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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