Over the years of reading this column you may have noticed I’m a bit obsessed with the link between mind and body. It’s something I got interested in at university where my days were filled with training both mind and body.
As I grow older, I still find myself searching for the perfect balance between the two. I will probably never find it, but it’s a pursuit well worth the chase. It’s all about learning new things and improving yourself (most of the time) while you’re at it.
One of my favourite combinations is to train the mind by reading a book, which provides ideas on how to train the body.
That’s why I was happy to come across Christopher McDougall’s newest book Natural Born Heroes: Mastering the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance (Profile Books, 2015). I had read his first book Born To Run (Vintage, 2011), a classic on barefoot and trail running. It got many of us off the treadmill and into the woods and onto trails.
McDougall’s newest book is actually about the Nazi invasion of Crete during the Second World War. Or more specifically, it’s about Winston Churchill’s ‘dirty tricksters,’ a group of English poets and academics who helped to resist the invasion.
Historians will likely find the storyline fascinating. But the book is also about exercise and nutrition, and how the resistance survived in difficult conditions against a superior army. The approach is all about natural movement and replacing calories with stored body fat.
His thesis is simple: we should skip gym membership for cross-training and freerunning while at the same time getting most of our energy from fats and proteins as opposed to carbohydrates.
At the gym we don’t train for natural survival skills, he points out. We often pump iron to look good, whereas the real reason for training should be about feeling good and surviving. Natural training is more about speed, endurance, and agility, not looks.
The other point is to use fat as fuel, as the resistance movement in Crete did. In order to do that you need to do two things: cut out sugar and train at a low heart rate. We store a relatively small amount of carbs in our bodies compared to a relatively unlimited supply of fat. So teach yourself to burn fat instead of sugar and you will be a better endurance athlete.
Now before you kick off your shoes, quit the gym, and start eating only bacon, just remember Aristotle’s words of wisdom: “Nothing in excess, except moderation.”
I find a lot of McDougall’s ideas as interesting as his storytelling, but I would caution against going full on with his recommendations. That’s why I will still keep my gym membership and eat carbs, while enjoying a new form of natural movement at the same time.