The GORUCK Heavy Challenge is 10 days away. For the last month I’ve trained at extra-high volume, never very intensely but with all the miles and reps I can get in. It’s been a stretch, and I’m now definitely in a state of “overreaching,” where I’ve purposely trained a little more than I could recover from.
How do I know? I’ve got all the signs of overreaching or overtraining: poor sleep, outsized appetite, carb cravings, fatigue, irritability, inflammation and fatness, and a tiny muscle twitch in the corner of one eye.
Now I’ll abruptly stop all training right up until game day. In theory, I’ll now super-compensate for the excessive training and be stronger than ever on D-Day. I hope I’ve timed it right. I have a touch of what I now recognize as knee tendonitis, and though that isn’t so very surprising, I need to be diligent about giving it lots of TLC so that it will clear up quickly.
Here at Lean Solid Dog HQ, we heard from an infantry reservist and Afghan veteran with a job, a grad program, and a young child to raise by himself, and he asked me to post my thoughts about getting lean again. I have definite thoughts on the subject, but my only qualifications for holding them are that (a) I’m naturally chubby but I’ve learned how to control that reasonably well, and (b) I’ve read and experimented with diet more than most people. With that caveat, here’s my $.02.
Lesson #1: Leanness mostly depends on how you eat
With modern food, it is possible to eat calories much faster than we can burn them. Yesterday, for example, I hiked 25 miles and used about 5500 or 6000 calories for the day. That’s enormous. But I joined friends for a good, long dinner, including a lot of bread and a pint of ice cream, and I was right back in calorie balance.
The other reason that leanness depend overwhelmingly on your diet is that when you exercise a ton, you goose your appetite upward too. Unless you’re paying attention to your eating, you’ll just inhale more calories to compensate, like I did yesterday. So unless you’re already a naturally lean freak of nature, no amount of exercise is going to let you mindlessly eat strudel and elephant ears ad libitum and get leaner. As the saying goes, “You can’t outrun a donut.”
There are tons of approaches to eating for leanness and health that are effective, enjoyable, and easy to embrace for the long term. And we now know a lot about which ones have the best track records.
Though it can help periodically to measure servings, calculate macronutrient ratios, and log your food intake, most people who stay lean for a lifetime settle into individual routines whereby they simply follow a few well-chosen principles. If you choose the right principles, you don’t have to do mental arithmetic all day long.
Lesson #2: Volumetrics
If you only read one thing about eating for leanness, make it one of dietician Barbara J. Rolls’ books about the approach she calls volumetrics. In her research, Rolls found that people tend to eat the same poundage of food every day, no matter whether it is high in calories or low. So if you want to shave calories off your menu without your body noticing, you can sneak in more stuff that weighs a lot in relation to its calorie content. Think of the old trick of loading up on salad before the main course. But that’s just the kindergarten level. Rolls and her team have worked on this for years and come up with very clever hacks. I can testify from personal experience that you can fool your body very convincingly; you will be full of very satisfying food and your body will not know that it’s being played.
If you want to geek out a little by surveying the leading approaches and the medical research about them, your go-to resource is Clarence and Carol Bass’s site. A former Mr. America, Clarence helped invent the “ripped” look in competitive bodybuilding, and for decades he has acted as both a one-man longitudinal experiment in lean living and a clearing house for scientific research on diet and exercise. In their own kitchen, Clarence and Carol eat much more carbohydrate than I can tolerate, but they also write approvingly about lower-carb approaches that work well for people like me over the long haul.
Whether you lean more toward fibrous carbs or protein or fat, Clarence guides you toward developing your own small repertoire of “go-to” meals that adhere to the volumetric principle of favoring heavy foods that taste good to you with a lot of liquid and/or fibrous bulk. Once you figure out three to five of these standard meals that fill you up with tummy happiness, you can pretty much go on auto-pilot.
Consider Clarence’s favorite breakfast: six kinds of whole grains, frozen fruit, milk, nuts, and even some shredded vegetables (!), mixed up in a huge, steaming bowl. I don’t do well on so much fruit and grain, but Clarence’s breakfast inspired my favorite go-to dinner, my Huge Dinner Salad: a pound or more of greens, a lot of shredded carrots, some kind of meat, a little tofu, a lot of cheese, a lot of nuts, avocado if I have some, and generous oil and vinegar, eaten directly out of a huge 10L serving bowl. If I’m going crazy, I put a little fruit on it. If I’m leaning out, I’ll measure how much cheese or oil I put in. Either way, it tastes awesome to me, takes forever to eat, weighs several pounds, and can be made very “lean” if I want with negligible difference in palatability and satiety.
Some other observations that seem to hold true for pretty much everyone:
Lack of sleep spikes your appetite.
Go to bed ridiculously early, in a room that is pitch black, and get 8 hours.
Eating sugar spikes your appetite. Don’t eat sugar.
Anything you make in your kitchen is better than anything from a restaurant.
Bodybuilding and powerlifting spike your appetite. In fact, that goes for hypertrophy training in general. If you are adding much muscle, then unless you are using steroids, you are adding fat too. Nothing wrong with that, just be advised.
Bodyweight exercises work for me when I’m leaning out. I think I just eat less. When I’m powerlifting I can’t stop eating and put on weight as fast as a teenager, but my appetite isn’t changed much by a regimen of pushups, pullups, and bodyweight squats and lunges.
Ketogenic diets aren’t for everybody, but they sure work great for a lot of people. My sister transmogrified herself on keto in the most stunning fashion, shedding over 100# permanently. The food she makes is second to none, and in my judgment that’s the cornerstone of her success: she figured out how to love eating within her chosen regimen.
Speaking for myself, I get lean almost to the point of “shrink-wrapped” if I’m close to ketosis and I also restrict all my eating to a 10- to 12-hour window. It’s not a ton of fun, but it’s not very hard either, and it puts this naturally pudgy body of mine at about 9% body fat just like flipping a switch.
Some bodybuilders purposely go into a huge caloric deficit (e.g. 1500 kcal) for a short period. I can’t gainsay them–bodybuilders are the masters of body composition and they can accomplish freakish feats, but I’m not willing to make the sacrifices that they do. I’m lazy, so when I even bother to count calories or macronutrients at all, I take after Clarence Bass and just aim for small deficits. Clarence’s rule of thumb for leaning out is, decrease your food intake by just 250 calories a day, increase your energy consumption by 250 calories, and you’re on track to lose a pound a week. Trust me, that’s a lot and you’ll see the difference in your shaving mirror.
Finally, do as Clarence does: get a Tanita scale so you can track not just your weight but your body fat level. The navy “tape measure” method is decent, but it’s not precise enough. The Tanita scale measures pretty consistently in tenths of a percent. With that kind of precision, it’s easy to fine tune your routine. It’s $40, but it’s the most beneficial $40 you can spend. (Even more than a heart rate monitor.)
‘Nuff said. I emphasize again that I don’t have a lot of credibility on this subject. This post just represents advice from actual, credible been-there-done-that people that has stood up well in my (admittedly narrow) experience.
I hate to say this, but your single biggest priority is to create some modest aerobic base. That is, if you were cursed by an evil genie to be allowed only one kind of exercise, it would need to be something aerobic.
Why do I hate saying that? Because it sounds so 1980s, when America fetishized cardio to the neglect of all else and said we should avoid dietary fat and live on bagels and pasta.
But you get the most happiness, health, leanness, and energy from a modest dose of easy aerobic exercise.
And I really do mean easy. I’m talking a maximum heart rate of 180 minus your age. That’s nothing. Unless you have a good aerobic base already, that’s probably just a fast walk while swinging your arms.
And the great part is, you benefit MUCH more from that easy pace than by pushing yourself. If you care about why, read the writings of endurance super-coach Phil Maffetone. Maffetone trains elite athletes mostly or entirely in that 180 Minus Age zone, which is also where the endorphins and the bliss are. But whether or not you concern yourself with the “why?” the important point is this: by keeping your heart rate low, you IMPROVE the training effect. You are not compromising your training by going easy. You will outperform the people who train at too high a heart rate (which is almost everyone).
How do I figure out my heart rate?
Buy a heart rate monitor. You’ll need to spend about $60 for an adequate, reliable basic model. Frugal to a fault, I seldom recommend throwing away money on wiz-bang fitness devices. But a heart rate monitor is one of the few exceptions. It really does help SO much that it’s a must-buy even for a tight-fisted Buddhist stoic who thinks that if the Red Army considered it an unnecessary frippery, you can too.
No, you don’t need to start running
So do I mean that you should start walking or running? Nope. Do anything that elevates your heart rate to that magic number and holds it there steadily. You can ride a bike, roller blade, paddle or row, ski or snowshoe, and you might also really like another obscure activity from the 80s called HeavyHands. Trust me on this one: HeavyHands is awesome and makes you feel incredible.
I am 20 days out from the “GORUCK Heavy” event. Normally I reserve this blog for content that I think will have general interest, not “training log” entries. But this month will be a little different, as I leave a sort of memo for my future self, and this post is a snapshot of my training right now.
What is a “GORUCK Heavy Challenge?”
For 24 hours, you and a team carry backpacks full of bricks and various sandbags or logs, with assorted calisthenics mixed in and periodic plunges into cold water. If I’m not mistaken, the evening begins with a PT test (a timed run, pushups, situps, and maybe pullups), followed by a timed 12-mile march. After that, a vomitous PT beat-down sardonically called the “welcome party.” And then you march around together carrying stuff for the remainder of the 24 hours. Typically the team covers 40 miles and the completion rate is 50%.
Last year I did a shorter version of this, called the “GORUCK Tough,” that lasted only 12 hours. All of our people completed the event.
Last year I trained in full ketosis and only started eating M&Ms and the extremely awesome caffeinated German military chocolateduring the event. This year I’m follow low-carb endurance champ Zach Bitter’s approach instead, allowing myself 15-30% carbs to support a high training volume in this last month. When I start my taper, on about D-7, I’ll go back into ketosis and stay there except for a wee little carb load on D-2 and D-1.
Last year I competed at 162 lbs. and 9% bodyfat. For me that’s tiny. This year, I was persuaded that muscle mass pays in ruck marching so I decided to carry an extra 10 lbs. of muscle. As of today, I’m 175 lbs. at 11% bodyfat and I’ll probably stay right here.
I got both arms injured in a car accident, and they’re only now returning to something like normal, so I feel that I’m behind on resistance training. I’m relying on GTG and ladders for pushups and pullups, and a few days a week I do one high-rep set of 16kg kettlebell snatches if joint health permits. (If you’re not familiar with GTG and ladders, stay tuned. I’ll cover them soon for the “lazy strength” series.)
Amazingly, right now this is my strong suit. For months I’ve been racking up lots of volume, roughly using Stu Mittleman’s approach. (I’ll cover this soon too.) Most of it has been actual ruck marching, including lots of 12-mile rucks and one 24-miler, but there’s been some variety too: a little biking and running and sometimes wearing ankle weights. (Since the upcoming event will start with a 2-mile run, during the next couple weeks I’ll have to practice a few of those, just so that my ankles and calves remember what to do.)
My recovery stinks. Rectifying that has to be Priority #1. April is my busiest month and my sleep schedule was torn to shreds. For the remainder of this month, lights-out is 10pm.
We’ve all had friends who exerted unhealthy influence over us. They were charismatic and had qualities we wanted to emulate, but in the exuberance of growth we also idealized them for a time and didn’t want to accept that they too were just fragile, finite people with foibles, not all-purpose role models. And so we had to set grown-up boundaries rather than follow our friend into something self-destructive. Yes, your buddy was totally right all along about your ex-girlfriend, and yes, you should work less and invest more in enjoying life. You can learn a lot from him. But no, he’s dead wrong when he harangues you, “Dude, you have got to date a stripper at least once in your life!” You really do have a lot to learn from your friend, but he is not an oracle. Boundaries.
I’ve reached that point with GORUCK’s MACV-1 boots. I wanted them to be my Boots to End All Boots. And they really did expand my mind beyond just my reliable, elephantine, 5-pound pair of Bundeswehr clompers. The MACV-1s are nimble, minimal, quick-drying, good-looking, and they feel light as a pair of socks.
So I didn’t want to acknowledge that whenever I wear them to go down hills, I slip and fall. The first time seemed like an anomaly: I was going down a steep, washed out, crooked defile and it was just bad fortune, I supposed, that the first time I wore the new boots there, my foot slid from under me and I dropped into the gully on top of an anthill. But it kept happening. Every single time I hiked downhill, even on a pretty tame surface that didn’t warrant a second thought with other boots, I’d step on some gravel or mud and go down hard.
I tried ameliorating the problem with smaller steps, different balance, or fuller foot contact. But then SWOOSH! I’d slip again.
No more. I’ve been in a classic cognitive dissonance trap—high hopes, with a lot already invested, and I’ve denied mounting evidence that if I stubbornly continue wearing the MACV-1s in the hills, I could pop my knee like a chicken joint.
They’re still great for pavement and flat, hard dirt paths, but I’ll never again put 100# on my back and roll the dice with these going down a hill. Unfortunately, they are a no-go for the GORUCK Heavy.
“Like water, volume is soft and yielding. But volume will wear away rock, and it beats the crap out of excess fatigue. As a rule, volume wins over fatigue. This is another paradox: what is soft and voluminous is strong.”
from the lost training manual of Laozi (Lao-Tzu)
In the most original book on training in decades, Pavel Tsatsouline describes a certifiable badass, a special operations ninja-type whom he pseudonymously calls “Victor.” Victor combines a pair of already-extraordinary feats into an extra-extraordinary combination: he runs ultra-marathons of up to 100 miles AND he does pullups with an extra 160# hanging from his waist. That’s a freakish level of endurance and world-class strength, a combination so rare as to seem impossible. (As we have said before, strength and endurance are rivals.) That is what makes Victor an elite among the elite, a certifiable badass.
To reach those heights, Victor trains in a very special way: lazily. Or to be more precise, with low fatigue. From his amazing accomplishments, you might suppose that he spends all day exercising and puking his guts out. Nope. Most days he works out for all of 30 minutes, much of it with a 24kg kettlebell, which is strictly a “Joe Average” weight, and some pushups and pull-ups and yoga. He left behind even low-key barbell training long ago, explaining that when he deadlifted, “I felt my ego pushing me harder and faster than my body wanted to go. So I decided to limit myself to one kettlebell and two [steel exercise] clubs …”
As the core of his lethargic-looking super-routine, Victor runs … sloooooowly. Slowly enough to breath only through his nose, with rhythm and relaxation. He writes:
“The key is … the LOW INTENSITY. I use a heart rate monitor, and I stay at 60% to 65% of my [max heart rate]. This means that I am often walking on the hills. If I ran [faster], my recovery time would be much longer.”
Pavel and Victor are insistent: Victor is not succeeding in spite of his low-key training but precisely because he throttles back. Victor has perfected one way of applying the near-magical formula for productive and happy training: do as much work as possible while staying as fresh as possible.
Are those twelve words too much to remember? Then stencil this on your kettlebells, barbells, and running shoes: Volume Without Fatigue. That is the red thread that runs through many of the successful training philosophies out there, connecting disparate-looking approaches whose only apparent link is that they work well, and it is the subject of our next series, “Farewell to Fatigue: The Way of the Lazy Badass.”