Episode 10 | Mark Sisson | Is Chronic Cardio Sabotaging Your Efforts?
Why you should listen –
Today, the one and only Mark Sisson and I are talking about how to become a fat-burning master, and how chronic cardio may be sabotaging your efforts. Now, being an aerobic queen…you might think that I gasp at that concept that you can be doing too much cardio!
Follow Along With The Highlights Of The Show
Coming from The Aerobics Queen, you may think I gasp at the concept of doing too much cardio.
Let’s back up: I ran my first marathon in 1975 in Hawaii and at the time I was running 50+ miles per week to train. Just a few years later today’s guest,, was also in Hawaii, coming in 4th place in the Iron Man competition. (For those of you unfamiliar with it, Iron Man is a 2.4 mile swim followed by a 112 mile bicycle ride, then a 26.2 mile marathon.) Mark and I were both endurance junkies at one point in our lives, but have now divorced ourselves from the belief that it is best to cram as much cardio as possible into your routine.
Mark is the author of the bestselling bookin which he challenged conventional wisdom regarding diet and exercise, and his most recent book, Primal Endurance, about revolutionizing your training approach to drop excess body fat, manage stress, preserve health and go a lot faster. His highly successful blog, , provides tips, recipes, practical information and motivation to live your healthiest life possible. Mark is a force of nature who has changed the way we look at health and fitness.
Kathy Smith: So, take us back a little bit. Take us back into your cardio junky days where you were probably running, I’m assuming, on carbs and energy drinks and you were the poster child for – back then – for endurance. When did you make the shift into more of this primal paleo health movement?
Mark Sisson: Well, you know, I started out wanting to be healthy. The original intent was I just want to do what I can to live the longest life and to be as healthy as I can. Going back to the 60s and having read Ken Cooper’s book on aerobics and getting sort of into my brain that the more running I did, the longer I’d live and the healthier I’d become. Reading some of the conventional wisdom of the day, Adele Davis, Robert Hoss later on, I got into this pattern of doing a lot of running and eating very high carbohydrates, complex carbohydrate-based diet because that’s what you did theoretically to–you know, you put in the miles. The more miles you did, the healthier your heart became. In order to fuel those miles, you had to eat a lot of carbs.
The next thing you know, cut to the late 70s, I’m running 100 miles a week, I’m training for the U.S. national championships where I finished fifth in 1980 in the marathon and qualified for the Olympic tryouts. My whole mindset had shifted away from health to how fast can I be, how fit can I be?
I found myself, at the age of 28, literally falling apart. I had osteoarthritis in my feet. I had tendonitis in my hips. I had irritable bowel syndrome. I had gastro esophagus, you know, reflux, heartburn, sinus infections. Here, I’m a cover runner for three times, a picture of fitness and, yet, I was falling apart.
So, I literally had to retire from competition before the age of 30 because of all of this collection of maladies, these injuries, these illnesses. I kind of rethought the idea of why did I get into this in the first place. I wanted to be healthy. So, I started this thirty-year exploration of what it would take to be as strong and lean and fit and happy and healthy as I could be with the least amount of pain, suffering, sacrifice, discipline, calorie counting, portion control and so on.
That’s really what led me to where I, eventually, about 15 years ago, I started to get into this ancestral lifestyle and looking at how is it that humans evolved and how do our genes recreate us, rebuild us, renew us daily based on the input that we give our genes? And what can we do? How can we find these hidden genetic switches that allow us to burn fat with ease, to build muscle without having to spend so much time in the gym, to become aerobically efficient without grinding ourselves into the pavement with this chronic cardio?
Lo and behold, the great news is that it doesn’t take that much of a shift in your lifestyle to have all those things. So, that became the essence of my blog, Mark’s Daily Apple and eventually my book, The Primal Blueprint and later on, the more specific applications of the book in terms of the most recent one, Primal Endurance. How do we become an efficient endurance athlete without beating ourselves up?
Kathy Smith: Well, it’s interesting. I know in Primal Endurance, your latest book, you mentioned the seven habits of highly effective people. Now, it’s interesting for me because I interviewed Stephen Covey probably 30 years ago, and I’m sure you remember his Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. One of the things that I noticed in your seven habits is that–I mean, there’s things that people will relate to when you talk about sleep or when you talk about stress management. But one of the things that jumped off the page for me was this idea of intuitive personalized schedule. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Mark Sisson: Sure! Again, in the old days, going back to the training strategies of the 70s, 80s and 90s, so many of us were beholding to the script. We would have a coach. Monday would be a rest day because Sunday had been a long run. Tuesday was an interval day. Wednesday was a fart lick or–we sort of had this schedule carved out and we had to hold to it. For the most part, we did hold to it, but we got sick a lot, because it turns out that the body doesn’t necessarily like a seven-day rotating schedule. Maybe your body likes a 10-day rotating schedule or 11 or 12.
So, what’s happening here is we have to recognize that while we all build muscle the same way, we all burn fat the same way, we all utilize carbohydrates the same, it’s the degree to which we do it that differs among us and the degree to which has something to do with our genetics, something to do with our training history and a lot to do with just how the rest of our lives manifest themselves in terms of stress, in terms of obligation. So, some days we’d wake and, yeah, it’s says on the schedule that I’m supposed to go do a 10 miler today or it says on the schedule I’m supposed to go to the gym and do a leg day. But maybe you don’t feel right that day. Maybe you’re not ready to do that workout.
So, what we sort of teach and preach in the Primal Blueprint and, more specifically, in Primal Endurance, is this ability to intuitively get when you’re ready to do a hard workout and when you need to take time off and because it’s ok. In fact, you’ll do more damage doing a hard workout when you’re not ready. It may cost you three weeks in recovery, whereas if you just took that one or two days off because you needed it and, then, recovered and repaired and you were ready, not just physically but maybe emotionally to do that hard workout. Now, the workout has value. Now the workout actually adds to your repertoire, actually increases your level of fitness.
So often over the years, we just got so bogged down with a schedule and we dug a hole for ourselves that, in my case–I mean, I finished fifth in the national championships marathon 1980. I went to New York ready to run 214. I was just primed and I trained so hard. I’d been upping my miles to over 100 miles a week, and I got to the starting line and I was miserable. I had literally left my best race on the track two weeks before, and it took me six weeks to recover from that.
So, these are the lessons I learned that I’m hoping that the reader won’t have to learn literally by making mistakes. That’s the essence of that.
Kathy Smith: It’s interesting you say that, and you suffer physically. But what I also notice is it’s a psychological hit that you take. Through the years in the business, I’m asked all the time when I’m interviewed, “Give me your typical week. What’s your workout schedule?”
I remember it was always hard for me to answer that question because one of the things that I brought to my fitness was this fun factor. If you’re in Park City and it’s snowing out and it’s a powder day, you’re going to be on the slopes. If somebody calls and you’re in Malibu and maybe it’s a beach day or whatever it might, there was a fun element to it.
For my entire life, I had a structured side and I worked with an instructor and it was disciplined but with a lot of variety. With that variety, it could mean that certain days, as you said, depending on my schedule, I might be running to New York. I’m going to be hitting the Today Show and I have to be up at four a.m. and I know that I’m going to get 10 to 15 minutes in the gym. People go, “Can you do anything in 10 or 15 minutes?” Well, what it did for me was get my circulation going. It helped stretch out my muscles. It helps warm me up. I think people don’t understand, just getting your body warm makes you feel better.
All these little things that it’s like, well, I’m not going to be winning a body building contest, obviously, in 15 minutes, but it’s the consistency of it that just was important to me. I think what I see is that people really burn themselves out a lot of times, because I’m supposed to do this and I’m sick and tired of doing it and they burn themselves out.
Mark Sisson: Two things you said that really resonate, one of which the 15 minutes. You can do so much in 15 minutes and be done and, as you said, get warmed up, get the circulation going. You can get the pump. You can basically do 80 or 85% of all you needed to do, even if you had an hour scheduled, in 15 minutes. So, anybody who says, “Well, I don’t have time to exercise,” or “I’m traveling and I’m only in a hotel room,” you know, I bring a resistance band with me and I can get one hellacious workout in 15 minutes with a resistance band in a hotel room if I need to. That was point number one.
Point number two, and almost more importantly, the powder day in Park City. I’m speaking of just having fun. I like to paddle a lot in Malibu and I have a standup paddleboard. If someone calls me up and says, “Hey, it’s flat. It’s calm. It’s beautiful out. Let’s go,” I have no problem dropping what I’m doing and going out and doing that, because I recognized way too late in life that most of my endurance training was growing. It was tame management.
Even the workouts, they were not fun and in no way, shape or form were the races ever fun. There was no time in the 200-endurance contest that I competed in from the time the gun went off until the time I crossed the finish line that I could truly say, “Wow, this is fun.”
So, I rededicated my life after that to having fun. So, now, I play ultimate Frisbee. It’s the toughest workout I do. I play with these 20-somethings once a week, but it’s the most fun I have all week. So, I never think, “When is it going to be over?” I think, “Oh, my gosh. It’s going to be over in 10 minutes. Dang. I wish we could play another half hour.”
Kathy Smith: Do you play on the beach? Are you on the beach?
Mark Sisson: No. We play in a park, actually a school playground. It’s a grassy playground. It’s awesome. We’ve been doing it every Sunday for 12 years. It’s just the most fun.
That’s my point is most of the work I do in the gym now is designed to keep me from getting injured when I’m playing. So, I’ll go up to Aspen. We’ll have powder days or whatever. I’ll snowboard every day because it’s there, I’m there. I’m having fun the whole time. I never think about, “Oh, geez, I missed the gym because I was snowboarding all day.” That was my workout. Right?
In fact, we’re going up this weekend and we’re going to hike every day. I used to think, “Well, hiking, that’s not really a workout, is it? You’re walking. I’m a runner.” Well, I know you know this, Kathy. Hiking is one of the greatest workouts you can do. And, so, once I get it out of my mind that the fact that I’m not going fast has no impact on the relevance or the value of the workout. I’m still working hard, walking fast up a hill, but I’m not tearing my joints apart. I’m not pounding my joints. So, there’s always a way to be able to get the workout and have the fun.
Kathy Smith: We used to sit in the gym and watch people do things and we’d say, “Ok, what’s the trade off? Yeah, they’re doing this, but what could go wrong or what are they breaking down and where are they going to pay the price or how are they going to pay the price 20 years from now?” I think that’s why, yes, I love hiking. I’m out there three days a week. What I love about it is that you get that strong cardio and, by the way, for the females and males, it really is a great butt workout when you’re getting altitude and you’re on an incline, and you’re not stressing your joints.
I have the best of both worlds because I live in Park City and we have a chairlift that can bring you down the mountain. So, you hike up and you take the chairlift down.
But I need to switch gears here because I know we have you for just a limited time. Let’s just get a few of the basics out of the way with fitness and, then, move on to food. With fitness, I know we talked about chronic cardio. The idea is push a little harder, a little shorter workouts, with maybe a little hit training or interval training. Is that your concept?
Mark Sisson: My concept is basically that most people over train. They train too hard when they’re going long and slow. They should actually slow it down. We use a number of 180 minus your heartrate should be. That’s the maximum heartrate at which you should be training aerobically for long distances. I’ll give you an example. I just turned 63, so 180 minus 63 is 117. Theoretically, my maximum heartrate for getting aerobic efficiency and maximum fat burning is 117.
Now, I could go at 145 to 155 all day long. The problem is, I’m just going to burn sugar in that range. I’m not going to become better at burning fat. So, part of the essence of the Primal Endurance strategy is to build a base by going longer and slower. That’s where the hiking comes in.
But when you do get into the high intensity stuff, we say make your short, hard workouts, shorter and harder. So, instead of doing mile repeats or half-mile repeats on the track or two minute all out sprints on the bike, you do 10 or 20 seconds but you do them all out. Then, you give yourself adequate rest – two minutes.
Research shows that that sort of training has as much benefit to your cardiovascular, to your aerobic efficiency, to your strength, your power as 40 minutes of hard training. So, we’re trying to find these little sweet spots of making it a kinder, gentler aerobic base building and, then, not so much kinder, gentler because you’re going to be going harder, faster. But once a week, brief bouts of high intensity, max heartrate output. Again, 10 to 20 seconds at a time and that’s it. Those are bites that people can chew on and derive benefit from and not have them become over trained as a result of it.
Kathy Smith: Shifting them to strength training. So, back when I started running, Ken Cooper was the doctor that coined the term aerobics and he was the one that did a lot of research about it. But even Ken–and I used to run with Ken. At a point, probably 20 years later, he started talking about strength training and how the bias towards strength training shifts at every decade that we age so that starting from the time you’re 30, 40, 50 that you should start adding more and more strength training.
I noticed that you talk about strength training but, also, not this I have to go to the gym for a full hour, hour and a half, pump weights, but it’s sort of short and sweet again. Is that correct?
Mark Sisson: Absolutely. Again, you hit the nail on the head. Once you hit the age of 30, it’s all about maintaining lean body mass. It’s all about muscle and how much muscle you can retain because the body wants to get rid of muscle as you age – literally year on year. And it’s sometimes–with people who don’t work out, it’s a two percent loss per year. They call it sarcopenia. It is the cause of death for most people in their 70s, 80s and 90s.
The best thing you can do, even better than the aerobics stuff is go to the gym and lift weights. But I’m not the hugest fan of spending hours and hours in the gym because, again, you can accomplish so much in a very little period of time. So, we talk about pushups, pullups, dips, squats, lunges, all these body weight exercises, using resistance bands, using weight vests. You don’t have to have the dumbbells and the barbells and the machines. You can do this in your home if you want to.
These are all exercises that build muscle, build strength and maintain mobility. Now, you say, “Wait a minute. I do want to be a 10K runner. I do want to compete in a triathlon. Is this lifting of weights going to assist me there?” The answer is absolutely, emphatically yes. The thing that happens in a race, when you start to hit the wall, isn’t just because you’ve run out of glycogen because you’re not a very good fat burner–and we’re going to teach you how to do that–but, also, because you’ve lost power. You haven’t trained to sustain your power through a long period of time and distance. So, that’s what we do in the gym. We train power in the gym, and it’s been very effective.
Kathy Smith: The other thing–this is switching gears for a second, but I was just at a conference, and they were talking about this aging process and falling and how people, as you age and you fall and you trip and break a hip. Here’s the thing that was interesting. They talked about the issue with falling is what prevents people from catching themselves is speed, like they can’t get their leg out fast enough. It’s the speed and the power.
What you’re talking about also with this functional is you’re training your body in such a way and you’re training it in a variety of ways so that you develop that not only the muscle tone so you look good and the muscle definition so you look good, but it’s about the power and the speed so that when all of a sudden you hit yourself–because everybody at one point–it happened to me last week. I was walking along and was carrying something, I didn’t see a curb, and you stumble a little bit. But if you have the speed, your leg gets out there and you can grab yourself.
Obviously, with your ultimate Frisbee, that’s the type of stuff you’re training all day long that we don’t talk about – changing direction, balance, all the things that happen when you participate in a sport that you’re never going to get by just doing a bicep curl.
Mark Sisson: That’s exactly right. I have a slack line in my backyard. You know what a slack line is, right?
Kathy Smith: Yeah, I do. But tell the audience, because they probably don’t.
Mark Sisson: It’s basically like tightrope walking on a loose rope. It’s all the rage that the kids are doing on the beaches and things now. It’s basically anywhere from 20 to 50 feet of stretched cord.
Kathy Smith: It’s hard. It’s hard. It’s hard.
Mark Sisson: It’s really hard. Yet, when you get good at it, you realize, “Oh my gosh. I can–.” So between that slack line and being able to walk across 40 feet of slack line without falling off, turning around and coming back, my balance has become more and more refined.
And, of course, being on a standup paddleboard and being able to step onto the board, paddle for an hour and a half and step off without ever getting wet, this is a practical application of that balance of fine motor skills that your hips and core need to develop in order to, also, maintain balance. So, now, you have the balance so you don’t trip in the first place or you have, as you said, the speed to catch up and put the foot out in front of you if you do happen to trip. Then, you have the bone density because you did all the weight bearing activity so that even if you do fall, you don’t break the bone. These are critical.
So many people in their lives, because they trip and fell and broke a hip, broke a bone, wound up in the hospital, got pneumonia and because they hadn’t done the work in the past 20 or 30 years, the heart didn’t have to keep up with the demands of a body, so the heart only had 10 or 12% of its regular capacity. Or the lungs didn’t have to breathe in huge amounts of air to keep up with the workout that you should’ve been doing, so the lung lost its volume and now you get pneumonia. You can’t cough out the sputum. So, you either die of congestive heart failure, pneumonia or something like that. It’s a sad tale that doesn’t have to happen because all you have to do is engage in this modest workout schedule to maintain bone density, strength, power and balance.
Kathy Smith: Ok, I love it. I love. One of the things I admire so much about your approach has been, in
your books, so many people think about paleo as just a diet. But you point out that it’s much, much more than that.
In the Primal Connection, which is another book of yours, I love how you sum up this whole idea of the importance of following your genetic potential to health and the word happiness. I appreciate you’ve added that word happiness. As a matter of fact, I have a little synopsis here that I’m going to read just so people understand what you’re talking about here. It just says, “Honking horns, loud office chatter, warring machines battering our ears with incessant noise, artificial light and digital stimulation, overstressing our nervous system day and night, traffic jams, long lines, interruptions, distractions and the big egos pervade life in such a manner that we don’t even realize the piece or rather the peace that’s gone, that’s missing.” Tell me, what exactly are the pieces that are holding us back from the happiness that we all want?
Mark Sisson: To go back to the origin of that concept, it is what–we all want to be content, fulfilled, happy. These are all basic things that we strive for on a daily basis and we lose sight of that because we’re so caught up in the chase or so caught up in keeping up with the next-door neighbors or we’re so caught up in trying to get ahead or just surviving.
What we try to do is we try to identify those points of time in the day where you can find happiness. The more times in a day that you can just take a break, take a quick stop and go, “Oh my gosh, listen to that bird,” or “I feel great,” or “My stomach isn’t hurting, because I just took some steps in my diet that eliminated the cause of pain,” or to be appreciative of what you have and not so much–in other words, I want people to want what they have versus having what they want, right?
If you can just appreciate what you have and all you’ve done to get there and all the struggles that you’ve been through and have acknowledgement of who you are and how wonderful life is, these are the moments that I try to coach people into identifying more and more and more often throughout the day. Because so often, we’ll go through an entire day in misery – misery created only by the chatter in our brains.
There really isn’t misery out there for most people. It’s not as bad as your brain thinks it is. So, you’ve got to try to come back and go, “Wow. Life is awesome and I’m having a great time,” and “I just had the most amazing meal,” or “My kids are so great. I can’t believe how great my kids are. My spouse just did this wonderful thing for me.” It’s really about identifying those moments.
Kathy Smith: I love it, because that’s–I love the mindfulness aspect and that wanting what you have. Wanting what they have is such a powerful concept.
One of the things I’ve noticed about you through the years is you have this incredible family and incredible wife, Carrie. You have this relationship that’s supportive and loving. You have kids that are remarkable. You’ve created that, but this is a little bit of a divergence from what we are talking about. What I find interesting, because I’d read it on your blog, is that you have a family but not everybody follows in your family, your paleo approach to eating. What I always–one of my questions was, does a family that practices paleo together, stay together? But actually, how do you navigate through different eating styles within a family? Because I see that breaks a lot of people apart.
Mark Sisson: Well, first of all, we’ve never forced it down our kids’ throats, literally. So, my wife, Carrie, was a vegetarian when I met her. She recognized fairly early into our marriage that she needed to start taking in some additional proteins, so she started eating fish. Then, about 10 years ago, we were at Prime 112 in Miami, and the Kobe hotdog came by and, all of a sudden, that was the end of that and, now, she eats meat occasionally.
My son was just raised for the first two years as a vegetarian because that’s during the time my wife was a vegetarian. He elected to stay a vegetarian. He is the best athlete, the smartest kid in the class–here I am bragging–but the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. So, I can’t argue about his choices. We always accommodated it.
Look, it’s really about the things you don’t eat, Kathy. It’s about the things you don’t bring into the house that makes the most important impact on peoples’ lives. It’s keeping the crap, the sugar, the sodas out of the house. It’s keeping the refined grains and the simple sugars and all of the kind of things that I think most of us, by now, recognize we ought not to be eating. So, it’s not so much what you eat. My choice of protein would be a ribeye steak. My son’s choice of protein might be a combination of beans and rice and some guacamole, and he does eat eggs now. He just elects not to eat meat. And he does protein powders. He’ll eat protein powders as well
So, there’s a way to make it work. We never pushed it at all on him. And we backed off on Devyn, on our daughter as well. She went from being kind of an undecided, hesitant eater. Now, she’s got a cookbook coming out in two months called Kitchen Intuition, and she teaches young people how to adapt recipes to their style. So, she’s become a foodie and we just backed off and said, “We’ll just let you observe what we do.” We certainly set the example, but we didn’t force it upon the kids.
Kathy Smith: Brilliant advice. Love that. Ok, just to wrap up. You mentioned your age earlier and I must say that you have to respect your elders. I’m a little older than you are, but how do see yourself–and I’m following along with you. How do you see yourself 70, 75, 80? Just give me a little idea. Do you have a vision of–are you going to be playing your ultimate Frisbee and doing standup paddle boarding and rowing into the sunset? How do you see yourself?
Mark Sisson: Yeah, I do. I do see myself–I don’t know about the ultimate, because it’s a pretty fast game, and at some point, the Achilles, the knees start to go, hey, wait a minute. Maybe this isn’t exactly what we had planned for our eighth decade, right? But certainly, standup paddling, snowboarding as long as I can, within reason. Again, I don’t chase my kids down the hill anymore or I don’t beat them down the hill anymore like I used to.
But, yeah, it’s really–from the age of 50, I said I want to show people what 70 is supposed to look like when I get there. All of a sudden, it’s coming. It’s not just creeping up on me. It’s a little scary how fast it’s going, but I feel good about that. I still feel good. I feel like I’ll be an example of mobility at the age of 70, of cognition.
I certainly don’t plan on retiring from all that I do. The last two years have been the busiest two years of my life. Actually, my birthday was yesterday and I was reflecting back, and 62 was the best year I ever had. Well, geez, if I can keep that up for the next couple of decades, that’s not a bad thing.
Most people–not most. But many people when they’re 40 or 50 or 60, you know, from then on, it looks like, ok, how can I stem the decline, right? I’m on a slippery slope already. How can I salvage some of the last moments of my life? Geez, that’s no way to look at your life. I wake up every day going, “How can I extract the greatest amount of pleasure out of this day possible?” So, I don’t see that diminishing at all. So far, so good. If every year in the last decade has been better than the previous year, what’s to say it can’t continue?
Kathy Smith: Well, I have to say, I interviewed Jack LaLane years ago, and he said that his 80th year was his best year ever. I believed him, so that’s inspiring.
Mark, it was a pleasure having you on the show. I’m a huge fan. You are rock star among rock stars, and I’m looking forward to all your future projects. If you want to check out Mark, you can reach him or you can see him and listen to what he has to say and read his blog at MarksDailyApple.com or go and see his products at PrimalBlueprint.com.
Thanks so much, Mark. It’s just a pleasure. You’re a doll to be on the show. Thank you.
Mark Sisson: It’s always great to reconnect, Kathy. Thanks for having me.