The perfect athletic day (a paleo day?)

The perfect athletic day (a paleo day?)

When I began thinking about this article, which was only a few hours ago, I wondered if I should call it “Day in the life of a Paleo-Athlete” or “A natural running day” but then I thought better of it because our hunter-gathering ancestors were not athletes in the way we understand it today and did not live lives similar to modern time elite athletes.

All I knew was that I had dug out an old concept of mine: how to design the “perfect day” for an athlete. I first began wondering how it would look when noticing how important structure was for me in getting training and life fitted in around work. The day only has 24-hours but there are effective and ineffective ways to occupy those hours. Percy Cerutty, the late Australian coach, provided most of the inspiration on how to develop the concept further from the way he ran his Portsea training camp where he and his athletes immersed themselves in a different rhythm of life from Friday evening to Monday morning. Herb Elliott, one of the finest middle-distance runners in history, was a  product of this camp and it was normal for up to twelve top class athletes to spend the weekend there.

Life at Portsea

Cerutty and his athletes followed natural patterns for everything they did, with most of the runner staying at the camp being abroad around 6:30 to 7am,

Percy Cerutty and his runners during a dune running session at Portsea
Percy Cerutty and his runners during a dune running session at Portsea

followed immediately with a bit of easy conversation and active movement before they all embarked on a run of at least an hour through bush roads, beaches and along cliff-tops. Afterwards they would bathe in the ocean before returning for the hearty natural breakfast already prepared for them (by Cerutty’s wife!).

At between 11am and 1pm, the athletes would do their second session  of the day followed usually by more swimming and diving. This workout, also of about an hour in length, would be followed by a lunch heavy on fruit, salad, mild cheeses, eggs and fish followed by a siesta. Cerutty considered this an inviolable rule and most slept for a full two hours. Around 5pm all athletes would be awake again and ready for the final session of the day usually on sand, hill or beach. The group would run an intensive session and return exhausted to relax in each others company and with the music of Bach and Beethoven playing as they relaxed on divans and bunks.

The evening would conclude with a very animated group evening meal consisting mainly of cooked vegetables, fish and poultry with fruit salad for dessert. At around 10:30pm the entire camp of Portsea would be asleep.

If this sounds random, rest assured it is not. The times are carefully selected to fit in with the optimal (average) daily rhythms of the body. For instance, science can show us today that our human repair hormones spike between 10:30pm and 2:30 in the morning and that during this period most physical repair occurs. Thus having all athletes asleep by 10:30pm gives the biggest possible recovery benefits. Muscular performance has been shown to be at it’s peak in the late afternoon, thus placing the higher intensity workout there being a logical step.

Our athletic day

Unfortunately, we cannot all live at Portsea every day (indeed Cerutty closed the camp in 1969 when he stopped coaching athletes full-time, he died 6 years later of motor-neuron disease, aged 80). Rather most of us have day-jobs to fit our athletic pursuits in around. It seems we could all benefit from having a place like Portsea to go to from time to time, but until such time as it is resurrected in a place near you, I had an idea: take the basic rhythm, which closely follows natural rhythms anyway, and organise them into blocks of activity around a standard work day.

This is how to do it:

Your morning

Give yourself 15 to 30 minutes to wake up and get ready for the first workout of the day. If this means a refreshing shower (I prefer cold) and a cup of tea then fit this in. For many it simply means shaking off any left-over drowsiness and changing into running gear as well as getting a glass of water. Before strenuous sessions I would take a tiny bit of fruit or a some honey with my tea but nothing more.

Next you dedicate a set amount of time to the first session of the day (this may be your only session, but two is better) and 2 hours is ideal once you have attained basic fitness. This does not mean two hours of running but includes time for drills, loosening up and cooling down properly as well as showering.

You should factor in at least 30 minutes after this for breakfast although I would sometimes speed up this process by having protein shakes and other quick foods on the ready to consume while travelling to work and then eating more in the canteen. Caution is advised here as a small breakfast can severely hamper the benefits from your morning session and your energy levels throughout the day.

The final part of your morning plan should be planned in for “commute” which in my case means a 1 hour drive but for more fortunate souls may be simply a 15 to 20 minute walk or a quick cycle.

Work day

For the majority of us, we need to block in a continuous section of “work hours” usually 8 to 10 depending on your job. This part of the day is broken up only by short breaks. Athletes should take every opportunity to do some quick drills, such as squatting, during such breaks and regularly step away from their desk (every hour at least) to stretch their legs. For those with very long lunch hours, another hour-long session can usually be fitted into this part of the day but make sure you leave yourself enough time to eat a large meal. At all times remember that all stress in your job adds to any miles and any work you do, so any exercise must positively supplement with a high-stress environment, making you feel more relaxed, not more fatigued.

After the work segment of your day, you need to book in further time for commuting including any time you know you spend picking up children, going shopping or similar necessary and regular activities.

Evening

Your evening then begins with the second (or third!) session of the day. For those contemplating only one workout per day, this could be the first but you will notice benefits to all your training if you begin every day with at least some exercise, even 15 or 20 minutes of easy work is better than nothing and will provide noticeable improvements in your fitness levels and your health and overall energy. The only exception, again, is individuals living with chronic stress. Exercise should be restorative or even meditative in such cases. Some individuals are at a stage where only rest benefits them (temporarily) but this is, thankfully, still an unlucky few.

Either way, the evening session is usually constrained to an hour, unless it is your only one, after which it is time to settle in for the evening. You should take in recovery food immediately after the workout (within 20 minutes) and then consume a dinner similar to the Portsea athletes within the hour (the earlier in the evening the better, before 8 pm is best).

The remaining hours of the evening are for rest, relaxation and socialisation (not work) and you will get the best recovery and set yourself up best for the coming day by being asleep at 10:30pm. Everyone is slightly different but remember that our bodies were designed for roughly 14 hours of darkness. So stay away from bright screens (such as computer monitors and tvs) as much as you can at evening tide as it will make sleep more difficult to come by and affect recovery. Recline with a good book instead or have relaxed conversation with your family, spouse or training partners (if you are lucky enough to be in a training camp).

Example

I struggled to return to a proper rhythm of training after the marathon so designed a day that looked something like this to help me get back into a near ideal rhythm:

  • 7:00 to 7:30: Wake-up and relax
  • 7:30-9:30: Training
  • 9:30-10:30: Commute
  • 10:30-19:00: Work
  • 19:00-20:00: Commute
  • 20:00-21:00: Training
  • 21:00-22:30: Downtime and relax
  • 22:30-7:00: Sleep

As you can see this plan would work for someone who works late office hours. Someone working early office hours would need to put a short session in the morning and a longer in the evening or place one in the middle of the day (or both if they want to train thrice per day). This day allows 8.5 hours of sleep which can be a little too much or a little too little depending on training load and your own individual preferences. Athletes with families may get interrupted during the night but the good news is that some people believe we are actually meant to be awake briefly in the middle of the night, so if you could plan it into a  more or less set rhythm, you may find a way to work this to your advantage.

But adopting such a “bi-phasic” sleep pattern only works if you are already doing everything else right: eating correctly, ensuring the quality of your sleep at night is optimal and exercising regularly in a healthy manner that does not leave you burned out. Other factors such as stress at work would need to be monitored closely.

A more normal day may look like this for a person working 9-5pm with family commitments:

  • 6:30 to 7:00: Wake-up and relax
  • 7:00-8:30: Training
  • 8:30-09:00: Commute
  • 09:00-17:30: Work
  • 17:30-18:00: Commute
  • 18:00-20:00: Training
  • 20:00-22:30: Downtime and relax
  • 22:30-7:00: Sleep

As you can see such a day would leave you 3.5 hours to train (including activities around training such as warming up, showering etc.), 1 hour for commuting, 8.5 hours for working and 3 hours of downtime and relaxation (or family time) as well as 8.5 hours sleep. Reducing sleep time and exercise time would be the easiest way to get a bit more back for downtime and family time but once you start thinking about your day in these terms it will become obvious why spending 1 hour on Facebook on average every day is perhaps not such a great idea if you really want to live the healthiest life possible or if you want to take a shot at becoming a champion.

We all get only one life to make the most out of the talents we were given, so hopefully this entry will give you some ideas to what you can do to organise your day better and achieve more. In future installments around natural living for athletics, I’ll explore why certain ways of placing exercise into your daily life are better than others.

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René

Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.
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