Enough #141: "Primal"

This week, I had the privilege of guesting on Patrick Rhone and Myke Hurley’s prestigious audio program, Enough. We talk about the Paleo/Primal lifestyle, barefoot running, and more.

I had a great time recording with Patrick and Myke. They’re both Internet heroes of mine, so being asked to come on the show was a great honor.

It was a really fun conversation, and it’s only about 40 minutes long (unlike certain other podcasts), so I hope you’ll give it a listen.

My sincerest thanks to Patrick and Myke for having me.

Click here to listen to the show!

The QLE Barefoot Primer

Barefoot running is all the rage these days, and since I’m a fan and April is health-nut month, I thought I’d write up some of my knowledge and experiences with the barefoot scene.

Why Barefoot?

Barefooting is popular among the paleo/primal crowd because it’s based on evolution. I’m not a podiatrist, so I won’t get into too much detail, but the short, in-favor argument is that human feet are not meant to be encased in rubber and other synthetic materials. Our ancestors evolved and survived without footwear, and they still managed to hunt down wild beasts and drag the carcasses back to camp.

To me, this perspective makes sense. Our barefoot gait is unnatural when we walk or run with conventional footwear. Specifically, when we run with shoes on, we tend to reach with our foot, landing on the heel before transferring our weight forward onto the ball. This is called heel striking, and it explains why runners often experience knee problems and shin splints.

See this post on MDA for a comparison video of barefoot and shod gaits.

Our body’s natural shock absorbers are not in the heel. Try this: stand up, and lift your toes off the ground, so that you’re balancing on your heels. Now, bounce up and down without letting your toes touch the ground. Super awkward and uncomfortable, right?

Now, lift your heels off the ground instead, and bounce on the balls of your feet. See? Much better.

When you heel strike, the impact of your foot hitting the ground travels up the leg and into the knee. That hurts. When you land on your forefoot first, the impact is absorbed much more efficiently.

See this video from the Natural Running Center for more about the principles and physiology of barefoot running.

Now, yes, you could probably learn to forefoot strike while wearing your latest pair of stylish and expensive Nikes. But, why fight evolution? If the theory of barefoot running makes sense to you, why wear a product that inhibits the habits you want to develop?

Modern footwear works against the natural design of the foot, which makes for less efficient movement.

Bare-footwear: Working Out

Of course, your feet might not be ready for total barefooting. Fortunately, a variety of companies have put out shoes to help simulate a barefoot experience. These shoes usually have a larger-than-normal toe box or individual toe slots, which allow your toes to spread out as nature intended, rather than being cramped together inside a Reebok. They also feature “zero-drop”, which means virtually no arch support. This is also good for your feet, as you rely on your arches for support, rather than allowing your foot muscles to atrophy via the artificial arches provided by modern shoes.

The preeminent brand of barefoot shoes is the Vibram Fivefinger, and they’re what I recommend for barefoot exercise. Vibram is known for their well-made soles, which will protect your feet from rocks, glass, etc. while still allowing you to run barefoot-style. They have a ton of different models, styles, and colors, so you’ll have no trouble finding a pair that suits your particular workout and fashion sense.

If I were to recommend one model of Fivefingers, it would be the KSO. “KSO” stands for “Keep Stuff Out” — hence the closed mesh upper and strap. These are Vibram’s most popular model, and they’re incredibly versatile. You can use them for running, yoga, water sports, and pretty much everything in between. Other Vibram models are designed for more specific activities.

Sizing a pair of Fivefingers can be slightly tricky, as you’ll be measuring your feet in inches rather than relying on a standard sizing system. See Vibram’s website for sizing tips. It’s best to try a pair on in person. I’ve found particular success at REI, although Fivefingers seem to be in the window of all major outdoorsy stores now.

I never liked to run until I bought my KSOs, and now I love it. Running barefoot is very freeing, and it makes the experience much more fun, especially if you can find some good trails. Sprinting is also a great workout.

If you’re self-conscious about wearing “those weird toe shoes”, there are other, subtler options. See Justin Ownings’s great site, Birthday Shoes, for a wide selection of brands, styles, and reviews.

Bare-footwear: Casual Wear

Running around and working out in a pair of Fivefingers is great, but you’re probably not enough of a badass to wear them in public or to the office. Understandable. Fortunately, several companies have put out barefoot shoes that work well for casual use.

I’d been looking for a good pair of casual barefoot shoes for a while, and I finally purchased a pair last month: the Tough Glove by Merrell.

I love these shoes. I’ve owned many different Merrells, but these are my favorite by far. They’re subtle, good-looking, and ultra comfortable. They have a Vibram sole. I can wear them with jeans or dress pants, and they let me avoid weird looks from non-barefooters while still giving my feet all of the barefoot benefits. I ordered mine from Zappos in my regular 10.5, which felt great, but seemed a little long in the toe. I exchanged them for a size 10, and they’re a perfect fit. I never want to take them off.

Getting Started with Going Barefoot

If you’ve been wearing modern footwear all your life (as most of us have), you’re going to need to give your body time to transition to the barefoot way. Runners, you will need to learn how to run barefoot. Specifically, be conscious of your gait. Watch the natural running video to get an idea of what to look for. To some degree, wearing barefoot shoes will naturally change your gait, but you still need to be mindful of it when first starting out until you develop good habits and form.

Speaking of just starting out, take it slow and easy at first. You’re going to be using muscles your legs have probably forgotten about, and you’re going to feel it. Don’t try to do your entire five-mile routine on day one, and don’t be afraid to let your feet rest. Take it slow, learn good form, and build up to longer distances. Once you get into it, you’ll probably never go back.

Barefoot Resources

If you’re interested in barefooting, the above links are great resources. In addition, check out the following:

  1. How to Make the Barefoot Transition | Mark’s Daily Apple
  2. Daniel Lieberman’s Harvard Study on Foot Strike Patterns
  3. Birthday Shoes
  4. Barefoot Ted’s Adventures
  5. Newton Running

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Back On the Primal Path

If you follow me on Twitter, you might be aware that I managed to eat pretty much everything in sight over the holidays. On the one hand, ‘twas the season to indulge, but on the other hand, the increased intake of my culinary vices made me feel lethargic, guilty, and more than a little gross.

I’m pleased — and my body is relieved — to report that I’ve been back on track and eating Primally for five days in a row now.

It feels fantastic.

Still, I’m not here to admonish the act of holiday feasting. On the contrary, my relatively brief foray into the realm of Christmas treats has taught me a few things about keeping a diet in perspective.

First, pigging out for over a week reminded me how much I love my normal Primal Blueprint eating regimen. Don’t get me wrong, holiday food is delicious, but so is eating Primal, and it doesn’t come with the associated bloating and guilt trips. The good news is that stepping off the path for a little while didn’t become a permanent change. In fact, I couldn’t wait to get back to my old healthy habits. That’s how a vacation should feel, and it speaks to the effectiveness of the Primal Blueprint as a sustainable lifestyle.

Second, while I did eat a lot, exercise little, and lose sight of my abdominal muscles over the holidays, the overall results of my week-long binge were… not that bad. Sure, I was a bit squishier than I was before, and my mood was a little low, but it’s not like I suddenly had fifty pounds to lose or had developed some chronic illness. I’m not saying this to condone unhealthy eating or tell you to take a week off whenever you want. Rather, it helps put the average cheat meal in perspective. I survived an entire week of holiday gluttony with pretty minor side effects. That means I should treat a single cheat meal as no big deal, rather than feel guilty about indulging with friends.

The key here, though, is not rationalizing or condoning the unhealthy meal and allowing it to become what’s normal. I would still rather eat Primal, and I will as much as I can. But, if I happen to be in a situation where it’s difficult to do so (if I’m a guest in someone’s home, for instance), I’m not going to sweat it. If I can survive an entire week of holiday eating, one cheat meal for the sake of manners won’t hurt. In the grand scheme of things, it’ll be a tiny misstep. Remember, that doesn’t mean an unhealthy meal every day won’t hurt! It’s just a way of altering your perspective so you feel less bummed out about deviating from your healthy habits. Step off, then step right back on.

Again, my holiday binge reminded me how much I love the Primal Blueprint. My sister is a recent convert, and she agrees that even after just two days back on the path, she feels so much better. I’m not trying to pimp the Primal lifestyle, as I have nothing to gain from doing so. (The gain would be all yours, actually.) These lessons can be applied to whatever diet you’re invested in. Still, if you’re interested in going Primal for the new year, Mark Sisson just put out a new updated and expanded paperback version of The Primal Blueprint. It’s inexpensive and a great way to get started.

One final note about my transition back on the path: I’ve started logging my workouts and meals using the Day One app, which allows you to journal from your iPhone, iPad, or Mac. They all stay in sync via Dropbox, and the app itself is well-designed. Keeping a record of what I do to be healthy each day helps me stay mindful as the new year progresses and the “resolution enthusiasm” wears off. I’m trying to see how many days in a row I can go without a cheat day. Of course, you don’t need an app to make this a habit. Pen and paper works too.

Primal Workouts

I posted earlier this week about Mark Sisson’s new book, The Primal Blueprint 21-Day Total Body Transformation, and reading it has reminded me of one of the many things I love about the Primal lifestyle: simple workouts.

The underlying theme behind the Primal Blueprint’s quick and efficient fitness regimen is that 80% of our body composition is the result of diet, not exercise. It might only take 15 minutes to eat a 1000 calorie cheeseburger from McDonald’s, but you’d have to run for well over an hour to burn most of that off. Thus, killing yourself in the gym to make up for a poor diet is not only inefficient, but exhausting and unsustainable. It’s much easier to eat healthy and exercise less. As Mark says in the book, exercise should be about the movement rather than the calories. It’s about staying young and active, not compensating for ice cream cones.

Primal Blueprint fitness consists of three elements: moving slowly, lifting heavy things, and sprinting once in a while. The majority of exercise takes the form of low intensity activities, like walking or hiking. Two days a week are dedicated to bodyweight exercises, including pushups, pullups, squats, overhead presses, and planks. Finally, once a week or so, you sprint with maximum effort.

The best part of these routines is that they’re quick and enjoyable. Lifting Heavy Things only lasts about 45 minutes, and that’s with a high amount of reps. Sprint workouts only last ten or fifteen minutes. If you’re active most of the time — i.e. not at a desk for eight hours a day — and have a proper diet, little else is necessary.

I’ve tried Insanity and P90X, and while they’re great for a swift kick in the ass, by the end of the program, you’re going to be exhausted and burnt out. Find me someone who completes P90X and then exercises the next day. It’s unsustainable longterm. Overtraining is what causes us to fall out of healthy routines, and being too tired to workout sucks.

That’s why I love the Primal Blueprint. It doesn’t demand an hour of my time six days a week, and it’s much more fun than working out in front of my TV at night. My mood is elevated afterward, and exercise doesn’t become a source of dread. Coupled with the Primal diet, it all just works.

Mark Sisson's New Book

Today, Mark Sisson released his new book, The Primal Blueprint 21-Day Total Body Transformation:

If you are new to the Primal scene, this book is one-stop shopping for all you need to know to enjoy the most life-altering benefits of living Primally within 21 days. If you are currently Primal-aligned and wish that somehow, some way, you could bestow the “secret” onto family or friends who are too reluctant or too busy, this book should definitely do the trick. It’s beautifully designed and illustrated and packed with over 100 color photos and concise section summaries – a page-turner even for the most attention- challenged among us in the digital age.

It’s available in paperback and on the Kindle. I’m almost halfway through it already, and I’m excited to pass it along to others.

Between my thesis, work, the changing season, and everything that’s happened at Apple recently, I’ve been a bit lazy with my Primal living, so I’m looking forward to getting back on the path.

Get Primal!

Today is the first day of Mark Sisson’s annual Primal Blueprint 30-Day Challenge:

So what’s the challenge? To get Primal, of course! I hold this 30-Day Challenge every year to encourage Primal beginners to give this way of eating, moving and living a try because I know it works, I know how empowering it is, and I know it changes lives.

As I mentioned last week, Mark’s Primal Blueprint has been the only health regimen I’ve stuck with for any significant period of time. The 30-day challenge is the perfect opportunity to get started.

Making a big lifestyle change is really difficult, but that’s the great thing about 30 days. It forces you to start right now, and while you’re making a commitment, it doesn’t have to last forever if you decide you don’t like it. Give it a try.