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Interview with Ben Greenfield about Elite Fitness and Endurance Training

Ben Greenfield is an ex-bodybuilder, Ironman triathlete, professional Spartan racer, coach, speaker and author of the book “Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health and Life” (http://www.BeyondTrainingBook.com). In 2008, Ben was voted as NSCA’s Personal Trainer of the year and in 2013 was named by Greatist as one of the top 100 Most Influential People In Health And Fitness. Ben blogs and podcasts at http://www.BenGreenfieldFitness.com, and resides in Spokane, WA with his wife and twin boys.


1) There appears to be an uptick in reports lately about the role and importance of conscientious thought as it relates to longevity and performance. In your opinion, (when looking to optimize performance) what is the relationship between adjustments of the mind/thinking and adjustments in nutrition? We tend to discuss these subjects separately, but should they be?

When we talk about conscious thought as it relates to longevity and performance, we can talk about gut/brain access and the thought that both are pretty intimately intertwined. The two elements of the nervous system, the central and the peripheral nervous systems, are essentially connected and stay connected via the vagus nerve as we grow and reach adulthood.

Whenever you talk about optimizing performance, you have to understand that anxiety and disruptive thought patterns can affect the gut, and there is also a lot of evidence showing that what you eat can have an effect on cognitive performance. So there is no doubt that a synergistic relationship exists between the two.

2) When you’re working with clients, how do you effectively make adjustments and/or additions to nutrition? How do you determine which interventions are beneficial and which are arbitrary? When making recommendations regarding nutrition — specifically any supplement recommendations — how important are therapeutic windows, considering ADME will be unique in different individuals?

We live in an era where genetic testing, gut testing, hormone testing and full blood panel testing are pretty convenient and becoming more and more affordable too. I always recommend at a minimum to get a blood panel, and if you really want a gold standard (especially in regard to nutrition), get a gut test. Get a genetic test, too. A spectral cell analysis will give you a look at micro-nutrients and minerals. If someone is experiencing a lot of autoimmune food allergen-type issues, the tests I recommend are a Cyrex Panel 4 or Cyrex Panel 5.

Really, the goal is to get a good idea of where someone is at from a food summary standpoint. Once you put all of that information together, then you can make a decision, but until then you are taking a shot in the dark. If your budget is limited, you might say “okay, whatever, I’ll start on a full spectrum multivitamin” and skip the testing. In those cases, basically I would recommend best practices for someone based on symptoms and goals, but it is always better to test. People generally get better results when they test, and continue to retest.

Testing can also include something like heart rate variability, where you look at how the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are responding to a change or intervention. In short, you put an intervention in place and you test to see what’s going on with the blood, or gut, or salivary gland to access the response to treatment. A lot of the folks I work with are testing at least one parameter every eight to twelve weeks.

3) In my interview last year with Dr. Howard Jacobson, we discussed the downsides of using reductionist research when addressing broad nutritional questions. Presumably you make some of your assertions based on this type research. How do you mitigate any potential risks?

I am a proponent of using natural whole food sources when possible. My recommendations come down to assessing whether a supplement or dietary strategy is going to get you a lot of bang for your buck. Take phosphorus compounds for example, they likely have some sort of anticarcinogenic effect — as such I am a bigger fan of incorporating broccoli, cauliflower and onions as staple components of a diet, versus suggesting someone use a sub-level glutathione.

But ultimately there are some situations where, by taking a food group or ingredient down to its complete reductionist form, you can concentrate it and get higher amounts of it. A good example is Chinese adaptogenic herbs, something that I use. I can take the isolated compound in a tiny little packet and it’s the equivalent of 40 pounds of the whole herb, which I physically couldn’t consume all at once.

4) In my 2009 interview with Chris Talley, he indicated there would likely be future developments for those interested in hacking their myostatin levels if they’re willing to experiment with antisense therapies (note: he highlighted the potential for considerable risks, too). I saw this year you mentioned cold thermogenesis as a safer alternative (since this type of therapy might have an effect on irisin). Do you find this to be effective with your clients who are looking to gain muscle? And, do you have any other suggestions regarding reducing myostatin?

With myostatin, one of the big goals is to not be in a consistent anabolic state. I think what you are referring to with a cold thermogenesis type of approach is the upregulation of m4, which is going to essentially downregulate myostatin, helping with muscle cell growth. However, you could potentially get undifferentiated cell growth.

I like cold thermogenesis because you do get hormones like irisin that help activate m4, and yet at the same time you are getting the upregulation of AMPK. That’s actually a perfect example of a strategy I like: an anabolic approach that uses caloric cycling on certain days that have higher levels of physical activity coupled with cold thermogenesis, because strategic fasting is also a way to reduce myostatin.

5) Piggybacking off cold thermogenesis: If you ask Tim Ferriss for his cliff notes on unconventional tried-and-true tips for weight loss he’s likely to tell you ice baths, his PAGG regimen, and 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking up. What are a few of your unconventional tried-and-true tips for amateur endurance athletes looking to improve performance?

If you are asking for tips that fly under the radar, I am a fan of isometric protocols like long 30-second eccentric contractions and holds for 3, 4, or even 5 minutes in lunge or squat positions. Basically, it’s filling your muscles with a bunch of lactic acid, so you are upregulating your lactic acid buffering capacity.

If someone has a lot of inflammation and muscle damage from chronic repetitive motions, I am a fan of curcumin. I have been using a lot of curcumin phytosome, and there is a brand called Meriva, which a lot of supplement manufacturers are using now. It is a form that is well-absorbed and has really good anti-inflammatory effects.

Lastly, it’s not sexy, but I am a big fan of making sure that you engage in low-level activity all day long — basically standing on your feet, getting a standing work station, or even using a treadmill desk. Avoid sedentary positions for a long periods so that all day long you are building low-level physical endurance, which you can then rely on during your interval training and endurance training. A lot of people do not understand that a lot of your available endurance simply comes from your daily routine. If you are trying to improve performance you are not doing yourself any favors by sitting at a desk all day long.