What Is An Ancestral Athlete?
An ancestral athlete is someone who competes in (or trains as if they were going to compete in) a sport while following an ancestral approach to their life. I am not the first person to use this term, Ben Greenfield has talked a lot of being an ancestral athlete, and even wrote an entire book on the topic. You don’t need to be making a living at your sport to be considered an athlete, weekend warriors are athletes too (and need to pay even more attention to what is in this article than the pros).
The next question is what is an ancestral approach to life? I personally think that the best defintion to an ancestral lifestyle is summarized by Mark Sisson in his 10 Primal Laws.
As athletes we may tweak this a bit, especially the training pieces in laws 4 and 7, but in general, if you follow these 10 laws you are following an ancestral lifestyle.
Why Follow An Ancestral Lifestyle As An Athlete?
In my opinion an ancestral lifestyle provides a good balance between optimal performance while maintaining longterm health. Yes, there are other approaches out there that could give you slightly better performance, but what good is that if you are left with chronic disease and pain after pushing the envelope too far? If your livelihood depends on your performance, you can make an argument for implementing some of these deleterious practices into your life, but for most of us, that is not that case. Personally as a father, husband, business owner, and athlete, I would rather be healthy and enjoy my fitness pursuits for a long time to come than shave off a few minutes from my finish time and be broken down and unable to play with my kids, or focus at work.
I am also OK with athletes deciding that at certain times in their life they may want to incorporate some lifestyle practices that I would not normally recommend if they want to achieve some goal that is particularly important to them. I did this recently when I trained for the Spartan Ultra, a 31 mile obstacle course race, with 10,000 ft of elevation that took me over 10 hours to complete. I knew the type of training I was doing to prepare for this event was not going to be good for my health, but I had a goal in mind that I wanted to achieve, so for the short term I sacrificed some of my health to achieve it. The good thing about the ancestral lifestyle practices I was following, and outline in this blog post, is that it mitigated the damage I was doing to my body. My training may have been too extreme, but my diet was spot on, I got good sleep, I enjoyed time outside, played with my kids, didn’t put poison into my body, etc.
Breaking Down The Ancestral Lifestyle
Now that you have a better idea of what an ancestral athlete is and why we should follow an ancestral lifestyle, lets take a deeper look at some of the key components behind this lifestyle.
Nutrition is key for athletes. What we put in our bodies greatly effects how we perform as an athlete. But it is not only about our performance in sport, it is also how we perform the rest of the time as well. We want to achieve peak performance in life, not only in sport. What good is any nutrition plan if we can kick ass at the gym, but feel like garbage the rest of the time? The key here is to perform exceptionally well in all aspects of life.
An ancestral athlete is going to rely on an ancestral approach to eating in nearly all circumstances. We are not going to rely on the current dogma that says we need sports energy drinks, crazy supplementation, pre and post workout eating windows, high carb meals before big events, etc. Nearly all of our nutrition is going to come from foods our ancestors ate. An ancestral athlete is going to rely on getting their nutrition from vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, meat, fish, poultry, and if tolerated, some dairy and legumes (Want to know more about how I eat, check out this post). We want to pay specific attention to nutrient density. This is especially important for athletes as our body is under additional stress from workouts and races and will need additional nutrients to help repair and recover. Therefore nutrient dense foods like organ meats, bone broth, collagen, shellfish, sea vegetables, and pasture raised eggs should be staples in an ancestral athletes diet.
High Carb or Low Carb?
If we look at our ancestors, there was not just one type of diet for everyone. Some groups of hunter gathers followed a high carb diet while others followed a low carb diet…and everything in between. I am not going to advocate one approach or the other for all athletes because that is just not possible to do. You need to find the right approach for you and your sport. (And I can help you do that!)
What about Protein?
Protein is important for all athletes regardless of your sport or diet preference. We need it to build and maintain muscle. I am a huge advocate of animal protein, there is no better source in my opinion. Along with the protein in the meat, there are a number of other vitamins and minerals that come with it. The big question is how much protein? I sometimes see athletes under eat protein, especially when following a high fat low carb diet or practicing some form of intermittent fasting. In addition those who are following a Keto diet are often afraid that the extra protein will get converted to glucose and kick them out of ketosis. While the body can convert protein to glucose, via a process call gluconeogenesis, it will only convert what it needs and nothing more (its an expensive process). In other words, I wouldn’t worry about eating to much protein kicking you out of ketosis. Especially if you consider that under eating protein will result in lean muscle being broken down to supply the body with the amino acids it needs, there is little consequence to over eating protein slightly.
For those who practice intermittent fasting I often see such a condense eating window that it is hard to get in adequate protein in that time period, so they fall short.
I recommend athletes eat about 0.8g of protein per pound of body weight. You can adjust from there, but if anything you might need to eat more and not less.
In the ideal world we would get everything we need from the food we eat as our ancestors did and not rely on supplementation. However, in today’s modern world, the foods we are eating are depleted of many of the nutrients that they used to have. In addition the additional stress we have in today’s world (see below for a discussion on stress), cause us to have requirements for more nutrients than our ancestors did. Ben Greenfield has a nice article on the need for supplementation that you can read for more information.
For this reason, in specific cases, supplements can be useful. In all cases you shouldn’t just blindly take supplements, you should have a reason to take a supplement that is backed by some sound testing. That being said, there are two supplements that every athlete should take mainly because there is little downside to taking them and they can only help.
First is a high quality multivitamin. This will help fill in the gaps for anything that might be missing from your diet. Again, there is little downside to taking a multivitamin (as long as it is high quality), think of it as an insurance policy, if you happen to be missing some vitamins and nutrients from your diet that day, the multivitamin is there to back you up. I take the Thorne MultiVitamin Elite. Yes it is pricey, but when it comes to supplements quality is important, and Thorne is the best.
Second is creatine. Creatine is the most widely studied supplement on the market and it benefits have been proven time and again.
“The tremendous numbers of investigations conducted with positive results from creatine monohydrate supplementation lead us to conclude that it is the most effective nutritional supplement available today for increasing high-intensity exercise capacity and building lean mass”International Society of Sports Nutrition position
For athletes looking to build and maintain muscle (that is every athlete) it should be a staple in your daily routine. Again, I personally turn to Thorne for my creatine powder.
Outside of a multivitamin and creatine you may need additional supplementation based on your individual needs. It is common for athletes to also need things like magnesium, zinc, copper, and extra B vitamins. However, it may not be necessary for everyone, so unless you have a test proving you are low in these I wouldn’t add them to your supplementation regiment.
Finally, here is a bonus tip when it comes to supplementation, collagen might be something you want to consider, especially if you are in a sport that puts a lot of wear and tear on joints and has a risk of muscle injuries. Collagen has many benefits, including benefiting your hair, nails, skin, and gut health, but when it comes to athletics it also strengthens the ligaments of your muscles. This improves muscle and joint stability which can help prevent injuries. Collagen can easily be incorporated in your diet without supplementation via bone broth. But if you are not drinking bone broth every day, you might consider supplementing with it. I typically turn to Great Lakes for my collagen supplementation. The most important thing to look for in a collagen supplement is that it is coming from grass-fed animals.
Since I am talking to athletes in this blog post, I don’t have to sell you on the benefits of exercise and physical fitness. The one place we often make a mistake when it comes to exercise is the more is better mentality, or the #nodaysoff mindset. In other words, going as hard as you can everyday is going to make you a better athlete and be healthier. This is just not true.
Lets first look at the concept of exercise from an ancestral point of view. Here is the bottom line, our ancestors didn’t exercise! If you told them you were going to purposely run all out as hard as you can for 30 seconds and do that twelve times in a row, they would look at you dumbfounded. Remember, for someone without access to food 24/7, unnecessary energy expenditure meant a greater risk of death. It is quite ironic that in today’s world the opposite is true.
Since we can’t examine our ancestors exercise routines, lets look at their general physical activity. A majority of their physical activity came from low level easy movement like walking, dancing, playing with kids, and looking for food. Occasionally they sometimes had to lift heavy things. Maybe they needed to move a log to build shelter, or maybe they needed to carry lots of water, or maybe they were bringing back the days hunt to camp. Finally, every once in a while they probably had brief bursts of high intensity activity like chasing prey, or if they were the prey, running from an animal to safety.
With that in mind we can say for sure that they were not doing anything that equated to CrossFit six times a week. Nor were they getting on a treadmill running all out for 30 minutes at 5 in the morning before the sun came up. So what would equate to ancestral exercise in todays world? I think it would look like 90% low level activity such as walking (outside preferably), easy hikes, easy yoga, playing with your kids, doing chores around the house, gardening, etc. 15% of the time you should lift heavy stuff, getting in the gym and lifting weights. 5% of the time is high intensity work, like sprinting, metcons, hot yoga, etc.
OK, now what about when it comes for training for a sport? For most people, it should be good enough to apply the guidelines above to your training for your specific sport. If you are a runner, a majority of your runs should be at an easy comfortable heart rate, you should spend 1-2 days in the gym working on strength, and then occasionally do a hard tempo run or some sprints. If you are practicing CrossFit then most of your time should be spent working on technique, form, and mobility with light weights. You might spend 1-2 days focusing on easy cardio on the rower, stationary bike, or running/hiking outside. Finally you throw in 1-2 days a week where you do your WOD as prescribed for time and/or compete.
The basic idea is we want to have most of our exercise be easy, make sure we are working in some component of strength training, and they occasionally do some high intensity work.
Finally, we cannot neglect rest and recovery. Our ancestors spent plenty of time not doing anything, sitting around relaxing and socializing. They could never imagine the hectic lives we live today where we are always on the go 24/7. We need to make time for, relaxation, socialization, and other self-care practices. This allows our body to recover, get stronger, and be healthier.
Sleep warrants a whole separate blog post itself and there are many experts who cover this topic in great detail. However, it is still something that most people don’t even consider as something they need to pay attention to. In our modern world, there is no emphasis put on sleep because if you slept more you would work less, wouldn’t spend evenings binging on TV, would not go out at night, etc. I am not saying you need to be a hermit once the sun goes down, but there are certain practices you can do to help facilitate getting a good night’s sleep. Our ancestors got a good nights sleep every night for the most part and they did it while sleeping on the ground in a cave!
The easiest thing you can do to ensure a good night’s sleep is optimize your sleeping environment (ie your bedroom). Next you want to set yourself up for a good night sleep during the day. Your journey to a good nights sleep starts as soon as you wake up. Getting outside first thing in the morning and exposing yourself to some natural sunlight entrains your circadian rhythm. Managing stress during your day will help your mind wind down at night. Relaxing in the evening (not answering emails, or watching an action flick, or doing a CrossFit WOD) is going to ease you into a good nights sleep. Finally limiting light exposure, especially blue light, will increase melatonin naturally to help you get to sleep.
If you are doing all this and still not sleeping then you will need to dig a little deeper. I will link below to some great articles on sleep and if you need more help feel free to reach out.
The Last Resource On Sleep You’ll Ever Need: Ben Greenfield
Matthew Walker: Found My Fitness
How to Entrain Your Circadian Rhythm for Perfect Sleep and Metabolic Health: Nourish Balance Thrive
Why Your Ketogenic Diet Isn’t Working Part 2: Sleep and Circadian Rhythm: Nourish Balance Thrive
Now onto athletics and sleep. We know athletes need to recover in order to adapt to the training load and increase performance. One of the times we recover is when we are sleeping. Our body does a lot of great stuff when we are asleep one of those being repairing muscle damage. Have you ever had a bad nights sleep and noticed your workout suffer the next day? Sure you have. Your body has not recovered, it has not gotten the rest it needs.
Athletes might also consider additional reasons as to why their sleep is suffering. I think we have all been in a situation where we worked out so hard and pushed our bodies to the limit that we are so uncomfortable that we cant sleep. This is just a sign that you are not recovered from the workout of event. You need more time off, don’t even think about exercising if your sleep is suffering from the previous days workout or competition. In addition, poor nutrition can also effect your sleep. The lack of certain nutrients and/or calories or the inclusion of certain foods can certainly cause your sleep to suffer, so making sure your nutrition is on point is also important. The stress of an upcoming race or competition can keep you up at night as well, I always have bad sleep leading up to race day. In this case trying to practice good stress management techniques is going to be key.
The final thing I will say on this topic is that if you plan on pushing your body and want to perform your best, your sleep may not get you to your goal alone, but it will certainly keep you from getting there if you don’t prioritize it.
The most important lifestyle factor besides sleep is community. It might seem odd but people who have a good social connections within their community live longer.
Across 148 studies (308,849 participants), the random effects weighted average effect size was OR = 1.50 (95% CI 1.42 to 1.59), indicating a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships.Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB. Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS Med. 2010;7(7):e1000316. Published 2010 Jul 27. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316
Our ancestors thrived in communities with strong social connections. In fact their survival was dependent on the success of the tribe as a whole. Today we can live a completely isolated life if we want. With delivery services in today’s world you can get everything you need to survive brought right to you without interacting with another person. Luckily as athletes we already have a community, everyone else participating in our sport. Whether it is competition or training we ofter do it together as a group so we can have plenty of social connection just through our sport alone.
Out side of our sport there are other opportunities to find social connection as well. Volunteering, religious groups, groups focused around similar hobbies, work, parent groups, walking/hiking/nature groups basically people form communities around things they have in common so there are tons of options.
Stress, ugh, it is everywhere today. I still struggle with this myself. Part of it is my personality. I am your typical “type A” person that likes to keep busy and is always trying to be super productive. I just can’t sit still, empty my mind, and chill out because I always have something I want to do. I put a lot of pressure on myself and it causes stress. Is stress all bad? No. It is the total stress load that is bad.
What do I mean about total stress load? First it is important to realize your body looks at all forms of stress the same, whether that be physical stress, emotional stress, or mental stress. When I say “total stress load” I mean all stressors in your life. In today’s society stress is coming at us from everywhere. We have stress because you have to give a presentation at work, stress to take the kids to soccer practice, stress because you haven’t called you Mom in a week and she is now upset at you, stress because of bills, stress to post the perfect selfie on Instagram, stress because someone cut you off when driving home from work, and of course as athletes, stress from exercise. That is a lot. Consider what our ancestors had as stressors. They had to make sure they didn’t get eaten, and they had to make sure they had food. That is pretty much it, their only stress was to survive long enough so they could reproduce. When they weren’t escaping predators or trying to hunt and gather they were relaxing. Today we need to purposely schedule time into our days to do this, to them it was just natural.
Why is stress bad? Some stress is a good thing. For instance, the stress you feel to nail that presentation at work may help you put in that extra effort to knock it out of the park. The stress you put yourself under in the gym may keep you from braking a hip later on in life. I like to think stress like a balance scale, on one side you have stress and the other you have relaxation. Too much stress and not enough relaxation and things become out of balance and you can suffer the consequences. When you are under stress, your body releases a number of hormones one of which is cortisol. Cortisol is typically released when you wake up in the morning and then diminishes and lowers as the day goes on allowing you to fall asleep at night. With too much stress your cortisol is constantly elevated and this disrupts everything from your digestion, hunger queues, to sleep. Eventually chronically elevated cortisol can lead to “burn out” and fatigue.
Effective stress management techniques look different from person to person. Anything that relaxes you can work. That could be reading, knitting, meditation, walking, playing with your kids or pet, sitting by the beach, doing mobility, whatever works for you. What is important is you find some way to relax and make time for it in your day so you keep that scale balanced.
Finally we need to look at your everyday movement. It is important to understand the movement is different from exercise. Some athletes think that since we workout super hard for an hour a day we can just sit idle the other 23 hours of the day. Not so, I would rather see you move constantly throughout the day and not workout! Katy Bowman has a great talk on the difference between movement and exercise that everyone should watch.
Unfortunately, our environment is working against us in this situation as well. Everything we do in today’s world is set up to let us exert as little energy as possible. That might have been good for our ancestors since they had no promise of food, but today with food abundant, we should be moving as much as possible. Think of the average office workers day:
Wake up, scarf down breakfast.
Get in the car/train/bus, sit, and commute to work.
Get to work, sit at a desk in front of a computer all day.
Get back in the car, sit and commute home.
Eat dinner, sitting of course.
Then plop in front of the TV to watch their favorite show before going to bed.
Repeat for 5 days in a row.
Sure they might throw in an hour of exercise in there (if they are lucky), but again one hour of movement, no matter how hard it is, does not make up for the 23 hours of non-movement.
Incorporating more movement into your day is not hard to do, you just need to take advantage of the opportunities presented to you. Simple wins include parking the car further away from where ever you are going and walking further to your destination. This can mean just parking at the back of the parking lot or it might mean parking 1 or 2 miles from your destination and walking/biking the rest of the way. Taking that stairs instead of the elevator or escalator. I use this trick frequently when traveling and staying in hotels. If I am below the 10th floor of the hotel I will generally take the stairs up to my room. Take walking breaks when working. Get up and walk around the office for 5-10 minutes when you need a break from whatever you are working on. Or when you need a break do some lunges, squats, pushups, planks, etc.
If you are one of the lucky few that has a personal office at work or works from home, set your office up for success. Resistance bands are great to have around and take up no space. Throughout the day you can incorporate various exercises with them to keep you moving. You could also think about having a kettlebell, suspension trainer (TRX), or pull-up bar in your office or near by.
Finally a standing desk is a great investment. Standing for part of your day is a great way to combat the effects of being sedentary. You will shift and fidget more keeping your muscles active and engaged. I have a standing desk and it was one of the best investments I have ever made for my health.
My movement practiced is anchored in two walks that I begin and end my day with. They are typically outside as long as it is not raining and/or super cold (like below 0 Fahrenheit). Then throughout the day I am shifting and moving at my standing desk and will take short breaks to do some pushups, squats, use my resistance bands, do some pull ups, or anything else I feel like doing. By the end of the day I have usually racked up anywhere between 10-16K steps without doing formal exercise.
Wrapping It Up
I know that is a lot to digest, but it is really just scratching the surface. There is a lot more to be said for each topic above. This is just meant to be an overview of my philosophy around what it means to be an ancestral athlete. If you are just starting out try incorporating one or two of the things from this article at a time and move on from there. If you are already doing everything in this article and are still struggling or looking for help on implementing these principals in your life, I am here to help. You can book a FREE discovery call with me and we can talk about your struggles and goals and how health coaching can help you achieve them.