When I first saw the above picture, taken at the Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon a few weeks ago, I had to do a double-take. Who the hell is that guy?!?! Is that really me? Holy shit! When did I become… that?!?
I posted the picture on my Facebook, and before I knew it I was receiving an abundance of messages, comments and texts, all asking the same thing:
HOW DID YOU DO THAT?
It’s a great question. And the answer is layered, with several components. But it’s an important one to address because by examining exactly how I did transform from a tired, overweight, boozing nicotine addict into the uber-fit, lean ultrarunner I am today, I think others will discover that it really is possible — that if one is determined enough, he or she can have the type of body people dream about.
The problem with acquiring that perfect dream body is the simple fact that it is definitely not easy. In fact, it’s really damn hard. The only way it can be achieved is through determination, practice and discipline. That’s good news if you’re a runner, because running requires all of the above. In fact, that’s how it all started for me. Once I became a runner and began setting and accomplishing my goals, then I realized that I could accomplish any reasonable goal I put out there, as long as I made use of the same principles.
Determination, practice, discipline.
Tired of always thinking what if, I decided I was just going to do it. No matter what. I was going to get a six-pack. Whatever it took. Once I became determined and really prepared myself mentally for the kind of struggle that would be necessary, I went on to the practice phase.
Knowing it wasn’t going to happen overnight, I started at zero and worked my way up. I learned some basic physiology tenets and found exercises that would get me where I wanted to go. I did the work. Lots and lots of work. And while this may not be what most people want to hear, it is the truth that it took about two years of hard work to get my body to look like it does today. Two years. Anything that takes that long requires…
To quote Scott Jurek, “Sometimes you just do things.” I’m tired today. So what. There’s work to do. I’m really craving that Ben & Jerry’s. Too bad. There’s work to do. Can’t I just skip this workout? Sure, but you can kiss that six-pack goodbye.
With those principles in mind, let’s next look at the three major components of my total body transformation — the actual practices that made it possible:
1) INTENSE CARDIO
This may be obvious, considering this is a running blog and I am a runner, but that doesn’t diminish its importance. I lost all the “fat” I had by running a bunch. And it’s not like I have been running crazy mileage forever either. In 2010 I averaged 25 miles a week. In 2011 it went up to about 40 miles a week. This year I’m averaging 70 miles a week, but such mileage is not necessary to lose the fat.
What is necessary is getting that heart rate up. One can do this by swimming, biking, boxing, jazzercising… it doesn’t matter. Just devote some time (20 minutes a day would be a good start) to an activity that requires a sustained, elevated heart rate.
The effects of my intense cardio sessions (running mostly) were that, after about 12 months, I eventually reached my ideal base weight — a number backed up by simple body mass index formulas.
This is probably the hardest aspect of body sculpting, but I assure you it is the most important. And it is possible. Again, it just takes determination, practice and discipline. The truth is: what you put into your body is paramount to how it will look and operate. For me, adhering to a good diet required a complete overhaul of my understanding of food — where it comes from, how it is prepared, how it affects my body. Realizing I knew very little about general nutrition and the science around it, I bought some books and read up on it. What I discovered was as exciting as it was alarming.
The most important step I took was eliminating virtually all processed foods from my diet. I got rid of anything full of high fructose corn syrup and eschewed all other engineered food products. I stopped drinking calories. No more soda. No more concentrated “juices”. No more crap. I stopped boozing.
I quit eating fast food (the WORST!!!). When eating out, I opted for the healthier options whenever possible. And most importantly, I began to focus my diet on a variety of whole foods, paying special attention to those categorized as “super foods” (whole grains, leafy greens, berries, quinoa, legumes, eggs, Greek yogurt, sweet potatoes, broccoli, almonds, salmon, etc.).
Dessert became a four-letter word. That is not to say I wouldn’t, on occasion, partake in a small bit of ice cream or a cookie now and then, but those occasions became extremely rare. Even now, I have little room for junk food (pizza, sweets, chips, etc) in my diet. Every great once in a while I will indulge, but I often don’t feel too well afterward — my body’s way of reminding me that that shit is not good for me — so such happenings are rare.
In fact, I would assume very few people get the beach body by eating like shit. It’s just not conducive to how our bodies work, naturally. Our bodies respond to good, wholesome, nutrient rich foods, not engineered foodstuffs full of ingredients that no one can pronounce.
3) SUPPLEMENTAL BODY & CORE SPECIFIC TRAINING
If you have the intense cardio down and you’re eating right, you should already be looking pretty damn good! What is left is only a matter of specificity. Decide what it is you want, then do the work it takes to get it. I wanted a six-pack. So I started doing workouts that focus on the core. Outside of running, I like to box, so I trained with some boxers in my neighborhood and picked their brains for advice. I bought books on core training. I started to see results (albeit slowly, remember, these things take time) within six months or so and I just kept at it until the definition finally arrived. And when my training needed a bit of variety — a boost to get into that pop-out territory, I eventually hired a trainer to teach me more advanced workouts. I learned them well and I teach them now .
I should also add that, in my supplemental body and core specific training, I do not lift a lot of traditional weights. I do from time to time, but I’m a runner. I need to be as lean as possible, while still maintaining a high level of strength and support. Instead of lifting weights, I utilize full body weight training. Resistance training. I do some band work and a few kettle bell workouts, but otherwise, all of the exercises I do require little else than my own body (think push-ups, pull-ups, dips, planks, etc).
The key to this sort of training, in my opinion, is to vary the exercises. Just like with food, the more varied, the better. If I am doing my workouts correctly, I should experience soreness in the day or two after. Of course, like any other exercise, intensity should be based on whatever the body has that day, but in general, I like to push myself to get just one more sit-up… just one more push-up… just… one… MORE!!!
BUT WHAT DO YOU ACTUALLY DO, JEFF???
When I put it all together, it goes something like this:
I run. Six days a week. The distance varies, and I run at different intensities, but the heart rate is always elevated.
I do two or three 40-60 minute supplemental body and core specific workouts, depending on how my body feels that week.
Here is an example workout. Keep in mind that I prefer the active recovery model, so I’m never fully resting. I generally do two sets of each exercise, and in between sets I jump rope as “rest”:
Up-down push ups into high bar pull-ups
One legged squats
Hanging leg raises
Dips into knee raises
I eat well. I eat a variety of whole foods, focusing on the “super” foods.
I also sleep 7-9 hours every night.
I don’t drink much alcohol. And when I do drink, I only have a few.
I take one day off a week — from everything — and I force myself to kick my feet up and enjoy a good game or movie or book.
But, MORE than anything:
I believe in myself and I believe in what I am able to do, physically and mentally. I feel like every day is an opportunity to get better, to do the work it takes to be who I want to be. It’s something we are all capable of, every single one of us.
So what are you waiting for?
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PS. I am not a doctor. The above is not intended to be medical advice. Always consult with your doctor if there are doubts. If you are interested in getting started yourself and want a learned trainer to get you there, please let me know.
Running distances further than a marathon — in some cases, running distances A LOT further than a marathon — takes a certain type of character.
I believe that character is deep inside all of us, there for the unlocking. I didn’t know I had one, and WOULD HAVE LAUGHED if you said I had one, just a couple years ago. But now I am certain we all have it.
It just takes something to trigger it.
Like rage. Fear. A broken heart.
For me, it was all three. At once.
I had just caught the running bug and my destination was: THE MARATHON. I thought there was no finer achievement. So I dug right in.
At the time, I was dating a girl who I really dug. She was perfect. Maybe I was falling in love.
She was a runner too. She’d drawn me in to the sport actually. She was training for her first marathon as well and her target was Chicago 2010. I loved being with her for the build up and the excitement. And I started thinking about what it would be like to run further than a marathon. Is it possible? Do people hurt themselves trying? I was really clueless that an entire world of ultrarunners even existed.
And then I found Dean Karnazes’ book, Ultramarathon Man. I was fascinated. And determined I would test the waters. Some day. Soon.
The girl thought that running more than a marathon was dangerous. And stupid.
I didn’t say much. I put it in my brain’s back pocket and forgot about it.
But then, exactly one week before she was to run the Chicago Marathon, on a cold October morning, she broke up with me.
I went for a run. And on that run, I decided I was not only going to beat her marathon time (by a lot), but I was also going to tackle the ultra distances. 50 miles. 100 miles. 24 hour races. I’m doing that shit.
That was how my switch was flipped.
And now I’m doing that. I’m really doing it.
So much hurt has brought so much joy to my life. I find it astoundingly ironic.
And just perfect.
Misconceptions of long-distance runners are numerous among the non-running crowd. Here is but a sample of some of the things I’ve heard:
Running like that is not good for your knees, typically said by the overweight frump eating McDonald’s and drinking a 72 ounce soda.
50 miles? No way! I don’t even like to drive 50 miles!
How long is this marathon?
The body is not meant to run for hours like that, typically said by the overweight frump still eating McDonald’s and drinking a 72 ounce soda.
You need to eat more. (PS: I AM ALWAYS EATING!!!)
How many times have you shit yourself? Why do people think we shit ourselves? Good grief. I don’t know anyone who has ever done this, so I am baffled by the infatuation with this fabrication.
Is Forrest Gump your favorite movie? typically asked by the overweight frump eating McDonald’s, drinking a 72 ounce soda, now hooked up to life support.
And after telling my grandma I’d just run a marathon, she asked, “Well, did you win?”
She sounded disappointed when I told her I had not.