In his new book Natural Born Heroes: How a Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance, author Christopher McDougall traveled to Crete to examine the physical and mental capacity of Greek war heroes. He studied natural movement, endurance, and nutrition to understand how regular people are capable of extraordinary athletic feats. The biggest takeaway: We can all adapt the tools of the athletes featured in McDougall's new book (no treadmills or fad diets required!). Here are eight simple practices we can borrow from Natural Born Heroes.
Establish a meal plan that works for you.
One area McDougall focused on during his research was diet. By running through a two-week test, established by Dr. Phil Maffetone—who trained Ironman athletes in the 1980s—he began to understand the type of food he liked to fuel his workouts. The Two Week-Test is similar to the Mediterranean diet (think lots of nuts, fruits, veggies, and protein), but it also includes a wider range of meats, everything from fish and beef to lamb and chicken. For two weeks, McDougall totally stripped out starches and sugars from his diet. Then, after the two weeks, he gradually added them back in and monitored how those starches and sugars made his body feel. The goal is to figure out how your body responds to starches and sugars and make your own nutritional choices.
When McDougall took the Two-Week Test, he experienced a loss of belly fat and no longer felt those afternoon slumps. "For me, that was the most effective way of really tapping into ancient nutritional wisdom that a lot of ancient Greek heroes were relying on," says McDougall.
Plan your snacks ahead of time.
When we get hungry, a lot of us turn to starches and sugar for snacks. We may reach for a bag of chips or crackers, but by preplanning, it's easier to make healthy decisions, says McDougall. He likes to stock up on nuts, avocados, tomatoes, beef jerky, and sliced turkey breast.
When you work out, keep your heart rate low.
Good news for those who dread sprinting intervals: Keeping your heart rate low while you exercise may actually be a great way to burn stored body fat, McDougall says. He recommends sticking to Maffetone's 180 Rule, which is a simple equation that helps determine your ideal workout heart rate. Here's the theory: First subtract your age from 180, then modify these rules as needed—you can subtract five or 10 for illness or injury or add five for a long fitness streak. Strap on a heart rate monitor, and make sure that any physical activity you do keeps your heart rate below that number. (It's always a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting a new fitness plan.)
Exercise for as long as your heart rate can remain low.
As you exercise more, you can gradually increase your pace and how long you work out, while still keeping your heart rate low, says McDougall. But your heart rate is a natural guideline to follow because it tells you when you're tired. When you start to get fatigued, it costs your body more energy to pump your blood, which raises your heart rate. When you see your heart rate break your 180-rule number, it's time to take a break or call it a day. "Maffetone is all about self regulation. Your body is going to tell you the answer," says McDougall. "Because the thing that gets you in trouble is that some guy you don't know wrote something in a book, and you follow that book, but it's not based on your body."
Take your workout outside.
Not only can the outdoors help your brain function more efficiently, says McDougall, but getting outside can also work wonders on your fitness routine. Gyms don't exist because they offer the best ways to exercise, but rather because they're the best way to move bodies efficiently in a confined space. "The dropout rate in gyms is over 60 percent in the first three months," he says. "It makes sense because it's an unnatural environment. What we really want to do is move in a variety of ways."
And working out outdoors offers variety that adds bonus challenges to your exercise. Whether it be the weather or terrain, nature throws a level of uncertainty into your workout. Because the body constantly adapts, the regularity of a gym offers less of a challenge. "The more certain it is, the more your body can coast," says McDougall. So the goal is to spice things up by getting outside. "That's where the real surge of endurance and strength comes from: your body responding to uncertainty," he says.
Forget any stereotypes about your gender.
McDougal says he believes that most of today's recreational sports were created for men by men. Therefore, they showcase traits, such as upper body strength, that offer no real survival benefit, but are simply where many men's strengths lie. But focusing on endurance sports, and anything involving dexterity and agility, levels the playing field for women.
Get enough sleep.
Sleep plays a big role in your physical performance, says McDougall. (As a reminder, most adults need between seven and nine hours of shuteye each night.) Sleep is always important, but especially so when you're upping your workout routine. "When you stress the body, you need to rest the body," says McDougall.
The easiest way to increase and stick to your training is to enjoy what you're doing. The most direct way to do that is to plug into your passion, which means training to improve your skills rather than to drop a pants size. "Be useful," says McDougall. "You want your exercise to mean something."
Another key part of enjoying exercise is knowing when to dial back. If you feel pain while you're running, slow down and take a break. Then, return to running later or the next day. "My old friend Barefoot Ted, he has this motto, 'Don't practice pain. Practice pleasure,'" says McDougall. "The idea is to build consistency, and you don't do that by punishing yourself. You do that by pleasing yourself."