Training Tuesday: “The Hybrid Athlete” (Viada) review

Fitness is a huge industry in part because it offers the promise of self-improvement. Look better! Be thinner! Run faster! There are low barriers to entry; anyone can hold themselves out as a fitness expert, and (much like weathermen or stock analysts) no one ever checks back to see if the promised results were actually delivered. One result of this combination is that there are a lot of people who uncritically accept some principles that turn out to be completely false. One example: “cardio kills your gains.” Another: “if I lift weights I’ll be too blocky and slow to run or cycle fast.”

Alex Viada has addressed this lack of knowledge rather neatly in The Hybrid Athlete. The book’s landing page defines a hybrid athlete as “a unique breed who can excel simultaneously in both strength and endurance activities.” Examples might include firefighters, members of military special operations forces, or even people like me who want to be unusually strong and have unusually good endurance. I bought the book sight unseen, although I had the benefit of being coached by Alex and the team at Complete Human Performance, and seeing his unique approach in action, for a few months before it came out. Sadly, I didn’t get around to finishing it until last night, but I’m glad I buckled down— I learned a ton. A few of the things I learned:

  • what causes rigor mortis (page 34)
  • the stomach isn’t an absorptive organ (page 170)
  • swimming burns 10x as many calories per mile per pound compared to running (2.9 cal/mi/lb vs 0.29 cal/mi/lb, page 173)
  • The average hard-training, non-steroid-taking man can gain between 1 and 1.5 lbs of lean body mass every 2 months— far below what I would have expected (p176)
  • That thing you’re doing that you think is Tabata? It probably isn’t (page 66)
  • Trappist ales are perhaps the finest recovery beer yet known to man. (page 232)

The book’s divided into 13 chapters. The first four are primary introductory material, covering hybrid training philosophy and the physiology of muscles and metabolic pathways. There are specific chapters for the critical components of strength and endurance training and chapters covering sport-specific training (along with an appendix listing sample hybrid programs for various combinations of sports, such as a powerlifter who wants to run marathons). To me, three of the chapters were particularly valuable, so I want to dig into those a little more.

First is chapter 7: “Cutting Out the Noise: Eliminating the Waste.” This might seem like an odd chapter title, but when you consider that consolidation of stressors is a fundamental part of hybrid training, it makes perfect sense. The question poses a simple question:  

“Will performing this particular part of my workout routine improve my final performance more than any other potential component?”. If the answer is yes, include it then move on to the next. The answer will go from a firm “yes” to a more general “yeeeeeees” to, eventually, the dreaded “I think so”, or “the internet said so”. Any primary component of training should be both necessary and sufficient to improve sport performance in one particular component of a given sport. For a powerlifter, the squat, bench, and deadlift are all primary. For the triathlete, the tempo run or time trial. For the ultra runner, the long slow trail run. For the Weightlifter, the Snatch and C&J.

This is a really powerful concept once you understand and embrace it. Doing more miles on the bike, more time on the treadmill or road, or more laps in the pool will not necessarily lead to better sport performance. It sounds heretical, but Alex provides a really concrete example in the training template for powerlifting plus triathlon— the swim and bike distances are short relative to traditional triathlon training programs because swimming 5000-8000 meters are “very counterproductive to upper body power production.” Plus, they take a great deal of energy and focus, and it’s questionable whether swimming 8000m to prepare for a race distance of 3800m (in the Ironman-distance swim) is better preparation than spending the same amount of training time on other activities. Alex refers disparagingly sometimes to “junk miles,” referring to distance for distance’s sake, but intensity is a critical element too— for me, perhaps the most valuable single sentence in the book was found on page 66:

…many endurance athletes go entirely too hard on their “aerobic” or “low intensity” days, and end up gaining neither the discrete training benefits of higher intensity work nor recovery benefits of the lower intensity work.

He might as well have started that sentence like this: “HAY, PAUL, PAY ATTENTION BECAUSE THIS IS YOU:…” 

Chapter 11, “Strength for the Endurance Athlete,” pulls no punches in calling out how awful most strength training routines in the fitness press are for triathletes. He points out, rightly, that no matter how much time you plank (to cite one example) it’s not going to help you stay aero on the bike as much as actual resistance training for your core muscles. This chapter (and its companion, “Conditioning for the Strength Athlete”) clearly lays out the specific adaptive benefits of strength training— improved ligament and tendon strength, better bone density, and improved sport-specific fitness.

Finally, Chapter 13, “Nutritional Support for Hybrid Training,” exploded a lot of false knowledge I (thought I) had about the process of feeding my body for the best possible performance. I haven’t worked all the way through the (simple) data gathering and associated math, but essentially I am eating roughly the right amount of calories but in the wrong proportion of macronutrients. This is easy to adjust and should give me better endurance and perhaps a little bit of weight loss.

Overall, this is a superb book. Alex’s writing style is clear and direct, with occasional flashes of his extremely dry wit. The degree of research he’s done, and knowledge he holds, is evident (and bolstered by the bibliography and recommended reading in appendix C). I strongly recommend this book for any triathlete or distance runner; I’d recommend it for powerlifters and Strongman competitors too, but all the ones I know are fellow CHP athletes and they know this stuff already. At $47, it’s cheaper than a jar of good protein powder or a new pair of bike shoes, and it will have much longer-lasting impact on your fitness, health, and performance.

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