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!

Angel Investor of the Year?

Reader Cody Candee nominated me as “Best Angel Investor of the Year” for the TechCrunch Crunchies. Thanks, Cody! If you’ve followed my investing or like what I’ve written on the subject (samples here), I’d very much appreciate your support.

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

I’m an advisor and/or investor with companies including Evernote (Just announced: Inc. Magazine’s “Start-up of the Year” — congrats, boys!), Twitter, Facebook, StumbleUpon, Uber, Shopify, TaskRabbit, and many more. Thus far, no real fatalities in almost 4 years of doing this, and cost basis recouped 20x+.

Posted on: December 6, 2011.

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

  1. Good job on stressing these two points “Consistency and moderation over intensity.” and “Focusing on the score attaches you to the result. Focusing on the process lets you access your greatest skill and increases your fun.”

    I have been invited to numerous fun runs but I constantly turn them down saying that “what’s so fun about running”.

    I run 1km and I feel like I’m dying from shortage of air, I always thought if I pushed myself harder and try running longer routs would help if I keep at it, but after reading this, I now understand that instead of pushing myself to the point of actually wanting to give up, I should just be consistent, run shorter course but keep at it.

    Like

  2. Good job on stressing these two points “Consistency and moderation over intensity.” and “Focusing on the score attaches you to the result. Focusing on the process lets you access your greatest skill and increases your fun.”

    I have been invited to numerous fun runs but I constantly turn them down saying that “what’s so fun about running”.

    I run 1km and I feel like I’m dying from shortage of air, I always thought if I pushed myself harder and try running longer routs would help if I keep at it, but after reading this, I now understand that instead of pushing myself to the point of actually wanting to give up, I should just be consistent, run shorter course but keep at it.

    Like

  3. Thanks,

    Planning to do my first marathon near the end of this year. Have not been doing too much running at this point and don’t plan on running a lot of miles weekly to get ready. Thanks for sharing that quality training is always greater than quantity.

    Like

  4. General overview of what a basilar migraine is, what it symptoms are, what triggers it, and how it is diagnosed.Describing the unique and unusual aspects of optical magnesium migraine and the 5 things you can do to treat optic migraines.

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  5. Hi Tim,

    I really really appreciate the shout out for my nominating you for Angel Investor of the Year. I’m a HUGE fan of yours and am always willing to help you out however I can (as you have done for me with your content).

    I updated my twitter handle and was really hoping you could update the link in this post. Now it’s @codycandee Please please!!

    Thank you Tim and let me know how I can ever help you out!
    Cody

    Like

  6. Haha, that’s awesome, I was about to recommend, “Body, mind and sport” to you. My favorite line from it? (which I can’t seem to find right now, so I’ll paraphrase) “Who is more fit: the man who gives it all he has and finishes a race, or the man who just goes with the flow and finishes it feeling great?”…or something like that. Great book, there’s the original edition as well as the revised edition which has some additional exercises, but refers to body types as spring, summer and fall rather than the original pitta, kappa and alpha? And, although the book was clearly written during the reign of what I’ll call “the supreme carb” paradigm it’s lessons are not to be lost.

    Like

  7. Tim,
    After reading the 4HB, I was unclear about when I should do my intervals. I normally do them on an empty stomach right after waking. Usually 8-14 intervals @ 20/10 or 30/30 split times.
    But I also know you recommend eating a protein rich meal within 30 minutes of waking.
    Is there any data you came across that would point to getting the metabolism cranking by eating first, then doing intervals later in the day (when metabolism starts slowing down) or ding the intervals first thing and following with the protein rich meal?
    Thanks for the attention; love the books and keep doing what you’re doing.
    SSC

    Like

  8. Ayurvedic science describes a daily cycle of the physiology and nature that identifies the optimum times of day for exercise and eating. Best time for physical activity is 6-10am. Best time for eating is 10am-2pm. 6-7pm is the second chance for lighter exercise. Generally speaking, they recommend allowing digestion to complete before embarking on other activities that would distract from digestion–like exercise or even meditation.

    So that would suggest against eating right before a workout, and against working out later in the day, especially 2-6pm when “muscular strength is reduced.”

    Personally I have found that I can do a solid workout at 6am on an empty stomach, eat after, and it sets me up for the entire day.

    If you were looking for guidelines…
    DBB

    Like

  9. “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.”

    Do you reckon there’s anyway to apply this to weightlifting?

    Like

  10. I just recently bought your book and considered trying your suggested method for endurance training to run a marathon, so of course I checked out what your takeaway from that training was.

    You clearly don’t write as if you plan to make a two year cliffhanger

    You don’t strike me as the procrastinating type of person, what happened?

    Like

  11. Regarding endurance training for marathons and other long races/events, I was wondering if an even more “less is more” approach would work to succeed in completing such an event in a respectable time for a novice or an experienced runner for that matter. My point is: in 4HB, the Geek to Freak chapter, referencing the works of Arthur Jones, Mike Mentzer, and Casey Viator among others for gaining muscle by doing one heavy set of a resistance exercise to absolute muscular failure and doing so very infrequently resulted in huge gains in strength and muscle size. Tim Ferris did it as well. Long rest periods between these extreme workouts gave the subjects muscles a chance to recover and grow. Mike Mentzer wrote several books on this and successfully coached several champion bodybuilders. What if something similar was done for distance running? Such as, following several weeks of base building distance running of say 1 to 3 miles every other day, the runner does one long slow run of 6 or 7 miles followed by at least a week to 10 days(or more) of rest and light recovery exercise like yoga or one easy bicycle ride or maybe nothing at all. Then, if the runner feels fully rested having no soreness or stiffness, he/she then does another long slow run this time increasing the mileage to 8 or 9 miles or farther if he feels good. Again, this would be followed by a long rest/recovery period and so on and on. I’m being non-specific in my distances and times here because I simply don’t know. Does anyone know if this has been attempted? I was a pretty decent short to middle distance runner in High School and in hind sight I feel we trained too much and plateau’d.(sp?) Sunday was the only rest day so on Monday’s work out I, and my teammates, would run like the wind! Only to peter out and run with less intensity by the end of the week. What if we’d had another rest day in there somewhere? Even now, it seems every training schedule has activity at least every other day of the week. Is it necessary? If muscular gains can be obtained by doing the workouts less frequently then what about endurance and stamina? Maybe I’ll have to be my own guinea pig a la Mr. Ferris. I look forward to any comments. Thank you!

    Like

    • Hey Tim,

      I’m disappointed. I can’t find anywhere that outlines if you actually did this? And if you haven’t, does that mean that chapter is incorrect? I’ve followed your book for the past couple of years. And the slow carb diet, definitely worked. No question about that! I lost weight, became leaner, and even got myself back running. But I want to know if I should follow your training method. I don’t feel comfortable doing so without knowing if it worked for you?

      Like

  12. Dude, seriously. What happened to your Ultra marathon training which had the link. http://www.fourhourbody.com/ultra ? It says coming soon. Its been coming soon for a time longer than soon. Love the work but this makes me believe you didnt carry on with training and flopped it. Please prove me wrong and let me know what the proper link is.

    Regards,

    Dex

    Like

  13. > the stronger the complex of training effects, then the more harmony there is in the defense functions in the body

    This reminds me of Masanobu Fukuoka on farming: he was a plant pathologist, but found that ecosystems push back harder, the stronger an intervention is applied.

    He ended up with a system much like MED, and got higher rice yields than competing farmers, plus a harvest of winter grains from the same land, with much less work/input to his farm.

    “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings,” he once wrote; I’m sure he’d advocate subtler, more-consistent interventions in changing one’s self, too.

    Not much can be said, generally, about complex systems, but one thing I’ve learned is that the ones that stick around, tend to have interlocking sets of negative feedback loops built into them.

    Like