NOTE: This post has been written by my good friend D Drum over at Thwackster Crafting, and is, I think, some insightful knowledge on a very important topic. Enjoy.
What is the best form of fitness?
In our social media dominated age there has been a huge shift towards muscularity. Being bigger and stronger is now ‘the way’. Physiques built through hard work and steroids bombard us online, combine this with the prevalence of cape-shit super heroes and it is no wonder the world is muscle mad. Many studies have come out as well to support the benefits of strength as we age, for both men and women. Grip strength determining life expectancy. Being strong is better for you, of that there is no question, but somewhere along the way the importance of cardio has dropped off.
Now though a new collection of athletes are emerging. Hybrid athletes, and these athletes and their training modalities offer something of immense value to the prepper minded.
I first encountered the idea of hybrid training through learning about Alex Viada, who has a book entitled ‘The Hybrid Athlete’. Here was a beast of a man with squats and deadlift numbers iin the 700s who also did Ironman triathlons and ran ultra marathoners. I was impressed, intimidated even. At this point in my strength journey I was purely focused on moving weight so I thought it cool and moved on. Then some years later I came across a jovial Scottish man on YouTube - Fergus Crawley. He was the 2nd person that we know of in the world to squat 500lbs and run a sub 5 minute mile, and as he was pipped to being the first he then ran a marathon. Strength, endurance, and speed combined.
Here I was with my above average strength numbers of a 455 deadlift, 385lb squat and a 225 bench but my running times and endurance was non existent. Not that I don’t have some experience of endurance events myself though - I’ve completed the memorial Bataan March with 45lbs on my back (that’s a marathon length march in the New Mexico desert, the year I did it saw around 13% not finish due to heat). I’ve also, at a much lower bodyweight, completed the Welsh 3000s in the mountains of Wales, covering 32 grueling mountain miles with 14k of elevation gain in 18 hours. Throw in a few GoRuck events and you get the idea - but running frequently has never been my jam. Training for Bataan did involve miles of rucking but it was event specific. The reality I think is that at a slow pace most average people could push themselves through those events, but getting through them and doing better is something I’ve evolved my thinking towards.
The hybrid athlete then is perhaps what Crossfit once aimed at. A strong individual capable of higher cardio output than the norm. They won’t be the best at any one thing but should be able to drive towards excellence whilst retaining above base line capacity. Maintenance seems a dirty word in the pure fitness world but for the prepper, the everyman with a family, maintenance is actually an admirable goal. Pushing too hard to grind at strength gains for no purpose can increase of injury without good rewards. Going too hard running can make one more susceptible to getting sick.
As a prepper we want to make ourselves an asset not a liability. We want to be strong enough to carry and move objects, we also might need to run/walk/hike a long distance for help or to patrol a certain area. These goals align with a form of hybrid training that allows us to address our own individual weaknesses and build cross competency in both areas.
So how then to approach being a hybrid athlete?
The key for me has been to understand the value of zone 2 cardio training and develop it. Indeed I am still at the beginning of this journey but can already feel the benefits and a plethora of other runners and hobbyists have reaped the rewards. Zone 2 cardio work is perfect because it slots into life without draining you - it is easy work that might take a bit of time to get through but due to its nature does not drain you. After a 40 minute zone 2 run I feel refreshed and ready to go, my legs aren’t dead, I've not been knocking on the door of my top end cardio.
But what is zone 2 I hear you ask? Conventional training wisdom has done the groundwork here, broadly speaking our heart rate zones go from 1-5. 1 is normal existence to low level cardio. Think walking without a pack or a moderate hiking trail. 2 is a step up but below our anaerobic threshold - here we feel comfortable and are burning most calories from fat. Zone 3 is the working zone, during actual races most people will be in zone 3, it’s across that threshold and into anaerobic work where muscles are now switching from fats to carbs/glucose to work. Zone 4 is high effort continuation of zone 3 and Zone 5 is peak, top level. Think Olympic distance sprinters being in Zone 5, whereas longer distance runners will be in zone 3 most of the time, perhaps peaking into zone 4 and 5 as they push themselves for the finish.
The research here doesn’t lie either. Having a bigger gas tank from this low level zone 2 work massively improves other areas and makes you faster in the long run. Your pace improves whilst you work at the same heart rate, this has massive benefits for general health and well being. For me this is my focus right now, slow steady state cardio and maintaining my strength. I’m not currently trying to approach a new PR in the weightroom, I’m just focusing on consistent sessions that don’t take too much time. I’m keeping my strength high as I build my cardio and endurance capabilities.
It might look different for you. Perhaps you already have pretty good cardio, but lack strength. In that case it would be important to shift into a maintenance routine for your cardio. Perhaps ease off from your interval running sessions and step down the mileage a bit as you start to focus on strength. You may need to increase calories and protein consumption as you build muscle. If (like me) you are already decently strong then you’ll want to deprioritize some of the time you’re spending in the gym on accessory movements and focus on that lower level cardio base building.
These things take time, most people seem to take 3 months to begin seeing real improvements in their cardio if following a zone 2 approach. Strength gains can come a bit quicker, especially for younger men, but it also requires a form of time investment. Luckily there are a plethora of role models and information out there. Weight lifting programs are easily available, Stronglifts 5x5 or Wendler’s 5/3/1 could be perfect places to look. For running and cardio development looking into Zone 2 Maffetone training is where I would focus energy. You’ll feel slow and useless but already I’m seeing gains in my cardio ability and it’s not detracting from anything beyond an extra hour of doomscrolling in bed in the mornings.
The biggest financial investment you’ll need to make to take this seriously is going to be a heart rate monitor, these really aren’t that expensive and it will pair to a smartphone. A Polar H9 can be had new for 60$ and their software is free to use. Failing that doing your cardio at a ‘conversational’ pace can work, as can nose breathing.
In summary the hybrid athlete’s goals strongly mirror our own as preppers. We want to be strong and capable, we want to maintain our strength whilst maintaining cardio that is required for overall health. Whilst we may choose to train towards concrete goals (2x bodyweight squat or a sub 3 hour marathon) we can also cycle through established exercises and routines to maintain during hard times or when life is busy.
Where you are currently at is going to determine what you focus on, is it building more strength or more cardio? Answer that and escaping the trap of only gym or cardio is going to make you a more rounded capable individual.
- D Drum, founder of Thwackster Crafting
Further recommended reading and research:
“The Hybrid Athete” Alex Viada https://www.jtsstrength.com/product/the-hybrid-athlete/
Maffetone training and formula to find zone 2 training zone https://philmaffetone.com/180-formula
Article covering some lessons from Alex Viada https://tonygentilcore.com/2015/06/a-day-with-alex-viada-and-how-to-feel-like-the-weakest-slowest-and-smallest-human-being-ever/
An indepth intro to Zone 2 by a runner https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taO8kKsx448