The Four Hour Body: Can it Improve Your Running?

Lose 20 pounds in 30 days. Engineer the perfect night’s sleep. Triple your testosterone. Reverse injuries. Go from 5k to 50k in 12 Weeks.

Is it possible?

These are the claims by Timothy Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Body, a New York Times #1 bestseller. He’s also written The Four Hour Workweek which is also a #1 New York Times bestseller – and has been for years.

Four Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss

Four Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss

Ferriss spent over 10 years researching the book and doing all sorts of crazy experiments on himself – like implanting a glucose monitor into his abdomen and gaining 28 pounds of muscle in 30 days. He’s challenging the status quo with his findings and many can improve your running performance.

Of all the claims in the book, I want to focus on several that I think can be very beneficial to runners: injury-proofing the body, going from 5k – 50k in 12 weeks, perfecting sleep, and improving your diet (mitigating damage during binges, rapid fat-loss, and creating the most nutritious diet possible).

Injury Proofing the Body

This chapter was fascinating to me and the first one I read when I got the book. Any runner who finds a magic lamp with a genie inside would wish to be immune to injuries. At least running nerds like me would.

Ferriss essentially runs through an assessment of asymmetry and imbalance. It’s called a “Functional Movement Screen” and it’s designed to identify left-right imbalances and motor control problems (shifting and wobbling on one leg, for example). Once you locate your problem areas, there are corrective routines for whatever ails you.

I experimented with several of the exercises and noticed a clear strength discrepancy on the left side of my body. That’s exactly where most of my injuries happen: my ITB injury in 2008, achilles tendonitis in 2003, and plantar fasciitis in 2004. Now I do more exercises that isolate different sides of my body to correct this imbalance. So far, so good.

Many runners don’t do any strength exercises. That’s bad. Some runners do strength exercises but don’t target their weak areas. That’s also bad. The Four Hour Body has a specific routine that will tell you exactly what your weaknesses are. Once you know where they are, you can systematically strengthen them.

Clearly, no routine or program is going to eliminate every injury. There are simply too many variables at play to even make that claim. “Injury proofing” is an exaggeration, but Ferriss’ point is that diagnosing your imbalances and weaknesses is a valuable exercise and one that too few athletes take the time to do. By being proactive and figuring out what it is that you need to improve, you can dramatically reduce your potential for injury.

Going from 5k to 50k in 12 Weeks

This chapter made me the most incredulous. As a student of the sport, I’m a big believer in sticking to the basics for long-term running success: increase your aerobic base as much as possible through running a lot (and strategic cross-training, when appropriate), strengthening the body with weights, core work, and hills, and developing the neuromuscular coordination to sprint.

These things take time to develop. Like any skill, you need thousands of hours of practice to master distance running. Is it really possible to increase your running ability ten-fold in 12 weeks? Here is what Ferriss recommends:

  • Using the Tabata protocol to increase endurance, rather than running high volume
  • Doing a lot of max effort lifting to build a strong “undercarriage” (body)
  • Correcting inflexibilities common with desk workers like hip flexor tightness
  • Becoming biomechanically efficient (having good form)

The study that originally looked at Tabata sprints involved highly trained cyclists doing 30 second maximum effort sprints on a stationary bike. My first problem with this training strategy is that doing the volume and intensity of intervals that Ferriss suggests creates a huge injury risk. Even with the heavy lifting, designed to prevent injury by creating a very strong body, the risk is too high for me to try myself or recommend to one of my athletes.

Fifty years ago this type of training was common. Roger Bannister ran intervals most days of the week to prepare for the first sub-4 mile in history. But is it right best way to train? Steve Magness reviews the history of distance running training and concludes that you need both easy running and high intensity sprint work to be successful. There’s a “sweet spot” and relying too heavily on one or the other is going to produce sub-par results.

If you’ve been a reader here for any length of time, you know that I’m a proponent of lifting and general strength workouts. But the type of max effort work that Ferriss recommends is excessive and isn’t in the “sweet spot” of training. It’s so intense that it will prevent you from running at your best – and thus compromise your long-term running development.

One of his example workouts is this:

Back squat 5, 5, 5 with 3 minutes rest. “Cindy” workout: 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, 15 squats. As many reps as possible in 20 minutes with no rest.

This is another example of a Crossfit-type workout that can improve overall fitness and strength, but it’s not specific to running. And that’s one of the biggest drawbacks of this chapter: the lack of specificity. To be a better distance runner, you need to run a lot.

Ferriss consults with Brian MacKenzie to come up with this training plan, who uses it with apparent success with himself and other runners. I’m a bit suspicious because MacKenzie is an ex-triathlete who used to train for 24-30 hours per week. This is crucial: MacKenzie has years of high-volume, aerobic base work under his belt. That history is helping him get away with running less.

Ultimately, I think if you are in decent shape and followed the 5k to 50k training plan, you could theoretically finish a 50k. It’s not ideal training and you’re not considering your long-term development as a distance runner – but it can be done.

The other aspects of the chapter – improving form and inflexibility – are common-sense approaches to running. You need to make sure your gear is functioning properly before you use it in the field.

My issue with many of the performance improvements in this book relate to Ferriss being a generalist. He is fit but doesn’t specialize in anything in particular, with the exception of perhaps power lifting. So many of his dramatic increases in sprint speed, vertical jump, and running form are the result of good coaching and technique.

Any beginner will see huge improvements at the start of their training using these methods. But, and I keep coming back to this, long-term success and continued improvement will come from a more classic training program.

Engineering the Perfect Night’s Sleep

You could run more and train faster if you were more recovered. Sleep is the absolute best way to recover from your hard workouts and Tim show you how to get the best night’s sleep of your life. I have implemented several of his strategies with fantastic results. Even though I’m getting the same number of hours (7-8 hours with strategic 9+ hours after particularly long or hard runs), I’m feeling more refreshed when I wake up.

Here are some of the tactics that are working for me:

  • Eating a high fat, high protein meal ~3 hours before bedtime and a low glycemic-index snack before sleep. This strategy works for two reasons: it helps you fall asleep faster and prevents your blood sugar from dipping too low during sleep. Ever wonder why you feel like crap after 8 hours of sleep? Oftentimes it’s because your blood sugar is too low.
  • Adjusting the temperature of my room to be approximately 68 degrees. I am weird and don’t like to sleep in a room that’s too cool so this works for me. Anything hotter and I lie awake for too long. If it’s colder I wake up more often with cold shoulders.
  • Most important, I read 15-30 minutes of fiction before bed. This helps settle my mind, turn off my obsessive “to-do list” thoughts, and lets me drift into a fantasy world. Current reading list: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

Other strategies include not drinking more than 2 glasses of wine or beer within 2 hours of sleep. Alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to enter the Delta sleep cycle, which is the most physically rejuvenating time of sleep. I also don’t drink caffeine after noon and avoid sugary foods within 3 hours of bedtime to prevent high blood sugar when I want to be calming down before bed.

There’s a lot more to this chapter, including gadgets and supplements to determine your personal sleep habits. It’s too in depth to cover here, but if insomnia is a problem for you then this book could be your savior.

The Perfect Diet

Losing fat while gaining lean mass is great for anybody who is not at their ideal running weight. Ferriss promotes a “slow-carb” diet which is similar to the paleo diet with the exception that he advocates eating legumes. I am a proponent of strategic paleo meals and highly recommend The Paleo Diet for Athletes. This diet is similar.

A fascinating section of the book is devoted to “damage control” or mitigating binge meals. Think Christmas dinner, Thanksgiving, or a Super Bowl feast. I have not tested these strategies, but they fascinate me. If you’re going to be a fat ass, mitigate the damage by doing the following:

  • Minimize the release of insulin by having a low-carb breakfast that’s high in protein and fat.
  • Drink grapefruit juice for the fructose before your second meal. Fructose prevents your blood sugar from spiking (which prevents the release of insulin).
  • Drink a lot of water with lemon or lime juice squeezed in. The citrus helps maintain stable blood sugar levels.
  • 60-90 seconds of moderate-intensity resistance exercises (push ups, body weight squats, etc.) performed before and after your binge meals creates a hormonal response that prevents fat from being stored as fat.
  • An advanced technique is to take two 20 minute ice baths every day to create an additional hormonal response that burns fat. This is why Michael Phelps can eat 12,000 calories every day – he spends 4 hours in a pool. [There’s a lot of science behind this that Ferriss goes into in the book, but I’m not rehashing it here.]

These strategies, coupled with his slow-carb diet, can help you get to your healthy weight. I haven’t tested all of them, but I will probably start soon. I love self-experimentation.

Do you know Scott Jurek? You should. He was named the Ultrarunner of the Year by Ultrarunning Magazine in 2003-2005 and 2007. He has won a record 7 consecutive Western States 100 Milers. And he is a vegan.

Now, I do not advocate being a vegetarian or vegan. But there’s one important aspect of Jurek’s diet that is worth considering: the sheer volume of healthy, nutritious food that he eats. I was amazed. Everything he puts in his body has a purpose: to nourish, promote health, and help him recover from his 150+ mile training weeks.

His weekly grocery trip costs him nearly $600 and includes nearly every vegetable and fruit Whole Foods offers. The supplements he takes include Green Magma, Udo’s Choice Adult Probiotics, Udu’s Choice Super Bifido Plus, Organic Hemp Protein + Fiber, and Floradix Iron + Herbs. Jurek leaves no nutritional stone unturned. I would love to eat a variation of his diet except with meat.

Scott Jurek’s diet is a great example of trying to eek out as much nutrition as possible. A good diet is not eating “low fat” stuff from the grocery store, it’s getting as many nutrients from the foods you eat as possible. Ask yourself, “Is this food nourishing me?”

Extras: The Four Hour Body has more body hacks than you can shake a stick at. Want to learn how to hold your breath as long as Houdini? I did it using the protocol outlined in the book in my second attempt. Want to give your wife a 15 minute orgasm? Swim effortlessly? Double your sperm count? It’s all there.

And as far as I can tell, everything I’ve personally tried works. It’s frightening. Maybe for my next experiment I’ll retire from running and gain 34 pounds of muscle in the next month (Ferriss did it). I don’t think every piece of advice is rock solid, but the point is that it’s worth thinking about. Self experimentation and finding what works for you is important.

Check out The Four Hour Body for the most fascinating compilation of fitness and diet hacks I’ve ever seen.

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Comments

  1. Definitely an interesting book, I managed to read through it in about a week, jumping around to different chapters which seemed intriguing at the time.

    I found the sprinting and jumping form primers to be really helpful. I’ve always taken a big first step in my start offs, and never thought that it might be just wasted effort.

  2. I’m a major skeptic of the “get what you want quickly” approaches of the type Tim advocates, but you point out some interesting suggestions that “may” make me actually invest some time in this book. First, I’m 120% on board now with the suggestion that strength training should target your weaknesses (so long as you know what your weakness is – the first hurdle). And, like you, I believe in investing in a really strong base before starting to extend yourself for a new challenge – that’s the biggest reason why I’m now skipping a spring marathon to instead build the base for a run at 3:00 or better in the fall. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Fitz, it will certainly make reading the book (if I go there) even more thought provoking when including the context of your own experiences and comments.

    • It’s worth a read for sheer entertainment value. I’m not a “get fit quick” person – lasting fitness takes time and hard work. But some of the tactics he outlines actually do work – I’ve tested them. How else could I have held my breath for 3:30? I like to read a lot of different sources of running, fitness, strength, etc. so this was a fascinating change of pace.

  3. It seems intriguing. I may have to check it out. I’m always curious about how others do things. I tend to be a creature of habit so change is not something I’m good at but I still like to see what’s out there even if I don’t incorporate it. I find it gives me ideas about what’s possible.

    I have a poster of Scott on my bedroom wall for inspiration. It’s signed. Yes, I am a running geek. 🙂 I do use Udo’s Oil and I think that it’s helped lubricate my “old” joints. I’m not afraid to eat fat, good fat. I was kind of shocked when you mentioned his grocery bill, but then not really. Since I’ve been eating healthier, my grocery bill has gone way up. It’s so frustrating that it’s cheaper to eat bad than good. If life were fair, it would be the other way around!

    • I feel the same way. But I believe a healthy diet, while a bit more expensive, offers a lot of savings from medical bills, PT, etc. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

  4. I don’t think that Tim’s program will get him from 5K to 50K in 12 weeks. He’s more likely to end up injured or have a DNF. I think it’s interesting that he hasn’t actually done the 50K yet.

    There are several mistakes in the running section of the book:

    There is an error at the bottom of page 370. A 7:28.8 pace would result in a 3:16 marathon, not a 3:30 marathon. The text says that a 3:32 marathon is an 8:30 pace. It’s actually about an 8:05 pace.

    The text says that a 3:32 marathon is an 8:30 pace. It’s actually about an 8:05 pace.

    On page 384, in the footnote, it says that running economy is “not defined here as L O2/min”. Running economy is usually defined as ml/kg/km. It’s not how much oxygen you consume per minute, but how much oxygen you require to run a kilometer (per kg of body weight).

    On pages 392 and 393, there are a series of interval workouts that, as described, are not possible for Tim to run. On Friday of Week 1 of the 12 week training program, it calls for 2 x 800m on 3 minutes. If Tim can run a 5K in about 24 minutes, he can probably do an 800m run in a little over 3:00. This would mean he would have to do these 800’s with no rest.

    On Sunday of Week 2 and Saturday of Week 3, it gets worse. The training plan calls for 3 x 800m on 2:30 and 4 x 800m on 2:00, the last one calling for Tim to run at a 4:00 mile pace.

    I think these were meant to be a gradually increasing series of 800 m runs with progressively shorter rest periods, i.e., 2 x 800m w/ 3 minutes rest, 3 x 800m w/ 2:30 rest, and 4 x 800 w/ 2:00 rest.

    • Mike – great research into this! Yes, I noticed the training looked off as well. And it’s VERY interesting to me that he published this chapter without attempting the training program. He claimed that it was too close to publishing time to test. Time will only tell if he actually attempts the 50k.

      One of my issues with the “extrapolations” that he uses is that they simply don’t work. They can give a good baseline for an experienced runner, but that logic flies out the window with new runners. There are too many variables.

      I’m glad you took the time to review the running chapter. While that chapter certainly has its flaws, what did you think of the rest of the book? I found it more researched with actual experiments. A fascinating read.

      • I thought it was an interesting book. Covered a lot of different, somewhat unrelated topics. I actually think he could have made more money if he issued it as a series of ebooks on different topics. The use of affiliate links at the end of each chapter is interesting. I think the money from them goes to a charity.

  5. Was there any mention of beet juice in the running economy section? I can’t remember. Using beet juice to reduce muscle-based oxygen need is kind of a new thing now.

  6. Thanks for the honest review on this book. Being one of those guys who wants to go from 5-50K, I will have to say that claim alone would make me doubt the rest of the book. I want to run my first ultra, not just survive!

  7. Om Prakash says:

    There definitely is some truth to this man’s claims. After all he didn’t just dream it up one day. Hours and hours of back-breaking re-sear-ch probably led to the hard won results. For one thing, there is no black-&-white thinking. A paleo diet may not suit all of us carb-addicted losers. Adding legumes and lentils and the odd wholemeal bread slice for sanity’s sake can be an oasis amidst a desert of dieting. And as far as exercise is concerned you just have to somehow lift your big fat ass off the sofa and enter the ocean of cruel contradictions that is the great outdoors. I agree it is scary…but then that is the whole point of the game called life. To invite exposure and conquer your fears of the unknown are two factors in the weight loss battle. Why the unknown ought to fear you. Unscared! That’s the way to go. That, my friend, is the ultimate attitude! Rather like the 80s song by Survivor titled “Eye of the Tiger”. All it takes is all you’ve got! So jump right in and don’t let go till you uproot this monster called obesity. For it deserves no mercy whatsoever!!!

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