What I Learned From The Fittest Man in the World (Cross Training Works!)

Ever since I had Lady Bug, who is coming up on her second birthday, every time I took one step forward with my running, I took two steps back. It’s been beyond frustrating. I still want to qualify for and run the Boston Marathon someday, and I am not giving up on that.  But right now, I’d be thrilled if I could even run three miles without pain. I’ve had a really hard time staying motivated without an event on the calendar. I’ve been doing a lot of cross training, although it feels a bit ridiculous to say that when I don’t even have something in mind that I’m training for. I’ve been attending bar class at the Dailey Method about twice a week (and I just started streaming classes, which I will tell you all about soon), I’ve been towing the girls around town by bike, running a little, teaching and taking spin classes, and hopping on the Stair Master or the elliptical. I break a sweat about 5-6 times a week. But without a specific time to nail or a distance to endure, I choose snooze instead of an early workout whenever there is a choice to be made. My workouts lack focus. I am motivated to finish one more episode of Parenthood on the elliptical, not to work at my lactate threshold. Can you say uninspired?

And then I found out Dan King was giving a free talk here in Boulder and I went and my whole attitude changed.

And if you don’t know who Dan King is, that’s ok. I’d never heard of him before I saw the blurb about the event in the Daily Camera. He’s arguably one of the fittest men over 50 in the world. He won the US Master’s Track and Field age 55-59 championship last year with a 10K time of 35:31. He also won the 5,000-meter bronze at the 2015 World Masters Track and Field Championships in Lyon, France.

And he runs an average of eight miles a week. Not eight-zero. EIGHT. How does that even make sense!? I had to know, which is why I went to hear him reveal his secrets at  Flatirons Running Inc., a gem of a local running store just a short bike ride from my neighborhood. In short, just when King was ready to take his running to the next level, during his collegiate career at the University of Colorado, a nasty case of plantar fasciitis put a wrench in his plans. And though his body would no longer tolerate the punishing high mileage schedule most of his competitors were on, he did not give up. With more than enough drive, creativity and talent to compensate for his beat up foot, the CEO, husband, and father figured out how he could cross train his way to the top.

What I Learned From The Fittest Man in the World (Cross Training Works!)

My major takeaways from King’s talk:
-In the nine months prior to winning in Lyon, he ran a total of 140 miles. According to King, his closest competitor logged 1400 miles of running during that same time period. Both men ate a plant-based diet. King extolled the virtues of his vegan lifestyle. I don’t know whether the other guy was a vegan or a vegetarian.

-The overwhelming majority of King’s training was done on the bike. If my memory serves me, he said during the nine month period training cycle leading up to the event, he biked 1400 miles, did 340-ish miles worth of training on the elliptical, swam 59 miles, and did a small amount of cross-country skiing and snow shoeing as well. He said he does a Seven Minute Workout app every night with his daughter (how sweet is that?), which includes squats and pushups. I am assuming he does this one but I don’t know for sure.

-The overwhelming majority of King’s training leading up to the world championship was performed in the aerobic, or easy zone. A small portion was done in the lactate threshold zone (90% of max heart rate), and an even smaller portion in the VO2 max zone (95-100% max heart rate). He uses a heart rate monitor religiously.

-He developed his training plan based largely on Jack Daniels’ work, including principles of heart rate training and periodization, along with his own experience. He tends to train alone and coach himself because of his commute (lives in Boulder, works in Denver) and his work schedule, although he mentioned he would probably enlist the help of a coach as he attacks his next big goal: to break five minutes in the mile at age 60. He said right now he can run a mile in 4:57 (don’t quote me on that!  I could be off by a second or two) however he feels that it will be a challenge to maintain his speed as he continues to age.

-He recommends training at low intensity in a glycogen-depleted state in order to train the body to metabolize fat for fuel. In other words, it’s optimal to do an easy workout first thing before breakfast, then eat immediately once the workout is completed. I’d heard and read this before, but it sounded different coming directly from Dan King’s mouth to my ears. I tried it the next chance I got. I swam on an empty stomach, came home, and with Dan’s help, got myself and our kids out the door, sat with them in a restaurant and sipped on a cocktail while we waited for our brunch. No one yelled or cried while waiting to be fed, not even me!

-His typical cross training session during the week is an hour. On the weekends, he might bike up to four hours.

-He does not enjoy elliptical training, but he tolerates it and thinks of it as an opportunity to listen to a TED talk. He likes biking. He loves running. He does so much of the stuff he likes or just tolerates because it allows him to win when he does run, and he is a self-proclaimed dopamine junkie. Dopamine is the happy hormone that’s released in your brain when you win, apparently. Not to be confused with endorphins, which are a natural consequence of any cardiovascular workout, known in common parlance as “runner’s high.”

-According to King, one the many benefits of cross-training is that it gives the body an opportunity to develop the metabolic capacity of a variety of muscle groups; not just the ones you use when you run. So while a typical runner who spends 95% of her time running has developed her running muscles’ efficiency, the person who cross trains has the opportunity to maximize the efficiency of a variety of muscles throughout the body. When you’re in the final leg of a race and you’re dying and you’re muscles are screaming at you to just please stop, it’s all your muscles, not just the ones responsible for the act of running, that help clear the toxic crap out of your muscles, and those toxins are what create all that pain.

And that last one was probably my favorite part of the whole talk, even though it’s the hardest one for me to articulate. But this one nugget made me go, “Everything counts. Anything counts.” Which actually, was also my favorite true-ism of Gretchen Rubin’s fabulous book on the power of habits “Better Than Before.” In other words, everything I do- the easy 1500 yd swim, the bike ride to preschool, the lackluster 40 minutes on the elliptical… It all matters. It’s not running, but it all matters when I do finally get back to running consistently. Sure, I exercise because I enjoy it for it’s own sake, but I am competitive, I am goal-oriented, and I like things to “count” which is why this resonated so deeply with me.

-King’s attitude counts for a lot. Where most people would be like “Too bad, I have plantar fasciitis, I guess I can’t run anymore,” King found a way around it. He turns his commute to Denver into an opportunity to bike whenever he can. He uses the elliptical in his office during his lunch break because the movement mimics running, despite the boredom it provokes. He turns the seven minutes he spends each night doing his Seven Minute Workout app into an opportunity to spend time with his kid.

-King is passionate about learning about running, figuring out how he can make what he knows work for him. He loves the sport so much, he showed up at the local running store with a fantastic talk, great power point slides, and a desire to share what he discovered on his journey with the community, for free. I can’t help but think that his generous, geeky spirit has something to do with his incredible athletic performance.


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