Thursday, May 19, 2016

Winning at Fitness or Competing for Fun? How Motivation Is the Most Important Part of the Fitness Puzzle.

There are two kinds of people in this world:  those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don't.  Despite the first part of that statement, I am the latter.  I don't believe that we all are either all in or all out on most things we so, our spectrum of choices just tilts us in one direction or the other. In the context of this article, I think there are those who enjoy exercise and those who need motivation to exercise.  That motivation can take on a number of faces, however, this article is about using competition to motivate ourselves to better ourselves physically.

Motivation to exercise is a topic interests me a great deal because I am not the most motivated person in the world when it comes to fitness.  When I was younger I liked playing sports, I liked playing outside and riding my bike, and I would occasionally go on a several week exercise binge when I realized that my metabolism was not keeping up with me.  However, for the most part, I didn't really enjoy exercising or dieting.  When my babies were small, I went to the gym because it was the YMCA and they have childcare.  That means my kids were watched by responsible adults (that were not me) for two hours while I got some exercise, and more importantly, a shower.  If you have three kids under the age of four, a shower by yourself is probably the only thing you deeply care about other than sleep.

But, I digress.  As I got older, I realized that I needed to exercise.  All the time.  And for the rest of my life.  Because when you don't have or maintain that base of fitness, things start to fall apart rather rapidly.  When done correctly, well planned exercise is what keeps you feeling good and keeps the pain at bay.  (You young folks won't understand this until your mid-thirties.)

I do like to learn and so I found that one of my prime motivators to keep going to the gym was to learn new things, new exercise routines, new training methods, new equipment, etc.  I did all the gym classes, I did CrossFit, I did powerlifting, weightlifting, all that stuff and when I finally had enough equipment to quit my gym membership and work out at home, I was so very excited.

And then I stopped working out.

I actually trained clients for 3-4 months in my home basement gym without doing anything myself.   I was tired, bored, and lonely.  And I had lost all motivation.  I started to wonder if I actually ever liked working out at all or if I just craved the camaraderie, attention, and social aspect of it all.  This is extrinsic motivation, the motivation based on the expectation of others, and not the best one for a lifetime commitment to fitness.

But then I read about this crazy race called the Warrior Dash.  It seemed kind of impossible to me at the time since it requires that one not only run three miles, but climb over and crawl through a whole bunch of obstacles including mud and fire.  I wasn't running at all at that time, but I got excited about coming up with a plan to rebuild that running base as well as the other demands of the race.
Also, you get a furry viking helmet for signing up for the Warrior Dash.
 The beauty of a goal and a plan is that there is a date on the calendar and a lot of work to do.  You don't have to WIN the daily workout through blood, sweat, pain, or beating the timer, you just do the work and find out how well you worked on race day.  There is much less immediate gratification with this kind of training, but if you know what you're doing, there are plenty of markers along the way that let you know you are progressing.

As a scientist, periodization (otherwise known as training with a plan) fascinates me.  Basically you start with a goal (Warrior Dash), figure out what qualities you need to complete the goal (running 3+ miles and climbing/crawling strength), figure out what qualities you have and don't have, and from there you build your plan.

I am of the mind that world domination is not necessarily the goal of every individual who walks into my gym, but if you have a goal and the time it will take to train for it, I can come up with a plan to get you there.  Whether it be weightlifting, powerlifting, highland games, obstacle course races, or flat out endurance, the process is relatively simple:

  1. Set a goal
  2. Determine the necessary qualities
  3. Assess the individual
  4. Design a plan that develops those qualities as efficiently as possible in the time given in a sequential manner.  

(This last part is the most difficult part and does require some experience and insight, but overall, it is a simple process.)

So, to make a long story short, I have found my motivation to work out by competing.  After I completed my first Warrior Dash with a group of friends, I branched out with a number of long term goals; some with friends, some with my kids, and some just by myself.  I've trained for obstacle course races, powerlifting competitions, highland games, a highlander (strongman/highland games hybrid), and now I'm going to be training for a half marathon.  For some of these events, my only goal was to complete it and not hurt myself, however, after you get one or two under your belt, in order to keep improving, you really need to raise the bar.  In that respect, I competed in the Masters World Scottish Games last Fall and I trained for nine months to put in one of the best performances in my life.  I didn't win (placing second didn't suck), but it was, by far, the most successful competition I've ever had in terms of my own numbers.

Getting strong enough to pick up and throw this thing is good motivation for me.
Right now, I am still in the peak of my highland games season which means lots of strength work and throwing practice.  But, I've recognized a deficiency in my fitness that I know needs fixing and so I have signed up for a half marathon this Fall.  Personally, I really don't like running, but I know when I have a good endurance base, I train better and I have way more endurance on the field and in the weight room.  The last time I built a good base was four years ago when I trained for the Tough Mudder (12 miles) and it enabled me to work much harder and longer in both the weight room and on the field.  And so, I signed up for the City of Oaks half marathon this November.  To make this challenging for myself, I'm not looking to just finish it, I'm going to try and finish it in under two hours.  This goal is based on my running times from my Tough Mudder training and although it will be challenging, it is within my reach.  I've started with the slow and low work and will begin my 14 week peaking at the end of July.

So, in conclusion, reasonable goals + time + good planning = a lifetime of enjoyable fitness.  Maybe you love your gym family, maybe you're on a recreational sports league, maybe you just like walking in the woods.  Whatever motivates you, keep at it, but if you're having a hard time finding your motivation, give competition a try.  Even if you're only competing with yourself.

My ultimate goal is to be one of those badass old ladies who is still competing in her eighties at one thing or another.  Maybe I'll pull a world record deadlift the same year I complete some ultra distance trail run,  And if anyone asks me how on earth I ever managed such a feat, I'll nonchalantly say, "Well son, I've been working on this for over fifty years."  

I want to be like them.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Exercise Science vs Best Practices: Where’s the Holy Grail?

Earlier this week, I was researching the topic of “cardiovascular exercise vs high intensity interval training”. I simply wanted to show that old school, long steady distance training had a great deal of benefits for both the performance focused athlete and the casual exerciser. Instead, I found a whole lot of contradictory information.

Here’s the problem: I know, as a coach of athletes of all different stripes, that if you lack an endurance base, your performance in the gym will suffer. I also know that if you have no previous experience biking, running, swimming, etc., no amount of weight room based high intensity interval training will allow you to complete a long distance race in any of those formats with considerable ease. Training is specific, whether it be movement, intensity, volume, or load, if you aren’t practicing it, its not going to be easy. 

You get better at squatting by practicing squatting.
There are two things basic components of physical fitness that we know for a fact will improve your overall fitness and performance:
1. Strength training
2. Cardiovascular training

However, there are a number of exercise styles that target both of these components and the spectrum of training effects between the two is long and varied.

For example, a beginner weightlifter is going to be breathing pretty hard during his training sessions because he’s doing a taxing physical activity. His heart rate will be up and he will get better conditioned while he gets stronger. A beginner runner will also be taxing her heart rate and aerobic metabolism while also building strength in her legs and back from maintaining upright posture while she runs. A fitness enthusiast who takes his first high intensity interval training class will notice a boost in his overall conditioning while he gets stronger and more cardiovascularly fit, but not for longer durations. Notice something about these three people? They are all improving their overall fitness level. They are probably also improving their health based fitness as well as some performance based fitness.

In other words, exercise makes us fitter. 

However, as fitness trainers, we have to figure out how to design our client’s exercise or training to meet their particular goals. And we have two sources that we will often look to in order to determine if we want to include a training protocol in our practice. These are: Science and Best Practices

Science is the research done by exercise physiologists, physiologists, medical researchers, physical therapists and pretty much any organization with a published journal. There are studies on everything from what muscles are stimulated when we jump to how high intensity interval training affects our blood pressure. A lot of these studies are designed to answer a question, but the biases of those asking the questions can significantly influence the outcome based on how the study is set up, the populations used, and the questions asked.

Best practices are the training and coaching practices used in a variety of disciplines that are known to work over time to both improve performance and reduce the risk of injury. Although there may be periodic detours to explore other methods, the core ideas have pretty much remained constant over the decades.  Although many of these best practices are indeed the best way to practice, other practices reflect the biases of the participants.  Maybe they don't include certain elements simply because they don't like it.

Now we have a problem. Because often times Science and Best Practices are in conflict with one another. The important thing to consider with using both of these sources is context. In other words, its not so important for us to understand THAT something worked. Rather we must understand WHY it worked.

If I want to look for the answer in Science, I can find a number of articles on high intensity interval training and how it is superior to low intensity, higher volume cardiovascular training in improving health fitness markers. I can find studies that show that it improves blood pressure, VO2 max, stroke volume, and resting heart rate. I can also find studies that contradict these findings.

I can’t find any studies that show how HIIT alone improves performance over the long term. I can’t find any studies that are carried out long enough to show if there are any detrimental effects such as soft tissue injuries or burnout. I also can’t seem to find out what “untrained” or “well-trained” means in terms of the study participants. Many studies are carried out in non-athletes and are short-term. So, while the researchers are looking at the effects of “High intensity interval training” are, they may simply be seeing the effect of “exercise” in people who aren’t used to exercising. As a biochemist, the study design and context of the results is just as interesting to me as the results and the design of a lot of these studies is lacking.

If you want to run fast, for a whole game, you must first be able to run far.
I’m certainly not the first person to be disillusioned by exercise science, but I don’t think we can toss the baby out with the bathwater. In weighing the potential benefits of a study, we have to keep in mind the short-comings and more importantly, the things that weren’t measured. So, before using a scientific study to justify changing how you train your clients/athletes, ask yourself a few questions:

1. Does the study sample reflect the population I am training?
2. What were the baseline fitness levels and additional training activities of the participants?
3. Is there any evidence regarding long term safety and continued improvement in performance?
4. Are there any inherent risks such as overuse and soft tissue injuries that may not show up in the duration of the study?

After you ask yourself these questions, you have some things to keep in mind as you evaluate the progress of your trainees. Remember, its always about training the individual and not everyone is going to have the same tolerance or benefits of a particular training protocol.

Best Practices aren’t going to get a free pass either. Some best practices, such as the use of long steady distance training as the foundation for most endurance based sports, is universally used and accepted by most coaches of high level athletes. Mainly because over the decades, when they divert from this practice, performance suffers. Although HIIT at various levels of intensity are used to enhance one’s speed, power, and overall endurance, best practices dictate that slow and low should be the biggest piece of the pie.

However, in the broader spectrum there are other best practices related to including or avoiding other types of training, recovery, and nutrition that may simply be best practices because they are haven’t been shown to have negative effects. For example, a lot of athletes avoid strength training because they fear injury in the weight room. (And they aren’t wrong, it happens.) However, a good strength coach and a well-designed program in an appropriate sport can not only help avoid injuries, but boost performance as well. Wrong coach, wrong program, wrong sport? Well, that may well be a disaster.

When utilizing a best practice, it is good to ask yourself “why”? Its also good to recognize that you are not going to revolutionize the human body. The body responds to exercise by getting stronger and more conditioned. Focusing specifically on one or the other will enhance that particular focus. Practicing sport specific skills will get you better at your sport. That’s exercise science in a nutshell. So, if something seems out of place, figure out whether or not its actually necessary. It may not be for the individuals you are training at their current level of fitness. For example, if you are training a group of beginners to run a 5k, just plain running is way more important than specialized intervals, lactate thresholds, and tempo runs.

As with the science, ask yourself the same questions:

1. Are the best practices used with the population I am training?
2. What were the baseline fitness levels and additional training activities of the participants?
3. Is the method you are using typically used at a specific time and for a specific duration in a training cycle? If so, when and how?
4. What are the benefits and risks of using this method? Is there a baseline level of fitness or performance that is necessary before employing this method?

Running is how you build a running base.  And its good for your body.
So, I originally started writing this article because I wanted to tell people that they really need to get out and walk, jog, bike, swim, ski, etc. for overall general health. The bulk of the research science and best practices tells us that low intensity cardio is good for your heart, lowers your blood pressure, aids in recovery, has a low risk of injury, can help reduce stress, and can help you sleep better. I could quote a whole bunch of studies and/or best practices, but bottom line, we’ve all known this for a long time and for some people, this exactly the kind of exercise they need to get off the couch or get to the next level. For more reading on the subject, check out these excellent articles that already beat me to the punch by Mike Robertson, Steve Magness, and Stephen Seiler.

You Need Long Duration, Low Intensity Cardio

And the actual Holy Grail:

Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance: the Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training