On my first Saturday morning “long run” utilizing low HR training, I went out in the 30-something degree winter weather, in a pair of road shoes, and ran on the paved creek path. It was cold, I was under dressed and normally I hate running anything paved. But this day was different – I felt a peacefulness on the entire (very slow) 7.5 mile run. My energy levels were steady the whole time. The pace was easy. I rediscovered the love of pure running that I haven’t felt in a long time.
The past few years have consisted of me telling myself that I am going to “train by feel” and “listen to my body” and then going ahead and not listening to my own advice, doing most of my runs at a way-too-hard effort, resulting in perpetual burnout, injury and sickness. Letting my ego control my workouts had turned running from an outdoor activity that I enjoy into a self-driven madness; trying to rush adaptation to high altitude and PR on daily attempts up 8000′ mountains. I became obsessed with Strava PRs and trying to keep up with what everyone else was doing on there, instead of focusing on my own personal development as a runner. I ignored most of my body’s cries for rest until I eventually was unable to run for 2 months due to sickness and injury.
Needless to say, this is not an effective way to train, nor was it healthy in any way. Unfortunately we live in a society that promotes “more is better” philosophies and time-saving hacks for just about anything. It turns out that fitness doesn’t benefit from that mind set. This is why most people who join a gym or start a training or diet regimen drop out after a few weeks. Loading too much, too soon will derail most plans quickly, especially in endurance sports. Even many runners who have been successful for years, seem to eventually burn out from over loading their system consistently and have to give up the sport almost entirely.
I thought about all of this for months. I even contemplated giving up running all together, if it was going to bring me such adverse health effects. Seeing elite runners completely burnt out in their mid 30s, and having my own issues, had me thinking there is no way that this can be sustainable. Then I came across the book Primal Endurance and its accompanying podcast. Already on a low-carb transition, I was excited to find this resource, that is intended to build endurance on a low-carb diet. After absorbing much of the information, especially 7 Habits of Highly Successful Primal Endurance Athletes, I realized there is a healthy, sustainable way to practice endurance running.
Changing My Mindset About Training
After recently deciding to adopt a low-carb diet, I found that my energy levels during the fat adaptation transition were much lower than usual. My normal levels of intensity seemed to be redlining it now. While researching more on low-carb endurance training though Primal Endurance, I was reintroduced to the work of Dr. Phil Maffetone and the Maffetone Method. This method is made to utilize fat for fuel and to slow down to increase your aerobic capacity and become a faster, stronger runner, following a pretty simple formula: 180- your age = your maximum aerobic heart rate. Training below this number ensures that you stay in the aerobic zone and therefore, build your aerobic base. The main takeaway here is to slow down, even though that may seem counter intuitive. I had heard about MAF years ago and tried training according to this method when I still lived in Virginia, but since I was still extremely carb dependent and had a detrimental “go hard or go home” mentality, I never felt that I got much out of the training. Plus, I didn’t have the discipline to ignore my ego and go slower.
Now that I had educated myself some more and wanted to find training that would work in synergy with being in a fat-adapted state, I decided it was time to break out the old heart rate monitor (literally old – a half broken, glitchy Garmin forerunner from 4 years ago) and set out on some slow runs. My first “run” was laughable, on mostly flat, smooth trail, where I had to walk up the tiniest inclines. You can view the Strava data from that day here. I still find myself walking uphill but I’m currently at the beginning of a several week period of aerobic base building.
Building the Base
When I moved to Boulder, I spent almost every day of training attempting to power hike/ run up and down 8000′ peaks as fast as my body would allow. I never took the time to acclimatize to the altitude or rebuild my aerobic base. As a result, I burnt out and got sick halfway through 2016, ending my season early. I was also plagued with injuries all year, which as Dr. Maffetone relates, is due to muscles having weak aerobic, slow twitch muscle fibers from lack of adequate aerobic training.
This way of training also makes sense to me biologically. Through most of our evolutionary history, humans have spent the majority of their time moving in a slow, aerobic state and only had short bursts of intensity when playing, chasing prey or fleeing prehistoric predators. The agricultural/industrial work-hard-all-day mentality doesn’t fit our biological setup, especially when it comes to endurance. A periodization model makes more sense to me. Spending most of my time training to build up my aerobic base and having shorter intensity periods is more in sync with how we have adapted as humans. When running ultra-distance races, you depend on that aerobic base for hours on end. It just makes too much sense for me to ignore.
I decided after learning more about MAF and reading Primal Endurance, that I would start this training season with an 8 week aerobic base period. I will then see how my body is feeling at the end of the 8 weeks, before starting a couple weeks period of intensity workouts. Dirty 30 50k is coming up in June, so this gives me just enough time to build up a good aerobic base and fit in some higher intensity training, if my aerobic period goes well.
For now, my runs are slow and relaxing. I still bike to get around town, but I am taking those rides slowly as well, since they are also contributing to my aerobic base. I am hoping that a combination of a low-carb diet and a periodized training plan will result in increased performance and better overall health. I don’t want to have another season of injury and sickness this year. With my race season on the horizon, I will soon be able to test the results of this new training protocol and diet strategy, which I will report back on.