Sunday, February 5, 2023

Run Like A Snail To Go Fast?

I recently read a story about Alex Karp. Yes, that Alex Karp, who is the founder of Palantir Technologies, a tech company that specializes in data intelligence. Karp is 55 years old, but has 7 percent body fat! At his age, that is an extremely low level of body fat. That's the body fat level Michael Phelps had when he competed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and won 8 gold medals.

Karp is a tech billionaire though, not a young Olympic gold medalist. He says he does not *diet nor starve himself. His fitness comes from 5 hours plus of cross country ski training a week.

What can we learn from Karp's training so that we too can benefit? Karp says he spends 90 percent of the time going at the speed of a snail! Whether you are running or cross country skiing, Karp advises going at the "slowest pace a human can run for as many hours as you can afford. And then once, preferably twice, a week, you're doing speed intervals."

Karp's training is all about sheer distance, just put in the miles he says. No speed or intensity, except when doing his intervals. He started training like this when the Covid pandemic hit. He was already in reasonably good shape before. But since he had lots of time, he became very disciplined about training in that format. He saw results after 18 months, and especially huge results after 36 months. 

Karp says he learned this training regime from athletes in Norway. Norway has won the most number of Winter Olympic medals for cross country skiing. Going slowly like a snail most of the time helps build a cardio base so that it allows you to go fast when you have to. Like when doing intervals or when racing. 

This form of training is also known as low intensity steady state training (LISS), the exact opposite of high intensity interval training (HIIT). LISS is the tortoise compared to HIIT's hare. When you go for a jog/ run, long walk, bike ride where you can easily hold a conversation, you are performing LISS. For those who need a number, this is usually between 50 to 65 percent of your maximum heart rate. 

Like HIIT, LISS can also help you burn fat, build endurance and increase exercise capacity. However the time you need to spend doing it to achieve those results is typically much longer. LISS can help you recover from those high intensity workouts while supporting your larger fitness goals. Exactly like what Karp is doing. 

For many of us who exercise and train, our hard sessions are not usually not hard enough and our easy (or recovery) sessions are not easy enough. This is why some athletes use a heart rate monitor (HRM) to train. This ensures that you know the correct intensities. Ben Pulham from Coached Fitness has been advocating training with a HRM for a long time. BUT, you have to really adhere to the readings, otherwise it will not be effective. With Singapore's climate, you really have to go a lot slower.

Yes HIIT can be super effective, but also incredibly stressful on the body. Do it too often and you'll increase your risk of overtraining and injury which will hinder your progress and shortchange your results. 

Alex Karp says it took him at least 18 months before he saw results. Can you be that patient? You have to, if you want results. If HIIT is a calorie scorcher, then LISS is a slow simmer where calories are still burned even if you don't emerge from your workouts drenched in sweat. 

Research also shows that those who engage in low intensity exercise are more likely to stick to their plan compared to those who attempt to accomplish the same goals in half the time with HIIT (Forster et al, 2015). The subjects found HIIT "less enjoyable".

Then, there's also the engagement factor. For some people, running, walking, cycling or swimming for a few minutes can feel endless. Me? I love the long, slow runs and rides.


Forster C, Farland CV, Guidotti F et al (2015). zthe Effects Of High Intensity Interval Training Vs Steady State Training In Aerobic And Aerobic Capacity. J Sp Sci Med. 14(4): 747-755. PMID: 26664271

*The biggest adjustment Karp made was dropping added sugar in his diet. He used to eat lots of chocolate, and had sugar in his coffee and tea. However, on special occasions and if he's traveling and finds a really nice Danish, he will eat it.

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