Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Throwing Hammers and Other Things

One of the events in the Highland Games that I have not yet attempted is the hammer throw.  It differs from the hammer throw in track and field both in the weight of the hammer, the implement itself, and the technique used for throwing.

In track and field, the hammer head is attached to a D-ring handle via a flexible cable.  Women throw a 8.82 (4 kg) hammer and men throw a 16 lb (7.26 kg) hammer.  The thrower is able to turn his body as he builds up speed for the throw and move towards the toe board.

In Highland Games, the spherical hammer head is attached to a rattan, bamboo, plastic, or wooden handle. There are both heavy hammer and light hammer throws and the weights are 12 and 16 lbs for women, and 16 and 22 lbs for men.  The thrower must throw from a fixed position which is typically facing away from the toe board.

So, being without a hammer and needing to work on technique with lighter weights, I made one out of a 50" piece of PVC pipe, two 2.5 lb weights, and a lot of Gorilla tape.  Practice began this morning followed by a 2.5 mile run.

My home-made throwing hammer.  

Monday, December 26, 2011

Getting smoked by a seven year old.

When taking on new endeavors, humility is invaluable.  For example, when you decide to run for the first time in a few months and your seven year old freakishly athletic son wants to run with you, you have to know up front that he will, in fact, leap over puddles, turn in circles, run backwards, and periodically sprint while you struggle to maintain your 12 minute mile "jog".  And when you get home and collapse on the floor, he will go down to the basement to practice speed rope intervals for another half hour so he can set the world record at "First in Fitness" in March.  

Me and my Francis at the Warrior Dash.  Not only freakishly athletic, but a darn good-looking kid.  
Well, if I compared myself to Francis, or quite frankly, anyone who is not me, I'd probably get pretty discouraged about my running.  I talk about my shortcomings a lot when it comes to my strengths and abilities, but the truth is, I'm very happy with what I can do.  At a bodyweight of 130 lbs, I can deadlift 224 lbs, squat 174 lbs, and press 85 lbs overhead.  I can also throw heavy rocks a reasonable distance and hike up a mountain carrying a five year old on my back.  I'm proud of myself for always trying to get stronger, more skilled, and more fit.  It is a daily, weekly, monthly struggle to keep my focus and continue to work hard despite the challenges of unfortunate limb length ratios, hip dysplasia, and not having a coach.  I rely on the insight and advice of my friends, a reasonably powerful internal drive, and an ongoing effort to increase my body awareness. 

Body awareness is perhaps one of the most valuable tools for the self-trained individual.  Body awareness sounds like a simple concept, however, its not very simple at all.  Some of us are more gifted than others in being aware of sensations and being able to pinpoint what is causing them.  For example, when running alongside my exuberant child, I feel a pretty overwhelming sense of discomfort. I automatically assume I'm out of breath, but then realize I'm not.  So, then maybe my legs are cramping up, but that's not really the case either.  My stride is steady, my pace is consistent, I'm not breathing hard, and I can even talk to my son as I run up and down these monster hills in my neighborhood.  So, why does it feel so unpleasant?  Well, my legs are tired.  That's pretty much it.  They feel heavy, and a little crampy, but overall, not bad enough to quit.  So, I ran the whole hilly mile.

If I were twenty years old, I would probably go out the next day and run another mile, and do the same the next day.  I would increase my distance as I was able and would probably be able to run 10 miles within four months.  But, I'm not twenty, I'm thirty-nine.  And after running a single mile, I experienced some considerable fatigue and soreness.  My back, my knee, my hamstrings, and my calves were all pretty upset with me.  So, where to go from here?  


My favorite tool in the weight room and on the field.  Sometimes, we need a little external support.  A weightlifting belt can help support your spine.  Knee sleeves can hold your knees together during heavy squats.  But sometimes, just a little help is all that is required.  Tape can help to support tendons and ligaments that may otherwise shift enough to cause pain and inflammation.  Muscles do not exist in isolation, instead, they are part of a network of muscles large and small, connective tissue and bone. All these elements work together to produce movement and any break in the chain can result in pain or even worse, injury over time.  I tape my wrists when I lift overhead.  I tape just below my elbow whenever I do grip work.  When I run, I tape my calf just below my knee.  Why?  Because it eliminates the pain I get in my knee when first running after a long time off.   "Runner's knee", pain around the patella when running,  is often caused by misalignment of the bones, tendons, and/or patella so a little tape stabilization can help things stay where they're supposed to when beginning a running program.

Tape has cured me of more pain than Ibuprofen.
Foam Roller.

Foam rolling, or self-myofascial release, is an invaluable tool to the older athlete.   Self myofascial release is a technique that can greatly improve mobility, recovery, reduce pain, and restore muscle balance. This technique is commonly performed with a one’s bodyweight and a foam roller, but can also be performed with tennis balls and other round, relatively dense objects. The technique consists simply of positioning one’s body on top of the roller and rolling across it such that the targeted muscle is stimulated. It is thought that the activity of rolling one’s muscles on a foam roller or other device stimulates the proprioceptors in such a way as to cause the muscles to relax and lengthen.  Unfortunately, the more uncomfortable your muscles may feel on the foam roller, the more you probably need it.

Rolling the IT band is a uniquely painful experience.
Probably the most painful area to foam roll, at least for me (and is probably indicative of my knee pain) is the iliotibial band, or IT band.  The IT band is a thick band of connective tissue that stretches from the hip, where it attaches to the glute and tensor fascia lata, down to the knee where it attaches to the tibia.  It can get irritated from running, squatting, or any kind of excessive repetitions that involve knee and hip flexion.  When the IT band is irritated, life gets unpleasant.  Going up stairs and getting out of the car becomes painful.  Not only rolling out the IT band, but also the glutes, hamstrings, calves, shins, low back and even taking a lacrosse ball to the bottom of the feet can help eliminate a lot of the post-running aches and pains that tend to plague me.

Rest and Recovery.

Admittedly, my weakest link.  Sometimes, you just have to take it slow.  Too much too soon will catch up with you.  Unfortunately, you may be quite a few workouts over your limit before you begin to suffer the consequences.  Again, at my age, this is a much bigger problem than when I was younger.  Unfortunately, I tend to get a little cocky when I have a good workout and keep pushing.  For example, last week I PRed my squat and maxed out my power clean.  So, of course, when I decided to add some running into the mix, I thought that running a mile of hills was perfectly reasonable.  A more reasonable approach might have been 4 laps around a high school track with a minute of rest between efforts.  But instead, I sit here with sore calves and a right knee that is telling me some not very nice things.  

So, in conclusion, I need to bind myself with tape, live on my foam roller, and listen to my friends when they tell me I'm doing too much.  There is no need to do it all right now.  I have set my goals and remember that slow and steady wins the race.  It will take me six months, but if I'm patient and do the preventative maintenance up front, it should be no problem for me to be injury free and running ten miles by summer.  

I am now going to go down to the basement and squat in moderation.  

**Disclaimer:  If you experience pain while exercising that cannot be eliminated by correcting form or adding support, you need to stop and consult your doctor.  There are a lot of different reasons for pain and if you experience something new, acute, or that limits your activity level, you need to make sure you are not injured and/or causing further injury. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Building up miles

Probably the most challenging thing for me (aside from overcoming my fear of heights and death) in training for the tough mudder will be getting some miles under my belt.  Most running programs would not have a novice attempt a half marathon (which is about the same distance) unless he or she were already running 15-20 miles a week.

Running, although its one of our simplest activities, has a lot of demands that need to be met gradually.  All modes of exercise should be approached with moderation.  Our bodies will adapt to the stresses we apply to them, but it takes time.  Tendons and ligaments need to get stronger.  Neurological coordination needs to improve.  Muscles need to grow and reinforce themselves.  Just remember, the first guy to ever run a marathon died.  Too much too soon is rarely a good thing.  We must give ourselves some time to adapt to the demands we place on our bodies.  Although death from running is not my primary concern, overuse injuries certainly  are.  What's the point of training for this race only to be too crippled to do anything else due to chronic injuries?

Phillipides, the first marathon runner. 
Because this is a pretty challenging distance for me, I'm going to add the miles in slowly.  I'm also going to make sure that I am running efficiently.  My best friend growing up used to tell me I ran like a chicken.  Which is probably true because the track coaches in high school always looked somewhat horrified and/or amused when I would attempt to sprint or get through hurdles without wiping out the whole line during gym class.  For the record, I was not in track and field, I was in the marching band.
Despite looking silly, chickens are actually pretty good runners.
As an adult I finally had a coach give me some pointers and was able to change my running style to not only look less ridiculous, but to be more efficient and less likely to hurt myself.  Because all of our bodies are different, there is no single ideal running form, but there are some common characteristics to good running form:

  • A stable upper body, no excessive bouncing or twisting.
  • Arms moving efficiently in the direction of the movement.  Your upper body plays a large role in both speed and balance when you run.  
  • Feet striking under the hips, no excessive reaching.
  • Relatively "stiff" leg joints, no excessive flexion of the ankle, hips, and knees.

So, lets get back to distance.  I haven't run more than a mile or two since the Warrior Dash in August.  So that means I'd better get my running shoes back on.  I'm going to start adding in some nice easy distances 1-3 miles and just do what I can.  I'll probably mix these up in both constant steady state runs as well as some intervals where I may increase my speed for short distances and then recover by jogging or walking.  Using both of these approaches.  I hope to get up to six miles by the end up three months.  I am going to introduce these elements slowly because I am almost 40 and the last thing I need is to take myself out by developing shin splints or an irritated IT band.

In my next post, I'll begin to outline my specific training plan and how I'm going to incorporate Highland Games throwing, strength endurance, and running all into one program.  Yes, it can be done.  It simply requires an accurate assessment of one's own abilities and the insight to streamline one's training goals.  Well, that and the humility required to take advice from one's friends who may know a little bit more than you about some things.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

And now for a plan . . .

I have set some goals for myself for the next year that are going to be a bit challenging for me.  I plan to compete (or at least demo) in the Triad Highland Games at the end of April and then do the Tough Mudder race sometime over the Summer or early Fall.  In planning my training for both events, I've had to do some self-assessment which has proven rather humbling.  I'll admit it.  I'm kind of lazy and thrive mostly on bravado and stubbornness.  But, when it comes to actually having to perform at a high level, you can't fake it and bravado will only get you hurt.  You either have it or you don't.  Luckily, I'm not too far off the mark and have a good idea as to how to get the rest of the way there.

The Highland Games are a collection of events that mostly involve throwing heavy things, the most recognizable event being the caber toss.  (Picture a guy in a kilt tossing a log and you're mostly there.)  They also throw stones, hammers, and other weights for height and distance.  The weights that the women throw range from 12 lbs to 28 lbs.  As you can imagine, this is not easy.  It requires strength, power, speed, and most of all, skill.

I've never thrown a hammer or caber and I won't have very many opportunities to practice.  I can, however, continue to practice my other throws (leaving large craters in my lawn) for height and distance.  I have a considerable base of strength and power for my size so although getting stronger will certainly help, it is more important that I be able to translate that strength and power into my throws.  Squats, power cleans, and presses combined with consistent throwing practice should get me some respectable distances/heights.

And then, it will be time to focus on the Tough Mudder.

I'm thinking that hill is a lot steeper than it looks.  
Aside from a belief that death is not, in fact, imminent, the Tough Mudder requires that you not only be strong, but that you also have the ability to sustain long efforts of running in combination with full body strength efforts such as climbing and crawling.  You need to be able to push, pull, and move your own bodyweight up and over large objects and obstacles for a period of about 3-4 hours while running.

Not sure how trying not to drown fits into all this.  Not sure you can really train for that other than to reassure yourself that you are not about to die.
Training for an event such as this requires that you develop a good base of strength and then transition that into strength endurance as you increase your running distances.  Strength endurance is the ability to sustain strength efforts over a long period of time.  In other words, as you approach the competition, you must switch your strength focus from maximizing the amount of weight you can lift to increasing the number of times you perform a particular exercise.  For example, while I may max out my squat at 160 lbs for 3 repetitions when building strength, I would ideally squat less weight, lets say 100 lbs, for 12-15 repetitions when trying to increase strength endurance.  (This is a horribly oversimplified example and I would probably make my strength endurance training more event-specific.)

Did I mention I was scared of heights?  
So, what do I need to do?  (Aside from get my head examined?)  Well, I'll get started with the basics.  Squat, deadlift, power clean, press, bench press, pullups, pushups, prowler, and run.    Standing core work with a medicine ball or kettlebell will give me the core endurance I need to stay upright through twelve miles of running and obstacles.  And of course, I need to pay special attention to all of my aging joints, just to make sure they don't stage a revolt.  So, a few curls, shoulder rotations, and maybe some agility work to keep things sound.  As I get closer to the event, I'll incorporate some running specific postures such as lunges and contralateral work (this is a complicated word that means exercises that use your opposite arm and leg) into some muscle endurance workouts designed to mimic the challenges of the obstacles.  The goal being simply to be able to sustain my efforts and condition my heart and lungs to handle that sort of challenge.  This will all be organized into some semblance of a progressive training program.

All good training plans pay attention to the individual so as I develop my training plan, I'll be tweaking things here and there to make sure I continue to make progress.  I'll be developing my training plan in concert with those of my running partners, all of whom are going to need an individualized approach.

So, overall, looks like I may be able to transition from Highland Games to the Tough Mudder simply by stepping up my running efforts and maintaining my strength.  I may have to throw in some obstacle specific strength training as I get closer to the event and will definitely have to add in some muscle endurance training leading up to it.  And as for the anxiety about imminent death, meditation.  Lots and lots of meditation.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Turning 40 and the Tough Mudder

So, next year, I turn 40 and either senility has already set in or I am having a mid-life crisis because I have decided to train for the Tough Mudder.  That’s right.  I’m going to run 12 miles through mud, climb walls, crawl through mud, negotiate barbed wire, probably eat a little mud, get shocked by electrified wires, fall into a mud pit,  and who knows what else.  

This was me after the Warrior Dash.  I'm guessing I'll look a little bit muddier and a lot more tired (maybe a little bloody or splinted) at the end of the Tough Mudder.  

And guess what else?  I have convinced two of my friends to do it with me.  Stephanie has run a marathon, but has only recently started strength training with me.  Suzanne has also run a marathon, but also trains with a strength and conditioning coach five days a week, and recently completed the Mud Run, six miles of similar shenanigans.  I believe the furthest I have ever run is about 5 miles, however, I can do more pullups than either of them combined.  (This makes me feel better for being an endurance sissy).  So we have a gal with strength, but limited endurance (me), a gal with endurance but limited strength (Stephanie), and a gal with both endurance and strength (Suzanne). 

The races we are considering are in the summer and early fall which gives us about eight months to train, which should be plenty of time.  When training for a challenging event like this, time is your greatest asset.  Realistically, because we all have one or both of the elements of strength and endurance already in place, three to four months should be plenty of time for us to take on this challenge.  However, we are all also busy moms with a lot on our collective plates so 6-8 months might be a much more reasonable plan.  The more time you have to train, the more likely you will succeed in meeting your goal. 

So, all of us are going to have to work on our miles, especially me since at this point in time I can really only run about 2-3 without having to call for a ride home.  Being strong gives you quite a bit of built in endurance so for the first couple of weeks training, I’ll be mostly working on improving my cardiorespiratory endurance as well as running specific endurance with interval training.  However, I will very quickly have to start adding in some volume training as well so I can cover the required distances. I'll be keeping track of my training here, both my progress and any pitfalls I run into.

Oh, and did I mention I was also training for a Highland Games in the Spring?  My 40th year is going to be a very different one, that’s for sure.  

Back to throwing kettlebells over the swingset.  

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Lesson in Sportsmanship

For the past two months, I've been training for a Highlander competition put on my by friend, Gant Grimes, in Wichita Falls, TX.  A Highlander competition is a hybrid between a Highland Games and a Strongman competition and includes both throwing and strength events.  Training for this competition was quite a challenge, but I've been wanting to try something new and so I figured that the worst that could happen would be that I wouldn't really like it.  I currently don't have a coach I work with and so most of this was largely self-taught.  I'm not a thrower and literally had one throwing session with a friend of mine who taught me the basics a few months ago.  From there, I mostly I relied on watching a lot of YouTube videos for technique and email exchanges for program tweaking.

The six events I had to compete in were as follows (weights were higher for the men):

1.  Weight over bar.  This is throwing a 28 lb weight over a bar that gets increasingly higher as each competitor clears the bar.  Last competitor standing wins the event.  (And by standing, I mean the last competitor to clear the bar when no one else has, not being the only one not suffering a head injury.)

Svavar has clearly mastered this throw.  56 lbs approximately 17 feet in the air is no small feat.
2.  Braemar stone throw.  This is throwing a 16 lb stone in a manner similar to a shot put.  Each competitor gets three attempts.
Not stepping over the toe board is one of the hardest parts.

3.  Axle clean and press for reps.  An axle is basically a thick bar, making it harder to grip and press overhead.  The bar had to be cleaned from the ground and then pressed overhead as many times as one was able in a minute.

Jim with a 200 lb axle, not easy at all.  
4.  Light weight for distance.  This was done with a 14 lb weight on a chain and thrown similar to a discus.  That's right, weight, spinning, and throwing.  Sounds dangerous to me.
Me practicing with homemade implements.  
5.  Farmer's Walk.  Carrying 85 lbs in each hand, each competitor had to walk or run a total distance of 120 feet for time.
The men carried a lot more than 85 lbs.  175 and 200 lbs in each hand depending on the weight class.
6.  Max deadlift.  After performing all those events, over the course of 4 hours, we each got three attempts to pull as much on our deadlift as we could manage.
The winner of my division, deadlifting 300 lbs like it was nothing.  
Now, I have to admit a few things.
1.  I am not that strong.  Yes, I am stronger than the average woman, but that's because I train for it.  In the grande scheme of female strength athletes, I'm not terribly impressive.
2.  I am generally willing to make a fool of myself, but don't generally enjoy it.
3.  I am incredibly accident prone and there is always a possibility of grievously injuring myself.
4.  My children are excellent cheerleaders and are even more impressed when I lose my balance and fall down throwing a kettlebell on a chain.  But, they wouldn't be at the competition with me.

Well, despite my misgivings, I went to Texas last weekend to compete.  There was a practice session the night before and despite my confidence in my training, the first female competitor I met was a former figure competitor and despite the fact that she had just had a baby five months ago, was clearly much stronger than me and in very good shape.  And then some more showed up.  These women were impressive.  Strong, fit, and obviously well suited for this competition.

A great group of women and fellow competitors.
The next morning, a professional Highland Games competitor joined our ranks as did the wife of an Icelandic strongman.  This deck was seriously stacked.  I was the smallest by far.  I felt kind of puny actually.   We got started and in the first event, weight over bar, I  had to bail early after pulling a muscle in my neck.  This is the part where I usually start making jokes about how weak and old I am, but I was not the oldest person there by far and was actually competing against a grandmother and therefore didn't really have a leg to stand on.  So, onward I went to the Braemar throw.

I'd like to think that Iceland flag socks give one super powers, but this gal was clearly a superior athlete.
I was feeling a bit self-conscious, but then something happened.  I was practicing my throw when one of the other gals came up and complimented me.  "Good form!", she said with a smile.  It was Brittney, the professional Highland Games competitor who had just won weight over bar in a seemingly effortless victory.  And I'm pretty sure she meant it.  I placed fifth out of six in this event and my furthest throw was 17 feet, 4 inches which was reasonably close to the rest of the pack.

And then came the axle press.  I was nervous about this one.  It requires a lot of strength and cardiovascular conditioning to be able to throw a thick bar over your head as many times as possible.  And everyone was watching.  But then everyone was cheering.  I had to rest a few times, but managed to eke out 28 reps before my minute was up and I had to drop the bar from exhaustion.  "Good job!" I began to hear from the other ladies.  We walked as a group over to the area where we were to throw light weight for distance.

Sixty-five lbs is not actually that heavy, but multiple reps as fast as you can is pretty taxing.  The winner of this event had a total of 50 reps in under a minute.  Quite impressive.  
Learning how to throw weight for distance was a challenge for me.  The weight is on a chain and in order to get some momentum on the weight, you execute a turn, very much like a discus throw.  As I mentioned previously, I am not very coordinated.  It took me a long time to finally get the foot work down and not get thrown about by the weight.  So, as I'm warming up, two of my fellow competitors asked me to show them how I was setting up for the throw and moving the weight through the turn.  I was a little surprised, but happy to oblige.  Teaching, after all, is what I like to do best and we had a good time warming up for the throws.  I managed to place fourth in that event and got some sincere compliments from my fellow competitors, one of whom credited me with getting some more distance on her throw.  Which was a very pleasant and welcome surprise.  I ended up throwing 34 feet 10 inches in this event, placing fourth.

My friend Dave Van Skike, who had taught me how to throw, had told me why he liked Highland Games so much.  It was because everyone was out there to have a good time and see that everyone else did as well.  I didn't really get this at the time.  But now it was becoming very clear.  We weren't competing against each other as we were competing against the weights, the axle, whatever implement was the challenge at hand.  Both in my division and the men's division the competitors were coaching one another and cheering each other on.  If someone wasn't doing well because of their technique, corrections were offered and improvements were made.  It began to seem more like a competition against the event itself and the competitors were all on one team.

The Masters division.  One of these guys decided to compete that morning at the urging of the other two. 
My personal experience with this came when I made a nose dive over the finish line on my farmer's walk.  I crashed hard into one of the bumpers on my farmers bar and took the brunt of the force into my sternum.  As I laid on the ground covered in dust and burrs, trying to figure out if I had broken anything, the other gals came over to see if I was okay.  "Just embarrassed", I murmured, truly mortified.  But then they all helped me up, dusted me off, and made it all okay.  Enough such that I went on to attempt a personal record of 225 lbs on the deadlift platform after pulling 205.  I didn't pull it past my knees, but everyone was cheering nonetheless.
Getting some speed.

And . . . down.  

But back up again with a 205 deadlift.
I went on to help judge the middle weight men's competition and as an observer, this point was made even more plain.  Competitors were more like teammates and no one would have been satisfied if everyone didn't attempt their best.  Corrections were offered, encouragement given, and improvements were recognized and praised.  To the astute observer, it looked more like a clinic than a competition.  Beginners as well as the guys setting records were as equally amazed and pleased with their performances. In a nutshell, it was a lot of fun to watch and participate in.
In an epic battle for men's middle weight weight over bar, you couldn't tell who was competing and who was coaching.
I've been to a lot of different competitions as coach and competitor, but this was the first one where both fun and personal performance were a priority and ego was not an issue.  This was very different from what I have observed in the past few years.  There seems to be a growing trend in sports and fitness that I find rather distasteful.  To describe it accurately, I would have to say it essentially supports an idea that there are a select few who "deserve" to compete and everyone else is to be disdained.  I've read articles and opinion pieces where folks who completed a marathon were mocked because they didn't complete it in under four hours, where folks who make it to the gym every day to get some exercise are mocked because they aren't lifting heavy weights and prefer the elliptical, and where a great deal of back and forth fighting goes on between the supporters of different fitness gurus.  It gets a bit depressing.

I've been to some competitions recently where I was really disappointed in the overall tone.  Some participants were not only disrespectful of their fellow competitors, but were generally disrespectful of the competition and the judges.  Profanity, temper tantrums, and a general lack of manners took away from other people's enjoyment of the meet.  When I take my athletes to a meet of any kind, I expect them to support their fellow competitors, be respectful of the venue, and most of all, be respectful and polite to all of the officiators of the competition.  To me, sports and competition are an opportunity to be the best at the game, not beating everyone else.  Its a small distinction, but makes a huge difference in my mind.  I believe that the ancient Greeks viewed the original Olympics as an opportunity to bring people together, not create divisions.

After wiping out numerous times during my first and only throwing lesson, my friend Dave told me very plainly that if I wanted to compete, I should do it.  ‎"Biggest thing, does not matter how you feel, just show up and compete and if you don't come home hoarse from spurring your competitors on, you're doing it wrong."

Truth is, I wanted to try a Highland Games or something similar, but was afraid of making a fool of myself.  He told me that it takes a lot of guts to stop talking about competing, step outside your comfort zone, and actually compete and that, in and of itself, should be worth of a great deal of respect from one's fellow competitors.  I believe this to be true in theory, but last Saturday, that respect was evident.  It's clear to me now that I had a reason to have high standards for sportsmanship because it does, in fact, exist.

A great group of folks and a great day of competition.

Training the individual

My job as a trainer and coach is a pretty fun one as jobs go.   However, one of the first and most important lessons I learned was that there is a big difference between how I train myself and how I should train others.  Individuality is perhaps the most important factor in developing effective training programs and one must recognize that everyone has different goals, abilities, and perceptions regarding strength training and fitness in general.  Their goals are not my goals and the most important goal is to improve quality of life and make daily activities easier and more enjoyable.  There are a few questions I must answer regarding a new client before deciding on the proper approach to take.

As much fun as I have doing it, most clients don't want to constantly have to carry or throw heavy things and max out their deadlift.
What is the individual's daily routine?
The average person's daily routine will require that he or she be able to be mobile, climb stairs, pick up and carry things or small people, and perform household chores and yard work.  If a person is regularly carrying heavy grocery bags and/or children into the house from the car, we should recognize that part of their training should involve picking up and carrying heavy loads.  If an elderly person is having trouble getting up the stairs in his or her house, we should recognize that we need to strengthen and condition the legs such that this person can continue to get up the stairs and live independently.  If a truck driver is suffering from back pain from long periods of sitting while driving, we should recognize that all the muscles that stabilize the spine need be strengthened and posture improved.  As trainers, we should be able to correct movement patterns, strengthen the muscles that support the joints, and condition the body such that it performs at a higher level.  Simply addressing the activities and movement patterns that one uses in every day life can greatly improve one's quality of life.

Being a mom is demanding enough.  The most basic resistance training can provide both relief from every day aches and pains and the additional energy needed to keep up with the demands of work and family.
What is his or her sports/activity history?  What is he or she currently doing for fitness?
This question is very important.  I have trained high school students, wrestlers, weightlifters, marathon runners, people recovering from injuries and surgery, and people who have never worked out a day in their life.  Knowing their background will give you a very good idea as to what kinds of forces and effort your people are used to encountering.  It will also give you an idea as to what they may be particularly good at even if its been decades since they last participated in sports or fitness activities.  For example, former dancers usually maintain their flexibility, volleyball and basketball players usually still retain some measure of explosive leg strength, and runners typically have very good muscular endurance in the lower body.

As a former basketball player, Enoch has no shortage of explosive leg strength.  
 However, time away from physical activity means that you need to be very careful with how quickly you get them back to being active.  Someone may have maintained a great deal of strength over the years, but this should be no excuse to hit the ground running.  Going too hard, too soon can result in acute and long term overuse injuries.  You must give the body time to adapt.  A good rule of thumb with beginners is to stop long before they are sore.  If a person is starting to get sore during the workout, he or she is usually in for a few days of extreme muscle soreness which has an effect on motivation to continue.

What are any deficiencies, injuries, or disabilities that we need to correct?
Where you get started with these folks is incredibly important.  It can mean the difference between being able to sustain a long term strength and conditioning program and getting overwhelmed and/or injured before significant improvements are made.  Sometimes, you have to keep things very simple for a long time.  Some of my clients start out immediately with barbells while others use light implements for months while they improve posture and general conditioning.

Resistance training with kettlebells can be a good way to get started or maintain some strength and muscular endurance.  
As an example, we have a broad range of individuals who train with the Raleigh Weightlifting Club.  All ages and activity levels are welcome and we try to accomodate all of them.  Does this mean that we hand everyone a barbell and get them snatching and cleaning as soon as possible?  Absolutely not.  The body has to be conditioned to handle loads at high velocities.  Some of our younger teens do nothing but strength train for months in order to improve their posture under the bar while some of our young athletes have mastered the lifts within a week or two and add weight every week..  Some of our older folks work for months to improve their flexibility and range of motion on the basic lifts.  For some of them, who may have had joint replacements or prior injuries, we simply work within the range of their abilities knowing that they may never be able to execute a full overhead or front squat.  And that's okay, its not required.

Manuel is one of our high school students and an amazing athlete.  
What are the client's goals?
Discussing goals and setting realistic ones is probably the most important step in having a successful client relationship.  Most clients will tell you that they want to lose weight and maybe "firm up" or "tone".   As a trainer, one has to understand that this simply means that they are not happy with where they are fitness-wise. A good trainer will help the client to figure out what exactly he or she is not happy with and work on fixing it.  Back pain, inability to participate in sports, lack of energy and endurance, and joint pain are all things a trainer can address and possibly make better.  Being able to pick up and carry one's grandchildren, play kickball with one's kids, or compete in a weightlifting meet or endurance event are all goals that many people don't consider, but are usually very pleased to realize as a possibility.

Competing in an event like the Warrior Dash is both fun and a reasonable goal to train for.  
Regarding fat loss, I make it clear that I can make my clients stronger and more conditioned and make them feel better in general, but fat loss takes a 24 hour commitment from the client.  Fat loss, and muscle gain, is largely dependent on diet and I cannot control what a person eats.  For my clients who wish to decrease bodyfat, I simply ask them to write down a few days worth of their daily intake.  Usually just writing it down highlights the problem areas.  However, I take the approach of making slow changes that one can stick to and slowly improve things over time.  I have found this approach to be much more successful than a massive and immediate diet overhaul. Sometimes, just changing meal times and/or increasing protein intake can begin to make positive changes in body composition.

Honesty in diet journals is the key to success in body composition changes.
The most important question is this:  How many of the client's goals am I, the trainer, going to be able to help with?
This is largely up to the client.  It is dependent on how many times a week they will train with me, how much effort they put in to my training sessions, whether or not they follow my "homework" instructions (these include additional workouts and flexibility/mobility work), and/or how diligent they are about eating responsibly.  I have seen individuals make huge strides with one training session a week.  I have seen individuals fail to progress significantly after mutliple weekly training sessions for months on end.

I do not measure progress based on body composition, but on demonstrated improvements in strength, endurance, and cardiovascular conditoning, relief from pain, and/or improved quality of life.  My favorite improvements to note are when a client reports being able to do things with his or her family that were previously out of the question.  Having a mother happily report that she was running races with her kids and having fun is just as exciting as having one of my teenagers hit a personal record at a weightlifting meet.

Megan, another high school athlete, hitting a 66 kg personal record on the platform.
Personally, I train for strength and do things that a lot of my clients consider pretty extreme.  I love what I do and am always happy to share and teach what I do with my clients, but over the years, I have come to recognize that my goals are not everyone else's goals.  More importantly, I can improve an individual's quality of life more effectively by viewing him or her as an individual and taking into consideration what he or she is willing and able to get out of my training sessions.  At the end of the day, my goal as a trainer is to make people better at enjoying their lives.  Understanding one's clients is the first step.

My fellow weightlifting coach Jason Davidson and one of his training groups.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Shoulder Abuse and Recovery

Even though I am really too old and frail to be taking up Olympic weightlifting as a serious sport at my age, I have a hard time not doing things I really enjoy.  As a coach of some rather talented young lifters, I also decided that it would probably be a good idea to have first hand knowledge of competing on the platform and so entered a competition in February.

This is not me.
Well, if I had taken a good hard look at my training log, I would have realized that my shoulder issues from the year before had not really resolved.  And maybe I would not have ignored the pain and horrible sounds when I put the bar overhead.  I might have also realized that there was a problem when three weeks out from the comp, both lifts had decreased by about 30 pounds.  Oh, and there was something about falling off a horse and having an injured hip as well.  You can probably tell by now that I don't really exercise caution, restraint, or common sense when it comes to training myself.

Coaching one's self can be a challenge, especially with levers like these.

Long story short, I lifted at the competition, but after it was over, I had such pain in my left shoulder  that I could not only no longer go overhead with the bar, I couldn't go overhead with anything.  I couldn't even shoot a basketball or throw my laundry in the hamper.

Off to the ortho I went and was ordered to get an MRI to rule out a possible tear in the labrum, a band of connective tissue that helps the shoulder stay together.  When the labrum is compromised, two things happen:  The ball does not stay in the socket and the ligaments that attach to it to maintain the integrity of the shoulder can't do their job.  A torn labrum would have been pretty bad news.

Fortunately, mine was only frayed, as were the rotator cuff tendons.  Not terrible news, but not great news.  I now had to figure out what to do about it.  I did qualify for Master's Nationals after all and can't pass up my chance at a mediocre performance next year.  Lucky for me, I happen to have a few friends who are even better at not practicing restraint than I am, but are smart enough to be just as aggressive about rehabilitation.  If you want to know how to fix a problem like this, your best source is going to be those who hurt themselves even worse and came back to lift another day.

Healing tendons can be tricky business.  They don't typically get a lot of blood flow and the inflammation process which can lead to healing is extremely painful.  The trick is to find ways to increase the blood flow, allow inflammation to do its job, and strengthen the weak spots that may have lead to the injury to begin with.

The shoulder is a particularly delicate joint that is held together largely with tendon, muscle, and connective tissue.  It is the most freely moving joint on the body and therefore is subjected to stress from multiple directions.  Weak spots, tight muscles, strength imbalances, and ignoring pain can all lead to a serious shoulder injury.  The rotator cuff is the most likely victim of all of these abuses.

Most of us who train regularly know the importance of the rotator cuff in supporting the shoulder joint, but don't always take the extra steps to keep it healthy.  Exercises such as external and internal rotations, Y's and T's, scapular retraction and protraction, as well as moving the shoulder in multiple directions are necessary to strengthen and stabilize the joint.  Unfortunately, if you can lift a lot of weight overhead, off the bench, or do multiple pullups, your larger muscles take over and the rotator cuff does not get utilized in a way that keeps it strong.  It is necessary to specifically address all the muscles of the shoulder in a way that keeps the ball tracking properly in the socket and the tendons from taking the brunt of the force.  It is also necessary to stretch the muscles in the chest that tend to pull our shoulders forward.  Anyone who works at a computer or drives a lot (uh, that would be me) is going to have exaggerated tightness in the upper chest simply from daily activities.

So, to summarize, shoulder health requires quite a few things:
1. Keeping the internal rotators and upper chest muscles flexible and not overly tight.
2. Strengthening and stretching the external rotators and stabilizers of multiple scapular positions.
3. Encouraging proper tracking of the ball and socket joint with high repetition, lighter resistance exercises that target the multiple planes of movement.

So, what to do about it?  Good news is, there's a lot, thanks to my friends (Bob and Dave) for sharing.

First of all, this video of shoulder rehab circuits from Diesel Crew is invaluable.  Pick what works and make your own circuits.

A lot of these exercises include shoulder retraction, protraction and scapular positional changes.  Other exercises include waiter's walks (holding weight stable overhead) with plates or kettebells.  One armed heavy overhead kettlebell presses, push presses, or jerks can be beneficial as well.  The goals is to stabilize the joint and allow the movement to occur with proper tracking.  Bar presses and pullups do not allow for the joint to move freely.  Incline dumbbell bench presses, band press downs, pull aparts, curls, and face pulls are good as well.  The idea is to choose exercises that do not hurt, but allow you to move the joint stably in multiple direction.

As I mentioned previously, its not just strength work, but stretching as well that is of particular importance. One of my friends was kind enough to send me another piece of equipment called "The Rotator" which is useful for both strengthening and stretching the internal and external rotators.  I found this particularly useful for stretching and use it both before and after workouts.  It has a built in resistance band and so you can also strengthen the rotators both internally and externally in multiple planes.  There are multiple points of attachment for both the wrist harness and resistance band so even skinny small people like me can use this relatively easily.

This is a video demonstrating stretching of the external rotators using this piece of equipment.

Stretching the muscles of the chest that pull the shoulder forward is important as well and can easily be done in a doorway or by laying across a stability ball.  A lacrosse ball can be used to specifically target tight spots via self myofascial release around the front and back of the shoulder.  Its not comfortable, but it works.

Good news is that by implementing all of these things, I have started to get overhead again without pain.  And barring any other competitors in my age and weight class (which is a real possibility), I might just be a Master's National weightlifting champion after all.

There are a lot of things we do in every day life that will contribute to the decline of our shoulder health.  However, there are a lot of simple things that we can do to offset or even reverse the damage.  Pay close attention to what your body is telling you and don't discount the simple lighter exercises that support the joint and will keep you lifting heavy much longer and much more safely.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What exactly is Foundational Training?

Well, it’s a very important concept related to adaptation.  And it can mean the difference between progressing safely with an exercise program and suffering debilitating injury. 

If, every time we picked up a barbell, our bodies instantly accommodated that stress by getting stronger and maintained that strength in a general way for a long period of time, foundational training would not really be all that necessary.  But that’s not how it works.

 Our body adapts to what its used to doing.  And whether that is walking, splitting wood, or carrying a child around all day, our bodies will try and adapt to become more efficient at that activity.  When we suddenly change what we are doing, our bodies will undergo stress as it tries to adapt to the change.  There are some changes that take place immediately such as increased heart rate, respiratory rate, and body temperature, but the long-term changes that result from applied stress are the ones that we need to be careful with.

When beginning a resistance training program, you need to think about what your body has to do in order to accommodate the stress you are applying to it.  You may actually have the strength to lift quite a bit of weight; human beings are quite a bit stronger than they think they are.  However, your tendons and bones may not be ready to support it.  And you may not have the cardiovascular capacity, metabolic adaptations, or muscular endurance to sustain the effort.  Lastly, it takes quite a bit of neural coordination to recruit as many muscle fibers as needed to lift appreciable weight with enough coordination to avoid hurting yourself.

So, it sounds like its hard to push yourself beyond your limits, right?  Unfortunately, no. 

Its actually quite easy to do more than your muscles can handle within a single training session and not feel the repercussions until a few hours or days later.  In fact, its possible to do more than your tendons and bones can handle in multiple training sessions and not feel the repercussions until several weeks or months later when you realize you have a stress fracture or tear in a tendon or ligament.  

Shoulder SLAP tear:  See the V-shaped split?  Not supposed to be here. 

The problem with injuries are that they are not always acute.  A lot of injuries occur with microscopic wear and tear over long periods of time. 

The Foundational Training period’s purpose is to diminish the risk of injuries by allowing your body time to adapt to the forces generated by more intense exercise.  Tendons and ligaments get stronger, muscles get more coordinated with the nervous system, blood volume increases, metabolic enzymes adjust to raise your aerobic capacity (basically how intensely you can work out before you get winded).

So, should you go from the couch straight to bootcamp?  No.  Simply walking, jogging, bodyweight exercises, light weights, and even *gasp* doing some work on the weight machine circuits at the gym would be a good way to build some foundational strength and conditioning before participating in a high intensity workout program.

Foundational strength and conditioning doesn’t take that long to develop, 3-6 weeks is adequate for some, however, extremely deconditioned individuals may need as long as 3-6 months.  Having the patience to stick with a foundational period of training and slowly make adjustments in intensity and volume can mean the difference between being strong and healthy or weak and injured. 

If you “shock” your body, don’t be surprised if it shocks you back.        

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Time to talk diet . . .

Well, tis the season and all that. What am I talking about? Well, diet season of course. A lot of us have finished our holiday binges and have maybe tried on a bathing suit or two and been horrified by what they see in the mirror. New Year's resolutions, preparing for Spring Break, or just a desire for change in the post-holiday lull inspires many people to try to shed some pounds.

How do they do this?

Well, its pretty well known that gym attendance seems to increase exponentially for the first month or two after the holidays. And the infomercials on all the latest diet fads and exercise programs seem to get twice as much airing. However, very few people are really able to accomplish their goals without the aid of a personal trainer, boot camp coach, nutritional program, or Tony Horton. Many people blame this on a lack of motivation. But, the truth is, a lot of people work very hard and have a hard time ever seeing results and it has little to do with motivation and a lot more to do with a lack of good information.

I've written a lot on this blog about diet and the one thing I stress more than anything is that your ideal diet is one that YOU optimize for yourself. This requires an attention to detail, record-keeping, and the ability to adjust things as you go. In this post, I'm going to review the some of the guidelines that will help you to succeed with your body composition goals.

Before I do that, however, I want to make this point:

If you want to change your body composition, it will come from your diet. Exercising every day may not help towards this goal, but paying attention to your diet EVERY DAY will.

Keep a diet journal.

The most important part about keeping a journal is that it allows us to see what works and doesn't work. Keeping a realistic account of not only your diet, but also your training schedule and general sense of well-being is extremely important to your success.

Don't try and make too many changes too soon. Very few people can make a drastic change in their diet and stick to it for the long term. Start with protein focus and work from there.

If you suspect you are having problems with a particular food, try eliminating it for a week and see if you see an improvement or no change. Problems can be gastro-intestinal (upset stomach, bloating, loose stools, constipation), respiratory (congestion or wheezing), and/or dermatological (hives, rashes, flushing, etc.).

Protein first and with every meal.

For too long our American diet fads have focused on fat or carbohydrates. This simply cannot be a part of performance nutrition. As we’ve discussed, performance nutrition is focused on synergy between our strength and conditioning program and our diet. The key macronutrient that will determine our success with this in terms of building and repairing muscle and connective tissue, supporting immune function, and synthesizing essential biomolecules such as enzymes and hormones is protein.

The first change we need to make in our diets is to make sure that we are getting our daily protein requirement, roughly 0.4 to 0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight depending on activity level. Therefore, every time we plan a meal, whether it be a snack, breakfast, lunch, or dinner, we need to first think about where the protein is coming from and make that the priority of the meal. This will automatically change the character of your meals. You will no longer want to snack on pretzels or chips; nuts may be a better choice. Breakfast will no longer be a bowl of boxed cereal; whole grain cereal or eggs may be a better choice.

Keep processed foods to a minimum including protein supplements.

All refined and processed foods are broken down very quickly in the gut. In the case of refined flours and sugars, this means that they get into the bloodstream very quickly and efficiently which delivers a huge load of calories that we don’t really need. These are also devoid of fiber, protein, and micronutrients that are usually found in real food.

Processed foods often contain fats not found in nature such as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (trans fats) and corn oil (abnormally high in omega-6 fatty acids). These fats have been found to cause abnormally high storage of fat in the omentum or abdominal fat and may be associated with an increase in diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

Whey protein is great as a post-workout recovery meal, but try not to rely on it for all your protein needs. The human body has a shortened digestive tract compared to herbivores (animals that eat plants). This is because we evolved to eat meat. So, eat meat. It’s good for you.

Whole grain foods contain protein and fiber.

Whole grains contain protein, that’s what makes them “whole”. Fiber is great, but we can get that from beans, vegetables, and fruits as well. Pepperidge Farm has a great line of whole grain bread products with over 5 grams of protein per serving. Other whole grains are quinoa, barley, brown rice, cous-cous, etc. Please read your nutrition labels, all grains are not created equal.

Meal timing is of the utmost importance.

The bulk of calories should be taken in during the active times of the day. The macronutrient profile of meals is also important in regards to how it affects one's hunger and storage of nutrients.

When recording what we eat in our food journals, it is also important to record how we feel. Hunger, fatigue, and lack of performance are all clues as to how your diet is affecting you. Mid-afternoon crashes are usually the result of not enough energy calories to compensate for activity or perhaps the wrong combination of macronutrients. Consuming a large number of energy calories before bed rather than during the active times of the day will cause those calories to be stored rather than be utilized. This is especially important to keep track of for those who work an odd schedule or do shift work.

Post-workout meals are very important and should contain protein and carbohydrates, but little or no fat as this will slow down absorption of nutrients in the gut. Carbohydrates will create an insulin release that will carry protein across the muscle cell wall and allow for immediate muscle repair and recovery. This meal should be consumed within one hour of working out and should consist of 20-40 grams of easily digestible protein and 10-80 grams of carbohydrates. This can easily be accomplished with a whey protein shake sweetened with dextrose.

Whey protein, although it is a great supplement, in excess, is just an extra source of calories. If you are currently taking a whey protein supplement more than once a day, try cutting back to once a day and get the rest of your protein from natural sources. Post-workout meals can also come from more natural sources such as yams for carbohydrate and tuna or low-fat cottage cheese for protein.

If you are looking to lose bodyfat, limit or avoid consumption of calorically dense starches such as pasta, white rice, most bread, processed potatoes (french fries, hash browns, etc.), and sugar, ie processed foods.

These foods are calorically dense and easy to overeat. Instead, try corn, black beans, green beans, sweet potatoes, eggplant, fennel, bok choy, avocados, tomatoes, etc. This will create a calorie deficit in your diet that will begin fat loss.

Again, take this rule with a grain of salt, especially if you are a teenager or athlete. Teenage athletes, although they would benefit from a more natural diet, need as many calories as they can get because their bodies are still growing an developing.

However, for those of us who are finished with the growing an developing and would perhaps like to "undevelop" certain parts of our bodies, these foods can be difficult to manage consumption of because the serving sizes are very small relative to what we commonly serve ourselves. Substituting lower glycemic and less calorically dense foods for these options will cut down the number of calories in your diet without cutting down on the volume of food you are consuming.

Use flavor!

Satiating the palate satiates the appetite. Marinades, spices, salsas, chutneys, are all ways to add flavor and satisfaction to a meal without relying on dessert. Do, however, avoid fatty sauces and dressings as these can add hundreds of unnecessary calories.

We often think we are hungry when we actually crave a certain taste or sensation. This may be because we crave a certain micronutrient such as salt or another mineral. Eating bland foods and denying ourselves the pleasures of eating as well as essential micronutrients can often lead to uncontrollable food binges later on. But, be aware of what you are using to flavor your foods. Dressings and sauces can hide hundreds of calories of unnatural and/or processed fats and sugars.

Whole, natural foods are more satiating for long periods of time than processed foods.

Fiber, fat, protein, and acidic foods all lower the glycemic index of a meal and slow absorption of food into the gut. Foods high in fiber are not only calorically sparse, they are more filling. Use fats sparingly, but don’t be afraid of fats. We need all fats, including saturated fats in our diets for optimal health. Omega-3 fats are of special importance. Look into taking a fish oil (not cod liver oil) supplement to supply this essential fat. Healthy sources of fat are olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, fish, grass-fed non-processed meat and poultry, and moderate amounts of full fat dairy products.

To compensate for nutrient soil depletion, take a naturally derived vitamin and mineral supplement supplement daily.

Prepare bulk foods in advance.

The hardest thing about eating well is giving up convenience foods. Our lives are busy, hectic, and sometimes just completely crazy. Getting a cheeseburger at the drive-thru is a lot easier than preparing a wholesome meal from scratch. However, it is relatively easy to make a big batch of stew, a casserole, or even a batch of grilled meat that you can use for several days. I will typically marinate a grill a large batch of chicken thighs that I can reheat throughout the week. I also pre-bake yams and make a broccoli slaw that keeps for several days. Small containers of cottage cheese can be very convenient as well. Figure out what you like to eat and go from there. Is it beef stew? Enchiladas? Shrimp gumbo? Pork bbq? Tabouleh?

Don't keep snack foods in the house.

Seriously. The kids don't need it and neither do you. Apples with peanut butter, grapes, nuts, yogurt, etc. make great snacks and you won't sit down in front of the television and eat a whole bag of apples.

On a healthy diet, after the initial adjustment period, you should NOT feel tired, run down, depressed, injured, or unmotivated. This can be a sign that you are missing critical nutrients or simply not getting enough calories. Use tape measurements of your waist, hips, thighs, arms and neck to track progress. If you aren't seeing results, something has to change.

And lastly, if you want to get stronger and/or increase your muscle mass, you have to EAT A LOT OF FOOD. Don't mistake a six-pack for a sign that you strong and healthy. It only means you have low body fat.   I have seen far too many individuals sacrifice energy, overall health, and even bone density in the quest for "skinny".  You will look and feel far better if you build a strong body first; any extra pounds will be much easier to shed with metabolically active muscle to help burn it off.