Four Principles to Running Longevity
I love running! It’s a passion. I love talking about it, reading about it, and sharing stories about running. I love it so much I hope to inspire others to run as well. But I’m not an “in-your-face-about-it” runner.
I hope this article inspires you to run or to re-think your approach to running to enable you to run for life.
Recently a friend asked me to coach him to become a runner. A few months ago I had lunch with him after I did a 22km run. He couldn’t tell I ran that morning. Later that day he saw someone who had done a half-marathon race and could barely walk and needed help getting off the metro. He thought to himself Gene must be pretty fit as he ran a half marathon and wasn’t tired, walked normally, and looked completely refreshed.
For the person on the metro that ran the half-marathon “bravo!” It’s fantastic to see anyone set a goal and achieve that goal. I also think it is important to set goals and fail in trying to achieve them so that we can learn along the way.
I hope this article can help you learn from my mistakes and avoid them.
Years ago when I first discovered my passion for running I was constantly injured. I reached too hard, too fast, suffered from stress fractures and actual bone breaks. It took me a lot of research, learning, and experimenting to discover an approach to sustainable running. I’ve been injury free for three years, yet I’m running more now than I ever have. I’ve also achieved personal records on my 5km and half-marathon distances. I just finished my biggest four-week running block in years and am not tired, have no soreness, and have a really low resting heart rate in the mornings, which is a sign of good recovery. In addition to the running I’m also averaging nearly 15,000 steps of walking per day. According to Garmin I’ve walked and ran an average of about 120KM (around 74 miles) per week over the past four weeks.
I’ve learned a lot in the past decade about training, avoiding injury, patience, and becoming lean and fit without breaking down the body. The learning journey is not complete and like in any other discipline the learning never stops. My approach is simple, holistic and sustainable. I look at the holistic system that spans across diet, sleep, life stresses, periodization, race objectives, age, and family and work situations. I want to share this with every one to inspire people to run sustainably, and to help runners achieve better results and more longevity, but to also help people attain better overall fitness and vitality.
Here are my four principles to running for life:
- Run Slow – It’s a Secret to Getting Fast
- Stop Counting Calories and Eat Clean
- Sleep for Speed
- Embrace Stress
Run Slow – It’s a Secret to Getting Fast
In today’s world of social media there is so much pressure to win the top speed on segments on Strava, or Garmin or some other segment/route social media site. While Strava and other social media sites are fun some of us fall prey to the allure of always running hard to show our followers how fast we are. However, this promotes injury and burnout. Also many people think the only way to getting fast is to run fast. Many people also think the only way to lose weight is to run faster to make sure they are getting a huge workout and burning a lot of calories. But the reality is that you only create fatigue and the body craves food and sugars to reenergize and recover. For years I ran fast and never really lost weight. I found that running made me gain weight. Look around at your next 5KM or half-marathon race and observe how many people are overweight yet have been running for years. When you run slowly and stay under your aerobic thresholds you promote a more efficient cardiovascular and muscular system for running. More importantly, you don’t break down your body by repetitively stressing your cardiovascular system and glycogen reserves.
I’m a strong believer in the Phil Maffetone philosophy to training. He calls it the MAF technique and he uses a 180 formula; subtract your age from 180 and do all runs at or below that heart rate. You can read more about his formula on his website and about his philosophy. If you are 45 years old, run at 135bpm or lower. Get a heart rate monitor and set an alarm that will beep every time your heart rate goes above 135bpm. If you are 25 then set the alarm for 155bpm. At first, this pace may feel really slow and depending on how tired you are the day you are running you may need to walk up hills or if you are new to running, you may simply need to walk for several weeks at your fastest pace as running will take you over your MAF maximum.
Running slow also promotes the body to optimize fat burning instead of first depleting your glycogen stores. You won’t get as hungry, you’ll run more often because you are not worn out, and by applying my other principles you’ll get lean.
Now here is the secret, even though I call this fundamental principle to longevity in running “run slow” you will get faster over time in that heart rate zone. And more importantly, on race day you’ll arrive rested and be able to tap into a highly tuned cardiovascular system that will let you run hard for a long time. I’ve seen personal improvements in my 5km and half-marathon times as I’m able to better tap into my fat reserves and use the full spectrum of my fast and slow twitch muscles.
Stop Counting Calories and Eat Clean
I’m tired of the calories in calories consumed science. It’s bullshit. Don’t take my word for it watch this video by a respected doctor, Sean C. Lucan MD. He titled the video “How this kind of thinking can make us fat and sick.”
Here’s a likely scenario with a calorie counting approach to fitness and weightloss that can lead to sickness, burnout and weight gain. Many nutritional coaches tell you to exercise and burn more calories than you are consuming so as to eat into your belly fat. That doesn’t happen. Go for a two hour run and eat 1800 calories that day and you’ll be starving, especially if it is 1800 calories of refined carbohydrates. You won’t be able to sleep, and you’ll encourage adrenal fatigue and adrenal fatigue promotes fat gain.
The answer is simple, eat clean foods meaning no refined sugar, no processed foods, no condiments, and avoid grains especially gluten. The objective should be to stabilize your blood glucose levels over the period of a day, every day. Eating vegetables and healthy fats such as nuts, avocados, coconut oil, and olive oil should be the primary source of nutrition in your diet. Carbs are ok but you should limit them to sweet potatoes and wild rice. You can also get fats and proteins from meat and fish. I find the fatter the meat and fish sources the better. I don’t like lean red meat or lean chicken, as they are not satiating enough. If I’m forced to eat them I load a bunch of olive oil on top. However, most of my fat intake comes from nuts, avocados, and oils.
In late 2014 despite running and walking a lot I gained a lot of weight eating too many sugars. I was constantly in a blood glucose rollercoaster. Every time my blood glucose levels dropped I got hungry or “hangry” and had to eat more food but ate sugars and carbs promoting the never-ending glucose rollercoaster. When I eliminated refined carbs and sugars from my diet I started dropping weight really quickly and went from 165lbs down to 145lbs in about two months. The weight loss helped me run faster and my energy improved significantly. During this period I transitioned my body into a fat burning machine. I now do most runs on an empty stomach to encourage my fat metabolism. You can learn more about my fat transition at this post.
Simply cut out the bad foods and drinks like sodas, beer, and wine, and you’ll stabilize your blood sugar levels. You’ll have days where you eat 3000 calories to fuel your needs and then other days where you’ll do fine on 1500 calories. Your body will tell you when you are hungry.
To give you an example of how fat adapted I am, I recently ran a marathon on a breakfast of two eggs and asparagus. I wasn’t very hungry that morning but felt I should eat before the marathon. I ran the marathon and was never hungry during the marathon. After the marathon I drank a lot of water and a very small cup of soda and then my body went into this state of high fat metabolism or ketosis. I wasn’t hungry again until about 7pm. Meaning, I ate around 7am, ran a marathon, walked an additional 5km between getting to and returning from the marathon, and going to my daughter’s ballet in the afternoon… and didn’t eat again until 7pm. I wasn’t hungry all day. It was amazing. I was surprised how fat adapted I’d become.
Sleep for Speed
The relationship between sleep and weight gain is a more recent medical discovery. Without sleep we deplete our energy stores, promote adrenal fatigue, mess up our hormones like cortisol, and perform sub-optimally in all aspects of our lives. Many people brag about how few hours of sleep they get every night as way to show how committed they are to their careers, passions, or work. That’s great but it’s not sustainable.
One can also find themselves over-trained, over-worked, under-slept, and in a state of mental and physical exhaustion yet not be able to sleep. This happened to me back in 2008/2009. I was training for a marathon and a ski-ultra marathon in the same period. I did the ski-ultra marathon and then my body started to break down before the marathon. This was before I knew about running or training slow and didn’t listen to my body or optimize my nutrition. I was so depleted that I got into a state of insomnia and became addicted to sleeping pills. I finally got over sleeping pills by changing my diet to a more animal fat based diet and taking bovine adrenal supplements. The supplements worked in about two weeks but the key learning was to better listen to my body and not run when I was tired. To regain fitness I dropped running for a while and focused on long easy bike rides. I didn’t know at the time but the long easy bike rides were optimizing my fat metabolism and building my cardiovascular system.
So my advice is to make sleep a priority. While we sleep the body recovers, burns fat, settles the mind, and helps us reset our hormones. Please see this article on the three major stress hormones related to the adrenal glands.
The more you sleep, the faster you’ll be on race day! Sleep for speed!
Stress is inevitable. People say do what you love and you’ll never work again. That’s great but stress can’t be avoided even if you do what you love. Doing what you love comes with “good” stress in embarking upon the unknown and putting yourself into a state of discomfort. Through new challenges we grow.
We need to embrace stress. Your spouse may get sick, there may be layoffs at work, you have a deadline to meet and you are days behind, your child is sick, or you’re not sure where your next paycheque is going to come from. These are normal every day occurrences. It’s how we deal with them that makes the difference. We need to embrace the stressors. Like Ryan Holiday’s says in his book “The Obstacle is the Way” is the journey to growth. Take them head on. If you need to stop running to deal with them then stop. Deal with the issues. The running will always be there waiting for you.
On stress and running… running does stress the body with good stress that helps you become a better runner, increase cardiovascular strength, and improve overall health and vitality. Running also helps you deal with life stresses. I make running a priority as an outlet or a release valve. However we need to balance the running with rest and diet so that it does not become a negative stressor. By overreaching and training too hard we turn running into a stressor. We need to listen to our bodies, track our heart rates, and learn how the body reacts to rest, food, and other stimuli.
For instance this week I did a 12km run on Thursday and felt like crap. I was averaging a 5m50s/km pace at a 137bpm average heart rate. I had slept well all week but pinpointed the stress to some bread/gluten that I ate on Wednesday. I was bloated all day Thursday, was sore, and felt lethargic. I made sure to eat very clean foods on Thursday after the run. On Friday, I did an 8.5km run at an average pace of 5m30s and an average heart rate of 132bpm. I felt a lot better and had all my energy back on Friday afternoon. I knew I shouldn’t have had the bread but I wanted to experiment after months of not eating gluten to see how my body would react. Unfortunately, my body told me to continue avoiding it. In this case, this is one stressor I can’t really embrace!
Recently I did the Paris marathon. It was a catastrophe for me. In the days leading up to the marathon I had no choice but to deal with a significant amount of stress in my personal and work life. I didn’t sleep well the week prior to the marathon, and worked really long hours on top of dealing with some personal issues. I woke up the morning of the marathon and checked my resting heart rate. It was in the low 50s. I knew I was in for a crappy day. Normally my resting heart rate is around 40bpms and when I track it during my sleep it gets down to about 36bpm around 5am. I started the marathon and immediately my heart rate went up to 160bpm at a pace where it should have been at 150bpm. After 22km my body was cooked. I wasn’t hungry. I was simply tired. No sugar would help. I had a full tank of fuel in terms of fat source and glycogen but my entire system was fatigued. Instead of bailing I decided to walk the last half of the marathon. I wanted the finisher’s shirt!
The point is that some stressors you can’t avoid and you need so set your expectations accordingly. Given everything that was going on in my life at the time it was unrealistic for me to expect anything more on the day of the marathon. Having had higher expectations of myself, I spent several days beating myself up but as the days past I simply looked back on the Paris marathon as just one more learning experience.
Enjoy the running and run for life!
If you want to learn more about my approach to overall fitness and running please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d be happy to have a Skype or email conversation with you and help you tweak your approach to running.