The Painless Path to Endurance (Plus: Breville Winner and More)

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“Victor” running an ultramarathon.

Pavel Tsatsouline is a former Soviet Special Forces physical training instructor, currently a subject matter expert to the US Navy SEALs and the US Secret Service. In 2001, Pavel’s and John Du Cane introduced the Russian kettlebell to the West.

Dan John is a former nationally-ranked discus thrower and Olympic lifter–as well as Fulbright Scholar–with more than four decades in the iron game.


T-shirt: Lance Armstrong to Pavel.

Enter Dan and Pavel

Years ago, my friend Dr. Jim Wright said something that got burned into my brain:
“Consistency and moderation over intensity.”

Not nearly as sexy as “Do or Die!” or some other juvenile T-shirt slogan, but you could not think of a better set of directions for durable performance.

You are about to meet a man who embodies this maxim. He is a US military special operator whose name I shall withhold due to the nature of his duty.

Let us call him “Victor.”

I met this quiet professional at one of our RKC military kettlebell courses. He was capable of a strict pullup with 160 pounds of extra weight, at a bodyweight of 195 pounds (and one-arm chins, naturally). He could close Iron Mind’s iconic #2.5 Captains of Crush hand gripper, 237.5 pounds strong, for three reps. And he had run over ten ultramarathons, from 50 to 100 miles!…

Any of the above is an accomplishment, but combining either the first or second feat with the third is unheard of. Especially if one considers that this man is not a pampered professional athlete, but a warrior with many combat deployments under his belt. I had to know more.

Victor graciously described his training:

Low mileage. I only ran 30 miles per week in preparation for the 100 miler. The most important training event for ultramarathons is the weekly long run. I kept my heart rate low and breathed through my nose during training runs, and I think that this helped to minimize muscle damage. I can run 20 miles on a Sunday, and still perform strength exercises on Monday. The key is having the LOW INTENSITY. I use a heart rate monitor, and I stay at 60-65% of my MHR. This means that I am often walking on the hills. If I ran 20 miles at 70-75% MHR, my recovery time would be much longer. I would do high intensity track or hill intervals on one day during the week, but the interval workout never lasted longer than 30 minutes. I keep the intervals pretty intense, though.

Fueling. I am religious about using proper fueling for all long distance events, and I swear by Hammer Nutrition. I consumed exactly 270 calories/hour for the entire 100 mile race (7:1 carbs/protein) and this gave me all the calories that I needed. The protein in my race nutrition (Hammer Perpetuem) helps to prevent muscle cannibalization during the race. Post-race/run, I drink Hammer Recoverite immediately after finishing, and try to get a good meal within an hour of the race.

Prior experience. I did my first 50-mile race 11 years ago, and I have completed over 10 ultramarathons since then. I know how my body will react after long distances, and this experience helps with the mental side of the sport. I have also completed many similar types of endurance events in my military training. Having this experience is very beneficial. I know that I can walk out the door anytime/anywhere and run a marathon pretty easily.

The hand strength and gripper stuff is just fun to do. I train them “Grease the Groove” style [easy sets throughout the day, every day—Ed.]. Of course it helps that I have been doing literally 100s of pull-ups per week (on average) for the last 14 years. I also have done a lot of rock climbing in my past, which really helps with grip strength.

Variety. I have enough variety in my training (yoga, running, biking, kettlebells, clubs, calisthenics) help keep me injury free. I try to get 1-2 days of yoga per week. Sometimes I go to a class, and sometimes on my own. I work the basic poses and focus on releasing some of the tension that comes from lots of running and strength training. The yoga has been great for injury prevention. I also do not lift any other weights besides my single 53lb. kettlebell, and my two 25lb. clubs. The only 1RM training that I do is with the gripper. I used to do presses and deadlifts after reading Power to the People!, but I felt my ego pushing me harder and faster than my body wanted to go. So I decided to limit myself to one kettlebell and two clubs and just focus on adding repetitions and intensity. Staying injury free has helped me to maintain consistent progress for the last 10 years.

I rarely train for more than 30 minutes per day. The only exception to this would be a weekly long run (3+ hours) and a weekly trail run (50-min). I have always done lots of trail running and I find that the trails are much easier on the legs. The steep trails keep things fun and help to prevent overuse injuries. I also keep my exercise selection pretty minimal: pushups, pull-ups, kettlebell swings, get-ups, windmills, goblet squats, and club mills/swipes. That is pretty much it.

I attribute most of my success to consistency. I have been training almost daily since I was 14 years old, and I am also fortunate to have a job that requires me to stay in shape. I also don’t think that there is any reason why strength and endurance have to be mutually exclusive…

 

Process vs. Outcome

In the mid-nineties, a curious book came out in the States: Body, Mind, and Sport by John Douillard. Given its focus on endurance sports, an apparent dislike of hard training and beef, and heavy doses of New Age discussions of Ayurveda, it is unlikely that it was read by many of our intense weightlifting friends. At least one did, though: Victor.

The book was dedicated to improving one’s performance by reducing the effort to 50%, enjoying the process, and not focusing on the result. The author cited a University of Texas in Austin study of goal-oriented and process-oriented people in the workplace. Unexpectedly, it was not the hypercompetitive Type “A” people who were doing more for the company, making more money, getting more raises and promotions. It was the folks who were enjoying their job.

Ironically, not getting wrapped up in the result may deliver higher gains. I had heard that before. One of the best pistol shooters in the Russian armed forces made a breakthrough in his accuracy when a coach told him, “You know, you have the right to miss.”

One of Douillard’s techniques was practicing a competitive sport without keeping score. “Focusing on the score attaches you to the result. Focusing on the process lets you access your greatest skill and increases your fun.” That rang true.

When I was working on my running in preparation for my military service, at least once a week I would leave my watch at home and go as far as I could while staying totally relaxed. I would draw out my breaths as far as possible comfortably, taking a series of partial inhalations (one per step), and then partial exhalations (one per step again). It took several steps, say six, to complete one breathing cycle. I scanned my body regularly for hidden tension and would release it by “breathing out” through the tight muscles and by shaking them off. I would keep my mouth closed, but not tightly, as relaxed jaws are essential to effortless running. Even after weeks when I did no other kind of running—no hard runs, no hills, no intervals, no running with weight—I could race any distance up to 10K very fast if I chose to. All I had to do was add some “gas” to the relaxation, and I flew.

Nose-only breathing was later stressed in my unit. They sometimes had us run with a mouthful of water—a brilliant self-limiting exercise in the best Gray Cook tradition. Some Russian marathoners hold a handkerchief in their teeth for the same purpose of preventing panicky and inefficient mouth breathing.

Not surprisingly, nose-only breathing and keeping the heart rate low were key components of the Body, Mind, and Sport program. The inventive author figured out a way to “make it a competitive endeavor. For example… run around the track and the winner will be the one who not only finishes first, but has the slowest breath rate and heart rate.”

Here is how he scored the winners:

Finish Time + Heart Rate + (Breath Rate x 3)

The lowest score wins, and he multiplies the breath rate by 3 to emphasize its importance.

Victor stresses, “The low HR and nose breathing are essential. After a few months of consistent practice, nose-breathing should be used for the tempo run as well. Nose breathing teaches breath control, and also acts as a “governor” that helps to prevent overtraining.” This is especially important to an athlete for whom running endurance is not the number one priority.

Endurance or strength, Dr. Anatoly Bondarchuk (Olympic hammer throw champion and coach of champions) makes a stunning revelation that the harder you push the body, the more stubbornly it refuses change:

“In our practice, with each year we have become more convinced that the stronger our desires to significantly increase the level of achievement… the less the effect… This is explained by the fact that the stronger the complex of training effects, then the more harmony there is in the defense functions in the body… This in every way possible creates barriers or prevents a new level of adaptation, where in the process of restructuring it is necessary to expend a significant amount of energy resources.

…the defense function of the body systems in high level athletes is more “trained” than in low level athletes. From here a very “bold” conclusion follows, that the process of increasing sports mastery takes place at the same level as the process of developing defense functions. In the end result, the defense functions prevail over most of the time of sports development… Up to this time, all of this is a “superbold” hypothesis, giving food for very “fantastic” propositions, but there is something in all of this… Today it is only sufficiently clear that in the process of sports improvement, the body always defends itself against the irritants acting upon it.”

The ability to differentiate between “laziness” and “doing just the right amount to get the job done” is a mark of a winner. Recalls AAU American bench press record holder Jack Reape:

“I spent the first half of my training career learning to work harder and never miss workouts, and the second half learning when to sometimes go easier and when to back off.”

The above is excerpted from Pavel and Dan’s new book, Easy Strength. Learn more about it here.

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ODDS AND ENDS: Breville winner and Angel Investor of the Year?

Jan Winklmann is the winner of the Random Show Breville competition. Please check your email. I need your final OK to ship. Danke sehr!

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To second Cody’d nomination, just click here and then click “share” next to my name. It takes just 5 seconds, literally.

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Posted on: December 6, 2011.

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151 comments on “The Painless Path to Endurance (Plus: Breville Winner and More)

  1. The single phrase from the 4HB has changed me forever, “strengthen your carriage”.

    For the first time in my 37 years I can run long distance without training hard.

    Like

  2. Tim,
    I think this is as relevant a time as any to ask this: As a near-daily morning runner I’m really interested in hearing about the results of your marathon training.The four hour body/blog/ultra link leads to a coming soon page.

    Like

  3. Tim,

    Once again, loved the post. I read John Doulliard’s book a few years ago and tried it diligently. It worked pretty well but I am not a huge fan of running. As a former athlete, I have tried many variations of this type of philosophy, and look forward to trying a new twist thanks to this post.

    PS…Got a cure for writer’s block? I’ve stalled out after the second book!

    Darren Michaels

    Like

  4. I had my first halfmarathon last Sunday and really thinking about 100K race. I’m going to run a marathon on Sicily in April. Thank for this info from Victor. I really had a big problem with energy during the race (only carbs). I’ll try to change this to 7:1 formula.

    Like

  5. Tim,
    Planning to do my first marathon at the end of January. Havent been running too much to this point and don’t plan on logging 50 miles/wk to get there. Thanks for reminding me that quality training is always greater than quantity.

    Like

  6. I ran track at the university of wisconsin-madison, and am lucky to be the son of an ayurvedic practioner. These methods of breathing and training are something that I swore by throughout my career. Great to see it going a little more mainstream.

    Like

  7. I am looking into endurance training/mount climbing training. Next year my grandfather is turning ninety and he is planning to climb Mt. Rainier. One of my uncles and I have decide to join my grandfather, but I have not back pack since I was 15. And have never been high elevation climbing.

    Right now I am in good shape (to my standards), but know I have to train. Any suggestions?

    Will running hills with a gas mask help me get use to thin air?

    Like

    • The only real training for mountain climbing is climbing mountains, preferably with a heavier and heavier pack. It’s best to start lighter, maybe 30 pounds and add 5-10 pounds at a time as you get used to it to prevent injury. if you can’t find any mountains in your area, then running hills is good. I also hear that the Stairmaster is the best machine to use, preferably with a pack as well. :)

      Start doign as much hiking as possible, like every weekend, at least 10 miles.

      Never heard of the gas mask, but Diamox is a great thing to take for insurance. The panic on being on a 4000 foot high free fall iceslide with the horrible feeling on altitude sickness is not a good match. It’s genetic and some people have no problems, or will be fine a bunch of times and then sick randomly. Others, like me just never do well at altitude.

      Like

  8. just came from crossfit and pushing myself so hard that i wanted to puke. this is an interesting read after walking out of that intense situation. it seems like you have used both approaches (after reading 4 hr body). do you have a preference of one of the methods? high intensity and short period, or low intensity and more workouts a week? thanks for all the good stuff, bruddah.

    Like

  9. Hey Tim,

    What kind of effects does endurance training (any of the varieties you’ve written about before) have on muscular strength? Would it impede or even reverse your fast-twitch muscle composition to make way for the slow-twitch fibres? In other words, is it possible to get the best of both worlds without any sacrifice?

    Thanks, and sweet books.

    Like

  10. This totally goes against the “high intensity route to endurance” put forward in the 4 Hour Body? So which is optimal? Whatever happened to that ultra you were gonna run? I am confuzzled…..

    Like

    • Yes!!!

      Exactly. This is the oposite of that is in 4HB. Not that it surprises me because I train more like victor. However I do want to know what happened to your Ultra-run. Did you finish it and what time did you get?

      Like

  11. Hey Tim thanks for sharing this great blog post. It has been hard to train within my limits and have lately kind of understand how to train within my limits. Timely blog post to remind me to train within my limits. BTW, HARDSTYLE RULES!!!! (:

    Like

  12. The Breathing Thing is A fantastic Russian “secret” for improving your cardiovascular and pulmonary physiology. It’s all about adapting to HIGHER carbon dioxide levels in the blood instead of always worrying about getting more O2 its actually the opposite. Remember: Hemoglobin doesn’t let go of oxygen to the tissues unless there’s CO2 there. So you may have saturated Hemoglobin but experiencing signs of oxygen deficiency. Instead of brute force big breaths like logically you’d think….Nasal breathing, slower breaths, and tolerating higher CO2 levels is the key.

    I just attended a seminar on Hypocapnia which is the medical term for ‘hyperventilation syndrome’ …We are only just beginning to appreciate the clinical effects. They often go misdiagnosed and over medicated when really its a breathing issue. We got hooked up to a machine that measures blood carbon dioxide levels (optimal physiology being 35-45) …doc after doc got up there 35, 30, 32, 36, 33, 37 ..they all experienced the signs and symptoms but thought they were fine. I had been training via the Buteyko method from the Russians (the best way to learn to breath correctly I’ve found) and I went and hooked up and BAM ..43! The highest he had seen and I hadn’t done any ‘cardio’ or specific breathing training in months. This PhD was trying to teach the Low subjects to condition their breathing…it didn’t work that well…so I told him about Buteyko. Check it out if you have asthma, recurring headaches, random panic attacks, dizzy, fatigue, nausea, and as always I’m not your doc. But then again its really simple breathing basically while pinching your nose halfway to get used to having elevated CO2 levels in your lungs until your breathing levels get better.

    Enjoy and THanks Tim for the Great Content,
    Christian Carroll

    Like

    • Thanks for sharing that. In internal martial arts nasal breathing is the rule. I naturally did it on my jogs to keep the body warm, loose, and full of steam. It’s also a good way to conserve water.

      Good to hear some additional scientific theory behind it.

      Like

  13. Hi Tim,
    Interesting excerpt. I have found the same thing to be true by observation in my own training. Trying to force a pr can much of the time lead to an overactivation of the defense mechanism. Balance and learning to have fun is actually part of high level athletic mental process. I have also found that if i literally laugh in training I’m probably going to PR or have great training that day. Loved both your books looking forward to the third. I dont run much but I have taken the kb swing and many other “muscular cardio” implements to the marathon level while at the same time building maximum strength. The old fable that you cant have strength and endurance together is dying and new pathways are being built in that arena. Thanks again for your work.
    Bud Jeffries

    Like

  14. Interesting article, especially as the 4hr body, which I loved, talks so much about high-intensity workouts, like Crossfit and sprint intervals, for improving endurance, whereas Victor subscribes almost to the opposite. The question is which gets better results and which is better for injury prevention? Or do both have a place in endurance training? Victor also raises the question whether workouts should be kept simple and only a few basic exercises used over and over or does the Crossfit approach – different workout every day – bring about more rapid improvement?
    I certainly agree with Victor’s observation that focusing on the process rather than the result can bring about better results through less tension. It’s as simple as saying ‘stay in the moment’ or ‘be present’.

    Like

  15. That guy is like a super hero.

    I can’t imagine running that long and maintaining your breathing rate. That’s amazing self control. It’s definitely getting too cold here to just be nose-breathing, but maybe I test out the handkerchief in the teeth, or try my luck on treadmill the next time I’m at the gym.

    Like

  16. Tim,

    Do you feel the Fueling aspect of Victor’s endurance events is counter to the slowcarb approach you advise? I’ve been using Vitargo all year for long distance cycling and racing (besides slowcarb) and it’s worked really well. I haven’t even required large amounts of Vitargo for 150-200km rides.

    Interested in your thoughts on this compared to Victor’s approach.

    Like