Creating Vibrant Health (For Runners!): An Interview with Matt Gartland

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about why so many new runners get injured or give up on running within a month or two of starting to run. Beginning runners feel overwhelmed with the amount of information out there, over-excited about running, and need to first lay the fitness foundation before starting an ambitious training program.

Part of this foundation is a healthy lifestyle and a component that I only touched upon briefly. Enter Matt Gartland of Healthy Lifestyle Design. Matt is a proud health geek, writer, world traveler, nonconformist, coffee fanatic, and more. He writes at Healthy Lifestyle Design where he unleashes his passion for audacious, remarkable and unconventional living powered by a vibrant healthy lifestyle. He’s also the author of Fearless Health – a manifesto for optimizing the human experience and changing the world.

Matt Gartland of Healthy Lifestyle Design

Matt is helping people develop passionate lives through a healthy lifestyle. Are you in?

On to the interview!

Distance running sometimes gets a bad reputation in health circles because it focuses exclusively on one type of fitness: running. Do you think training for distance races can fit into a model of healthy living?

I know indeed that running gets a bad reputation in some circles. I’ve flirted with both sides of that argument. At first, during my college years, I was very “pro” running of any flavor. Distance running was my choice – I loved mid-distances (8-13 miles). But I’ve since phased out distance running from my fitness repertoire. There are a variety of reasons for this – (1) IT band inflammation became a persistent problem, (2) the time commitment post-college was harder to deal with, and (3) I decided I wanted to pursue another avenues of fitness.

The bottom-line is that you should always do what you love. And if distance running is your thing then do it! Just do it safely, because all that pounding can be unhealthy if you have poor technique and/or constantly run on hard surfaces. Do trail running and make sure to include ample recovery.

What advice do you have for beginning runners who may not have the healthiest lifestyles? How can they transform their lives with running and healthier decisions?

This is a tough question, but an important one. Beginners should focus first on “why” they want to run. Many perceive running as an “easy” way of getting healthy. It’s relatively straight forward and doesn’t require a lot of fancy gear. I believe that attracts many to running, even those that hate doing it.

But if you hate (or simply don’t enjoy) doing it then you shouldn’t even start. Your healthy lifestyle philosophy/mind-set is most important and comes first. If, while creating your philosophy, you discover you love to run, then by all means run. But running (especially distance running) isn’t a magical solution to healthy lifestyle woes.

If in the end you choose to run (for the right reasons), then you should start first on technique and manageable distances. You don’t become a distance runner overnight. Get into the mechanics, learn about pre-and-post recovery routines, and make sure your nutrition is on par with your running regimen.

What are some healthy lifestyle mistakes that distance runners make? Aside from running a lot, do runners avoid other healthy lifestyle essentials?

This is a good carry-over question from #2. Yes, I feel (generally speaking) that many rush into running without fully vetting the ramifications of that choice. If you start running without any prior experience and no focus on technique then you risk injury, demotivation, and (ultimately) failure.

So, as far as mistakes are concerned, I’ll reiterate a few from above. First, many run without knowing really “why” they run. If you don’t get out of bed in the morning craving your run, then you probably shouldn’t be running. Second, if you decide running is for you, then commit to it fully. That commitment isn’t just lacing up your new sneakers and hitting the pavement. It’s very much about learning the art and science of running – technique, periodization, nutrition, motivation, etc. Third, as you allude to, don’t over-extend your runs. Build up your mileage in time. If you push yourself too hard to early you’ll learn to hate running and eventually quit.

What’s one recommendation you would give to distance runners to improve their health?

One recommendation…hmmm. I’d simply ask them to answer the following question honestly, “does running make you happy?” The act of running itself should be its own reward. And if it is, then continue on your way! But if you answer “no, but it will make me healthier and lose weight” then I challenge you to identify other pursuits that will make you happy and still achieve the same end-game.

Sometimes runners can become too obsessed with personal best times, splits, heart-rate zones, and times. How can runners focus on the big picture and lead more balanced, healthy lives?

I definitely fell into this running-mania when I was at my height. Granted, I loved all the science, BPs, metrics, etc. because I’m a proud geek! But such obsessions (yes, they’re obsessions) can easily lead people into dark waters. The trick is to balance out your “work” runs with “happy” runs. One idea is to take one of your weekly runs and simply go for the joy of it. No watch. No heart-rate monitor. Just run and be in the flow. Enjoy a scenic route. Maybe run with a friend or loved one. Just be.

A lot of runners are looking for that extra edge in performance. Maybe it’s a new dietary supplement, training paradigm, or shoe craze. What are your thoughts on sticking with simplicity and the basics that have been proven to work? Do you ever get caught in the most recent fad or the hype of a new product?

I certainly did get caught up in all the hype in my early years [Jason’s note: Read Matt’s Story for how he’s so healthy!]. It’s a seductive trap to fall into. But my recent and currently philosophies have returned to minimalism – the art of the essential. As a quick aside, this view isn’t specific to just running but has become a world-view for all of health and life. But back to running, the basics are basics for a reason. You can’t fake them. And you can’t avoid them.

So, I’d say stick with simple yet time-proven training programs. Eat wholesome foods, and if you’re a serious mid-to-long distance runner then research some simple energy packs to take with you (still aim for wholesome ingredients). Shoes-wise, I’ve become an advocate of the barefoot alterative (I wear Vibrams). I haven’t taken my Vibrams to mid-distances, but for the sprints and shorter distances (including Parkour training) that I do I love them!

The basics work. And if you focus on the 80/20 rule you’ll get far.

All that said, I’m not a professional coach. And if you’re a serious and professional-caliber runner then you shouldn’t be listening to me. There are far more experienced folks out there that can help you analyze your nutrition program, periodization schedule, work-to-rest ratios, technique tweaks, etc. But for the majority of “average” folks just wanting to get healthy, I do believe my experiences offer valuable insights. As always, your choices are your own responsibility.

Your blog Healthy Lifestyle Design is about much more than running or exercise: it’s helping people dominate their health so they can lead remarkable, powerful lifestyles. What principles from HLD transfer well into the sport of running?

To me, this question is at the heart of the matter. My personal crusade with health has been rife with mistakes, disease, regrets, and much worse. I’ve learned a lot through those dark times. And they now fuel me to design more meaningful, vibrant, and happy lives through the awesome powerful of fearless health.

To that end, HLD offers many holistic principles that can certainly apply to meaningful, enjoyable, and safe running. A few include…

  • Live as naturally and actively as possible

    Fearless Health starts today.
  • Train with purpose, passion, and intelligence
  • Believe in preventions over cures
  • Believe that living healthy is wicked fun!

You can read all 11 commandments of the “Health Elite” in my free manifesto, FEARLESS HEALTH: How to Thrive in an Unhealthy World.

Motivation is a huge part of distance running and sticking to a healthy lifestyle. What are the best ways to stay motivated when there are so many negative distractions out there that will prevent you from reaching your goals?

Motivation is key. I’m so glad you asked about that!

I feel that many in the status quo confuse genuine motivation with petty lust. Many lust after better vanity, less fat, en-vogue supplements, etc. These are shallow impulses incapable of sustaining a meaningful commitment to better health and life. Mind you, less fat and improved vanity are worthwhile results to achieve. But they certainly aren’t motivation.

In my view, motivation stems from your inner-most belief-system. This “operating system” for life provides the infinite energy you need to resist the temptations of the unhealthy status quo. A bit of honest and thoughtful introspection should help you discover what your belief-system is comprised of.

As a warning, you may discover (as I foreshadowed earlier) that distance running really isn’t a strong part of your belief-system. I’d encourage you not to fight that honest emotion, but embrace it. Perhaps distance is not for you, but perhaps intervals or even free-running/parkour are.

And if distance running is for you, if it is at the core of your self-identity, then unleash it without hesitation. There are others out there like you. Find them. Join them. Learn from them. This social currency is invaluable to sustain and grow your motivation.

The last trick that I’ve learned regarding motivation is taking pride in being different. Some call this being a nonconformist. Others call it being unconventional. To a large extent, I call it being fearless! Greatness, in running or whatever else you choose to pursue, is a prestigious gift rarely given. To earn it you must stand by your convictions with courage and honor. This is an up-lifting swell as such pride amplifies your motivation.

There’s a lot of interest right now in living more primally – eating a Paleo diet and exercising like our ancestors. This often conflicts with the carbohydrate-rich diet and “chronic cardo” lifestyle of distance runners. Do you think the two are mutually exclusive? Do people have to choose between being a distance runner and living primally?

Another great question. Wow!

Honestly, I’m torn on this one. And I certainly don’t know enough about the science of both “paleo nutrition” and elite-level distance running to make a definitive claim.

I will, however, say this. Paleo nutrition is consistent with a belief in living simply and naturally. Thus, I agree with Paleo teachings. I also don’t think that life is one-dimensional. So I rarely, if ever, believe that anything is mutually exclusive. So yes, I feel that Paleo/primal philosophies can be coupled with distance running. The specifics on how I’ll leave to the experts.

Two names you should know in this debate are Mark Sisson (Mark’s Daily Apple) and Patrick McCrann. First, Mark was an acclaimed triathlete at the highest level. However, he’s since veered from that path and more towards “Grok” style fitness in accord with his Paleo beliefs. His site is a treasure-trove of awesome insights on paleo living (including running). Note that Mark is now anti “chronic cardio”.

Then there’s Patrick. Patrick is currently an elite level triathlete – far more experienced on those subjects than I. Interestingly, Patrick believes in many Paleo philosophies. Based on his performance capabilities and success, I’d say he figured out how to blend the two realities quite well. I highly recommend checking out his stuff.

So how about yourself, Matt? Are you a runner? What do you think about short-shorts?

LOL. I’ll leave short-shorts for the end!

As I’ve hinted at already, I used to be an avid runner. And I enjoyed it immensely! I can attest to the runner “high” and honestly still have the urge to get out there and blast a mid-distance run.

But my personal philosophies have evolved since those days. I’ll entertain doing a mid-distance run ever so often, but it’s rare. My chronic IT band inflammation is partially to blame. Other than that, I decided to pursue other adventures. Thus, it became a matter of ‘opportunity cost’ – what I was sacrificing for a lifestyle of distance running.

Today I love doing sprint-drills. And most recently I’ve begun experimenting with Parkour – aka “free running”. I’m not flipping off buildings (yet!), but I am making gains in my confidence to scale small walls and perform some mid-level jumps. It’s a very natural sport that promotes running with dexterity, explosiveness, and balance. It’s beautiful!

While I don’t see myself getting back into distance running “full time”, you never know. Again, if distance running is for you, if you crave it like nothing else and learn the “ways of the force”, then by all means have at it. Because the successful healthy lifestyle crusade is nothing more than the pursuit of happiness.

Oh, yes, short-shorts! Honestly, I don’t fancy them myself. Maybe it’s because my dad still wears them when he runs. Or maybe it’s the vivid images of Bleeker (see “Juno”) running in his canary-yellow shorts. But hey, if you can rock them then more power to you!

Thanks for the great interview Matt!

You can read more about how you can create a vibrant healthy lifestyle at Healthy Lifestyle Design. Don’t forget to get a free copy of the Fearless Health Manifesto!

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