Distance running was indispensible; it was the way we survived and thrived across the planet. You ran to eat and avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and you ran off with her to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn’t live to love anything else. And like everything else we love – everything we sentimentally call our “passions” and “desires” it’s really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run; we were born because we run. We’re all Running People, as the Tarahumara have always known. – Christopher McDougall, Born to Run
Like many who found Dragon Door, I first came to the site looking for kettlebell information. Back then I was looking for a training method that didn’t make me feel so awful all the time. I wasn’t training stupidly, far from it, but I was starting to notice that my body wasn’t feeling good very often. My back would be stiff like a block of wood and no amount of foam rolling, mobility work or massage was even making a dent in it. But it wasn’t until my shoulder started to act up that I really started to look in earnest for whatever piece of the puzzle was missing.
Up until that point I’d had what I thought of as a fairly active life. I’d done martial arts for more than twenty years with some decent competitive results, spent some time in the mud and fooled around with just about every form of training you can think of – from sandbags to Olympic lifts to body weight and everything in between I’ve pretty much done it. (No Shake Weight though, because, well….you know.)
But I’d never really done much running. Growing up I’d been a good swimmer and spent many hours in the pool but ‘d never been comfortable as a runner. Even when I was in the military and would run most days it was a rare occasion that I would finish a run feeling the same sense of whole body joy that I did from a good weights session.
But once I started training with kettlebells I found a whole new level of what I should be thinking of as “good”. My movement got better; I became accidentally more mobile. I was really only training with a single bell at this time learning the lifts but the benefits started happening so fast that they were impossible to miss. The odd thing was that as my movement got better my desire to move more increased too. Suddenly I wanted to run.
The problem with that, as any person over thirty will tell you, is that if you haven’t built the skill as a runner early in life you are going to suffer when you take it up later on. But as McDougall says in the quote above – we are hardwired to run. Without it we’d all have never made it out of the Paleolithic era. And the better my body felt the more I wanted to run, because the human animal is designed to run.
One of the things that often draws people to the kettlebell is its usefulness as a go anywhere, train you for anything, all in one hand held gym nature. It’s for that reason that they’ve been taken up by many military units around the world so they can set up small workout areas, so called “courage corners”, on far flung bases to help keep the men fit.
The modern fitness world is full of people telling you that such and such is the key to tactical fitness or that this certain thing is what SEALs use to stay in shape. But the bit no one is telling you, is that the toughest, fittest, baddest men on the planet all have one thing in common – they run.
Man evolved to be an apex predator because of our running abilities. We aren’t the fastest by any means but given time we can run down just about anything eventually. Due to our ability to regulate heat without needing to stop and pant we can literally run an animal to death by heatstroke. Persistence hunting has been around for about two million years and was one of the main ways we could catch more nutrient dense prey when all we had was rocks for weapons.
Over the last few years this idea has become more and more firmly planted in my head – that training has to be about movement. Not just mobility work but being outside, connected to our planet, moving over the earth – and that our fitness work should support that instead of being done solely inside an artificial environment and judged against artificial parameters – who really cares how fast you did a workout, or if you lifted slightly more weight? How did it make you a better animal and get you back closer to your apex predator status?
So how do we transfer our gym fitness to actual useful fitness? I have to be honest and say that there is often, in the world of performance training, an over simplification by people with vested commercial interests in saying things like “just get stronger”. While many people do need extra strength, when it comes to covering ground quickly, particularly with a heavy pack, there is no substitute for putting in the miles. Getting miles in the legs has been a time proven method of developing Spartan stamina and elite fighters for as far back as we can find records. From Ali to Dan Gable, from Tito Ortiz to SEALs and the SAS, aerobic efficiency is the most highly prized commodity and the only way to gain that is to spend time practicing it.
I’ve been fooling around a lot with this for the last two years, developing a base strategy to use for anyone that covers a lot of ground. From Ironman triathletes to those attending special forces selection the results are now there to show that it works across the board. Here’s my list of essential exercises:
Hinge exercises –
The single leg deadlift is king here. Many will wonder why no barbell deadlift. To them I say go try to run for two hours the day after barbell deadlifts and you will understand the reason. Single leg training gives you the same hip strength benefits, plus anti rotation and a stable single leg stance from which to base your stride. Because the loads used are lower there is less stiffness in the following days meaning you are better able to swim, ride, run or pack march. While there is a place for maximal strength work it needs to be well away from operational periods or racing.
The swing. Kettlebell swings have a therapeutic effect on the back. Because they can be done for higher reps it’s possible to flush large amounts of blood into the back and offer it some relief. Believe me when I say that a hundred swings the day after a six-hour ride in the aero position will make you feel like a new man.
For lower body assistance work nothing beats a sled/ prowler. Concentric only work is similar to cycling in effect, has near zero cost in terms of muscle soreness and helps get you up hills faster. If you have no sled then high rep step ups can be substituted (step height needs to be high enough that thigh is parallel to floor).
Upper body –
Nothing beats body weight work. If the goal is to move your body fast for extended periods of time you need to practice moving your body. My personal favourite are ring dips and pull ups, or if you’re able, muscle ups. While barbells and kettlebells have a place here one of the problems faced is extra weight being added to the frame. Speed and efficiency have a lot to do with how heavy you are, and on operations that extra muscle needs feeding too. Keeping your bodyweight down has many big benefits too in terms of injury prevention. (A 2kg/ 5lb weight gain is equivalent to dealing with an extra 15,000kg/ ~7,000lbs of extra force through your spine and joints while running over 5km).
Core work –
Keeping your spine in place for long periods of time means you need to spend time on core training. Many relegate core training to the banished list figuring that all the load bearing activity they do is enough. It’s not. My current training sessions are roughly two hours long and I’m focusing on many harder body weight skills. These skills all have one thing in common – every single one of them is a plank or hollow position drill. With limited running since an Ironman event I am actually running faster – my body feels far more stable and locked in place when I run, thanks to my daily single leg deadlifts and core work.
Assistance/ conditioning work –
There’s only two lifts worth worrying about here for my money. Snatches and long cycle clean and jerks are the two biggest bang for your buck kettlebell exercises. But unlike normal training sessions where your goal is a certain number of reps you need to focus instead on time. I often intersperse these with some running – think of it as kettlebell roadwork. A minute of long cycle followed by an 800m run, four times through is a solid session. I tend to reverse these so that a longer interval of snatches or long cycle is followed by a shorter interval run and vice versa. Don’t try to do five minutes of snatching then a 1km interval run. (Because you’ll only try that the one time, trust me).
Running and walking –
While elite runners are out there pounding away daily we do need to make some concession to them being elite runners – in other words they are genetically selected to being able to withstand daily running. At Read Performance Training we use a run/ walk strategy alternating each daily. Walking has an enormous recovery benefit, is a good way to continue strengthening your aerobic system, and also to keep building the body to handle more running. Don’t discount how powerful walking can be. Our running is built around three to four days per week with two easy runs of 30-40 minutes and a longer run of up to two hours with the last 20-30 minutes hard. If they can handle a fourth day we do a harder interval session, like the long cycle/ 800m run option listed above. On non-running days our clients walk for an hour.
Now you’ve got the tools, get out there and get moving. You were born to do it.
About Andrew Read, Senior RKC, Dragon Door Australia: Andrew Read, Senior RKC, is head of Dragon Door Australia and Read Performance Training. Recognized as Australia’s leading functional strength trainer he is a regular contributor to Blitz, Inside MMA, International Kickboxer, Oxygen, Ultrafit and Breaking Muscle. His coaching background spans nearly twenty years having worked with many Olympic and world championship level athletes.