Bestselling author Christopher McDougall discusses fat-burning, the Maffetone Method and his new book, ‘Natural Born Heroes’
Author Christopher McDougall is best known for his classic 2009 bestseller Born to Run, which sold more than 1 million copies and has been credited with sparking a modern revolution in running as well as the barefoot running movement. His most recent book, Natural Born Heroes shot to the New York Times bestseller list within weeks of its Spring 2015 release.
Natural Born Heroes explores how modern humans have lost the connection to their innate endurance, strength, agility and mental toughness, and how in fact these natural abilities are still deeply rooted in all of us. The storyline centers on the obscure history of resistance fighters on the island of Crete. This “Daring Band of Misfits” used their natural fitness to turn the tide of World War II, leading eventually to Hitler’s defeat.
Another major theme of Natural Born Heroes is the human ability to use stored fat as fuel to perform epic amounts of physical work or travel great distances. While researching this aspect of human endurance, Christopher found all roads, and even one burro trail, led to Dr. Phil Maffetone. In the final draft, Phil’s philosophies would span several chapters of the book, and those people he’d coached would read like a Who’s Who list of endurance stars, including triathletes Mark Allen and Mike Pigg, and legendary ultramarathoner Stu Mittleman.
Along the way, Christopher takes to task many long-held mainstream tenants of nutrition, training and human performance.
I recently had to opportunity to spend some time with Christopher and we discussed his process of researching and writing Natural Born Heroes, and how Phil came to play a central role in his story.
“When I first became aware of Phil and started doing Internet searches, I found a message board that had something like 4,000 threads,” Christopher recalls. “This dated back to seven years worth of posts by people who were constantly discovering, rediscovering and experimenting with the Maffetone Method.”
Reading through these hundreds of posts, Christopher said he was struck by the similar reactions of so many people who said Phil’s teachings had changed their lives, helped them lose weight, get faster or heal their injuries.
“I thought, who is this mystery man out there who all these people seem to revere but nobody seems to know how to find?”
I had met Christopher in Leadville, Colorado, a number of years ago when he was doing some of his preliminary research for Born To Run and also writing a story about the sport of pack-burro racing for Men’s Health. I was no stranger to Leadville, a high-altitude endurance sports mecca of sorts, having run in the Boom Days Pack-Burro race many consecutive years and winning four times, as well as finishing the Leadville Trail 100 ultramarathon and winning the prestigious No 02 10K there at 10,000 feet altitude.
Years later, as he was researching for Natural Born Heroes, Christopher noticed my name as the editor on the copyright page of one of Phil’s books and reached out to me seeking Phil’s contact info.
After spending time with Phil and interviewing him about his methods, Christopher decided to do some first-hand research, taking on the Two Week Test and adjusting his training to the MAF 180 Formula. He found the results produced the same type of fat-burning that he had suspected in the athletes and Cretan resistance fighters he was writing about in Natural Born Heroes.
A thinking-person’s author, Christopher carefully thought out every angle before going on the Two Week Test. He examined his current diet and took into account foods he would need to replace before starting the test.
“It’s like putting together a survival kit,” he says. “I wanted to know that at any given point in the day I had the foods that I would need to get through.” So he made sure he had things like eggs to replace his oatmeal at breakfast, heavy cream instead of half-and-half for his coffee, cashews for snacks, and a variety of protein options and vegetables for his main courses.
“The actual eating wasn’t a problem at all,” Christopher says. “What was surprising was that it was more of a challenge riding that roller coaster, that sort of dip and then the surge of energy. The body is looking for the sugar and isn’t finding it, and it hasn’t yet tapped into the fat. I felt like I just got over the flu or something, and then suddenly the energy comes back with a vengeance.”
Then he went through a similar process with the 180 Formula, ordering a heart-rate monitor, learning to use it and planning out his workouts.
“The main thing about the 180 Formula is it just makes such logical sense. If you’re a hunter-gather you don’t know how far you are going to go,” Christopher says. “The smart strategy would be surge and recover, go to the point of aerobic stress and then back off.”
Christopher notes that Stu Mittleman does a really nice job of describing anaerobic stress. To paraphrase, he says your vision starts to narrow, your head starts to drop because what’s happening as your body goes under stress is it’s sinking into survival mode. Once the stress is relieved your head comes up, your vision expands, and you feel better.
In the final analysis, Christopher had put to words the diet and workouts used by the many natural born heroes — both modern and historical — in his new book.
“The test I always use with stuff is, not only is it working for me, but can I find evidence of it popping up again and again in different places and different areas?” he says. “It makes sense in hunter-gatherer cultures, in Cretan resistance fighters and among the Tarahumara runners of Copper Canyon, Mexico” (where Born to Run was set).
He says the methods that Phil teaches pop up again and again among successful cultures.
“These guys in WWII were doing the same thing Mark Allen was doing in the 1990s — both were undertaking extreme physical challenges and they approached them in much the same way.”
Personally, I was a fan of Born to Run, and Natural Born Heroes seems a natural progression of what Christopher started when he went into the canyons of Mexico on the trail of Micah True and the Tarahumara. With Natural Born Heroes he takes this idea of natural fitness to the next level. It’s a must read for anyone interested in health and fitness.
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Listen to the Endurance Planet podcast with Christopher, Phil and Hal right here:
By Hal Walter
MAF Senior Editor