The Barbell Coffee Drinking Strategy

The Barbell Coffee Drinking Strategy

Every since I first read The Black Swan I’ve tried to apply the barbell strategy (i.e., a form of hedging using asymmetric diversification) to as many areas of life as I can possibly apply it.  In other words, the barbell strategy is a strategy in which you insulate yourself from negative Black Swans (extremely low probability events with devastating consequences), all the while still taking a small gamble to reap the benefits of positive Black Swans (extremely low probability events with an exponentially wild payoff).

Let me illustrate this concept as it would pertain to investing.  A barbell strategy in investing would include a portfolio that is made up of mostly (say, 90%) hyper-conservative investments and a small portion (say, 10%) hyper-risky investments, with absolutely no midlevel-risk.  Not only does the barbell strategy apply to investing, it is equally applicable to diet and fitness. [1]  Allow me to share an anecdote about my own experiences applying the barbell strategy with diet and fitness.

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Prior to reading The Black Swan I was into triathlon.  As a former competitive athlete in college, the sport helped fill a void in my life.  However, I also naively thought that all of the chronic training was not only making me more aerobically fit, but healthier too.  What a foolish belief that was! [2]

Rather abruptly after reading The Black Swan, I had an epiphany of sorts.  I realized how chronically tired I had become and I decided to quit “training”.  While formally training, I ate quite a bit and frequently (usually six-times a day) all the while staying relatively lean.  Luckily, I had read Loren Cordain’s book The Paleo Diet For Athletes long before I started seriously training, so at least most of the food I was eating was of a high quality (wild game, veggies, fish, grass-fed beef, fruit, quinoa, and some rice).

After I decided to quit training I was worried that I could I never maintain a lean physique without rigorous aerobic efforts (i.e., the opposite of the barbell strategy).  After-all, the only time in my life I had achieved a level of leanness I was happy with was when I was training hard.  Then again, I had never used a barbell strategy when it came to diet and fitness either.

Here’s what I decided to do: I ditched my training logs and quit doing any formal training all together.  I started walking a lot and would go to the local park near my house to do intense 10-15 minute workouts that included sprints, pull-ups, burpies, jump-squats, and push-ups (the kind of stuff I did to get in shape for lacrosse in college).  I would also intermittently fast (up to 24 hours a time) and vary my protein intake greatly every day (I also quit drinking a “recovery shake” 30 minutes after every workout), all the while still eating a Paleo-ish diet (albeit, I wasn’t too strict about this).  To my surprise, I not only didn’t gain weight, I actually became leaner and stronger following this barbell strategy.

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Sometimes we miss the most obvious things.  Until very recently, I missed two obvious places in which I should be implementing the barbell strategy in life.  It’s fair to say that I simply have not been critical enough of my own habits.  I’ve been blindly following “the expert’s” advice that an alcoholic drink or two a day (in other words, drinking in moderation) is better for your health than is binge drinking, which only naturally makes sense, right?

Well, it made sense until I read a profound thought in Antifragile that Taleb attributed to Rory Sutherland (another thinker I greatly admire). [3]  Sutherland suggested that the optimal policy for consuming alcohol would be to drink liberally a few days, coupled with several days of abstaining entirely.  Chronically consuming alcohol every day, even if it’s in moderation, is similar to chronic cardio in this respect.

This idea is dangerous, particularly because alcoholic drinks have an interesting property in that the amount of harm (or potential harm) they can cause doesn’t scale linearly (particularly with the hangover part).  For example, the eighth beer you drink in an evening is going to harm you (and make your hangover worse) much more than the seventh one.  Anyone who has been hung-over, I’m going to assume that means all readers of this blog, has intuitively understood this at some point in their life.

According to this line of logic, I’m going to suggest that drinking slightly beyond moderation (a healthy buzz, 3-4 glasses of wine or beers for me) is healthy if it is followed by several days of absolutely no drinking.  If this sounds like hormesis, it is. [4]

Anyway, after I read this section of the book, I quickly realized that if this were true of alcohol, it’s probably applicable to coffee consumption too.  Accordingly, I engaged Rory Sutherland on Twitter with the following question: Should one use a barbell strategy with coffee consumption too?  I’m sure you can guess what his response was. [5] 

Alas, since I love to drink coffee daily, I knew before I asked the question that I wasn’t going to like the answer.  However, not only do I not like the answer, but I greatly fear that it is true (perhaps ignorance is bliss).  Going a day without a coffee is tough (I’m slowly working my way up to several days), but the Stoics were right.  Nothing makes you appreciate something you enjoy like fasting from it for a while — nothing tastes better than that first cup of coffee after a day away from it.  Of course, I suspect there are some health benefits too.

Notes:

[1] I want to make the following point clear: while not applicable to everything, the barbell strategy is still a brilliant heuristic (i.e., a rule-of-thumb).

[2] I don’t necessarily mean to discourage anyone from triathlon as I certainly understand that there are psychological reasons for competing in grueling endurance sports too.  This reason is why, at least partially, I was drawn to the sport.

[3] Check out Rory Sutherland’s website here.

[4] See my post on “Why I Practice Hormetism”.

[5] Here is the Twitter conversation.

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3 Comments on “The Barbell Coffee Drinking Strategy”

  1. shaviv says:

    Could you please define chronic training? What did your training look like, before you quit and made the change? I thought cross training – biking, jogging, swimming on different days in a week and not doing one of those more than twice a week is a good way to build in some variance. But, I guess your point is more about intensity and then extended periods of rest. Even for jogging, intervals is a good way to build speed, which is consistent with the high intensity idea? I’ve only gotten around to moving from a completely sedentary lifestyle to cardio 5 times a week, and now I read this! :) I guess this comes into play only after a basic level of fitness is achieved and not at low levels of fitness?

    • Greg Linster says:

      @shaviv:disqus Thanks for the comment. You bring up a great point about the nebulous nature of some of the words that are used by fitness enthusiasts. I’ll attempt to clear up some of the confusion for you; however, don’t let this post deter from you becoming active!

      For starters, I should define two phrases I use in the essay: “chronic training” and “chronic cardio”. When I was chronically training I was doing something (running, swimming, cycling, lifting weights, or yoga) almost every day (I’d say at least six days a week on average). For example, I was doing at least a 45 minute run (or what some people would call a “jog”) six days a week, and it often was my second workout of the day. Needless to say, I didn’t have much of a social life because when I wasn’t training I was either at work, sleeping, eating, or laying on the couch.

      When I say “chronic cardio”, I’m talking about efforts that are “moderately hard”. I realize that this itself is also a vague phrase, but it’s going to be different for everyone depending on their fitness level. For an aerobically fit person, this can be anything from their marathon running pace to their 10K running pace. Easy running (or what some people would call jogging) is not necessarily chronic cardio and some people can run/jog marathons without engaging in chronic cardio. However, I prefer the beauty of walking and hiking to this type of easy running so I’ve stopped doing it altogether. So to reiterate what my point from the essay, I do a lot of walking, hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, easy cycling, etc., and a few bouts of very intense stuff anaerobic stuff — that’s a barbell strategy applied to exercise.

      • shaviv says:

        Thanks for the clarifications. I spent some time looking at the references and other stuff on the web, so I get the gist of it now. There are many ways to look at it and incorporate it, especially given the unique circumstances of every individual. But, its a worthwhile idea.

        And about coffee, it was interesting to me because I came to the same conclusion last month, mainly because of the addiction (non-serious though it might be) and de-sensitization effect you’ve talked about. I guess my argument was, what’s the point of drinking it every day if doing so reduces the enjoyment one gets outs of it. Better to drink in bursts and enjoy each burst.


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