ll shed pounds without “going on a diet.”
You can change your life right now, and you’re not alone. We’re here to help.
How do you train? Share with us by leaving a comment below!