Running and Yoga: New Goals for 2015

I want to love running again

I want to love running again

“Namaste” is not a word in my daily vocabulary. I don’t cart around yoga mats and wake up each morning feeling centered and at peace; I lace up my running shoes and click on my iPod to Metallica or Muse. As a finality to this year, I vowed to lock up my yoga timidness and sign up for a class–without any negativity and an open mind.

Runners sing the praises of yoga everyday. “Yoga changed my running,” I heard countless times. I hear of half marathoners who cross the finish line and head straight to the yoga studio to stretch out that lactic acid.

I was not one of them.

Why? Because a gymnast I am not.  I also suffer from workout ADD, which explains my love of running–it suits my lack of flexibility and need for speed. Therefore, I felt sincere trepidation stepping into a yoga class. The students’ sinewy arm muscles screamed “yoga devotees” and their perfectly toned backsides left me even more self-conscious. How would I survive?

As I arrived, the yoga instructor laid out her mat, took off her socks and shoes, laid them carefully to the side and walked over to an iPod dock and pushed play. Soothing spa music filled the air–definitely not my loud, normal workout music.

I mirrored the other students and removed my socks and shoes and stood face forward on the mat. The teacher asked us to move into a series of poses with names like Downward Dog and Forward Bends. I’d actually completed most of these very poses in my stretching after a long run. We then shifted into plank poses, which I do almost daily to strengthen my core.

I started to feel empowered, as if I just experienced the best stretching workout of my life. I didn’t feel intimidated any longer. Most of the yoga session consisted of moves I already incorporate into my running routine. Only this time I tried harder and pushed my body a little further into each stretch–the skillful students with ballerina litheness made me desire to keep up and come as close to their level as possible. Perhaps the running competitor in me felt pressured to keep up.

In the past, I looked at yoga as a non-sweat form of burning some calories, not as exercise. Exercise means sweating! I take it back. Yoga caused my muscles to shake, which because of running, could take the pain.

Had I not been a runner, that yoga experience would’ve felt entirely different. Running helped me appear a yoga devotee.

Now maybe someday I will be.

Shortness of Breath After A Workout

Vitamin C has been a star player on the natural remedy scene for a long time now. The humble vitamin, found in many otherwise healthy fruits and vegetables, has been touted to cure just about everything from cancer to nail-biting. Unfortunately, many of these claims just don’t hold up under the lens of scientific study.

A recent review of the available research, however, suggests that vitamin C might just be the answer to a frustratingly common problem among athletes and casual exercisers alike: Shortness of breath.

Post-exercise Shortness of Breath

Specifically, what the researchers were looking at is called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB). As the name suggests, this refers to the cluster of respiratory problems that happen after strenuous exercise and are caused by a narrowing of the airways. Typically, this manifests itself as a cough, sore throat and – of course – difficulty taking deep breaths.

Most commonly, EIB is an issue for asthmatics but many endurance athletes struggle with it as well – regardless of whether or not they have asthma.

For the purposes of the review in question, nine randomized trials were analyzed and all of them had positive results. Looked at together, the studies found that vitamin C supplementation – in fairly small doses that we’ll discuss later – halved the duration and frequency of EIB in both trained and untrained individuals.

Obviously, these findings are pretty encouraging for those of us who deal with asthma or other respiratory problems associated with exercise.


Putting It Into Practice

So, if you fall into the group of people who deal with EIB, should you start taking vitamin C. And how much?

Much more research is needed before the experts out there can really pin down any dosage recommendations. That being said, the positive results cited above were all found with doses ranging from .5 to 2g daily. Unfortunately, I could not find any information regarding the timing of the dose – whether the vitamin must be taken within a certain time-frame of the workout or can be taken at any point during the day.

It’s also true that you could be suffering with respiratory problems not associated with EIB. If that’s the case, you may see no relief at all from vitamin C supplementation. Here’s the good news, though: Vitamin C is cheap and has a fairly short list of risks associated with it. Especially when compared to other supplements. Because of that, you may want to experiment to see if a little extra vitamin C could help you deal with shortness of breath after a workout.





Setting New Running Goals

B2lCRhvCEAEI-BO.jpg largeIt’s been said before and I’ll say it again: Goals are achieved when properly set. With the new year right around the corner, this time of the year is best to revisit the goals you set this year and assess how you did. It’s also time to set new ones–starting the year with fresh objectives and new aspirations.

The best way I believe in setting goals is following S.M.A.R.T.


I don’t believe in lofty goal setting, such as “I want to make it to the Olympics.” This is a realistic goal for a select few. I also like non-abstract goals. “I want to do a marathon” isn’t specific. “I want to do such and such marathon in 2015″ is specific.

Let’s go through S.M.A.R.T.

Specific: To set specific goals Top Achievement, recommends asking the “W” questions:

Who:      Who is involved?

What:     What do I want to accomplish?

Where:    Identify a location.

When:     Establish a time frame.

Which:    Identify requirements and constraints.

Why:      Specific reasons, purpose or benefits of accomplishing the goal.

See my paragraph above. “I want to run such and such marathon in 2015.” This is specific.

Measurable: Add in something concrete to your goal, such as “I will run a marathon in under four hours.” This is quantifiable and you know you will need to add speed workouts in, probably tempo runs, etc. to reach your goal.

Attainable: You cannot set a goal out of your reach. You’ll become frustrated and give up. Don’t shoot for something you know you can’t do. If you know 26.2 miles is out of the question, but a 10K is realistic and will get you off the couch, set that goal. You’ll achieve it and feel empowered.

Realistic: Same as above. Don’t shoot for the moon.

imely: Set goals within a certain time. “I’ll run a marathon in 2014″ or “I’ll hit the gym three times a week for three months straight.” You can even add in a month: “By June 1st, I’ll have completed a half marathon in under two hours.” That’s a perfect example of a goal.

Happy goal setting for 2015!


Retrain Your Brain With Healthy Foods

It’s often been said that exercise is only a small part of the fitness equation – about 30 percent. The remaining 70 percent of your fitness progress is influenced by your diet. And, while there’s no way to really prove these numbers, experience has shown that this is roughly the way things go. Regardless of how hard your workout, it’s frustratingly easy to undo all of that good with a junk food binge.

But the sad fact is that many people simply do not enjoy healthy foods. Research into how the brain reacts to foods has shown us not only how we’ve gotten into this mess, but also how to get out of it.


Misused Reward System

To put it simply, your brain has a way of training you to repeat positive behaviors – those that it perceives as being key to your survival. To do this, your brain floods itself with dopamine and other “feel good” chemicals.

This is a major oversimplification of your body’s Reward System. Under normal circumstances, the whole process is a fantastic way of keeping you happy and healthy, since you will naturally seek out behaviors that previously earned you a reward. The problem is that modern processed foods as designed to give you a massive spike of reward hormones – much bigger than you would normally get from any food found in nature.

And this creates food addictions.

Just like most other chemicals, your body will eventually develop a tolerance to these endorphines after constantly being exposed to unusually high amounts. As a result, you begin to crave more and more junk foods to get the same high. And I’m not being overly dramatic by calling it a “high.” Multiple studies have shown that the process by which we develop addictions to and cravings for food is identical to the brain chemistry of a drug addict.

In fact, a steady diet of these foods can change your thoughts and behaviors in a way that is typical of any addict.

So there’s the problem. But – while you might not have realized the extent of the damage – you likely already knew you had to ditch the junk food. As we’ve seen, though, that is extremely difficult. It is, after all, a legitimate addiction.


Breaking The Cycle

For a long time, researchers where not sure if people could ever be fully free of these cravings once the neural pathways were established. The thought was that, even if eating habits changed, it would be a struggle for the rest of the addicts life.

To get a definitive answer, a team at Tufts University recruited 13 overweight or obese men and women for a new study on the reward system. Eight of the participants were enrolled in a weight loss program, which included a dietary overhaul while the other five remained the control group. At the beginning and end of the 6-month study, both groups received MRIs to monitor the reward centers of their brains.

Interestingly, the weight loss group showed a complete change in the reward pathways of their brains. Not only did these individuals now receive a greater feeling of reward when they ate healthy foods, they had a significantly reduced reaction to junk food.

Even though the cravings associated with years of poor dieting are powerful, and exert a surprising influence on the brain, this study give us hope that we can retrain out brains to actually prefer healthy foods.





Running Tips

race-day-720x288As mileage piles high, calories burn off and hydration disappears, it’s tough to keep mental toughness–really tough some days. So what can you do? Here is a sprinkling of advice I’ve received from professional endurance athletes over the years and what I’ve found worked for me:

If you miss a workout, don’t double up another day. If you are following a specific training program and cannot make a scheduled workout, then scrap the workout. If you try to do more the next day, you’ll throw off the training. Programs are designed to build and to relax the body in a very specific fashion. Mixing it up will throw off that delicate training program. Professional triathlete Melanie McQuaid follows this mantra. If she misses a workout, it’s gone forever.

Just stop. When I have a 15-mile run scheduled and my body takes me to mile 12 and then hits a wall, I simply stop going. I know hard-core runners will power through, but why? Unless you are in a race and must make the finish line, not making my mileage every time is okay. I’ll live to another day. But going those last three miles may be the end of me. It’s not worth it and I know I’m doing more damage than good. It destroys me physically and mentally. I become mean when I hit a wall and no one wants to be around that–so to stay mental strong, I know and respect my limits.

Walk. So much focus is on running. Why should you not walk? According to professional runner and Olympic hopeful Tere Derbez-Zacher, you should just try running for 10 minutes and then walking for 5 minutes. If you try to do too much when your body isn’t feeling it, walking is perfectly acceptable.

Cross train. Any runner knows running causes injuries and yet, we still keep doing it because it’s an addictive sport. Sometimes it’s okay to leave the track for a day and join a group aerobics class or even just meditate. You’ll still burn calories and taking a short break will make your running even stronger. It’s possible to come back faster and better–both mentally and physically.

Stay Hydrated.  On a rafting the Grand Canyon and the guide said three important and profound words to me, “hydration is happiness.” Sometimes mental issues stem simply from being not properly hydrated. Wellness doctor Yoni Whitten tells clients to drink two glasses of water when they wake up. This ensures you start hydrating properly immediately and hopefully that will cause you to begin your day with good habits.

Accept my lot in life. I’m not a professional athlete, not even in the same stratosphere. Marathons don’t come easy for me, even running in general doesn’t. While I want to better my time and push through that side stitch for a PR, I know I’m not going to cross the finish line first and should just be grateful I crossed it at all. That’s how I stay mentally strong–I try to just be happy and grateful I’m out there doing it.

Placebos Improve Running Performance

In several past posts, we’ve discussed the amazing impact that your mind can have on your athletic performance. And, for generations, athletes from any number of sports have known about – and exploited – this fact. But it’s also true that many things that athletes thing to give themselves an edge really have no reason to work. Yet, sometimes it seems like these expected placebos may actually be making a difference.

A new study, published in the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, explored the full impact of the placebo effect on runners. It even sheds some light on how you can use this phenomenon, which is usually seen as a negative thing, to improve your performance.


The Switch

A group of 15 male suspects who were all trained runners with 10k times averaging out at 39:15, were enrolled in the experiment. Over the course of the study, the men ran several 3k races. During a specific week of the study, the subjects gave themselves daily injections of what they were told was a performance enhancing drugs called OxyRBX. In reality, the drugs was a simple saline solution.

At the end of the “doping” week, the men participated in another 3k race. Believing that they had been taking a powerful performance enhancer for the past week, the runners finished an average of 9.73 seconds faster. The comes out to be a full 5 seconds off each mile – a very significant improvement.

What’s probably the most interesting aspect of this study, though, is how expectation effected the final results. The men who anticipated the greatest improvements from OxyRBX, saw the greatest improvements. On the other hand, those subjects that expected little-to-no change experienced just that.



But what’s the real world application for you? Clearly, your belief and expectations can be powerful ways to improve your performance drastically but you can’t trick yourself into injecting fake drugs into your system.

But you can use positive self-talk to encourage yourself and build anticipation. The key is adding an element to your training that you truly believe will improve your performance. Maybe it’s a specific goal for the month or incorporating strength training or regular hill-running. Either way, make it something that you genuinely believe in and will do regularly. Your positive outlook going into your new routine will give you both motivation and confidence. You will also be more positive and quick to recognize even small improvements that you may have overlooked as insignificant in the past.

There’s also another side to this, though, that I would be remiss if I did not mention: You can also have this sort of effect on other athletes – for the positive or negative. If someone introduces a new aspect to their routine that they wholeheartedly believe in, you may be doing them a huge favor by allowing them to continue to think that way.





Breakfast Food for Runners

cornstock‘Tis the time of year to eat. After this weekend of Thanksgiving and all the trimmings festering in my body, I need to get out and run–and watch what I eat.

One of my favorite breakfasts on race day or when I schedule an early-morning run is yogurt. I find it easy on my stomach and don’t experience any gastro intestinal problems when I eat it before working out. It’s light and tastes better than some of the standard go-to protein/carbohydrate bars. Not only is it one of my favorites, but researchers recently found out how beneficial it is to the body.

In the November 24, 2014 issue of BMC Medicine, researchers found yogurt can help reduce diabetes risk–up to 18 percent. Dr. Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, in Boston, and his team of researchers pooled the following histories of medical professionals:

1. The Health Professionals’ Follow-up Study, which included more than 51,000 male health professionals.

2. The Nurses’ Health Study, which included more than 121,000 women nurses.

3. The Nurses’ Health Study II, which followed nearly 117,000 women nurses.

In these studies, they discovered about 15,000 cases of type 2 diabetes–the type of adult onset diabetes stemming from diet and lifestyle choices. When they zeroed in on diary intake, one serving a day was linked to a 17 percent reduction in risk of diabetes.

They did not differentiate what type of yogurt is best, but Dr. Hu did state “yogurt seems to have a place in a healthy diet.”

Try adding yogurt in to your runner’s diet and find yourself reaping the benefits: the probiotics for your immune system, potentially lessening your chances of diabetes, and a better digestive system for running.


Exercise Order for The Best Results

There are all sorts of different theories out there about how you should structure your workouts, in regards to the order you do things. Specifically, the discussion usually revolves around whether cardio or strength training should be the first thing on your list when you hit the gym. And there are various reasons – some a little more mythical than others – used on either side of the debate.

To confuse the issue even further, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) encourages a workout framework that is a little more complicated than just cardio and strength training. According to the ACSM guidelines, your weekly workouts should include:

  • 3–5 days of cardiorespiratory exercise, depending on intensity
  • 2–3 days of resistance training
  • 2–3 days of flexibility training
  • 2–3 days of neuromotor training

In an effort to clear all this up and provide a definitive answer regarding which form of exercise should come first, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) recently sponsored a study on the matter.


Proper Priorities

The study began by selecting 24 healthy, active men and women who were familiar with each form of exercise. Each subject than underwent baseline testing and was given a chance to practice the exercises that would be used in the study proper.

Since there are 24 possible ways to order and reorder the four exercise modes, that’s how many workouts each participant performed. Every workout was directly supervised by a member of the research team and the subjects were given 48 hours of rest between workouts to make sure that one workout didn’t affect performance on the next.

Once all of the data from the study was collected, the researchers found that placing the cardio section first kept the subjects’ heart rate significantly lower than if it was done after strength training. The order of flexibility and neuromotor training made no difference, as along as it came after the strength portion.

Based on their findings, the researchers recommend doing cardio first to keep your heart rate in the “moderate intensity” range. However, they also state that this depends on you and the goal of your workout.


Personal Application

The above-mentioned recommendation is made with the goal of keeping people safe and not pushing the average exerciser to hard. Keeping your exercise intensity at “moderate” is a safe way for you to see endurance benefits while not putting your heart at risk. That being said, these recommendations don’t work for everyone.

The most obvious reason that one might ignore these recommendations is because they want to get their heart rate into the realm of “vigorous intensity.” For sprinters or those who are more focused on building power than endurance, this is an important difference. This study, then, provides important insight into how you can restructure your workouts to be most effective for your goals.

It’s also important to remember that every workout does not need to include all four of these exercise modes. If you need to focus specifically on strength, then, there’s no reason why certain days cannot be strength-only. Similarly, if you want to have greater endurance gains, you should design days around that goal.




A Time for Thanksgiving and Running

Photo courtesy New Jersey 101.5

Photo courtesy New Jersey 101.5

As Thanksgiving nears this year, I wanted to take an opportunity to give thanks for the extraordinary happenings in the running world today. Here are a few I wish to highlight:

Volunteers. I know it’s cold and races are almost always very early in the morning. I am extremely grateful for the volunteers who show up with smiles, positive energy and pass out water. They always end up getting water and sports drinks thrown on them; racers accidentally spit on them (I’ve seen this happen), yet they are there making sure we all make it to the finish line. I am most thankful for you.

Fancy shoes. Running shoes are found in every color, style and type. Suffering from major plantar fasciitis, I must choose my shoes wisely; otherwise I suffer tremendous pain. Thankfully, shoe manufacturers understand that feet come in different widths and arches, and some of us pronate a little too far. Luckily, companies produce shoes for all these types of feet issues. I would not be able to run a marathon if shoes were all the same; I am thankful for shoes produced for high arches and neutral feet (because mine are built this way.)

All-terrain clothes. Because of my love of traveling, I need running apparel for all different types of terrain and weather. From the deserts of Arizona to the tundra of Antarctica, I’ve used running clothes for every landscape. I am thankful for companies producing long-sleeved, dry-fit shirts, long running pants, arm warmers, head warmers and jackets with pockets for my gels.

Rise in alternative races. From mud races to Spartan games to running for chocolate, I’ve picked a number of new races to complete. This year I am thankful for completing my first mud run, in which I scaled walls, fell head first into mud pits, sunk into knee-deep mud pits and soaked my body in fresh water at the finish. I also ran for chocolate in which a famous chocolatier provided liquid chocolate to dip an array of treats and hot chocolate to wash it all down. Other events include the Spartan race running over fire pits and getting sprayed with paint.

Women’s running. As recently as three years ago, women shifted the demographic of the running world. Now a greater percentage of half marathon participants are women–with that distance averaging approximately 56 percent. I’ve found women’s running groups full of supportive, amazing women raising a family and balancing careers with training for the sport. It’s inspiring to see these busy women cross the finish line of countless races. I am thankful to be a woman and surround myself with such positivity from other female runners.


Home Cooking: A Key To Healthy Eating

Those warm, traditional, home cooked meals that have been romanticized by the media are – unfortunately – a dying art. Scenes of the entire family gathered around a warm meal, made from fresh ingredients have largely been relegated to the realm of fiction. In large part, people just don’t have time to cook anymore. For many, time is also a powerful barrier to home cooking.

But the value of these meals goes much further than nostalgia – they could have a large influence on the health of you and your family. The full impact of home cooking – and it’s increasing rarity – was highlighted by a new paper, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.


The Value of Home Cooking

For the paper, entitled “Is Cooking At Home Associated With Better Diet Quality or Weight-loss Intention?” three years worth of dietary data from 9,000 people was processed. The survey asked questions about what the participants ate, their fast-food intake and their use of frozen or prepared meals. Based on this information, the subjects’ caloric intake was estimated, including their macronutrient profiles.

On average, the group of subjects that rarely cooked at home – once or less per week – ate more total calories than those that cooked more often. The “home cooking” group also ate less sugar and fat than their counterparts.

It’s also interesting to note that the subjects who cooked more often were more likely to make better choices in the ingredients they used, relying more on fresh foods. This group also tended to make better decisions on the rare occasions that they did eat out.


The Take-Away

Of course, the obvious lesson from this study is this: Home cooking is healthier than eating out. This likely isn’t a revelation for most people.

What is fairly surprising, though, is the way that home cooking can change your overall dietary habits. In essence, you can train both yourself and your family to eat better even when you are not in a situation to eat a homemade meal.

There’s also the factor of additives that was not included in the study, but still worth mentioning. Prepared foods, whether they are packaged or purchased at a restaurant, often have preservatives, sweeteners and other artificial ingredients that you may want to avoid. Many of those additives are still fairly controversial so it will be up to you to decide what you want to try to avoid or exclude.


What If You Can’t

But, honestly, it may just be unrealistic for you to try to cook as much as six nights a weeks. So, what can you do?

Learn how to read nutrition labels and understand what goes into the foods you get at restaurants that you frequent. This type of education will at least help you, and your family, to be well-educated when faced with a confusing assortment of food choices.

Some people who work busy schedules even dedicate an entire night to preparing all of their food for the week. While this technique does involved a fairly large investment of time, it will save you time and money throughout the week – while providing you will healthier food options.