One thing I’m not a fan of is people who won’t admit when they’ve got something wrong. Everyone gets things wrong: that’s inevitable. Not admitting it suggests that either:
a) You’re being deliberately sparse with the truth to protect your reputation, fanbase, or whatever.
b) You’re not that ambitious about expanding your knowledge base, so you don’t actually realise that you’re getting things wrong.
The second one is probably worse.
So, here’s a list of things I now think I was wrong about, alongside what I now think. Who knows? Maybe I’m wrong – or maybe I just haven’t got everything quite right. But here’s a promise – if I find out that’s the case, I’ll fucking tell you.
Long slow distance efforts are worthless
For a while I jumped on board with the intensity-solves-everything crowd, assuming that anybody who ran at a conversational pace was wasting their time and that trying to get a new PB every time I laced up my running shoes was the best way to train. I ignored the fact that boxers have been doing LSD for years and have phenomenal cardio because of it, and somehow convinced myself that they’d be ‘fitter’ for purpose if they did nothing but short, intense intervals that mimicked the demands of a bout. I did a marathon, training with short sprint workouts but also 5ks and longer runs – up to 18 miles – all done fast. I did not, however, do as much mileage as a traditional marathoner. I wrecked my knee (judo accident) three weeks before the race, which ruined my time – but the real payback for my lack of distance was the fact that I could barely walk for a week afterwards.
What I think now
Based on following a lot of Gym Jones programming and reading a lot of Alex Viada, I’m fairly convinced that you need an aerobic foundation just as much as a strength one. To quote GJ: ‘Lack of cardio-respiratory fitness contributes to muscular fatigue – the better one’s aerobic fitness the faster and deep the recovery, within the effort of afterward.’ Even creatine replenishment is oxygen dependent, so there’s an argument that a solid base of aerobic capacity will make you better at, say, Olympic lifting. Besides: long runs or rows also get blood to your muscles, let you work technique and pacing, and can be a nice meditative way to spend an hour or so. There’s a reason Nick Diaz has some of the best cardio in MMA – it’s because he does triathlons on his days off. I run a lot these days.
Paleo is the best diet for everyone
Yes, this one. At the risk of sounding like a paleo hipster, I was into paleo about five years ago, when Crossfit people were jumping ship from the Zone diet in droves. I spent a few months not eating bread or white potatoes, semi-convinced by the logic that whatever cavemen did must be a sensible option. I also had some very, very shitty workouts.
What I think now
Firstly: the ‘logic’ that we’ve evolved to eat certain foods isn’t as watertight as it seems. As this video argues pretty convincingly, blueberries and broccoli have been selectively bred to the point that they’d be unrecognisable to a caveman, so that they’re much sweeter and bigger. Secondly, there’s no such thing as a ‘best’ diet for anyone – it’s fairly well understood, for instance, that different populations have different food intolerances. Remember Chris Rock’s ‘You think anyone in Rwanda’s got a fuckin’ lactose intolerance?’ Actually, lactose intolerance is fairly common in Rwanda, apart from among certain tribes – some evolutionary scientists argue that lactose intolerance is the norm, and that the ability to digest (and thrive on) milk evolved as a mutation – and obviously, it would be more beneficial in populations with a lot of dairy farming than elsewhere. Meanwhile, Nate Miyaki makes a pretty convincing argument that Asian populations are better-adapted to grains – specifically rice – than other ones, for similar reasons. Nate and Precision Nutrition are also very persuasive in their arguments that hard-training individuals can (and should) eat more carbs than a paleo diet really allows. Paleo advocates have jumped on board with this to some extent, arguing themselves into circles to suggest that white potatoes are somehow ‘allowed.’ But this is thinking about it the wrong way – you don’t need to retroactively justify something being ‘right’ based off starting principles that are wrong, you just need to figure out what works and do it. What works? If you do minimal or no exercise, eating paleo-style has the best chance of keeping you healthy and lean. If you work out, eat some goddamn potatoes.
Workouts should last under an hour
Ah, yes. For years, bro-scientists have been saying this on the basis that testosterone production peaks after 45 minutes and that cortisol – stress hormone – production kicks into gear not long afterwards. Keep it short and hard, they say – there’s no point in being in the gym for over an hour. Anyone who could – like every single Mr Olympia competitor from the 1980s – the bro-scientists argue, is on steroids and therefore not comparable to ‘normal’ people. This, of course, is a pleasing idea because it allows you be lazy.
What I think now
Well, it’s bullshit, obviously. For starters, what are you supposed to do if you need to train for something that lasts longer than an hour, like running from Marathon to Athens and back in full body-armour and then fighting in a massive pitched battle (which is actually what Pheidippides did, he didn’t just sprint 26 miles in a loincloth), or climbing a mountain, or escaping through 40 miles of hostile terrain? Secondly, people have been training for hours at a time since before steroids were even discovered – Eugen Sandow and the Saxon Trio did it, and so did Paul Anderson, whose idea of a fun afternoon was to load up a pair of bars with a staggering amount of weight, than whack a golf ball between them, taking a little stroll between sets. For hours. Finally, research now suggests that the exercise-induced testosterone spike has little to do with muscle and strength gains, and that it doesn’t happen after 45 minutes anyway. There’s more to the science than that, of course, but the fact remains – if you want to get in shape to defend the pass at Thermopylae, you can’t point to your phone 45 minutes in and go ‘Sorry Leonidas, anything after this is counter-productive.’
So there you go: I get a lot wrong. This is just scratching the surface. But I’m trying to learn, and when I’m wrong again I’ll let you know.
HOMEWORK: Pick a belief you hold quite deeply – it can be about training, or anything else – and do some googling to see if it stands up to scrutiny. You may want to put it up on reddit’s Change My View, just to see what happens. Oh, and watch that Chris Rock routine. Because he’s wrong about lactose intolerance, but he gets a lot of things right.