Mission Improbable: How I Ran a Marathon Without Training

Many of my friends back in my hometown of Winnipeg just participated in the Manitoba Marathon. Seeing their months of training, hundreds of miles logged, and many an iTunes playlist completed, finally pay off on the big day made me smile and reflect upon my first marathon, which was similar in almost every respect.

Except this one: I didn’t train for it.

Backstory

In February 2009, I was in the midst of my 3rd year of university, studying jazz guitar. Since that meant I was spending most of my time sitting on my ass, I thought it would be good to do some running at the gym during my free time.

Wow did that go badly. It was less than a month before I developed horrible shin splints and had to stop. As you probably know by now, I’m one who usually pushes through pain – hence my horrible tendonitis following my guitar career – so my stopping was no laughing matter.

My farthest run at that time: 3 miles (4.8km).

Fast forward to August. One day I wake up and decide, “I’m going to run a half marathon today.” I inform my parents of this, plot out my route on Google Maps, and head out.

At the end of my route I realize that – woah – I’m halfway to completing a marathon. And I know I can run half a marathon since I just did it. Putting two and two together, I decide that I may as well complete the full marathon, since I’ll probably never run such a distance again (I’m much more of a sprinter and think “low and slow” running is a counter-productive, excessive behavior).

So, passing by my house for some chocolate milk and bagels – just to arrogantly thumb my nose at more conventional training wisdom, I set off again.

The second half was much more arduous, as my body started to tell me that this wasn’t fun anymore, and there was a whole world of John Coltrane to explore if I’d just go home.

But no – at this point I really wanted the fame and prestige that comes with completing a fairly common task (0.5% of the American population has run one) with no practice. The merit badge would be mine!

When I hobbled pathetically across the finish line, I raised my arms in triumph, much to the confusion of my neighbors, who must have figured they were watching some poor injured bloke making friends with the end of his driveway.

So, the feat was done. But the real ordeal was that night. Sleep would not come easily. Barely able to move, with every muscle locked up tighter than a CEO’s funds in an offshore bank account, I had to hobble to the washroom every hour to pee, and then drink several large glasses of water because I just couldn’t rehydrate.

But two days later I was fine. Running, jumping, and eating cake like normal.

So I might say that my marathon took 2 days of training. One to run it, and another to recover from it.

For someone that has no interest in distance running, that’s some damn fine ROI. 12 or 16 week training programs? No thank you.
So the big question is: How did I do it.

How I Ran a Marathon With No Training

Let me start by saying that I’ve always been in decent shape. I haven’t exercised as much as I want to as an adult, but I’ve always managed to maintain a sub-10% body fat level and a decent capacity to generate power (just ask my 3x body-weight leg press of 400lbs).
And I’m not kidding when I said no training. I didn’t run, lift weights, play rec sports, or anything. I did some light walking occasionally as a break from 12-hour guitar sessions (incidentally, enough time to complete several real marathons!).

Then what the hell did I do?

I focused on the one thing that almost no runners ever bother to: Body mechanics.

According to Brian Mackenzie’s book “Power, Speed, Endurance,” something like 80% of runners have sustained a serious running injury. And all running injuries are avoidable. Most people don’t know how to use their bodies. And I’m allowed to say this with venom as I was the poster child for this – having lost my voice for 2.5 years because of shitty body mechanics.

But when it came to running a marathon, I nailed it.

I figured that, with my shin splints, there was no way I was going to slowly slowly work my way up to the training distances “necessary” to complete a marathon – my body would give out. My only chance was to do it in one shot. So from the start, I had to think differently than most would-be marathoners ever would.

So, what is the main reason marathoners don’t finish a marathon?

Eventually, their muscles aren’t able to generate enough force to keep going. There’s a bunch of heavy biological stuff in here about sodium pumps and what have you – point being eventually you get that jelly feeling in your legs and they quit.

In order to avoid this, I focused on eliminating as much impact force as possible from my stride.

That was the entire plan. Things like nutrition are important, but diet tweaks will only get us so far (like from mile 3 to mile 4, maybe). Minimizing impact forces took me from a 3 mile, shin splint experiencing disaster, to – half a year later – a marathon completer.

So it’s time for a crash course in Force Manipulation 101

Step One: Reduce Your Body Mass.

I had/have an unfair advantage in this category as my body mass has always been low, but with a high percentage of muscle. This makes it relatively for me to fling it in all sorts of directions without tiring.

The average American is between 10-20 pounds overweight, meaning every time such an individual makes a stride, they’re needing to use more force to support their body and their muscles tire faster.

Want to improve your distance running? Lose the extra weight. Running to lose weight? Stop immediately and change what you eat. Cardio-based exercise is an ineffective weight loss plan – sorry.

Step Two: Forefoot Strike/Barefoot Technique.

I was not a barefoot runner at this point, but if I had been my results probably would have been even better. Striking the ground with the front of our feet requires only 1/7th of the force of a heel strike, according to the fine researchers over at Harvard.

I think of this as immediately increasing your max distance by a factor of 7. It’s not at all true, but it is that important. (Well, maybe it’s a bit true, I increased my max distance 9x)

Never barefooted? Here’s how to get started courtesy of Mark’s Daily apple: LINK

Note that you don’t actually have to run your marathon this way – I didn’t. I just took the mechanical principles of barefooting and applied it to my own running. You can do the same.

Step Three: Your Optimizing Stride Rate.

I remember watching the marathon runners at the Olympics and counting how many times their feet hit the ground each second. Yes – I was really that curious. It turns out that the best distance runners in the world take 180 steps each minute. This is the pace that minimizes our time spent on the ground (overcoming friction and other nasty momentum killers) and maximizes our energy efficiency.

Run with music? Either find a bunch of drum and bass tracks at 180bpm or get yourself a metronome. 180 is your new favorite number.

Step Four: Use Gravity

Tim Ferris has a nice chapter in The 4-Hour Body that discusses this. Basically, most of us, when we walk or run, are fighting gravity. We stick out our front leg, landing on the heel, then try to pull the rest of our body to this new spot. This is insanely inefficient.
To discover a new way of moving stand up, feet together. Now lean forward until you start to fall. At this point, do whatever comes naturally.

See what happened? One of your legs caught you before your face smashed into the fridge – I hope.

This is a much more efficient mode of movement. Catching ourselves on one side, then the other, and suddenly we’re running. Also note, that when we catch ourselves, our extended leg should actually be directly below our torso, not extended forward. This is acheiving the ultimate efficiency in motion.

It feels funny at first and takes some time to get used to, but the economy of movement and the reduction of impact force is worth it.
And that’s it. Those 4 things are the totality of the things I did to go from 3 miles to 27 miles (yes, I went over the 26.2), without running a single step in between.

If I could add anything it would be this: listen to your body! There are 2 types of pain. One type is the kind you push through to develop yourself. The other kind is warning of imminent injury. Pushing through that isn’t macho, brave, or noble. It’s stupid. During my run I often stopped and stretched. Why? Because I wasn’t competing with anyone except myself. I had nothing I felt I had to prove.

And secondly, if you want to improve your running by doing some training that isn’t repetitive, high-impact obsessiveness every day, do some squats, leg presses, and/or deadlifts and really make your legs powerful. It will make propelling your body that much easier when you hit the pavement.

Finally, I’d like to offer you this piece of advice: Don’t do it! I’m all for showing people how to think differently and challenge expectations, but some things are just stupid and don’t need to be repeated. The first marathon runner died, remember?

And there can be a lot of other negative effects that you don’t want to experience.

But I know that most people who want to run a marathon won’t be dissuaded by things like “statistics” and “facts” – and that’s okay. That’s why I’m here to show you how, if you must do it, you can at least do it as effectively as possible.

Well, minus the training part. I don’t do that. Fortunately, there are plenty of others who do.
See you at the finish line!

A Simple Reminder For When Things Get Crazy

Lately I’ve noticed a lot of tension in my life. Transitioning from a traveling lifestyle to a stationary one, looking for work in a foreign country, trying to learn the language, getting my visas in order, all the while building a relationship, this website, and taking care of my other needs and projects.

Probably similar to you – though the specifics may differ, I bet we’re in similar boats in terms of business and the need to get a lot done – fast.

And that can be stressful,  especially if we remain in this state for too long. For bursts of insanity – or excess – in moderation are healthy, and in fact normal. Our lives follow cycles of activity and rest. But these periods of intensity, stress, hard work, or whatever it is have to be punctuated with times of slow, elegant ease, or we’ll drive ourselves nuts.

Recently I’ve been close to falling in a huge vat of nuts. The pressure has been intense, and I feel frantic.

Which is why I’d like to share this message, first of all with myself – and with you as well.

Relax.

Go slowly.

Breathe.

Rest.

Decompress.

Listen to music.

Take a walk.

Watch the sunset.

Lower the intensity.

Lower the pace.

And increase the experience of every moment.

For me, just taking 5 minutes to breathe in front of the mirror can be enough to refresh myself and reframe the challenges we face from day to day.

Taking 10-15 minutes to read my favorite webcomics, watch a funny video, or do something else that makes me laugh reminds me that life can be easy and fun, even in the midst of very seriously, businesslike affairs.

Everything is going to be just fine. Just when the intensity and the pace are highest are when it’s most important to relax and slow down. By returning our minds to a place of tranquility, we can empower ourselves to move quickly – and without the tension.

It’s like a sprinter. In order to accelerate to top speed, a sprinter doesn’t increase the tension as they gain momentum – they actually relax.

Life is like this. As the intensity mounts, if we relax into it we become capable of managing it instead of controlled by it.

So take this time and give yourself this gift. It only takes a minute. And it makes everything feel so much better.

A simple reminder for our complex world.

Simple Language Hack to Learn Vocabulary 3 Times Faster

“I know this word, I know it. объяснять. It means…it means…to explain! That’s it – ‘to explain’.”

Sometimes I got it, sometimes I didn’t.

The frustrating thing is I always recognized the word – as well as many others – but I often couldn’t recall what the darn things meant.

The inability to recall what a foreign word is, for most language learners, one of the most challenging aspects of achieving fluency.

Recognition is easy. Go through a pile of flashcards or a vocabulary list for a couple hours and we can recognize 100s of words.

But functionally, this skill is meaningless. Without recall, recognition is useless.

Which is exactly the problem with most approaches to vocabulary acquisition.

If you have a language textbook, check the order of words. Chances are they give the word or phrase in the target language and THEN translate it into your native one. The same goes for your vocabulary lists or flashcards.

This is training for recognition, not recall. Why? Because as a new language learner we can’t help but translate from our native tongue to our target one when we’re trying to write or speak. Not the other way around. We need to train our minds in the same way we’re going to be using our minds if we want fast, effective skill acquisition.

As Tim Ferriss writes:

“Incredibly, almost no textbooks get this ordering right.  If you train for recall, you get recognition automatically; if you train for recognition, recall is terrible, or as slow as molasses.

Think I’m exaggerating?  How many times have you handled or seen pennies and quarters in your life?  Tens of thousands of times?  Millions?  Try and draw both sides of either from memory.  Recognition does not = recall.  You have to train specifically for the latter.”

Fortunately, there’s a fairly simple fix for this – change the order of the words and phrases when you’re learning vocabulary – your native tongue then your target.

Also, try out Anki for smart flashcards – the desktop version is free. It’s what I use and recommend for flashcard lovers.

Speak From The Start

This problem also relates to why I think it’s so important to start speaking from the very start, and that this skill, more than any other, will determine your rate of language acquisition.

Think about every language you’ve ever learned – your ability to speak probably lagged behind every other skill – your ability to recognize words, identify objects, read a paper etc.

The act of training our speech organs to produce sound correctly is hard, partially because our education system emphasizes visual learning so strongly.

And by the way, there is no scientific evidence that there are different learning styles – the only thing that exists are preferences based on what we’re used to – so that’s not an excuse for delaying when we start to speak.

When it comes to new vocabulary, our brains and muscles need to be able to identify and  produce the correct sounds. This is the only standard for “knowing” a word that makes any sense. This is what we have to learn in order to use our vocabulary. And it is this training that is most often overlooked.

You don’t know it until you can use it. So start using it immediately.

Unplugged

Today’s episode is brought to you by Clancey’s Cannonballs – because it’s coming hard and fast with a no nonsense attitude. Clancey’s, the first name in Cannonballs.

Technology addiction.

There, I said it. It’s the elephant in the room, and it’s eating all of our hard-won bananas. Personally, I would consider myself at the lower end of the technology addiction scale, since I’ve often been without Internet access during my travels, and might go several days without operating an electronic device.

This, amongst citizens of the modern, western world, is almost unheard of.

And I’m totally hooked.

When I find myself awash in the warm glow of the Google search bar, checking my gmail account, firing up YouTube to discover the latest cute kitten videos (also Google-owned by the way), or updating my Google+ account…

Hahahah.

Scratch that, nobody uses Google+ .

But regardless, my technology use is off the hook and out of control.
And I know yours is too Mr/Mrs/Undecided cell phone owner!
I’m of the opinion that all addictions are dangerous, mentally debilitating things that we should work to overcome. Otherwise, they steal our energy and control our behavior, limiting what we are able to experience, as we’re constantly feeding the big grey beast more bananas.

In principle, it doesn’t matter if it’s a heroin addiction or a technology addiction – both decrease our ability to function in the world.

But what do we do if we live in a society where EVERYONE is an addict. Our addiction isn’t just accepted by society, it’s DEMANDED by society.

Just try giving up your cell phone and see what I mean.

I talked about this recently, how I’ve traveled around the world and come to realize that everyone is the same. We’re all just people.

Mostly, we’re people staring into our phone and tablet screens on the subway, bus, and airplane.

Well I have a simple plan to bring back humanity’s humanity.

To spend 1 day a week unplugged.

Unplugged

During my last week in Asia I was couch surfing in Bangkok with Katia. Our host was one of the strangest women I’d met on my travels. She looked and acted completely normal, but she had no Internet connection. Other than using her G3 connection a couple times to prepare for our flight, we basically spent 9 days with no Internet.

No email, no Facebook, no YouTube, no Google, nothing.

Let me tell you, it was hard. I got really frustrated at one point about halfway through the week – what the heck was I supposed to do in this hot, small, Internet-less room?

And that’s when I realized I had a dependency.

If I couldn’t function normally and live a healthy, happy life in the absence of my tech, then surely it must be the same for my friends and family back home. I didn’t even have a phone. All of them send 20+ texts a day and 4+ hours absorbing electronic media.

So I decided to make unplugging a part of my weekly routine.

Most Saturdays (it changes slightly depending on my travel schedule) I uplug. No computer, no internet, no iPod, no phones, nothing. Occasionally I’ll Skype my parents or do a critical task relating to my travel, but that’s it. I aim for zero and often hit it, and I’m getting better at it every week.

Just yesterday, I spent some time at Peterhof, the Versailles-like park near St. Petersburg, with Katia and a couple friends. I spent the entire day disconnected from my tech and connected to people.

Conversation (in Russian, some English), fresh air, moving, the color green. Things that were farther than 2 feet from my face. Simple. And wonderful. Real connections, not the digital ones we so erroneously mistake as meaningful.

The best part might be surprising: It felt so liberating not to deal with my electronic obligations. I felt light and free. Part of me doesn’t want to go back.

Which is why I think 1 day a week unplugged is ideal. We give ourselves a chance to rediscover a part of ourselves and a part of the world, without creating a full-blown panic from our disconnection.

Heck, for most people I think one full day will be a difficult feat to pull off the first time.

I also think there’s nothing better we can do for our sanity.

Join me

So, I’m offering you to join my unplugged adventure. 1 day per week (I recommend Saturday), turn off the cell phone, the wifi, the tablet, the laptop, the television, and whatever other electronic devices you own.

What you do during this day is your own personal adventure. it’s time to discover – or rediscover – something about yourself. But some ideas to get you started are:

  • ride a bike
  • read a book
  • do a puzzle
  • volunteer
  • paint
  • cook
  • plant/tend a garden
  • learn to juggle
  • play cards
  • write
  • listen to music (on the radio)
  • play a sport
  • take a walk

I’m sure you can think of others. The purpose is two-fold. Getting rid of our dependence on our tech and developing a mature, healthy relationship is one part – the other is to fill our lives with interesting and meaningful activities in the physical world.

And this is where my purpose meets yours. With a full, unplugged day every week, there is so much we could accomplish in the world. So much we could build and create. So many ways we could help others.

DIY projects where we green-up our homes (remember: solar is sexy!), volunteer projects where we help the less-fortunate. The list is, sadly, rather endless. I’m probably like you in this regard, in that I’m just beginning to search how to do this. But I know this: we need not be saints or saviors. We just have to keep taking steps in a positive direction and apply ourselves.

That’s why I want people to do things they’re passionate about, to “crack the happiness code,” and now – to commit to unplugging 1 day a week. Because no matter how much you need it for you, someone else needs it much more.

If you have a blog, Facebook friends, or other media access please encourage them to unplug too. Use the tools we’re addicted to in order to overcome those very addictions and create something beautiful in the world.

Why I’m Sick Of Superfoods

In the online blogging world, superfoods are to the nutrition and weight loss niches what list posts are to the advice/personal devleopment niches.

Fire up your favorite health blog and I can guarantee you one of two things: Recipes galore, and articles about 117 benefits of adding goji berries to your breakfast smoothie.

And I know why this is the case. Not because this stuff will actually change anyone’s life, but because in the world of so-called “viral” marketing, this is the stuff that makes the best share-bait.

I’ve seen posts that are functionally worthless get over 1 million shares. This makes me sad, because there are so many people out there who are desperate for some functional advice – like a good portion of the 68% of obese Americans who contribute to the billions of dollars spent on weight loss annually.

These people don’t need to know 15 Surprising Uses of Lemon or 51 Taste-Bud Tickling Apple Recipes.

They need to learn how to structure their environments and run their minds in order to get different results than they have on 10 different diets.

Celebrating the most base, generic, and mediocre advice that has either 1) no impact; 2) appeal to people who are already successful in their nutrition and lifestyle design; or 3) appeal to people who are suffering because it FEELS like progress – is not only completely pointless, it’s downright harmful.

That’s because of point #3. When we focus our energy on these practically-irrelevant forms of info-tainment, we feel like we’re learning something valuable, instead of actually doing something valuable.

Because really, 98% of people who read these articles aren’t using them in order to change their behavior. The articles titillate the senses, but offer no concrete means of actually changing our results.

Great, so mushrooms have a lot of vitamins. So how can I stop shoving cake in my face when I get cravings?

It doesn’t make sense.

So what we end up with is a huge cult celebrating irrelevant nutritional facts, just as the advice world celebrates cliches like “be grateful” (How? For what? When?)

Here’s the thing about this whole world of nutritional info-tainment:

It can be summed up in about 2 lines: Eat more fruits and veggies. Eat less processed food.

That’s it. That’s all we have to know. It’s probably useful for beginners to see that broccoli is way more nutrient-dense than bread or deep fried Twinkies, but the big question we have to answer is how do we get people to create a permanent behavior change?

I’m sorry, but knowing the micronutrient breakdown of pumpkin is not the answer.

Now, since most of the people writing this stuff are getting so much positive feedback from the world in terms of likes, shares, and repins, I feel it’s almost pointless to direct this at them. Stopping something like that must be akin to stopping smoking or curing a gambling addiction. Way too much stimulus on top of the appearance of actually doing GOOD.

So this message must be taken to heart by normal folks like you and me, who are trying our damnedest to make positive changes in our lives.

We have to inoculate ourselves against the seductive distractions.

We have to ask ourselves: Does this really matter? Is this one of the critical few decisions that will have an inordinately large impact?

Because I can tell you this: If you’re doing your grocery shopping in the vegetable aisle, you’ve already won. You can pick anything you want, and you don’t need to know a single fact about the macro or micronutrient content of your choices.

The key decision was to hit the veggie aisle instead of the cereal aisle, or the cake aisle, or the deep fried everything aisle. That’s the choice that accounts for 95% of your results in the supermarkets, not if you’ve miraculously decided to add winter squash to this weeks soup menu because you read about its high vitamin A content.

Eating can and should be fun. It shouldn’t require much deliberation.

But when we drown ourselves in all this minutia we add layers of complexity and magnify the importance of every little decision 1,000 times.

Take this from a guy under 10% body fat and a decent strength:weight ratio. I don’t give a flying fuck about superfoods, micronutrient contents etc. I eat what makes my body feel good and perform well, and I do so without guilt. I don’t have any label for my diet. So far as I’m concerned we have a diet, we don’t go on one.

Sometimes, mine includes cake. And guess what? According to every test I’ve ever taken I tend to be in great physical shape – and better than that, my real life performance aligns with what I want to be capable of.

That’s not meant to be boastful, it’s meant to reflect the fact that by focusing on a few, important factors we can get 80-90% of the way to the result we want.

Are there cases where we might want to delve into the minutia? Of course. But we need to save that for when we’ve got the big questions handled, or we’ll be obscuring the small details anyway.

3 Big Questions to Answer:

1) What do I want to do with my body? Play basketball, knit, write, play with my kids? Get real about what you want to use your body FOR. If you want to sit on the couch all day and watch Friends reruns, your dietary requirements are different than if you want to run a marathon every day. I think both are equally bad goals by the way, exemplifying extremist, obsessive behavior.

2) How many ingredients are in my food? The best answer is “one”. That probably means that there’s no packaging to read in the first place, and that – if there is – there aren’t too many nasty additives. Of course, we have to be careful with the pesticides used on produce.

3) What does my body desire? I’m not talking about the desire for taste sensation, that’s a head-desire. Our bodies desire something different, and by paying attention we can tell. Think of yourself as a samurai and listen to your body. If you follow this intuition completely honestly, you will eventually find your way to nutritional habits that meet your needs. Your body knows that drinking a 2L Coke doesn’t feel good, even if the chemicals pumping through your bloodstream and brain are telling you that you crave it.

I need to qualify this: Sometimes it’s important to insert information from our brains, as this “listening to our bodies” idea only works if, at some point, our bodies have had a healthy system to recall and work towards. If we’ve always been in dysfunction, then we need to balance intuition – which can be seduced by extreme levels of fat/sugar/salt – and intellect.

That’s it. Number 3 can have the most variation in approach between individuals, depending on our medical situations and needs. But the first two have got to be addressed.

Then, once we’ve done that, maybe we can throw out superfoods and just eat food. The way nature intended. And the way we need.