Sunday, May 29, 2011

Favorite Recipe- Ultimate Oatmeal

Health crazes are often centered around a specific food, with zealous believers claiming that ________ (fill in the blank with goji juice, chocolate, etc)  is the one secret to perfect health.  Sadly, there is no magic elixir.  True dietary health is a complex balance of many different nutrients that support your overall fitness goals.  But one often-touted food, oatmeal, does have unique health benefits that warrant it being a part of your regular diet.

Oatmeal's soluble fiber helps lower cholesterol and stabilizes blood-glucose levels by encouraging slow digestion.  It also has a lot of complex carbohydrates and B vitamins, which are especially important for athletes.  But for all of it's value, it can be terribly boring.  I avoided eating it for a long time because it always had such a bland, dull taste.  But if you do it right, it can be mouthwatering; this is my recipe:

1. Bring 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup milk, and a pinch of salt to a boil.
2. Stir in 1/2 cup minute oats, cook for (you guessed it) one minute.
3. Remove from heat, add a small handful of raisins, one teaspoon of brown sugar, one teaspoon of honey, a pinch of cinnamon, and a dash of nutmeg.  Finish with one teaspoon of butter.
4. Top with chopped apples, strawberries, and pecans.  Serve.

The fresh fruit brings a lightness to the dish, which offsets the heaviness of the oatmeal.  And the combination of the brown sugar, honey, cinnamon, and nutmeg is the perfect seasoning.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Working Out To Work Out?

Exercising makes you strong, but every exercise requires a certain amount of strength in order to actually do it.  This leads to a bizarre catch-22, because you may not be able to do the kind of exercise you want because you are not strong enough, but were you to do the workout, it would make you strong enough.

This problem shows that a lot of physical training is getting your body to the point where you can do the workouts you want.  It is sort of an intermediate step in achieving your ultimate fitness goal, but one that can be critical.  Here is an example: to push your lactic acid threshold, you need to run long intervals at high intensity with short rests in between.  This workout could be repeat miles slightly faster than race pace, with four or five minutes of recovery where you run considerably slower than race pace.  This is a very demanding workout, but one that pays huge dividends in fitness.  But actually running that hard that long requires speed, strength, flexibility, and endurance.  Ironically, these are all things that you would gain from doing the workout.

The solution is to build from one workout to the next, until you are ready for the big stuff that you really want to do.  Before you do intense speed-work, you need to first have endurance.  This means doing long, steady runs until your cardiovascular system can handle that level of intensity.  Strides would also be a good idea, because you wont be able to run fast for long until you can at least run fast short.  Start on a track where the ground is smooth and work on your form until you feel that you can run fast well.  You also need strength, so make sure to do some kind of weight lifting and keep those new muscles limber by stretching regularly.

This path may sound lengthy, but you have to move carefully to avoid getting injured.  I recently heard an interview with a professional runner who was doing 110 miles a week, and he said that it took him years to get to that much mileage.  He would increase his mileage slowly, allowing his body to adjust and grow into the higher volume.  I could tell that he was looking at his running career as a whole, and making decisions that would pay off months and years down the road.  This "big picture" view is important, because it shows that the preliminary steps are just as important as the final steps.  And this can motivate you when you want to be running a marathon, but right now you should be doing your stretches.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Nike Training Club

For the iPhone users out there, I wanted to talk about the Nike Training Club App.  This is a fantastic free program that has an enormous selection of strength training workouts.  And the workouts it has are exactly what I think work best for most people-stability exercises that use mostly your own body weight (some of the exercises use free-weights, but all you need are two 10-15 lb dumbbells and a medicine ball.)  What these types of workouts do is they work multiple muscles groups at once, with a heavy emphasis on your core.  This type of strength training builds very practical strength, as well as improving balance and coordination.

The program is easy and fun to use; first you pick a goal (one of several on a scale of leaner to bulkier), then you pick a difficulty level, then you choose a workout in that catagory.  The workouts are 30-60 minutes long, and it moves you quickly from one activity to the next, switching as often as every thirty seconds.  No one rep is extremely difficult, but you come to quickly realize that a minute of pushups is an aweful lot.  There are breaks, but they are few and far between (like, 2 one-minute rests in half an hour).  This pace keeps you breathing hard the entire time, so not only are you building muscle, but you are getting a solid cardiovascular workout as well.

I've had trouble in the past learning new workouts from digital sources, because often what you will find is a written description with maybe a picture or two.  This can leave you unsure if you are really doing the exercise right.  But the Nike Training Club solves that by giving you high quality video of every exercise, several repetitions shot from multiple angles.  This is really what makes the app work, because it is crystal clear how how to do each exercise.

It also has some terrific interactive features: in the middle of your crazy ivans, a voice will chime in giving you a tip on how to improve your form.  Or when you are almost done with a set of around-the-world lunges, you will hear, "15 seconds left, almost done!"  It feels like you have a personal trainer moving you through the workouts.  And after you finish each workout, you get points, and as your point total increases, you get special titles like, "Challenger" and "Fighter".  This may sound a little corny, but when you are worn out after a killer set, it is a great boost.  Nike recently added a feature that unlocks special workouts once you get to certain levels.  The whole thing is designed to give you the feeling that you are moving forward and setting goals, which is exactly what you want from an exercise program.

Because of all of the video, the App is something like 700 megabytes, so don't be surprised if it takes you an hour to download.  It is totally worth the weight.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Ice Baths

There are no cure-all's in sports medicine-except for ice baths.  When I first heard about them I tried it out dubiously, thinking that the benefit, if any, would be minor.  Boy was I wrong.

You use an ice bath when you have done a really intense workout, when the muscles have been severely broken down.  It's easy to know when you reach this threshold, because your muscles will be sore immediately after the workout, instead of kicking in the next day.  I had one of those workouts today; after a couple of weeks of rest I did a fairly intense strength training session, and as I was reaching down to unlace my shoes afterwards, my legs were shaking.  I knew an ice bath was what I needed.

The name "ice bath" is a little misleading, because the water doesn't have to be 33 degrees, it just has to be cold, significantly colder than your body temperature.  I try to shoot for around 55-60 degrees.  You fill the bath tub up with just enough water to cover your legs, then you sit down in it for 10 minutes.  At this point you might be saying to yourself, "I don't care how good this is for you, there is no way I'm getting in that bath!"  But it really isn't that bad; it's a shock right as you slide in, but after a few seconds the escaping heat from your body warms the water immediately around you and it just feels cool.

I'm a runner, so I've only worked my lower body hard enough to require the cold water.  But you could ice your upper body if you would just be a little trickier.  For one, when your heart and lungs are submerged, that is when you really feel the chill.  But if you kept the temperature moderate it shouldn't be too bad, and you could slide your whole body into the water and get the benefits all over.

So now we know the cost.  What is the reward?  First, the cold helps reduce swelling-whenever a muscle is injured (any strenuous exercise is a series of many small injuries) it swells, and getting past that swelling phase is necessary for recovery.  Second, it helps your muscles get rid of lactic acid.  The processes by which your muscles produce energy are complicated, but one of the by-products of high-intensity workouts is lactic acid.  That leaden feeling you get in your legs near the end of a hard race is caused in part by the muscles being flooded with this substance.  What the cold water does is it forces blood to rush to the legs, speeding up the removal of the lactic acid and other toxins.  I follow up the ice bath with a hot shower, but not really for any therapeutic reasons, it just feels good.

The real benefit comes the day after.  When you wake up, instead of feeling heavy and sluggish, your legs will feel lighter than air.  You may still be a little sore, but it will be much less than if you hadn't iced.  In my experience, it cuts recovery time in half, which means you can feel good quickly and get on to your next workout!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How thin is too thin?

These days, being thin sure seems important: we associate thin with "sexy", "beautiful", "successful".  And in sports, there is a practical reason to be lean; to be a good athlete, you need to be able to move yourself quickly and powerfully, and muscle is what enables that.  But what good is fat?  It seems like dead weight, it seems like something that would only hold you back.  So the thinner the better, right?

Not exactly.  It's true that fat doesn't have a lot of practical purposes for athletes (some notable exceptions are to improve buoyancy for swimmers and to help insulate cross-country skiers from the cold).  So it is tempting to try to cut out as much fat as you can in the name of a faster time in the next race.  But you can only safely do that up to a point.

We still need some fat for all of our systems to run smoothly.  For example, many vitamins are fat-soluble, which means they can only be digested with the help of fats.  The body also uses fat to trap diseases and toxins while it fights them off.  And fat plays a vital role in the skin, hair, nervous system, and cell function.  So we need some of it around, but how much?

It depends drastically on gender.  Men need to be at least 2 percent body fat, and women need to be at least 10 percent.  The variation comes from the disparate needs of the male and female reproductive systems.  If you want to get a feel for where that line is, someone at these lower limits would be incredibly skinny.  At 2 percent you would be able to see every muscle in stark relief as well as most bones (see the picture below).  10 percent looks a little softer, but still very angular and lean.

It would be near impossible to get below 2 percent voluntarily, so men don't have much to worry about in this department.  We can get basically as thin as we want to be for whatever our particular goals are.  But women need to be more careful, because their lower limit is much more attainable.  Elite female runners will bump up against that line, and the first thing they notice is problems with their menstrual cycle.  But as with everything in fitness, there are variations from person to person.  There are probably some women who, naturally and without any special diet or exercise, would be below 10 percent body fat.  If that is you, I wouldn't worry that you are too thin, because if your body is settling into that composition on it's own, then it is doing it for a reason and it is probably fine.

To find out your exact composition, the best way is with a Tanita bathroom scale.  This is a simple but sophisticated machine that uses electrical conductivity and tells you your complete composition-fat percentage, muscle mass, bone density, and water content.  Maybe this is more than you wanted to know about yourself, but if you are a serious athlete, this information can help you to fine-tune your training.  I don't have one, but I've read about them and seen them, and they are really amazing.

As difficult as losing weight is for most, you would think that there wouldn't be much risk of being underweight.  But last year when I was getting ready for a race, I made a concerted effort to trim down to get closer to my original race weight.  And what I found was that losing weight can be very addictive.  It comes from this positive feedback loop; you set a goal, you achieve it, and you feel great about your accomplishment, so you want to set another goal.  And once you get in this mode, it can be hard to realize where to stop.

The phrase, "I need to be thinner..." is incomplete; it needs a purpose, it needs a reason: "I need to be thinner in order to..."  There are lots of good reasons to lose weight (and some poor reasons), so as you move forward make sure you keep that target in mind so you will know when you've done enough.

Bonus pic:  This is a famous photo of the duel between Mark Allen and Dave Scott during the 1989 Ironman Traithlon.  Look at Dave Scott's legs!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Favorite Recipe-Fried Tilapia

I'm a huge food buff, so it's about time that I tell you some of my favorite recipes.  And it's still on target with this blog, because food and exercise go together like yin and yang.  You need to eat certain foods to prepare you for and recover from big workouts; elite athletes actually tailor each meal according to the surrounding activity.

Most diet advice I've read from endurance coaches recommends that American's eat more fish; fish is a low fat source of protein that has specific vitamins and minerals that help keep the athlete's body running smoothly.  But fish can be expensive, and depending on where you live, it can be difficult to get it fresh. (I live in Utah, a thousand miles away from the nearest ocean, so good seafood is especially hard to for me to come by.)  So lately I've become a believer in frozen fish, specifically, Tilapia.  They must get really good quality fish, because the flavor on these is fantastic.  You can buy them in large bags, with each fillet individually vacuum sealed.  This makes preparation a cinch: just throw the fillet in a large bowl of warm water, and in 5 minutes it is defrosted and ready to cook.  My favorite recipe follows:

1. Remove Tilapia from package and pat dry with paper towel.
2. Dredge fish in egg, then Panko (Japanese bread crumbs) lightly seasoned with salt and pepper.
3. Fry in vegetable oil over medium-high heat until golden brown, about 4 minutes per side.
4. Serve with lemon juice and tartar sauce.

I first tried this with flour, but the Panko gives it a flaky, crispy texture that is incredible.  Because the bread crumbs are Japanese, lately I've thought that some kind of oriental sauce would be better than the European tartar, but I haven't tried anything yet.  I'm thinking tempura sauce, or something with miso.  If anyone out there is a pro with Japanese cooking and has a good idea, feel free to add a suggestion in a comment to this post.