How to be Zombie Fit—Not Zombie Fodder

by Andrew Read on January 23, 2013

Rule # 1 Cardio - Zombieland

The world isn’t black and white. It’s shades of grey. As kids we all see things very black and white – good and bad, yes or no, like or dislike. But as we age and gain some perspective we start to see things from multiple viewpoints and this empathy allows us to deal with the many compromises that are needed to successfully navigate all the various relationships we have from family to work.

But shades of grey don’t stick in your head like black and white messages do.

Squatting hurts your knees is a great example of a very black and white saying that has sadly stuck around for years beyond what should have been its use by date.

The one that ticks me off the most though is that cardio makes you weak. It’s funny; because when I was in the military we believed that cardio made you a more effective soldier. When I competed in martial arts tournaments almost qualifying for the Olympics we believed that cardio made you a better fighter too. But somehow people who stand still and only lift weights tried to get it in our heads that cardio is bad for you.

Recently I have been on a yearlong experiment to blend strength training with cardiovascular work. Initially this was a bit of a joke. You know, “the first rule of Zombieland is cardio” and all that. But as I started travelling down that path more and more I became more and more determined to prove the detractors wrong. Fitness, actual move-your-body-all-day long-fitness has been prized by warriors since time began. And that people were now saying it was unnecessary grated heavily against me.


In the RKC we have the expression “to press a lot you must press a lot”. It’s pretty self-explanatory and says succinctly that if you want to press heavy then you need to press with both volume and load to be successful. But somehow when we wanted to reverse engineer something like running fitness instead of being told “to run a lot you must run a lot” we got this confused message that implied deadlifting more would make you run better. I’m not sure if anyone else watches marathons but the Kenyans who win don’t look to me like they have big deadlifts!

So to see if you could get that kind of fitness I created a plan that would force me to see if I could have both strength and cardio. I spoke with my editor at Breaking Muscle about an ambitious plan to go from standing still lifting weights to completing an Ironman triathlon (3.8km swim, 180km ride, 42.2km run) in twelve months. Unfortunately for me she loved the idea, which meant I had to figure out how to get in the kind of shape that would allow me to complete one.

And so I began.

I ran a bit, I swam a bit and I rode a bit. Gradually those distances started to increase, as did the number of times per week I could sustain that kind of training. I’ve had all sorts of problems during training from numerous muscle tears to being hit by cars but I’m now at the point where I am coping with about twenty hours of endurance training per week. While my lifts in the gym suffered greatly to begin with, and still do a little due to the always present fatigue in my legs, they’re back close to what I was lifting before starting all this. My pull up and push up numbers are good (dropping some weight helps with those tremendously). And most importantly distance of any kind no longer scares me. My regular Saturday morning run is longer than a half marathon – I’ve got enough gas in the tank to out run any horde of zombies now.

The first lesson I learned also was one of those often laughed at RKC jokes – “to have strength endurance, first you must have strength”. Well, if you replace strength with the word speed you end up with the same thing. To go long quickly you need speed endurance. The way to gain speed endurance is to run both far and fast, just like in our pressing analogy, except this time we’re replacing the load you lift with how fast you run.

My weekly running consists of:

  • Two easy moderate length runs of up to forty-five minutes (think of these as the “light” days in Rites of Passage – a way to build volume without breaking your body down at all).
  • One hard day of speed work (I need to emphasise not sprints, but faster than race pace work. This is like a heavy day and has a big recovery cost on the body and should always be followed by an easy session such as one of the moderate forty-five minute runs).
  • A long run of up to three hours. (Again, treat this like a heavy day and make sure that the next run is short and easy).

My strength plan is KISS perfection:

Day 1

  • Squat 3 x 5
  • Handstand push ups + pull ups 3 sets of AMRAP
  • Extended push ups + extended pull ups 3 sets

Day 2

  • Deadlift 3 x 5
  • Handstand push ups + pull ups 3 sets of AMRAP
  • Extended push ups + extended pull ups 3 sets

The extended sets are done following a concept I first got from Jerry Telle where you start with the worst leverage and then gradually progress to the strongest. So start with close grip push ups for max reps, then rest about ten seconds and go to shoulder width push ups for max reps, then to wide push ups for max. For pull ups start with wide grip pull ups for max reps, then shoulder width for max reps, then shoulder width chins, then finally close grip chins. These are a great way to build some muscular endurance without adding much size – vital to keep weight down if your goal is to travel fast.

(I also need to add that normally I would perform some abdominal/ core work but I have a strained hip flexor right now and I’m avoiding stressing it as much as possible. I would follow the same sort of format though in going from a harder version of an exercise to an easier one such as hanging leg raises to lying leg raises).

I would add that if I were training just for an event like a Tough Mudder I could easily add in one or two more weights sessions. However on top of my running I also ride and swim and two is the number I can still fit in without seeing performance drop off.

Because I’m doing so much fitness work I don’t need swings or snatches. I hate to break it to you all, but unless you’re a novice runner or completely inexperienced with weights (like many endurance athletes) neither of those will make you a better runner on their own. You need to combine strength training with running and run both far and fast.

And when the zombies do come….

I’ll see you next to me while we laugh at all the cardio haters who didn’t make it.

Andrew Read

Andrew Read, Senior RKC, is head of Dragon Door Australia and Read Performance Training. Recognised 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.
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