“Don’t jog, it’s too dangerous,” was a quote from Paleo movement pioneer Dr. Art De Vany. Far from a tongue-in-cheek wisecrack, De Vany detailed in a 2017 podcast interview on the Tim Ferriss Show how steady state cardio is in conflict with your genetic expectations for health.
This post will provide an update on the mounting science suggesting that steady-state cardio need not, and probably should not be the centerpiece of your fitness endeavor. Plus, I’ll include suggestions to transform your routine steady state cardio workouts into fun, creative sessions that deliver broader and more impactful fitness benefits with less downside risk of drifting into chronic patterns.
Spoiler alert: I’m going to suggest you take your typical steady state jogging session at a chosen pegged heart rate and add some walking (gasp!), pace variations, and alternate activities like explosive bursts and drills that hone balance, flexibility, and mobility.
I’ve been doing steady state cardio for 40 years (gulp) as a high school and collegiate runner, pro triathlete, and Speedgolfer such that heading out the door for a morning jog at a comfortable aerobic heart rate has been programmed into habit at the same level as brushing my teeth.
High Jump as an Eye Opener
In recent months I have rekindled a longtime passion for the fabulous track field discipline of high jump. I’m trying to raise the bar in life in every way, so why not? It’s (arguably) the most beautiful and complex of track and field events because of the disparate skills and technical mastery it requires. You need speed and power for starters, but unlike Usain Bolt in the 100 meters or Carl Lewis in the long jump, high jumpers face the complexity of transferring energy from the horizontal plane (i.e., running fast) to the vertical plane (i.e., jumping high) with a difficult change of direction and different application of forces (represented by the curved approach) required to fly backward and bend the body virtually in half to clear the bar.
Consequently, I’ve been taking the opportunity of my usual ho-hum morning run to perform an assortment of creative drills and skills for high jump, and the experience has been a revelation. My outings are more fun, challenge my central nervous system to execute good technique for complex movements, and stimulate my creative energies instead of just a brain flatline outing with jogging. Actually, there’s nothing wrong with the latter in hyperconnected life, but the novel stimulation of a varied workout provides a greater sense of excitement heading out the door and a greater sense of satisfaction after the session.
Perhaps most importantly, getting off the figurative treadmill (some of you will be getting off a literal treadmill if that’s your go-to gym workout) protects you against the high-risk elements of steady state cardio. We talk about football being too violent of a sport for an evolved society (well, at least I do…), but steady state cardio is right there in the high-risk category. Enthusiasts of all ability levels engage in chronic conditions exercise patterns that lead to breakdown, burnout, illness, and injury to a shocking degree. A survey by Runner’s World magazine revealed that an astonishing 80 percent of the 30 million runners in America get injured in a given year — even with no tackles allowed on the marathon route!
Risks of Overtraining
More disturbing are the cardiovascular disease risk factors associated with devoted endurance training over the long run. Sisson and I keep a registry of endurance athletes (including numerous world champion caliber performers) who have suffered from serious heart problems either during, or in some cases years after retirement from elite competition. While Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run became a bestseller, I believe the legacy of Homo sapiens as a magnificent endurance machine has been twisted out of context today. Indeed, humans evolved some incredible cardiovascular endurance advantages, such as bipedal locomotion and evaporative cooling. While this gave us an edge against other predators, evolving a complex brain was orders of magnitude more significant to rising to the top of the food chain.
It’s more anthropologically accurate to say that humans were born to move frequently at a slow pace, while possessing the ability to perform magnificent endurance feats once in a while. The amazing YouTube documentary, The Great Dance, is believed to be the first filmed account of a bonafide persistence hunt. The program follows a member of the San Bushmen tribe, modern day hunter-gatherers in Africa’s Kalahari desert, tracking an kudu antelope across the desert for four hours in 100-degree-plus temperatures. Finally, the exhausted antelope is easily caught and speared to death in place — another victory for the endurance kings of the planet! The important takeaway for me is that the hunter didn’t lace up his moccasins the following day to put in an easy eight-miler like a modern runner might. Life or death endurance feats (indeed, the San Bushmen clan in the flick had not feasted in quite a while due to drought) are in a different category from averaging 50-mile weeks and piling up finisher medals.
Endurance as a Once-in-a-while Endeavor
There’s nothing inherently unhealthy about pushing your limits once in a while to bag an antelope or a 50k finisher medal. It’s both physically and psychologically healthy to get out of your comfort zone now and then, counterbalance the luxuries, conveniences, and excesses of modern life, and trigger a fantastic adaptive fitness response to an extreme challenge. Mark, who finished dozens of marathons in his running career, recommends to aspiring marathoners that they complete just two marathons: The first one is to finish; the second one to improve your time! Then, check “26.2” off your bucket list with the acknowledgement that the stress of repeatedly training and competing in a footrace of that distance is going to compromise your hormonal, musculoskeletal, immune, and endocrine systems without a doubt.
After all, the marathon was introduced as an event in the first modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens to commemorate the saga of the Athenian messenger soldier Pheidippides. As legend has it, 2,500 years ago Pheidippides ran 25 miles from the battlegrounds of Marathon to Athens, burst into the Acropolis and excitedly reported, “Rejoice, we conquer!,” then promptly dropped dead on the spot. Interestingly, Greek historians now assert that the story is not true. Pheidippides is believed to have actually run from Athens to Sparta and back to Athens — a total of 300 miles over the course of four days! — to relay important battle information. It’s believed that a different messenger did the Marathon to Athens jaunt and dropped dead after delivering the news.
In any case, we can draw a clear distinction between honoring our Born to Run genetics to keep fit for life versus following the prevailing “chronic cardio” approach to endurance training that compromises health and accelerates the aging process. Like any other muscle, the heart requires an optimal balance of stress and rest to thrive. It’s unthinkable to rip your biceps to shreds doing exhaustive sets of curls day after day with insufficient rest, but we routinely treat our cardiovascular system with much less TLC than our traps and guns.
The Dangers of Excessive Cardio: Your Heart and Beyond
Dr. Peter Attia, longevity expert, host of The Drive podcast, and accomplished ultra-endurance athlete, explains what’s going on inside:
“Challenging endurance workouts cause an increase in both heart rate and stroke volume [amount of blood pumped out per beat of the heart], by stretching the heart larger to pump more blood per beat. This amazing organ can quickly go from pumping three to five liters of blood around our body per minute at rest to 30 liters per minute during very intense exercise. Unfortunately, the right side of the heart, which pumps only against the low-resistance lungs, and is far less muscular than the left ventricle, is more vulnerable to damage from chronic amounts of high cardiac output training. So while short bouts of this intensity don’t appear to cause lasting damage on the heart, prolonged activity does — at least in susceptible individuals. The so-called chronic cardio patterns can cause the right ventricle to become scarred from excessive use and insufficient recovery. This scarring can lead to cardiac arrhythmias, especially atrial fibrillation, and even sudden death in athletes who have no evidence of atherosclerosis.”
Chronic Cardio and Mitochondria
Beyond scarring and inflaming the heart, there are many other ways to contribute to your demise with chronic cardio. You can gather these under the heading of the “Extreme Exercise Hypothesis,” a concept which has recently been scientifically validated and studied with increasing urgency. Beyond blowing out your heart, Attia describes how mitochondria can become damaged by chronic exercise, a scary story of accelerated aging and health destruction to ponder: “When mitochondria are heated up too frequently for too long, proteins become denatured (destruction of the tertiary elements of the molecule, causing dysfunction) and mitochondrial DNA leaks out of cells.”
This phenomenon is highly problematic because mitochondrial DNA is perceived as a foreign agent to your body. They are different from cellular DNA and strikingly similar to bacteria cells. When mitochondrial DNA leaks into the bloodstream, your immune system is confused into launching an attack against a perceived invader. This triggers an inflammatory autoimmune response (essentially the body attacking itself), a sustained pattern of which accelerates aging and disease risk. Emerging science on the gut microbiome reveals that this leaking of mitochondrial DNA into the bloodstream is particularly prevalent in the intestinal tract via a leaky gut. As you likely already know, leaky gut is driven strongly by eating offensive foods like gluten and toxic seed oils, but endurance training is also a risk factor. When you elevate heart rate and raise body temperature for a prolonged workout, your gut becomes inflamed and permeable as a matter of course to respond to the workout stimulus — especially in hot temperatures. Dangers are no doubt magnified when you try to shove sugary drinks, bars, gels and blocks into said intestinal tract while blood is shunted to the extremities for performance.
“But wait, there’s more!” A 2015 Outside Magazine article titled, Running on Empty chronicled the hidden dangers of ultramarathon running, describing how numerous elite performers suddenly disappear from the face of the earth (or at least the starting line), victims of extreme burnout. A Wall Street Journal article titled, One Running Shoe In The Grave detailed how older athletes have a higher risk of health disturbances related to ambitious endurance training.
A 2015 VeloNews article titled, Cycling To Extremes, explained how longtime competitive cyclists are especially vulnerable to developing atrial fibrillation because they can sit and pedal for hours on end with their heart rates pegged at a medium-to-high rate. Hence, they are unrestrained by the pounding that limits a runner’s total weekly exercise output.
Hence, other low impact sports like rowing or cross-country skiing fall into the same risk category as the cyclists. Interestingly, the weightlessness and body temperature stability with swimming lessens the strain on the cardiovascular and other body systems, providing a measure of protection to high volume swimmers.
In the book, The Great Cardio Myth, strength and conditioning expert Craig Ballantyne details how cardio exercise is ineffective for weight loss, heart disease prevention, and longevity; rather, it can have an opposite effect in each area. In cardiologist Dr. James O’Keefe’s TED Talk, “Run for your life! At a comfortable pace, and not too far,” he explains that aerobic health and disease protection are easily optimized with a couple hours of easy cardio per week, and that anything beyond that seemingly paltry total departs from the category of “health” and “longevity” and into the realm of potentially compromising health, increasing disease risk and literally accelerating cellular aging. What’s more, marketing forces brainwash serious enthusiasts to believe they aren’t really legit until they finish a marathon or triathlon. For well intentioned novices heading to the gym, they are subjected to a boot camp experience (literally!) to the extent that they associate the gym, and a fitness lifestyle, with pain and suffering.
A Better Way to Train
Alas, if you love endurance training and racing for the pursuit of peak performance, the enjoyment of nature, social connection, and the psychological satisfaction and confidence gained from pushing yourself, these huge benefits must not be discounted. It’s just a matter of rejecting the conventional stupidity of “more is better” and adopting a Primal Endurance-style holistic approach featuring healthy eating (escape carb dependency to become fat- adapted), aerobic emphasis with strict heart rate guidelines, complementary fitness activities such as flexibility/mobility exercises and brief, explosive exercises, and maintaining exceptional overall stress-rest balance in life. With a correct approach, you can preserve your health, have more fun, and still manage to perform well at endurance or ultra endurance activities.
Granted, it’s an extremely tricky balance for the Type-A subjects who populate the starting line. Sedentary observers from the peanut gallery laud the “focus and discipline” exhibited by their endurance athlete neighbor. Ironically, most of the focus and discipline required to excel in endurance sports must be directed toward restraint, stress-rest balance, and backing off when necessary.
Things are getting better as more and more enthusiasts appreciate the sensibility of a less stressful approach focused on aerobic development and minimizing the exhausting, depleting workouts (Hawaii Ironman legend Dave Scott describes them as “kinda hard”) that compromise health and increase burnout risk. It’s heartening to see the rise in popularity for the work of aerobic training pioneer Dr. Phil Maffetone, author of The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing. Phil has been talking about the now widely accepted “180 minus age” MAF (stands for Maximum Aerobic Function; it’s also a play on Phil’s last name) nearly 40 years. He’s coached some of the greatest endurance athletes of all time, including triathlon legends Mark Allen, Mike Pigg and Tim DeBoom. Alas, Phil’s urgent message to slow down has received more lip service than strict implementation until recent years. As more and more athletes accumulate results with a sensible approach, the tide is finally turning.
Dr. DeVany’s title quote has haunted me for years; I typically ponder the significance of this deadpan assertion during my morning jog. “Come on, this can’t be dangerous, can it?” I assert that my morning jog helps me enjoy nature, clear my mind for the impending busy day in front of a screen or microphone, and seemingly contributes to both my fitness base and my health.
But only if I go slow!
That is the revelation I have come to appreciate over decades of devoted endurance training. Walking is perhaps the most health and longevity promoting activity of them all, the ultimate human experience of life and the planet that our genes require daily for healthy functioning. This is especially true as you age. A UCLA study of the elderly revealed that walking more than 4,000 steps a day makes for a thicker hippocampus, faster information processing, and improved executive function. Sedentary folks were found to have thinner brains, lower overall cognitive function and increased disease risk. From a base of frequent daily walking (and other forms of low level movement like yoga), if you are fit enough to jog at a heart rate below “180 minus age” in beats per minute, there is pretty strong evidence that you are boosting health. If your “jogging” routinely drifts above that important MAF cutoff (surely the context for DeVany’s warning), you are likely actualizing the quote and endangering your health.
This article details how I destroyed my health during a six-month binge of high volume aerobic exercise (playing Speedgolf, where you run around five miles while playing 18 holes as fast as possible) after a long layoff from real training. I overestimated my aerobic maximum heart rate by 12 beats (and exceeded that beeper limit on the golf course frequently as well!) and experienced that familiar steady spiral into declining energy and burnout. First, I delivered a free testosterone reading that was clinically low — as in, a candidate for hormone replacement. Next, on the heels of two strenuous workouts in 100-degree temperatures over four days, I found myself in the hospital with extreme dehydration, a ruptured appendix and emergency surgery. Months of complications and follow up surgeries ensued. Doctors might assert that an appendix will blow out randomly, but I’m certain that my problems were driven by the six-month chronic cardio binge.
With five months of enforced rest and trading my slightly too difficult cardio for easy jogging and walking (after surgeries), I doubled my testosterone levels — going from clinically low to exceeding the 95th percentile for my age. In the aftermath of the ordeal, which coincided with me hitting the big Hawaii 5-0, I turned my attention to fitness goals better suited for longevity: building power, speed, explosiveness, flexibility, balance, and mobility. I increased my devotion to sprinting and strength training, and integrated the wonderful drills and skills highlighted in the basic running drills and advanced running drills videos and morning flexibility/mobility exercises video. I’ve gone from an aging ex-triathlete still capable of jogging or pedaling (increasingly slowly with each passing year) to high jumping at a world class level for my 55-59 age group. Granted, attrition in this event is a driving factor in my positioning in the rankings, but in many respects I am a fitter, stronger, faster human than the narrowly adapted endurance athlete I was decades ago.
Here are some ideas to trade steady state cardio sessions for sessions that deliver broader fitness benefits and are more fun, more challenging, and more rewarding:
Morning Flexibility, Mobility, Dynamic Stretching, and Core Strengthening
The sequence of exercises that I present in the video take about 12 minutes, and I’m on a good streak of daily execution for nearly four years now. What’s happened with my recent transition away from my consistent morning jog is that I continue to add more and more fun stuff to the daily template. At first, it’s extremely important for habit forming to design an initial routine that’s easy and doable, meaning short in duration. Once you build some momentum, you can add to the complexity and degree of difficulty of your routine. Today, I burn up at least 45 minutes with an exact sequence of exercises that I repeat every day. I regularly add, subtract, and modify the sequence, but it’s important to have a repeatable routine that doesn’t require creative energy. This way, you can relax and get into the zone of simply counting out the desired reps of each drill and move on to the next. You’ll see this same dynamic in a flowing yoga class.
I’m not suggesting that you squeeze a 45-minute routine into your already busy mornings, but starting small with a 12-minute session can be a great way to broaden your fitness experience. For me, the lengthy and quite strenuous morning routine has pushed my morning jog into the “optional” category. As mentioned in a previous Mark’s Daily Apple post about the paltry requirement for optimizing aerobic fitness (Dr. O’Keefe’s Goldilocks Zone), shifting from daily jogging to a few per week causes no loss in aerobic conditioning. Furthermore, an ambitious routine of flexibility/mobility drills without break from start to finish is aerobic in nature. I obtain all the cardiovascular benefits of jogging in addition to all the additional flexibility, mobility, core strengthening, and balancing benefits.
Walk – Jog – Jump
We’ll discuss the broad-based benefits of jumping in a future post. Mark says, “Nothing cuts you up like sprinting” due to the profound genetic signaling that occurs from brief, all-out high impact sprinting on flat ground. Any act of jumping falls into the same esteemed category. You are building bone density, improving the resiliency of your muscles and connective tissue, and sending a strong genetic signal to reduce excess body fat. The reason for the latter is the same as with sprinting — the penalty for carrying excess fat is severe when you are trying to get off the ground.
Head out the door for your session on the roads or trails at your aerobic jogging pace. After 10 minutes of warmup, do some jumping drills of your choice. You can simply stand in place and jump up and down off of two feet. Dr. Michael Roizen, co-author with Dr. Oz of the popular You: The Owner’s Manual book series and Chief Wellness Officer at the Cleveland Clinic, recommends jumping up and down 20 times every morning and evening to preserve bone mass in the spine and lower extremities. “Jumping is thought to create an electrical current that stimulates the bone and thickens internal bone mass,” says Roizen.
Options for jumping abound, pun intended. You can get a three-step running start and jump off of one foot like you are going for a slam dunk, land and repeat three times. You can do some explosive skipping, trying to maximize the height of each leap into the air. You can try the bicycle drill as seen at 1:18 in my Advanced Running Drills video. Perhaps you’ll want to try some vertical jumps onto a park bench or retaining wall, jump over a bush or traffic cone, or other appealing challenges along your route.
Remember, your explosive efforts should last between 10-20 seconds and no longer. Review my Peak Performance Without Suffering podcast episode to understand why 10-20 seconds is the sweet spot. After you do your jumping sequence, walk for five times as long as your burst lasted — so that’s between 50 seconds and 1 min, 40 seconds. After you feel fresh and recovered, resume your jogging pace slowly and eventually work back up to your “180 minus age” heart rate. After 1-3 minutes of jogging, initiate another jumping sequence.
Cardio Plus Calisthenics
If your go-to workout is on a cardio machine in the gym, do your thing for 5-10 minutes and then take a quick break for a set of burpees, squats, pullups, mini-bands, TRX moves, or other exercises you’re fond of at the gym. Take your time returning to your cardio exercise, and resume at a very slow pace. Work up to your usual aerobic training pace for a few minutes, then dismount again for different activity.
You’ll completely bypass steady state cardio in this session; you’ll either be walking or jogging very slowly (20-40 beats below your MAF heart rate), or doing a 10-20 second explosive effort. This could be an uphill sprint, a set of stadium or building stairs, or a few kettlebell swings if you are taking laps around the block and returning to your garage every ten minutes.
For those dutiful endurance athletes monitoring training heart rates to stay below MAF, note that the explosive efforts in each of the aforementioned formats will cause your heart rate to exceed aerobic maximum. You’ll hear the beep somewhere between the middle and the end of your burst, and it may take 30-60 seconds for heart rate to return to MAF or below. This is nothing to be concerned about and will not hinder your aerobic development like exercising for sustained periods above MAF at many workouts. Exercise physiologists call the heart rate zone above MAF where you still feel pretty comfortable but are burning more glucose and less fat the “black hole.” This is a no-man’s land where you are sabotaging desired aerobic benefits but not going hard enough for a truly anaerobic effort that can stimulate performance breakthroughs when done occasionally and correctly.
JFW (Just F@$&ing Walk!)
Let’s put in a plug here for trading the occasional jog for a walk. The common fitness edict of, “consistency is key” can easily be misapplied to the extent that the daily and weekly application of exercise stress is not adequately balanced with recovery time and down time. I’d like you to view the “consistency is key” principle over a wider time frame than the typical obsession with delivering a tidy weekly schedule of repeat template workouts (e.g., Sunday long run, Tuesday night track intervals, Thursday spin class, etc.). Realize the body is really good at preserving fitness even with the occasional week or month of drastically reduced training. Popular studies from renowned exercise physiologist Dr. David Costill of the Ball State University Human Performance Lab reveal that extreme tapering delivers outstanding results. One decades-old Costill study of elite swimmers revealed that reducing swimming volume by 67 percent for 15 days delivered a four percent performance increase! A study from McMaster University in Toronto of serious runners averaging 50 miles per week showed the control group that cut volume by 88 percent (six miles a week, but featuring hard intervals) improved performance by 22 percent!
If you are reluctant to embrace any workout that doesn’t introduce discomfort and sweat, realize that a brisk walk still delivers an outstanding aerobic training effect that will support peak performance efforts at all faster speeds. Envision a cruise ship with 12 massive turbine engines. On the open seas with all 12 at full throttle, the mighty ship can hit 25 knots. When cruising into port at two knots, imagine only two engines are running at half power. However, those two engines still make a contribution to the effort when cruising at full speed. You are easily doubling your resting heart rate during a walk recruiting the same aerobic enzymes and muscle fibers to perform that you call upon when you deliver a peak performance effort. For endurance athletes, walking is a low stress way to build and build more fitness without the risk of breakdown and burnout from black hole workout.
Hopefully these suggestions will get your creative juices flowing when you head out the door for future workouts. You can let your imagination run wild here, unleash your childlike spirit, and look for forgotten ways to engage your body with nature for physical challenge. Take inspiration from Nutritious Movement queen Katy Bowman, MS — here’s some people having fun on one of her “Move Your DNA weekends.”