There’s no doubt in my mind. Getting better at fitness has been a big part of my success as a business coach. It’s about an 80:20 approach – the same that I apply to work. We’re all busy so you need a work out what gives the most reward for the least effort.
Learn from my experience. I used to get injured all the time, setting myself unachievable goals and punishing my body in the process. So, I decided to learn from the experts and read some influential books. They changed my entire approach.
Here are my all-time favourites that are well worth a read over Christmas.
This is the first book of its type that got me interested in the science around fitness and health. In it, Tim Ferriss promises to help you reach your true genetic potential in three to six months with a time commitment of fewer than four hours a week. The main takeaway for me was his views on weight-loss. As a direct result of his advice, I lost a couple of stone. And that’s worth an additional ten years of life to a middle-aged man! Nothing else you do can have such a large impact.
It’s a fact that people put on an average of one to two pounds every year after they turn 35 – depressing but true. You won’t lose it through exercise alone. Research in Runner’s World magazine has backed this up. They looked at people running in the Cape Town Marathon and concluded that even high mileage runners put on weight every year and a third of those running the marathon were obese.
The only thing that works for me is a paleo or low carb diet. There’s no real requirement for humans to eat carbs at all. Yes – I love bread but if I want to control my weight, I have to cut it out. As soon as I do, the pounds fall off.
As with everything else in my life, I believe that to get better at something you need a coach. When it comes to fitness, my coach is my 80-year-old self. I work back from where I want to be when I hit 80. At that point in my life, I want to live independently. And how do I achieve that? By increasing my strength and flexibility.
This idea is central to Mark Sisson’s book, ‘The Primal Blueprint’. Mark is a 66-year-old triathlon coach who says that, from age 50, you need to work on flexibility and strength regularly. You can’t wait until you’re 70 and then try and catch up. We lose up to 5% of our muscle mass every decade after turning 30.
Mark examines the lifestyle of our early ancestors and highlights that, if you ignore infant mortality, cavemen lived long, healthy lives. Why? They lifted heavy things. They sprinted to catch food. They moved frequently at a slow pace. These are all things he suggests we should be doing. He outlines a simple set of exercises that help retain muscle mass – press-ups, pull-ups, squats, push-ups and planks. And the great thing about them is you can do them at home.
What about the flexibility part? Well, I do yoga. Yes – really. That often raises eyebrows when I tell people. Somehow, they never had me down as a yogi! But I love it. It keeps me supple and stretches out my tight, runner’s hamstrings like nothing else. The breathing exercises have become an integral part of my life, helping me manage stress and providing a foolproof method to get to sleep, wherever I am.
It’s amazing what you discover about your body and its imbalances when you do yoga postures. Every week, there’s a new revelation around muscle tightness and issues stemming from my old rugby injuries. And I’m fascinated by the fact that my resting heart rate is always at its lowest on the day I’ve done yoga. There’s a lot in this whole mind-body connection thing!
In this follow-up to The Primal Blueprint, Mark Sisson highlights the work of endurance running by Dr Phil Maffetone. This guy has years of experience coaching long-distance runners and came up with a theory that relates to injury prevention (my 80-year-old coach really liked this idea!) He said that most people run in a cardiac dead zone. They puff, pant, sweat profusely and eventually get injured because they’re running anaerobically. When they get tired, they lose their gait and that’s when running gets dangerous.
Instead, Dr Maffetone came up with his own formula which he calls the ‘MAF’ number (short for Maximum Aerobic Function). To work out your MAF number, you subtract your age from 180. This should be your heart rate when you run and you should deliberately stay at this level, adjusting your pace accordingly. Literally running slow to run fast.
This can seem strange at first as you spend a lot of your time walking. But within 6 months, you’ll find you can run at a lower heart rate for much longer, building endurance without the injury. I love that. Whenever I run, I wear my heart strap and keep a close eye on my watch. It’s given me the ability to run 10km three or four times a week and I’ve been injury-free for two years.
This great little book dovetails nicely with my recent advice on forming habits that last. It contains a research-based programme to get the results you want in only 12 minutes a week and it’s all about strengths-based training.
The programme is based on science which really appealed to me. Doug McGuff is an A&E doctor who didn’t have time to go to the gym. He set about trying to discover the minimum amount of effort needed to get the strength results he wanted. It boiled down to five exercises that take 12 minutes to do in total. And you only need to do them once a week. Perfect!
The exercises are a seated row, pull-downs, chest press, shoulder press and leg press – five reps to failure for 90 seconds. The weight is such that you can only do five reps before exhaustion sets in, 85% of your max effort. It’s intense. The aim is to drain your big muscles of glycogen which helps to burn fat. The first time I did it, I nearly vomited. No wonder they only recommend you do it once a week. It took me a full week to recover! However, I was amazed at how quickly I gained strength.
Most importantly, this is all about getting into a rhythm and being consistent (sound familiar? These are my favourite coaching themes!) Everyone can find 20 minutes a week to do a full set of weights. Get into a regular habit and the results will follow.
This is a fantastic book if you’re into running but worried about the physical impact it has on your body. Mark Cucuzella was a runner who wanted to become a triathlete. In the course of his training, he worked on his swimming technique. He realised swimming was all about style and this gave him a new perspective on running. No-one had ever taught him to run so he set about applying the same approach to this.
In the book, he explains the simple mechanics of how our bodies have evolved and adapted to run. Despite our natural ability and our human need to run, each year more than half of all runners suffer injuries. Pain and discouragement inevitably follow. So, Mark outlines some proven, practical techniques to avoid injury. These include running on your toes, not your heels, and leaning forward as if you’re about to fall. He suggests keeping your foot on the ground as long as possible to lengthen your stride, ensuring your feet fall underneath your hips and not in front of you.
Shortly after I’d finished reading this book, I discussed it with a friend at work. The following weekend, he tried it out and ran a PB! For me, it’s made a massive difference to my ability to run. In the old days, I was always pulling a quad or a calf. Sometimes, my knees were agony. That’s all stopped now. I’ve gone from running in cushioned trainers to zero-drop, barefoot running shoes and have remained injury-free for years.
My recipe for fitness is simple really. Watch your weight. Do lots of slow exercise. Sprint once a week. Lift heavy weights. Do yoga. Stay supple. Simple principles that will make a massive difference to your life and longevity. Form the habits in 2020 and make sure you stick at them. Your 80 year-old-self will thank you for it!
Written by business growth coach Dom Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here.
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