Exploring Some Key Dimensions of Unconventional Endurance Training
Hopefully everyone enjoyed my last two posts on challenging the conventional wisdom. This happens to align very nicely with two key parts of our motto at TC Surfski “be present. be challenged. be unique” so I’ve decided to continue the journey and expand on a few more areas. I have recently been reading a lot of fascinating and thought provoking information in the areas of aerobic training, breathing, hydration, and sun exposure. Below I will touch a bit on each of these with references to the great books I have recently enjoyed.
In response to my first blog on changing diet, I received a lot of great feedback from many paddlers. Simon Longdill, an NZ paddler, who spent a summer in Detroit and crushed most of us on the surfski race circuit, suggested a book by Dr Phil Maffetone titled “The Big Book of Endurance Training“. Dr Maffetone is best known for his work training the legendary Mark Allan who was a 6 x Hawaii Ironman Champion and arguably one of the best endurance athletes of all time.
Dr Maffetone is a Chiropractor by trade, and started specializing in sports medicine/coaching in the early 1970s. He had a long career coaching and healing many top athletes. The premise of his book is that most of us are over trained with too much time spent in the anaerobic zone. He suggests that too much time in the anaerobic zone compromises our aerobic efficiency, and ultimately in the long term, leads athletes to sacrifice their overall health for fitness. By sacrificing overall health Dr Maffetone is referring both to those cases of very serious and sometime fatal incidents, as well as the more common and nagging compromises to our health such as poor sleep, nagging ligament and joint injuries, frequent upper respiratory colds, mild depression, asthma, etc. We have all either experienced these things or know of endurance athletes in our community who do, but we rarely stop to question whether they are truly normal. So the real question is, even though we may be top performers in our specific endurance sports, if we’re dealing with these common ailments are we compromising our total and long term overall health?
Dr Maffetone designed a heart rate based training formula where you take 180 minus your age and plus or minus a few points based on your health history and recent performance results (excellent health, no meds, steady race improvement then you can add a few points, recent injuries, health concerns, medications, etc.. and you subtract a few points). The net/net is that he wants you to focus on building aerobic efficiency by doing all of your workouts right at that aerobic threshold (with a proper warm up and cool down). He does recognize the need for anaerobic interval work in certain circumstances, but only after you have documented a plateau in your gains from training at your aerobic efficiency. The gains are measured by doing a repeated test in a controlled environment where you exercise for 20-45 minutes right at your aerobic threshold and measure the average pace. Ideally it should gradually increase over time as you become more aerobically efficient.
The guidance in Dr Maffetone’s book definitely flies in the face of the conventional wisdom right now that seems to strongly push anaerobic/interval work to drive real gains in endurance sports performance. There is also a pretty strong message out there today in the popular media that this will also help you burn more fat. Beyond the approach itself, there is likely to be extensive debate around estimating where the actual aerobic threshold is for any given person. I would venture that most serious masters athletes believe it to be much higher than what the 180 formula would suggest. Dr Maffetone seems pretty convinced that after years of working with thousands of athletes, this formula is much better than trying to determine your anaerobic threshold based on max heart rate.
I’ve decided to give Dr Maffetone’s approach a committed effort this year for the following five reasons:
- Simon is a brilliant paddler and athlete and I intuitively have a lot of faith in a philosophy that he has aligned with. Additionally he has seen major gains in his paddling performance by following this approach
- In reading the “The Big Book of Endurance Training” it is clear to me that Dr Maffetone was way ahead of his time. He takes a very holistic, long term, big picture view of health and endurance performance which I believe is severely lacking in most of the latest crazes published by the media. That combined with his proven results makes me a believer
- The approach to maximizing aerobic efficiency also includes maximizing your metabolism to burn fat. This aligns very well with the recent diet changes I’ve made and some of the new theories that Peter Attia and others are exploring around considering an athlete’s respiratory quotient (RQ) as a better predictor of endurance performance than VO2 max. (The RQ is effectively how your body partitions fuel. Ultimately the more fat burning versus glucose the better. With diet and training you want to increase your HR threshold where you cross over to burning high amount of glucose. Dr Attia and others are exploring theories that seem to show fat burning is a much more efficient process requiring much less oxygen consumption.
- I believe that Dr Maffetone gives excellent advice on diet and supplementation. Overall he recommends a natural, whole foods diet along with a carbohydrate tolerance test that can be used to determine what proportion of your calories should come from carbohydrates. This recognizes that all of us are unique.
- It is very enjoyable and even meditative to workout at your aerobic threshold
This one is definitely a fringe concept that I haven’t met many people doing, but the more research I do on this, the more it makes a lot of sense for a multitude of reasons.
In all of my workouts for the past few months I have done 100% nasal breath (mouth sealed shut). I was first introduced to this concept by a Chiropractor and Ayurvedic doctor in Boulder, CO name John Douillard who was a lecturer during my wife Kim’s schooling in health and wellness. The general theory is that we were all meant to do the majority of our breathing through our noses, and breathing through the mouth triggers the “fight or flight” response mechanisms making us more tense and ultimately much less relaxed.
I can absolutely say that skiing and paddling with this approach to breathing has really made the workouts very peaceful and relaxing. It is also a great regulator in case I forget my heart rate monitor. I know that if the breathing starts to get challenging, then I’m pushing above my aerobic threshold.
Erik Borgnes is another paddler that I greatly admire for his Mensa level of intelligence. When I saw Erik mention that he read the book Waterlogged written by a South African Sports Medicine Doctor named Timothy Noakes and it changed his approach to hydration, I knew it was something I had to check out.
Waterlogged starts out with some very thought provoking history evaluating our evolution on the Sub Saharan desert of Africa. Essentially humans survived and evolved partially as a result of our ability to run down big game animals in the extreme heat. We could go longer without hydration than they could and eventually they would collapse or need to stop for water at which point we would go in for the kill. He then moves on to describe how the conventional wisdom before the advent of the sport drink companies in the early 70s was always that for 2-3 hour events minimal hydration was required and it was often viewed as a sign of weakness especially if marathon runners drank anything before mile 20.
Waterlogged compiles a comprehensive list of studies that effectively prove without a doubt we have all been “drinking the kool-aid” happily poured by the big sport drink manufacturers. Dr Noakes proves that the conventional wisdom on dehydration during endurance sporting events is dead wrong. While dehydration is real and can occur, the consequences are strong thirst urges and effectively nothing else. We do not cramp, or pass out, or get heat exhaustion due to dehydration. In fact, over-hydration is much more deadly than dehydration and many very successful athletes due lose body weight over the course of an endurance event.
Dr Noakes does not say that hydration is not required, but it is not nearly as deadly as we’ve all been led to believe. Drink when you’re thirsty and you’ll be fine. If you traditionally consume a fair amount of carbohydrates in your diet, then ingesting a carbohydrate drink will improve your endurance performance, but if you follow a low carbohydrate diet, you may be better off without carbohydrate in your drink, but ultimately this is not black and white so the best thing to do is experiment with the level that works best for you.
Because it takes time and can be a nuisance, I have rarely used hydration on my paddles. So this book didn’t really change much for me, but it was definitely an interesting and thought provoking read. The critical message I took away was that if you know people running long marathons (or other 4+ hour endurance events) tell them not to be obsessed with drinking the high levels of fluid (40 oz of water or sports drink per hour) that the conventional wisdom tells us are required. This is especially dangerous if your friend is a women and/or taking NSAIDs which in certain people can interfere with the body’s natural ability to regulate fluid levels through urination.
Dr Noakes’ book made me think of the legendary Australian surfski paddler Dean Gardiner who is notorious for not taking an fluids in marathon surfski races. I think he has even been nicknamed “The Camel”, but maybe he is really on to something. The body is amazingly adaptable, so it makes sense to me that if train without fluids your body will quickly learn to deal with the situation.
Sunshine and Vitamin D
Along the same lines Dr Noakes takes evaluating the human bodies requirements for hydration, it is interesting to look at our requirements for vitamin D and our tolerance for the sun from an evolutionary perspective. Clearly we must have evolved with a high tolerance for exposure to direct and intense sunlight. Dr Maffetone is a big proponent of ensuring sufficient levels of Vitamin D for optimal endurance performance. His recommendation to almost all of his athletes is to gradually build a good tan. You will know that you are healthy when spending time in the sun makes you a bit red, but you don’t actually end up burnt from it.
In The Paleo Manifesto author John Durant shares some really interesting insights on sunscreen and skin cancer. The net of which is that many forms of sunscreen only block the B rays and not the A rays. As it turns out, the A rays are most detrimental. So the net effect is that with sunscreen we take on more sun exposure than we naturally could resulting in increased levels of absorption of the detrimental rays which lead to skin cancer. But even with skin cancer, when you evaluate the real facts, it appears much less deadly than we are made to believe. Additionally, there are very specific predictors of those at risk including fair skin, red hair, and lots of skin moles. If you don’t have those three risk factors, then the growing body of evidence suggest you may be better off with healthy sun exposure and increased levels of Vitamin D. If you are going to be out in the sun for extended periods of time or have risk factors for skin cancer, you should definitely be sure to buy a broad spectrum sunscreen that protects against both A and B rays.
For me personally, I really enjoy challenging the conventional wisdom and am forever optimistic that if I try enough different things, eventually I’ll find the ones that really work well for me. Over time I’m hopeful this will lead to steady improvements in my overall and long term health. I’m certainly not advocating never doing intervals, drinking water, breathing through your mouth, or using sunscreen, that would certainly be a disaster for many people. The key message in all of this, is that we are all unique and there is no single prescription that will work equally well for everyone. Ultimately it is up to you to orchestrate your own experiments to see what truly works optimally for you. If we have learned anything, it is that we should not just assume the conventional wisdom is correct or even scientifically proven. If you don’t feel it is working optimally for you, by all means, challenge it and be unique!