I recently started following the Primal Diet, and while I am adjusting to many of the changes, this transition has been pretty rough at times. If you are unfamiliar with this particular diet, it is very similar to the Paleo Diet (eat like a caveman), with some exceptions such as dairy being allowed on the Primal Diet. Here is what brought me to these dietary changes.
I GOT FAT LAST YEAR
Ok I did not get “fat,” but I did get fatter than I would like. When my family moved to Alabama from Indiana 11 months ago (read about our move), I almost instantly gained 25 lbs., and for nearly a year I have struggled with that extra weight. It has slowed my running, and it has been a constant physical and psychological struggle. The weight gain is especially hard to swallow because I worked so hard to lose 60+ lbs (read about my journey from obese to healthy) when I started running again almost 3 years ago, and I did not even stop running or really cut my mileage. However, looking back at the last 2 years I have gained some perspective on things, and I believe numerous situations combined for the perfect storm of weight gain and running losses last year.
Last spring I think I reached a point of severe overtraining, resulting from my shift from running for fitness to training for marathons. I ran my 1st marathon in October 2014 (read about the Indianapolis Marathon), followed by my 2nd marathon in April 2015 (read about the Carmel Marathon). In both of these marathon training cycles, I ran through numerous injuries because I was so driven to not only complete these marathons but also to hit certain time goals. The 1st marathon cycle gave me right hip issues (either ITBS or hip bursitis). I trained for my 2nd marathon with a broken tailbone, and the hip pain occasionally popped up as well. Then the last few weeks of the cycle I also developed serious Achilles tendonitis in my left leg and some bad pain on top of my foot.
Despite the pile of injuries, I was making major gains. I got faster at every distance from the mile to the marathon. Then I did not take much of a break right after the 2nd marathon, and I instead shifted from heavy mileage to lots of faster running. I ran my fastest outdoor 5K just 10 days after that 2nd marathon, and a week later set my 4 mile PR. Around this time I also ran my 10K PR. Then suddenly all the progress halted. I started noticing some struggles with my running a few weeks after that April 2015 marathon, and then we moved to Alabama in June. Suddenly I went from running most of my miles under 8:00/mile, and many of them under 7:00/mile to struggling to run 4 miles at a 9:30 pace.
I attributed the struggles to the extreme change in temperature and environment from Indiana to Alabama, and I do think this played a big part. Then there was the sudden weight gain, and anyone would obviously run slower carrying an extra 25 lbs of fat. Now I believe that over-training set my body up for these regressions.
During my 1st marathon cycle I ran my 1st ever 20-mile run. It was so awful that I ditched the training plan and did a 20+ miler every week for about 5 weeks in a row simply because I was determined to conquer that distance, whereas the training plan would have had me only run 20 miles a couple times, with shorter long runs on other weeks.
Then during my 2nd marathon cycle I continued running 20-milers almost every week, and I added an abundance of speed work. There were times I ran 11 miles of speed work (400 meter repeats) at 5 in the morning, followed by a race-pace 5K run at 5 pm. After a few weeks of this kind of training I ran my fastest ever 20-mile run, completing it at an 8:10 pace. Unfortunately this was about 8 weeks before the April marathon, and the fact that I never got close to that pace again should have been a sign that I peaked early and over-trained. The way my training was progressing in February I thought I might be able to run a marathon at a sub-8:00 pace, but by April the best I could do was 8:40 pace for a 3:47 marathon. It was still a nice gain from my 1st marathon (3:58), but I honestly believe I could have run it much faster a few weeks earlier. After I peaked with that great 20-mile long run I increased my mileage even more. I also added 15-20 mile stationary bike rides right after my 20-mile long runs. Then I usually ran a fast-paced 10-mile run the day after my long runs instead of doing an easy recovery run. I topped out with an 84-mile week, right about the time I started having the Achilles problems, and my long runs were getting slower as well.
Looking back my training sounds ridiculous. I was running too fast too much and not resting enough. It brought huge gains for a few weeks, but this level of training was a time-bomb for overuse injuries and diminishing returns. A year earlier the longest I had ever run at once was 11 miles, and I increased everything too much too quickly. I should have respected the marathon more and taken my time with it. The smart thing would have been to take it easy on the 1st one instead of having a sub-4:00 time goal that I was determined to accomplish at all costs. That set me up to continue over-training in my 2nd cycle, and after 10 months of pushing too hard, my body started to regress.
TIME BRINGS CLARITY
I couldn’t see all of this at the time, but lately some things I have read have opened my eyes. I read on Runner’s World about the fantastic “Duel in the Sun” between Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley at the 1982 Boston Marathon (click here to read the article). They both ran the best race of their lives that day, and neither athlete was ever the same again. Alberto Salazar is famed for running harder than just about anyone ever. He once collapsed at the finish line with a fever of 107º, and they read him his last rites prematurely. He was only 23 years old when he ran his best marathon, and everyone expected him to keep improving for a few more years. He peaked early because he pushed himself too hard, and he was never the same runner again after that day. His own body started fighting against his training because he was going too far. I am not saying that I have ever pushed myself as hard as the great Salazar, but reading his story was a eureka moment for me.
When you overtrain, you cannot fix the problems by running more or working harder. You have to take a step back, reevaluate things and get more rest. I was coming to these realizations about my running life, and then I read the most recent book from Christopher McDougall, best-selling author of Born to Run, probably the most inspiring running book ever (get the book). His 2nd book Natural Born Heroes: Mastering the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance is also quite good (get the book), and it was in this book that I was first introduced to the endurance training ideas of Dr. Phil Maffetone. (Check out his book The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing.)
THE MAFFETONE METHOD
The “Maffetone Method” involves running most of your training miles at a very easy pace, keeping your heart rate in the aerobic/fat-burning zone. To get your ideal heart rate for training just subtract your age from 180. (Learn more about the Maffetone Method from Dr. Phil Maffetone’s website.) Following his method, I need to run the bulk of my runs with my heart rate at 149 bpm or lower. Doing this for a few weeks teaches your body to primarily burn fat for fuel instead of primarily carbs, especially when you stay in that aerobic heart rate zone. For me this means running very, very slow, but gradually with consistency you are supposed to be able to maintain faster and faster paces while still keeping your heart rate in that range. As long as you stay in the heart rate range that allows your body to use fat for fuel, your muscles will theoretically never run out of fuel on longer runs and races because the body has enough fat energy to run thousands of miles. If my body is primed to burn fat for fuel, I should reach muscle failure long before I actually run out of fuel. Running slower and keeping your heart rate down is much less taxing on your body, so injuries are less common compared to running too fast too much. This sounded like exactly what my body needs so I can put the over-training injuries behind me while also thinking about my long-term running goals.
Basically run slow to get faster and stay injury free! It will take time, maybe months or years, before this method produces paces approaching my best speed when I was overtraining, but when I do reach that speed again, it will be much safer and easier on my body.
The 2nd part of the Maffetone Method is diet, and he speaks against the conventional thought that endurance athletes must fuel with carbs all the time. He has been teaching for a few decades that carbs are unhealthy and that athletes should ideally use their own body fat for fuel instead of constantly loading up on carbs. One recently popular approach to nutrition that follows Dr. Maffetone’s teachings is the “Primal Diet.” After I finished reading Natural Born Heroes, I read Primal Endurance by Mark Sisson and Brad Kearns.
Primal Endurance and the corresponding nutritional plan Primal Diet, also outlined in Mark Sisson’s other book The Primal Blueprint, give practical application to the Maffetone Method, along with some impressive stories of professional triathletes and elite runners who have rebooted their careers after burnout by following the Maffetone Method of diet and exercise.
IS THE PRIMAL DIET LEGIT?
On one hand it all seems completely counter-intuitive… run slow to get faster… eat more fat to lose body fat… get more energy by cutting high energy (sugar & carbs) foods. I must admit, I have been pretty skeptical, but my gut (literally and figuratively) tells me that conventional wisdom has some things wrong. So I emailed my sister, a registered dietician who eats a natural diet mostly free from processed foods and has always been a runner. I told her I was thinking about trying the Primal Diet and the Maffetone Method for heart-rate based running. I laid out my concerns and skepticism, along with some things I did not understand, just to get her take on these ideas.
She confirmed for me that leading research is in fact showing more and more that carbs (particularly processed carbs) do no good for the human body. She said if I followed the Primal Diet completely, I could get my body to a really healthy place and get in great shape. While certain parts of the Primal Diet might be debatable, there is absolutely no harm in following this diet. In other words, it may be overly strict when it comes to certain foods, but this level of strictness does not deprive you of anything your body needs and cannot get in other, better foods. Strict adherence to the Primal Diet would meet my dietary needs and cut out all the processed and sugary junk that are negatively affecting both my gut and my running performance.
The main goal is to eat lots of meat and vegetables. For snacks I eat fruit and nuts in moderation. I can cook my meat and veggies in healthy oils and fats, but most of the popular, cheap oils are off limits. Vegetable oil and canola oil are particularly bad. All processed foods are bad. All grains are bad. Sugary foods are bad. Bread and pasta are definitely out. In many ways the Primal Diet is very simple, but unfortunately grocery stores and culture have made it expensive and inconvenient to eat healthy, natural foods, while it is cheap and easy to eat processed junk. Click here to see a good Primal Diet shopping list.
WHAT I HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH
Time will tell if the Maffetone Method for heart-rate based training and the Primal Diet for eating will lead me to the kind of health, fitness and endurance that I want in my life. If I can be faithful to these methodologies, I hope to accomplish a few things.
1st I want to lose the excess body fat in my stomach, back and upper-body. Along with that I hope to develop more lean muscle and have a strong, light physique made for running (and possibly triathlons one day).
2nd I want to improve my endurance and bring down my marathon times. Along with that I hope to finish a marathon without hitting the wall, and I now realize this cannot happen without building up my long-neglected aerobic base. Ultimately I hope to one day qualify and run the Boston Marathon, which would require me running over 40 minutes faster than my current marathon PR.
3rd I want to develop and maintain a high fitness level for as long as God allows, and I would like to do so without getting injured all the time by overtraining. In other words I would like to run and eat the proper and healthy way that will improve my overall lifestyle for many more decades.
So I have spent nearly 3 weeks changing the way I eat and workout. I am writing another post with an update on the early stages of this transition.