Friday, 6 June 2008

I am NOT the Messiah, naturally!

I am not the Messiah! The title of this blog is purely tongue-in-cheek. I chose a title that would reflect the profound influence that trying to apply 'natural' concepts has had to my life. Let me expand this idea...

...Several years ago I was training hard. I am in to weight dependent sports such as climbing and to a lesser extent, kickboxing (where weight determines the division you fight in). I used to do about three runs a week - each of which lasted up to an hour. In addition I would be in the gym for up to three or four hours a week lifting the iron. On top of all that were three climbing sessions a week. The training was periodised and I would always take care not to over train. I would vary my routines and always looked to use compound exercises and emphasise 'movement'.

My diet was high in wholewheat and wholegrain carbohydrate, with lots of fruit, vegetables and protein. It was also low in fat. I was a vegetarian so I guess the protein was not of optimal quality.


One thing that always puzzled me was why, given the amount of exercise I did and the minimal amount of fat I ate, were my bodyfat levels always around 10%?

This might seem quite lean, but I wanted to see how I could manipulate it (let me just say, I was happy with my physique at the time, I just like to experiment). So, I upped my running and really cut back on the fat.

The results were that any gains would be short-lived and I would quickly feel run down. Out of curiosity I persisted with tweaks to my diet - particularly fat levels and caloric consumption - and with the exercise volume and intensity. It was a struggle and I started to have issues with fatigue and hunger.

It was then that I came across the concept of how would someone survive on a desert island. I put a lot of thought in to what they would eat and how they would move. This idea fascinated me. It was a massive and immediate revelation; utterly compelling in its simplicity, and lead to me looking in to hunter-gatherer concepts and the whole paleo-diet philosophy.


I had heard of the Atkins Diet and had always been dismissive of it as it challenged conventional dietary advice and I had developed an athletic physique from following this conventional dietary advice. I could see how Atkins was built upon the paleo-diet idea - so it occurred to me that maybe it wasn't to be dismissed.

After 10 years of vegetarianism (three of which were as a vegan), I headed off to get some lamb chops from the local store. I wanted to experiment!

I felt awkward eating that first meal. It was odd not eating refined carbohydrates. A meal did not seem complete without rice, pasta, potatoes or bread. Eating lots of red meat and fat seemed to go against everything I knew. After a few days of 'adjustment' however, I settled in to my new eating pattern.

After a week I really noticed an improvement in muscle definition, particularly in my abs. I quickly dropped a few jean-sizes. By week two my shoulders and upper arms were much more defined.

As a vegetarian I used to get a lot of hunger shakes. Cooking the evening meal, I would be chomping on toast and fruit. Within the two weeks, these shakes had disappeared. I had a greater control over my appetite. There was no going back.

Action Stations

I was still consumed by the idea of paleo-movement, and by the end of week two I decided to adopt shorter and more intense exercise sessions. I was always a fan of basic lifts and often implemented sprints.

An interest in climbing meant that I conscientiously developed a thorough upper body workout in the gym that strengthened traps, lats, pecs, delts, rotator cuff, you name it....but there was a bit of an iron-head in me that demanded that I use a lot of isolation exercises (like crunches and curls), to make sure EVERY muscle was hit over the course of a week.

My thoughts on paleo-movement and the success of a paleo-diet gave me the confidence to let go of this way of thinking. I rejected the curls and crunches. Sure I would keep the heavy lifts and sprints, but now I would throw in more diverse playful activity - handstands, hand walking, jumps, pistols. Bodyweight exercise seemed largely the way to go.

I got some gymnastic rings which, in addition to my climbing, would really work out my upper body in multi-planar movement over a full range of motion. (Yeah, yeah. I know that Paleolithic man didn't use rings, but I wanted to emulate his likely range of motion when doing something like throwing a spear).

Paleolithic man would have exercised as a matter of survival. His exercise would have been diverse, adventurous and intense. The narcissistic, uninspiring and sterile world of the gym suddenly lost its grip on me. Climbing always gave me adventure and heart-stopping moments, but now my other strength and fitness sessions did the same. I might work out with logs in the local woods. Carrying a loaded back pack around. Jumping on to, and then running along fallen trees. I just started to really mix things up. I was motivated and inspired.

The handstands were a real revelation. Hand walking seems to have really strengthened up my shoulders. I can walk on my hands for over a minute (I am now tinkering with the idea of a hand-walk obstacle course), and am working towards static handstands of 20 seconds. This is nothing to a gymnast, but to an armchair athlete like me - this is serious progress.

My Conclusion

I don't think I am particularly vain but clearly look at my physique in the mirror on occasion! One thing I have noticed is that I maintain my leaness and muscle mass for longer during breaks from exercise. I feel that in general, I am in great shape.

I was clearing out some files on my work PC and noticed a spreadsheet of by sick absence from work. I averaged about two sick days a year. Since eating and exercising the 'paleo way' I have NEVER had a day off sick. We are talking several years here of excellent health. I recall that 'pre-paleo' I used to regularly get colds. They were seldom bad, but I got them nevertheless. Not anr more! My previous training regimes or particularly my vegetarian diet may have caused this so simply adding meat to my diet might have been beneficial.

I never worry about my fat levels - they are lower than they were and it is effortless to maintain it. I respond to my hunger. As long as I follow my dietary principles I outline below ("If you can eat it raw you can eat it"), I eat what I want without worrying about fat of calories. Physically I feel great. Workouts are attractive propositions as they offer fun and adventure.

I must add that my eldest child is also a massive inspiration on my training. We play on her climbing frame using plenty of static holds (isometrics are perhaps not strictly 'paleo'), balancing tricks and jumping. We finish laughing and exhausted.

This is how a work out should feel. This is how eating should feel. This is how life should feel.

No comments: