Thursday, March 28, 2013

Nutrition and Training: Common Sense Works Best

Training horses is all about focusing on what they need.  
There's so much on the internet these days about the right way to train and eat that I really have nothing to add.   In fact, the advice I give hasn't changed much in the last five years and I've only grown more resolute that its the best path to a functional healthy life.  Unfortunately, what I have to say is not sexy or exciting and it seems too simple to work.  Surely one must attack everything with great vigor and scrutiny to succeed at fitness and health, but the truth is, simple still works best.  Having trained horses for a number of years, I can honestly say that even with equines, focusing on too many things at once is stressful, diminishes performance and function, and increases risk of injury.

If your approach to diet and fitness is too complicated, how can you truly maximize the qualities that will give you the greatest benefit?  Whether your goal is body composition or performance, a solid strength training program, a sensible diet, and some aerobic base training is ALL you need in a background training program.  For those of you who play sports, practice on the field will take care of your conditioning and specific competition prep will prepare you for competition day.  Most importantly, but leaving out all the extraneous stuff that you think you need, you will recover better and can put more effort into improving those qualities you need instead of getting mediocre at a whole bunch of things that are less important.  The truth is, with a little bit of practice, a well trained athlete adapts quite well to any number of challenges mainly because that base training is already in place.  

Planning meals should not be overly stressful or affect your
personal relationships.  
I was at my kids elementary school the other day and got roped into helping out the substitute take the kids down to the lunch room.  It was a half day and so the kids were eating in the classroom.  At the back of the line on the way back to class, I noticed a few boys had nothing more on their trays than a pile of sugary snacks.  Rice Krispie treats, fruit snacks, and maybe there was a sandwich, but not much else.  Someone allowed them to purchase this.

I thought to myself, "Well, I wonder if anyone has bothered to tell their parents that they are doing this?"  But, then I had to wonder if the parents even knew this was a bad idea, would care if it was, or perhaps allowed the children to eat at home this way.

The thing is, as much as this horrifies me, it doesn't surprise me.  Diet is one of those things that gets horribly abused by most people and its not just by eating junk food.  Extremes in all areas are responsible for a number of problems.  And other than the junk food junkies, people will come out of the woodwork to tell you all about their disordered eating and it has "transformed their lives".  Ultimately, however, following a good healthy diet is not that complicated.

My approach to nutrition has always been a very simple, scientific process:
Write down what you are eating for a week; be completely honest.
Assess the calories and macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates) for that week and determine if anything is deficient or in excess.
While continuing to track your diet, activity, and overall sense of well-being, slowly introduce changes week by week that will accomplish three things:

  1. Ensure your protein intake is adequate and not excessive for your needs.
  2. Ensure that your overall calorie intake is adequate and not excessive for your needs. 
  3. Replace processed foods with more natural and unprocessed foods that make you feel good.  

Its simple and it works.  It simply requires that you pay attention to what you are doing and consistently move towards a more ideal way of eating.  There are no "cheat days", we don't punish ourselves for enjoying a treat now and then, and we aren't so strict and obsessive that we offend our friends and neighbors.

The same approach works with training in a slightly different way.  It is still based entirely on observation, but this time, instead of tracking what you eat, you need to take an honest look at what your goals are and where your deficiencies lie.  Again, this is pretty simple with the definition of "tasks" being your daily routine or anything related to your sport:
Are you strong enough to perform your tasks and resist injury?
Can you perform your tasks for the desired length of time without fatiguing?
Can you hit all the positions required to perform your tasks optimally?
Does your current exercise regimen enable you to function better in every day life and keep you free from injury?

If you want to be like this guy, pay attention
to what you're doing now and minimize the
collateral damage.
What we're talking about here are the basic principles of strength, endurance, and mobility/flexibility.  The last one is the most important as what we do in the gym should enhance our lives, not require our entire focus and sacrifice our well-being.  This seems so simple, but in our current environment of extreme and specialized training regimens, the basic qualities of limit strength, aerobic base, and functional mobility are often completely ignored.  All three are necessary for good performance and quality of life.

It may be boring, but the most basic training programs consist simply of lifting weights and doing some sort of aerobic activity on a regular basis.  Occasional periods of high intensity work can boost performance, but unless you play a sport that requires intense conditioning, consider whether or not training at that level of intensity is going to make your life better.  A lot of folks disregard the basic approach because they don't know how to use this approach to make big gains across the board.  People often favor intensity in lieu of volume, but you need both to make significant progress without significant injury or setbacks.  Good technique and practice is a large part of this.

In my seminar group, Practical Strength for Trainers, we push the idea that simplicity and consistency will produce far better results than most other programs.  The truth is, it takes years, even decades, to develop one's strength and athletic potential.  We as human beings have a tremendous amount of potential that can be developed in a relatively short period of time, but this is simply our baseline.  It may surprise a lot of us, but in the grand scheme of things, it shouldn't be terribly surprising.

What does this look like? It can look like anything, but a very basic plan might look like this:
  • Monday: Squat, pullups
  • Tuesday: 30-45 minute jog
  • Wednesay: Bench, row
  • Thursday: 30-45 minute jog
  • Friday: Deadlift
  • Saturday/Sunday: Play, ie, be active and have fun

Both of my children can lift more than their bodyweight.
Most individuals, simply by learning good deadlift technique, can lift more than their bodyweight off the ground within a short training period of 6-12 weeks.  Within 6-12 months of training, more impressive feats can be accomplished.  The real impressive benchmarks start to show up in a 3-5 year period and beyond.  If all someone did for two years was squat, press, pull, carry, and do some form of aerobic training, he or she would probably be far stronger and more conditioned than the majority of folks trying every new program that tickles their fancy.  And the potential for injury would be far less.  This works for kids, athletes, senior citizens, ie pretty much everyone.


In conclusion, my main point here is that when it comes to training and diet, simple is better.  With a simple program running in the background, it becomes a lot easier to manage the rest of your life and whatever stresses come along.  If you decide to participate in a sport or train for a competition, you will have a significant base in place to work with and a fall back plan for after the season is over.  Routine may seem boring, but if you are interested in the progress you make and want to continue to make gains over the next few decades, your base training plan should be as routine as possible and your performance training plan should be as specific as possible.  Otherwise, you're just wasting energy and recovery.