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Austin Horn and the Primal Life

I recently caught up with Austin Horn, one of Canada’s up and coming Olympic distance athletes.  Austin trains with the National Triathlon Senior High Performance training squad based in Victoria, BC.  He is 21 years old and currently studying Philosophy at the University of Victoria.  His goal is to eventually pursue a law degree.  He defines himself as an environmentally sensitive and proactive person.

What inspired this interview had little to do with his academic or athletic prowess and more to do with his current life choices.  Austin has committed himself to the Primal lifestyle.  After several brief discussions during run workouts I found myself increasingly intrigued by the extent of his commitment.  The Paleo or Primal lifestyle has become popular over the last few years but few people go to the lengths that Austin has gone to.  Based on his attitude and general well being I would say he is thriving in his new life as an urban caveman.  If you are looking for some inspiration to make some changes then look no further.  Be sure to check out Austins blog to read personal accounts of his journey.

What is the Paleo Diet?

Well first I should make the important distinction between Paleo (Loren Cordain) and Primal (Mark Sisson) and note that I actually follow a “Primal” lifestyle. Paleo and Primal are often used interchangeably to describe a diet that is modeled after our 3 million year old ancestral genes. Evolution takes a very long time. For millions of years our “caveman” ancestors ate and acted a certain way. Only in the past 10 000 years (or “yesterday” in evolutionary terms) did we start consuming grains with large-scale agricultural practices and implement a more sedentary lifestyle.
The Primal/Paleo assertion is that 10 000 years is not near enough time to adapt to a change in diet or lifestyle that was not so for millions of years. The claim is, not only are gains not necessary for optimal health, they are the main contributors to heart and cardiovascular disease (as well as a plethora of countless other diseases and defects) . . . so no grains.
It’s all about insulin stability, so sugars are also limited (or eliminated completely where possible) along with most carbohydrates (aside from vegetables), all processed foods are out as well. So basically, eat lots of real food. Vegetables, “clean” meats (organic, hormone/antibiotic-free, grass-fed… etc), nuts/seeds, nut oils (as a rule of thumb, most vegetable oils are bad), fruit (in limited quantities, staying away from the really sugary fruit for the sake of insulin stability).

What is a Primal lifestyle?

A primal lifestyle is living in a way that mimics our Neanderthal ancestors as closely as possible. The reasoning behind this idea is the same as for that of the diet (we have a 3 million year old evolutionary way of doing things).

  • Lots of long low-level aerobic activity (like walking or bike riding)
  • No sitting (or at least not near as much as your typical American); I find squatting (great calf and lower back stretch), lying on your stomach, and yoga’s “child’s pose” are all good alternatives if you absolutely need to sit (like while on the computer, studying, or reading)
  • Limit the chemicals you come into contact with (many soaps and shampoos have been linked to nervous system damage and other cancers/diseases)
  • Go to bed and wake up with the sun (this means sleeping more in the winter, and turning off lights in your home as it gets later)
  • Squatting to poop! (if you can manage it) has been proven to be the healthier alternative (sitting to poop has been linked to various diseases and cancers of the colon and intestinal tract)
  • Go barefoot when possible (I like to run in Vibram FiveFingers)
  • Manage stress through “play” and other leisure activities
  • Cut out the noise (there is WAY too much noise in our modern lives) leave the ipod at home, turn off the TV or car stereo, become comfortable with silence (we don’t get enough of it)
  • Spend a lot of time outside and absorb that crucial vitamin D (if you live in a place like Canada where vitamin D cannot be absorbed through the sun for a long intervals during the year, take a supplement).

What inspired you to try living the Primal lifestyle?

I got really run-down and burnt out about half way through my summer racing season. Eventually, I was too drained and broken to do much of anything. So while I was taking time off I became obsessed with finding out how to become as healthy as I possible. I stumbled across Mark Sisson’s blog (www.marksdailyapple.com) and was immediately captivated by his wealth of knowledge, and “cavemen” approach to optimal health. I think I spent about 40 hours that week just reading the info of his blog alone. Then I ordered his book and his cookbook. I also did some “blog-hopping” research in Paleo-sphere, and learned that this was in a growing revolution.

What was the hardest thing to give up?

Coffee shop treats! Like pastries and muffins; more specifically, Bubby Rose’s carrot cake (or any of those baked goods for that matter). But, to be honest, after the initial nostalgia fades, all I see is poison!

How long have you been at it?

I’ve been at it for about 3 months now. I can honestly say I have never felt better. I feel like a super-hero!

Was it tough at first to cut out certain foods?

Honestly, no. The meals that I eat are incredibly satisfying, and filling. The whole insulin stability thing makes it so you’re not craving sugar and other junk at random intervals throughout the day. It’s pretty cool, actually.

Do you ever cheat?

My only vices (which are not entirely frowned upon within the Primal realm) are the raw honey I like to have with my evening tea and the dark chocolate I like to put in my home-made power-bars (or eat just by itself occasionally). I also have a glass of red wine every night (usually organic cabernet, for health purposes), but I don’t really count that as a vice

Aside from nutritional changes, what else have you changed in your life?

I run barefoot (Vibram FiveFingers) three-four times a week. I wash my hard with a baking-soda and water concoction; then I condition with apple-cider vinegar and water. I moisturize with pure almond oil. I tried not using soap for a while, but it`s hard when you live with two girls, and so now I use the most safe and simple-ingredient soap I can find. I was brushing my teeth with just baking soda too for a while, until I realized I would have to give up coffee, not worth it (so now I just use a “natural” alternative). I have been staying away from music and other controllable noises (I don’t watch TV, so that wasn’t a problem). I do homework on the floor in the various positions I mentioned above. I am (trying) to go to bed with the sun (even if I have to get up before it). I am more aware of bodily stresses and I try to diligently manage those (both psychological and physical). When I’m feeling really adventurous, I’ll climb up onto the toilet seat and have myself a good old-fashioned caveman poop (don’t tell my girlfriend).

List 10 basic rules of the Primal lifestyle?

There are an “official” 10 on Mark Sisson’s blog (www.marksdailyapple.com), but I will give you my own (they might overlap a bit):

  1. Avoid grains like the plague (FYI: corn is a grain)!
  2. It’s all about insulin stability; stay away from sugar at all costs!
  3. Eat real food (none of that corn, soy, sugar,  processed crap)
  4. Avoid all chemicals! (Motivation, via fun-fact: aluminum is linked to both Alzheimer’s and breast cancer. Aluminum can be found in baking-soda and deodorant; it can also be leached into your food if you are cooking with aluminum pots and pans – always use cast iron)
  5. Play! Manage your stress through de-stress
  6. Go outside! Vitamin D is huge for optimal health
  7. Choose “clean” meats and other foods whenever possible (organic, grass-fed, anti-biotic/grow hormone-free, humanely-raised, free-range… etcetera)
  8. Get adequate sleep!
  9. Always be asking yourself, “How or what, would a caveman do?”
  10. Take a Primal poop, you’ll like it…

What are the 3 best books/blogs that you have read that address the Primal/Paleo lifestyle?

Mark Sisson of www.marksdailyapple.com is a wealth of free information, and it is how I (and many others) got started. His book (the Primal Blueprint) also lays the diet and lifestyle out nicely. There are lots of Paleo/Primal blogs out there, but here are just a few that I read:
www.proteinpower.com (the blog of Dr. Michael R. Eades)
www.wholehealthsource.blogspot.com (Ph.D. in neurobiology, and B.S. in biochemistry)

Is it challenging to live under a Primal/Paleo lifestyle and still train effectively?

Not at all, quite the opposite actually. I have never felt better (in or outside of training). Sure I have had to take my culinary skills up a few levels (but hey, let’s not kid ourselves, chicks dig a guy that can cook), and meals involve more pre-planning than say Kraft dinner or Hungryman TV dinners, but I absolutely love it.

People often wonder how they can apply a Primal/Paleo diet to an endurance athletes needs in terms of carbohydrate requirements. What do you eat to manage your carbohydrate needs? Have you found need less carbohydrates? Or is it the type carbohydrate in question?

Right now this is a big experiment, so I cannot irrefutably state that this is the best possible diet to be following for a competitive endurance sports athlete. What I can give you are some supporting facts and anecdotal evidence.
It is the opinion of many that the typical grain-based American diet trains your body to burn carbohydrates during the majority of levels of exertion. Your body can learn to burn fat as its main energy source limiting grain and sugar consumption and upping the “good” fats. Fat is also a more efficient source of fuel.
That being said, as I am sure you know, your body only burns fat up to a certain level of exertion (then it switches to carbohydrates and glucose, respectively). This is where the on-going experiment comes into play. I supplement with more carbohydrates in the form of yams, sweet potatoes, beans and legumes than would otherwise be acceptable on a normal Primal/Paleo diet. So far this concession has worked out marvelously. While I am not at peak training right now, I am training twice a day with 4-6 harder sessions dispersed throughout the week (so far without incident). No matter what happens though, I will never eat another gain as long as I live.

What is your blog address so people can learn more?

It’s www.austinhorn.blogspot.com. I will be doing my best to document this experiment as I live and train through it.

What is your race schedule for this season?

I haven’t really thought that far ahead yet, but I would definitely like to make my debut on the World Cup and World Championships Series circuits. A big one that I will be aiming for this year will be elite under 23 World Championships.

Anything else you would like to add?

Knowledge is contagious, spread the good word.


I did give the primal poop a try much to the dismay of my wife but my 2.5 year old got a kick out of it and it was oddly satisfying!  Hard to balance on the toilet seat but satisfying none the less

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