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Fitness Secret of the UFC's Toughest Fighter

Fitness Secret of the UFC's Toughest Fighter

Strength, power, and athleticism are nothing without the cardio to sustain it—and UFC legend Nate Diaz serves as proof.

You’ll learn: How Nate’s unique approach to training turned him into the fittest fighter in the UFC and how you can use his idea of “fight test” to outlast and outlive.

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On Monday, we covered four lessons from the fittest team in college football, the University of South Carolina Gamecocks. They’re creating absolute beasts and bringing endurance back to football.

Endurance is important in the sense that oxygen is important. If you have too little of it, you suck.

  • No matter your sport or activity of choice, more endurance will help you do it better and longer.
  • Endurance reduces your risk of dying at any given moment. For example, this study looked at more than 120,000 patients in a hospital. Their average age was 53. Those with the highest cardiorespiratory fitness were least likely to die from any cause over 8.4 years. (My friend Peter Attia did a nice video breakdown of the study and its takeaways.)
  • Endurance can keep you safer outdoors, because injuries and accidents are most likely to happen when you’re tired.

The gym fitness and sports training world has downplayed endurance over the last few decades, favoring strength and circuit workouts.

But those who build killer cardio have better outcomes. Which brings me to Nate Diaz.

All this talk of endurance—and with UFC International Fight Week 2023 happening now—reminded me of a conversation I had with Nate Diaz a couple of years ago. We spoke when I was writing a piece for Men’s Health.

For the unfamiliar, Nate is one of the greatest UFC fighters of all time. He’s a hall-of-famer who fought for 15 years and famously choked out Connor McGregor at UFC 196. Here’s an eight minute video of him beating the living hell out of others, so you can get a sense of his style.

Everything about Nate is unconventional.

  • Most UFC fighters are ripped, but Nate is built like any random, skinny dude you might encounter at the grocery store.
  • He’s vegan.
  • He once smoked a joint at a UFC press conference.
  • He was dubbed “the realest fighter the UFC has ever known.”

Nate’s training approach is also far-out, and it molded him into one of the fittest and toughest fighters ever.

We’ll cover his training, its surprising upsides (like pain management), and how his “fight test” is something you should do to see if your endurance is up to par. Let’s roll …

Unconventional Training

A championship UFC bout is five, five-minute rounds of all-out effort—striking, grappling, and kicking for your life.

Hence, most UFC workouts mimic this rhythm. Fighters will do five-minute, five-round circuits with weights. Picture CrossFit-style training.

Nate lifts a few weights. But most of his fitness training takes place on roads and trails.

“Endurance has been a big part of why my career has gone the way it has,” Nate told me. “A lot of guys (don’t train endurance), and they come into the UFC strong, peak out, and then are on their way out the door.”

Nate and his brother, Nick—who is also a UFC legend—do 75-minute trail runs, mountain bike rides, and swims, five days a week to build massive reservoirs of cardiovascular fitness.

He started building that system early. “I was on a swim team from about four years old until high school,” he told me. The brothers also started running and biking to stay out of trouble.

Eventually, someone told Nate and his brother to get into triathlons. “We competed just to try it for fun. And then when we’d hear about one we’d do it. That was about when we were 17 or 18 years old.”

Meantime, he’d started taking jiu-jitsu classes at Caesar Gracie Academy in the Bay Area. Soon after that, he was boxing and kickboxing.

Nate and Nick excelled because they could keep going when other fighters gassed out. “And it developed into a fighting career real quick,” Nate said. He turned pro in 2004, at age 19.

The triathlons became a fun diversion he maintained his entire career.

The Endurance Edge

In short

Nate became an all-time great by building the fiercest endurance in the fight game.

The details

Joe Rogan, the UFC commentator and podcaster, explained the Diaz fighting style like this:

His endurance is ridiculous. He’s got IronMan triathlete endurance. That’s one of the reasons he f*cks guys up. He just puts a pace on them, and they can’t keep up with him. He makes them run at his pace—and his endurance is just on some wicked level—and before you know it, they’re wilting, and he’s beating the f*ck out of them. He bangs it out with people … he drags them into deep water, then knocks them out or chokes them out. It’s incredible. He does that to everyone.

Nate told me, “I think of it like a race, where you maintain pace and do a slow pass rather than a fast pass. A lot of guys, even at the highest level, don’t have an engine that lasts. They’re tough in the first couple of rounds, then they start slowing in the third and fourth rounds. Then I turn it up.’”

Science backs Diaz’s strategy, too. Researchers in Canada found that having better aerobic fitness—the stuff you build from long runs, rucks, rides, and swims—helps you recover more quickly from higher-intensity exercise and even produce more power when you’re tired.

The Lesson

You’re probably not fighting. But building more endurance will make your entire life easier—from exercise to sprinting to a gate to catch a plane.

Exercise even boosts energy levels. It does this through a variety of mechanisms and can improve sleep.