All-around athlete first/triathlete after—Exploring a unique approach to endurance performance, health and longevity. And the best new technologies to accelerate the process. This is the first installment in a series of articles, interviews, reviews and podcasts reporting on the approach.
by T.J. Murphy
I’ve been a triathlete for more than 30 years and tri-mag editor for more than 20. The last seven years I’ve been paying attention to new lines of thought about how to eat, train and live to be successful in endurance sports.
Part of the reason I began asking a lot of questions is that I couldn’t stay healthy. I’d sign up for a race, start training, and an assortment of injuries and issues would creep into the picture. Having given considerable thought to it all, I had these problems back in the 1990s but age amplified them and made them beyond tolerable.
One of the weirdest things was how my body fat percentage remained high despite running 60 miles a week. A blood glucose test in 2009 indicated—despite all the training—I had an insulin resistance problem. I was marching my way toward Type-2 diabetes.
Whatever I had been able to get away with in my 20s and 30s I was no longer able to get away with. A ramshackle diet with oatmeal, monster burritos, mac-and-cheese concoctions, crunchy salads, sports drinks and beer was no longer something I could burn off with two-a-day workouts. I was getting heavier and heavier, my sleep was terrible, and my joints burned.
When I finally let go of how I used to do things and tested counterintuitive ideas like lower-carb diets, high-intensity strength and conditioning, mobility drills and focusing on movement skills, things changed. This was in 2010 and 2011. Pioneers like Brian MacKenzie and Kelly Starrett had obsessions with solving problems that few were asking questions about. In 2017, we are seeing wide, deep interest and acceptance that what MacKenzie and Starrett were talking about.
I’ve reported on many of these ideas, practices and technologies over the past five years in articles and in books, but now I want to have some fun drilling deeply into them and putting them to use in a return to racing a triathlon in 2018. The goal being that I come out the other side healthier, fitter, faster than at the start.
Right now I’m coming off some down time (our second child was born in February) and because I wasn’t focused on pursuing some of the ideas I’ll mention below, the old-injuries and problems resurfaced. When it comes to enjoying the benefits of focused mobility work, the work I do today as a short shelf life, I’ve found. Miss it a couple of days and it feels like starting all over again.
The intent in this series will be to relay what I learn from the experts and coaches that have been working hard to offer solutions to athletes frustrated by injuries, health issues and performance declines. Along the ride I’ll try ideas so I can do a better job about reporting what I’m told.
Injuries, health issues, performance declines. I’ve seen them all. While I get that age-related performance declines are to be expected, what’s exciting to me is a new brand of thought that the aging curve can be bent. Maybe not broken, but through diet, the right training, using technology and select supplements, it can definitely be bent.
Right now, here are a couple of my problems: An inflamed left achilles tendon, a wobbly right knee, poor mobility throughout and an inability to run without pain.
Questions I’d like to bat around: How much elasticity can be recovered? How can lingering injuries be erased? What can a sustained anti-inflammatory/ketogenic diet do for my health, recovery and capacity to burn fat as fuel?
To organize my exploration of the new frontiers, I’ve assembled a new set of training phases that I’m interested in following toward jumping into a triathlon. I don’t have a deadline. I imagine it might take nine months. Maybe a year. Whatever. What matters is being thorough.
These “phases” are inspired by the coaches, athletes and experts I’ve had conversations and interviews with. I’m not suggesting them as a general plan for the masses. At this point I think it’s a pattern that may work well for me. Maybe not. I’m curious to see what happens.
LAYERS OF TRAINING
1) GETTING THE MIND RIGHT. Why do a race in the first place? I’ve been thinking a lot about this the past year: What’s my purpose for training for a triathlon and jumping in a race? There’s all sorts of ways to get fit, be lean, get outside and all. There are a lot of good potential investments for the time. The magic is that a triathlon is an event—an athletic test racing with/against a bunch of other triathletes. Turn in the registration and, blam, there’s urgency. Exercise gets energized. I know myself well enough to know I like exercising but I like it a lot more (or can tolerate a lot more) if I attach it to the public ritual that is a race. I’ve never enjoyed exercising more than when I’m clicking along en route to a race weekend. It charges up the workouts with another value.
When I think about why a triathlon, I have another purpose. It’s about the character traits demanded by endurance sports—showing up, discipline, consistency, doing something hard. These are traits I’d like my kids to notice when they see me going about my day. We have a three-year-old and a six-month-old. Who knows what they are currently modeling in what they Dad is up to, but I can’t imagine it would hurt for them to see me doing athletic stuff.
Another purpose that appeals to me is community. Triathlon is classified as an individual sport, but it has a lot of community energy holding it together. Tri clubs of course. And races are the gatherings. Triathlon tribes have formed online. For instance, I find myself drawn to reading the Pathetic Triathletes page on Facebook. There’s a great spirit and sense of humor that harks back to the old days of the sport. Reading it reminds me about the original kooks who thought triathlon up in the first place.
2) INITIAL FOUNDATION: As mentioned, the conventional approach I used to train for endurance athletics stopped working for me when a range of mobility and metabolic problems rammed into me. It was like being a punter who fumbled the long snap.
There was a time when my weekly training schedule included a 22-mile long run and a 16-mile long run. I was really fit there for a while. Until the wires all snapped. So rather than just piling up mileage and cramming down calories, this Initial Foundation phase is about getting healthy, optimizing hormones and baseline athleticism through general conditioning and strength development, anti-inflammatory nutrition through a ketogenic diet, a souped-up mobility program to eradicate all of my many hot-spots and good sleep to promote hormonal regulation, adaptation and overall health. I especially have to attend to a chronically injured heel—the insertion of my Achilles tendon on my left heel.
At the core of this phase is the idea that is increasingly popular in endurance circles: Become an all-around athlete first. This is the new base of the pyramid. Later on start being sport-specific. Be able to bike, run and swim. But also be able to sprint, jump, move sideways, zigzag, crawl, burn 1.5-grams of fat per minute, not be sick, not have shitty testosterone values. That’s the new goal.
Mobility, all-around athleticism, power, strength, connective tissue health, elasticity. Super-charged metabolism. Amped hormones. These are the targets.
To amp up hormones, sleeping well is a big part of the deal. Sleep hygiene and sleep rituals. This is a tough one because there is a six-month-old in our house and sleeping through the night hasn’t happened in a while and probably won’t. But Dr. Kirk Parsley, who worked with SEALs on mitigating this problem, has some good ideas for the sleep-stressed triathlete. (He’s going to be on the LAVA podcast soon).
After building this so-called Initial Foundation, the following phases will look something like this:
INCREASE INTENSITY Increase strength, power, mobility, stamina and endurance. HIIT training. Focus on good movement patterns.
SHIFT FOCUS TO MORE SPORT-SPECIFIC TRAINING.
Put it all together in weekly schedule for a build-up to race. As far as choosing the race, it depends on when I’ve finished the Initial Foundation and am healthy and ready to progress in the training.
TOOLS & TECHNOLOGIES I’LL BE USING AND REVIEWING
We live in an era where some truly good tools can help with attaining goals in the mobility, strength, power, stamina and nutrition worlds. What’s available to the modern age-group athlete is unreal and generally affordable. If a triathlete can fork over $8000 or more for a lightweight bike, well, I think the services and products I’m discussing below are a relative bargain.
The Initial Foundation phase isn’t just about athletic development but about identifying imbalances and systemic problems that drain performance and increase vulnerability to injuring joints, connective tissues, muscles, etc. I am currently in need of a big revamp in this area.
Crossover Symmetry. Crossover Symmetry is a new tech on the market designed to help with shoulder and upper back mobility and muscle activation. Good for pre-workout warmup and opening up these areas. I have horrible shoulder mobility as evidenced recently when I was trying to do an overhead squat a few days ago. To quote Dave Scott on the subject, there is not strength without mobility. I’m curious to see what a daily dose of Crossover Symmetry can do.
Functional-fitness coaching/classes. For me, I’m a believer if you find the right CrossFit gym for your intentions, you’re going to get a wealth of value from the monthly membership fee. It’s the high-speed carpool lane toward developing all-around athleticism. There are all sorts of CrossFit gyms in the world (I think the number is now in the realm of 14,000 affiliates) and they vary in their quality and how they are biased toward a certain type of member. Some may be biased toward CrossFit competition and the CrossFit Games. Others Olympic lifting or powerlifting. I’m fortunate that I live two miles from Mountain Strength CrossFit. They emphasize safety and movement quality and also have traditions in helping out runners and obstacle-course racers. So the bias (if that’s the right word) is perfect for me. If you find an appropriate CrossFit gym (appropriate to your goals) you gain good coaching, a sense of community, and because of the nature of working out with group, you get better work done. So in this focus on general health and fitness, going two or three times a week is a perfect component. They also start each workout with a mobility session. And as a checkpoint toward a triathlon, I’m going to add some spice by training for a Spartan sprint race in November to get a read on where I’m at and have some fun being on the MSC team.
Additional Mobility training via MobilityWOD.com and acumobility.com. Great resources for mobility exercises to do at home. My mobility challenges are so many that the more I can sneak in over the course of a day, the better. I should mention I have a box full of balls, rollers and other mobility tools to help me out.
RPM2. I recently interviewed Lance Walker at the Michael Johnson Performance Center and he told me about the benefits of using RPM2 (a power-meter and sensor built into an insole channels info into an app on a smart phone) to detect mobility issues and imbalances that are not readily felt or seen. My particular problems seem to stir from a knee surgery I had eons ago, but results in muscle-recruitment problems and an imbalance that has punished my left achilles tendon. I’ll be using this to guide a return to fast running.
Mobile run coaching. After getting healthy, I’m going to chart my return to running using Vi, an artificial intelligence technology that I think is fun to use and will help coax me along as pace toward including some interval work but very gradually. I’ve tried it out and it’s a pretty amazing piece of tech. I think it might be a fun and surprising way to get back some speed into my legs.
TECH TO HELP ERADICATE INJURIES AND HOTSPOTS
Blood flow restriction. I have an article in the works for LAVA on blood flow restriction as a strength-training tool for triathletes (and anyone/everyone). I first learned about it when interviewing Dr. Ken Ford at the Institute of Human and Machine Cognition and he showed me the great promise of the tech for building strength. The area I’m deeply interested in is rehab like the kind I need: waking up muscles and patterns meant to stabilize my right knee. Also, probably rooted in the knee surgery I had (high school football related), the muscles of my right quad are considerably smaller than my left—an imbalance that probably puts more pressure on my left lower leg and foot. I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot to report on how blood flow restriction works and how to do it in the coming months. The device I have is https://www.gobstrong.com. When I went shopping for a blood flow restriction device, I saw an assortment of devices on Amazon that looked like they might kill me. Dr. Ford recommended (B)Strong. Apparently, U.S. Ski team has a number of skiers and ski-jumpers that have has remarkable results with (B)Strong. I’ll be building this story for the magazine within this series.
Electrical Muscle Stimulation. I have a Marc Pro Plus that I love using because it’s easy to use and you can do it while multi-tasking. It’s a tech aimed at boosting recovery after a hard workout. I know that athletes use it for connective tissue health as well. As I work through this program, I’ll report what I learn from the various experts on the why and the how of EMS.
Halo Neuro. I think all athletes wanting to improve performance should be interested in Halo Neuro—especially when it comes to waking up the brain in order to optimize movement patterns and power flow. I have a problem that runners and triathletes tend to face at one time or another: An injured joint tends to produce an effect where the brain doesn’t activate the stabilizing muscles. Less power, an imbalance and pain are ensuing problems. I’ll be using Halo Neuro to try to restore my right knee and leg to full power.
Compression. I have 2XU compression tights to use. The science on this is solid when you’re talking about post-workout recovery. Triathletes have embraced compression for years so this is just confirmation. Again, easy to use: Put the tights on and improve blood and lymph flow. I also have a VooDoo compression band to use on hotspots.
TECHNOLOGIES TO PROMOTE OPTIMAL METABOLISM AND HORMONE REGULATION
A ketogenic diet. I’ll be reporting heavily on the thinking and applications of the ketogenic diet for endurance athletes in the next coming months. As an older athlete who is prone to type-2 diabetes, it’s a miracle worker. I’m particularly interested in the value it has for overall health, upping fat-burning and enhancing recovery. How do you know you’re in ketosis? Using a ketone meter and blood strips. I’m not a big fan of poking a hole in my finger every day, so I’m trying out the Levl analyzer that measures ketone bodies in the breath. It’s a way of knowing if your diet is actually raising your ketone levels high enough. So excited about this as a way to monitor a ketogenic diet.
Bone broth. Collagen has been getting a lot of attention as a method to help with connective tissue health. I need the help. I have a box of Bru Broth—bone broth that is organic. I might also play around with making my own, but the Bru Broth is the right stuff and tastes good.
Hydration. I’m mostly worried about drinking water during the day to help with tissue health. I don’t want calories or caffeine in it. Just electrolytes to boost absorption. I like NUUN and SOS because they’re easy to have on you and they taste good. But there are plenty out there that I might try as well.
Cercacor Ember. Another monitoring device to help gage recovery. I’ll use this to get an idea of how I’m digesting training and if my mix of life-stress/training is too much, when it’s time to back up.
Powerspeedendurance.com. Brian MacKenzie’s website. MacKenzie is a gifted and fearless coach and author when it comes to solving age-old problems with irreverent ideas. Lots of essential how-to and lecture videos and programming offerings. (I co-authored a book with Brian called “Unbreakable Runner” that reported on is program within the historical context of run training methodology.
mobilitywod.com. Kelly Starrett is the force that has everyone in just about every sport pushing mobility to the top of their list of training priorities.
Acumobility. Brad Cox at Acumobility has a cool set of ideas on how to fix chronic injuries. He works with triathletes, runners and a lot of obstacle-course racers
Dave Scott. Six-time Ironman champion and coach of Chrissie Wellington, Craig Alexander and many more. Dave’s obsessed with translating good science into practical training applications. Integrating HIIT into a lower-volume program is something Dave fiercely believes is more effective at generating ideal adaptations in the athlete. He’s also a great source for just about every topic and technique involved in multisport.
Podcast and Books by Robb Wolf. Wired to Eat is Wolf’s new book and it is a terrific read that helps frame and explain the relationship of hunger to hormones to performance to overall health. Also great stuff on sleep and habits. Wolf knows the science inside/out, and in Wired to Eat he makes it accessible and interesting.
Peter Attia’s “Eating Academy” blog. An MD with an engineering background who—despite being an ultra-swimmer putting in humongous amounts of training—had metabolic syndrome. On his blog he reported with meticulous precision on his experiments with low-carb dieting and nutritional ketosis.
Dr. Kirk Parsley. A former triathlete and retired Navy SEAL and former medical director of a SEAL health/performance program, Dr. Parsley is a world-leading expert on the relationship between sleep and performance.
Great books and services on how to make a high-performance/low-carb diet a reality in the course of a busy day:
Charles and Julie Sullivan. If recipe books that offer complicated recipes that take forever to shop for and prepare, these are the books for you. The Sullivans are parents and athletes and they get it. Weeknight Paleo is a personal favorite.
https://www.thegoodkitchen.com. This is the no-excuses service for the super-busy person. Organic, paleo meals show up at your door ready to cook and serve and taste great. They are particularly keen on letting your know where their food comes is sourced from.