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The ultimate training protocol
Life IS the preparation for the 50-mile march. The 50-mile march is preparation for life.
A friend recently asked how I was training for the upcoming 50-mile march. He was thinking of beginning a long-distance walking program that would gradually increase until he was doing 15 and 20 miles hikes once a week.
I advised him against this course of action. Even though distance walking is one of the safest and most effective forms of physical activity (if done with proper form and footwear), it can still take a toll if it becomes too chronic.
The best form of exercise is not performed in a gym, wearing polyester athletic gear, but in the real world. This has been my ethos in developing the natural outdoor workout, but even more in the mentality I try to carry with me the other 165 hours of the week when I’m not getting ridiculously fit with my tribe at a nearby park.
Outside of the 50-mile march, I can only count two or three times when I walked more than 15 miles in a day. And yet I didn’t have difficulty tripling my previous walking “PR” on my first attempt.
I read about a woman who literally walked all the way around the world. It took her 10 years. And when she finished she had X-rays done. The doctor had to inform her that she had the skeleton of an 80-year-old woman. Don’t be like her.
Instead of chronic long-distance walking, my training recommendations revolve around three pillars:
Bulletproofing the body
Let’s take them one at a time.
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Simply, metabolic flexibility is your body’s ability to switch between different kinds of fuel – namely, carbohydrates and fat. Protein is more of a building block, and therefore is the worst of the three macronutrients in terms of providing the substrate for human movement.
Carbs and fat both have things going for them as fuel sources. Glucose, or sugar, is most readily converted into ATP, with the least energy and resources used in the process. This is why you see marathon runners chugging Gatorade and literal packets of pure glucose like Gu energy gels, and carb loading before the race.
This is not my approach to the 50-mile march.
I prefer to remain primarily in fat-burning mode – relying on my body’s own accumulated resources in the liver and adipose tissue.
Once you unlock the cheat code of being fat-adapted – i.e., able to burn your own fat readily, like the flip of a switch – you are freed from the yoke of constant refeeding. Endurance athletes are discovering the advantages of training in a fasted or ketogenic state, relying on fat and/or body fat, and only using glucose as a supercharger during competitive races.
I do the same thing with the 50-mile march. Besides maybe a can of sardines with seaweed snacks, I try to go as far as I can on my bodyfat alone. However, I have been known to stop for donuts in the last 5 miles when the body is on the verge of quitting.
I first encountered the term “MetCon” at a Crossfit gym in Washington DC around 2015. I’m sure the idea has been around much longer, but the basic format for increasing your body’s ability to produce work (i.e.., physical output) is a high-intensity interval training circuit. You give yourself just enough time to recover between bursts of anaerobic activity to train your respiratory, cardiovascular, and mitochondrial systems to meet the burdens being placed on them. This lowers your overall resting heart rate, and makes it easier to perform all kinds of activities without getting winded or needing to take a break.
There is a myth that you have to train long-distance to increase your endurance. But, in fact, HIIT-style workouts and even short heavy lifting workouts prepare the muscles for the demands of long-term strain too.
Once you achieve a baseline level of fitness at the more intense end of the spectrum, all physical activity below that threshold becomes much easier. Walking fast - even 3.5 or 4 mph - is no big deal.
Bulletproofing body parts
The knees, hips, ankles, and feet are the primary force-absorbing body parts that will take a beating over the course of a long march. If you haven’t prepared them for the stresses of a 50-mile march, you will not finish.
But rather than force the adaptation through a brutal regimen of distance jogging/running/walking, I recommend a more selective and focused approach.
Beginning with the feet, you can start by doing more barefoot walking and running. Short distances. Go gradually and don’t exceed your safe hormetic zone. Over time, you will develop naturally stronger arches and musculature, along with stronger joints and tendons.
For the ankles, doing weighted one-legged calf raises (a la Knees Over Toes guy) is a great way to load your Achilles tendon and force an adaptation that will make it bulletproof. Speaking of Knees Over Toes, the backwards walking and sled work seems to be an excellent way to strengthen the muscles that support the knees.
For hips, all kinds of mobility work that blends stretching and resistance training will give you a stronger pelvic and help your lower body move the weight of your upper body over long distances. Any kind of standing up – perhaps at a standing desk – will also strengthen your hips’ load-bearing capacity. Just make sure that you take small movement snacks and don’t stay in one position for too long. Mind your posture, and try shifting weight from side to side, and from the heels to the balls of the feet.
I’ve developed much of my standing and postural strength from long sailing trips, where I have to stay standing up at the helm and occasionally pull on the sheets (the lines that control the sails) in intermittent bursts. I’m convinced that this is one of the best “exercises” I’ve done over the years – strengthening my core (especially transverse abdominus), my back, my calfs, hips, knees, ankles and feet.
With the exception of High Intensity Interval Training a few times a week, plus weekly natural movement workouts, I dedicate very little time to explicit exercise. Instead, I try to weave or “stack” movement into my day naturally. I bike or walk instead of driving.
I spend time on and in the water reconnecting to my body and the elements.
I turn cleaning the house or working on the boat into an opportunity to practice mindful movement.
Moving efficiently in these real-world contexts gets the job done faster and works out smaller muscle groups that are usually neglected in the gym.
Sometimes I bite off more than I can chew.
This past summer I organized an “Island” at the floating Ephemerisle festival, and had to coordinate the coming-and-going of dozens of temporary residents, while simultaneously trying to build an interconnected set of hexagonal rafts. It was a hellish week, fraught with unforeseen obstacles and sleepless nights. I ended up having to finish building and launch the platforms from a rocky breakwater. I ferried countless boatloads of people from shore to the platform, not to mention the day-long sail up to the Delta. At the end of the week I was beyond tired. But I also knew that after a few days of 12-hour slumbers, I would have a brand-new reservoir of strength and energy to draw on in the future. And now I do.
Finding these physical challenges and leaning into them is the only way to build a certain kind of grit. I wouldn’t ever push myself that hard if it weren’t tied to some kind of concrete objective. Our ancestors – even recent ones – faced these kinds of challenges frequently. Today they are much more rare. The rewards, however, are great. Not only can you achieve something in the real world, but you can build your body into a functional machine for getting s#*% done in the future.
In short, the ultimate training protocol is not a trademark fitness modality with a name like BodyRok or Iron Man. It’s a blend of daily practices that compound to create an organism capable of rising to myriad challenges of life.
The 50-mile march is an extension of this training protocol. Real life becomes the training for the march, and the march becomes training for real life.