Caffeine for the Athlete

In several past posts, we’ve discussed the use of caffeine when it comes to athletic performance. For the most part, though, we’ve only looked at general information. Thanks to some newer research that has emerged since those posts were typed, we can now get a little specific. Primarily, we want to look at appropriate dosages of caffeine for and how you can properly manage your caffeine intake for optimum results – and limited side effects.


The Goldilocks Effect

Let’s just get this out there: Caffeine is a drug. As with most drugs, your body will eventually form both a tolerance to – and dependance on – caffeine. Thanks to the dependance, you will crave caffeine and experience withdrawal symptoms when you go without it. But your brain’s ability to form a tolerance means that you will consistently need more and more caffeine to feel the same effects.

For many people, this is knowledge enough to make them totally cut caffeine out of their lives. But the truth is that numerous studies have proven that caffeine can be incredible useful to athletes competing in an number of sports. The stimulant has been shown to improve power output, endurance, mental focus, reaction time and the metabolism of fats. The trick, then, is to find a maintenance dose of caffeine that will allow you to enjoy the benefits without developing a tolerance and dependance.

Since caffeine effects people differently, depending on a variety of factors, it’s difficult to come up with an exact dosage. According to many experts, though, dependance is unlikely to occur when your daily dose hovers around 100mg of caffeine every day – equivalent to about one 8oz cup of coffee. Again, though, this may not be true for everyone and some studies have observed withdrawal symptoms after discontinuing even this small dose. It may take some experimenting to find the sweet spot for you – the lowest possible daily dose of caffeine that allows you to feel the benefits without being totally hooked.


The Hardcore Taper

If you’re really willing to dive in and make some serious sacrifices to get your coffee habit under control while discovering your optimum maintenance dose, you might think about a two-week taper. To start, pick a two week period that seems like it will be relatively low in stress and estimate your normal caffeine intake – including coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks and anything else you can think of that contains even small amounts of caffeine.

Each day, gradually decrease the amount of caffeine until you’re down to just 100mg. Maintain this for a few days and then – when you’re ready – cut out all caffeine for three days. You will probably experience headaches and other withdrawal symptoms. After a few days, though, these will fade and you will totally free of your caffeine habit. At this point, you can resume 100mg or less of caffeine every day and you should be able to exercise more control over your habit.


For the Athlete

So far, though, we’ve only covered daily use. Once you find your lowest possible baseline dose, you can start to use caffeine as a performance enhancing supplement. In most studies, the optimum dose is calculated as being ~3-6mg of caffeine for each kg of body weight. Which means you’ll have to do some math. Sorry.

If you’ve found your ideal daily dose and it’s relatively low, you should be able to make due with just 3mg/kg. To keep yourself from developing a tolerance while using caffeine in this way, only boost your dose on training days and only when you feel like you need it. Some days you may be feeling great and not need any help, other days may be different.

Strictly speaking, coffee is not the best source of caffeine. The exact amount of caffeine found in the coffee will depend on a huge number of factors, including brewing method, filter type and the quality of bean. If you really want to be precise, you might consider a caffeine pill or powder that has a specific dosage.





The Superbowl Workout

race-day-720x288In less than two weeks, the Patriots will meet the Seahawks on the Gridiron for the Holy Grail of football games: The Superbowl. Did you watch the Seahawks game yesterday? What an amazing comeback and rally by the team.

How many times have you had to rally in a race? I’ve done it in almost all of my marathons. I hit the proverbial wall and dig deep to finish. One of my goals is to become a better endurance athlete by building up my speed in 2015 so I don’t spend the last hour of a marathon rallying. Here are a couple of Superbowl-sized workouts to help with your running goals for this year:

Speed workout for the treadmill:

If the weather is still a little too cold for outdoor running, here’s a workout option:

Option 1: 

Warm up: 5 minutes jog
Tempo: 5 minutes
Interval: 2 minutes
Repeat drill 4 x of 5 minutes tempo run and then 2 minutes interval run. You can come back to the same speed on the tempo run, but always try to go faster on the interval speed.
Cool down: 5 minutes (walk if you need)

If the weather allows for track running, try out this workout:

Option 2:

Warm up: 2 x 400m
Tempo: 400m
Interval: 800m with 200m pickups (go faster every 200m). You need to pace yourself to get faster at the last 200m.
Recover: 60 seconds no running
Interval: 800m with 200m pickups
Tempo: 400m
Recover: 60 seconds no running
Repeat entire workout twice.
Stretch at end for 10 minutes to help with lactic acid.

For hill training, try this workout:

Option 3:

Warm up: jog for half a mile to a hill
Speed work up a hill for three minutes, jog down
Reverse: jog up and speed race down. Immediately race back up and jog down.
Keep reversing this for 30 minutes
Cool down: jog for half a mile back



Manage Stress By Accepting It

As athletes, we tend to focus primarily on physical stress – the way that our daily lives and our training affects our bodies. Unfortunately, the tendency is to largely ignore the mental aspect of this equation.

In reality, mental stress can have a huge impact on your health and physical performance. Short bursts of the so-called “stress hormone” cortisol are a natural part of your body’s fight-or-flight response and are intended to suppress certain biological systems that are not absolutely essential in an emergency situation. While this changes everything from your immune system to your reproductive system, the impact of real interest to athletes is what cortisol does to body composition. Just in case you’re going to need it down the road, cortisol tells your brain that it’s time to start creating – and holding on to abdominal fat. At the same time, cortisol triggers a state of catabolism which causes your body to breakdown muscle for fuel. While this happens on a small, nearly undetectable scale nearly every day, when cortisol levels are chronically high – as can happen through extended physical and/or emotional stress – body composition and athletic performance can be severely affected.

Of course, there are tons of different techniques to manage stress out there. A recent study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology looked specifically at something called “dispositional mindfulness” – the ability to be aware of your experiences in an accepting and nonjudgemental way.


The Way You See It

Specifically, the researchers were curious as to why two people can experience the same level of self-rated mental stress and yet have such varying physiological responses to it. For four mornings, the group of 43 female subjects were asked to describe their levels of perceived stress, anxiety and negative feelings. The researchers also asked the women if they were able to accept the negativity without judgement. Perhaps most interestingly, the researchers also monitored the subjects’ cortisol levels within the 45 minutes after waking up.

Once the data was compiled and analyzed, it became clear that the women who were more articulate about their thoughts and emotions had lower cortisol levels then those who had difficulty expressing and accepting their internal experiences.

Of course, this is just a preliminary study – limited by the use of self-reporting and small sample size – but it still proves an interesting point: The key to managing stress is not avoiding negative thoughts altogether. Instead, we have to learn to process these emotions in a healthful way.

A related study out of Brown University also found that dispositional mindfulness can improve your overall health, even reducing markers of cardiovascular disease.


How To Do It

Unfortunately, this is not a skill that comes easily to everyone. Many people find it difficult to simply experience negative thoughts or emotions, rather than fighting them. With practice, though, this habit can be changed through meditation and mindful exercise. Apart of these disciplines, however, there haven’t been a lot of options for people wanting to improve their dispositional mindfulness.

Interestingly, a study published in Mental Health and Physical Activity compared the impact of both relaxation training and aerobic exercise on the mindfulness of 149 men over 12 weeks. Surprisingly, the relaxation group saw no improvements in dispositional mindfulness. The aerobic group, however, did – lending support to the idea of running to clear your head.

Learning to process emotional stress, instead of ignoring or rejecting it, can help to reduce the severity of cortisol spikes and improve your overall health. While there are many ways to do this, sticking to your routine of cardiovascular training could be a big step. Of course, if that isn’t doing it for you, you might try a mindful exercise style like yoga or Pilates.




2015 New Year’s Resolution: Thank Aid Station Volunteers

One of my 2015 New Year’s resolutions is to thank at least one volunteer at every race I run. I  appreciate those volunteers who show up with smiling faces and brave the cold or hot conditions just to ensure the runners receive their fill of hydration. They get drenched as we toss our unused water and sports drinks to the side, yet they continue to keep their positive attitudes and encourage us to “keep it up.” Without them, races would be tougher and heavier as we’d need to carry our own nutrition. Here are a few aid stations that stick out in my mind for better and for worse:

Breast Cancer Walks. I try to participate in charity races as a way to see my registration dollars go to important non-profits and make me feel like I’m working out for the greater good and for something so much bigger than myself. Each October, I try to find a breast cancer walk/run and I am never disappointed in the aid stations. Men often man these aid stations and dress up in womanly attire to promote this female-oriented cause. With curlers in their wigs and underwear worn on the outside of their clothes, these men give the walkers/runners a laugh and a warming of the heart.

Themed Aid Stations. From costumed heroes to saloons complete with cowboys and entire painted backdrops, I love enjoying the creativity of fun-loving volunteers as I run past. Sometimes I find myself laughing so hard that I lose my energy. It’s worth it!

Great Wall of China Marathon. Because good, clean water is a precious commodity in China, every aid station served entire bottles of water. The volunteers didn’t open up the bottles and pour them into small cups; rather, they handed all runners the entire bottle at each and every station to avoid any contamination. Unfortunately, it was challenging to get water bottles up the Wall due to their weight. So at mile 21 and 22, no water existed. This left runners crawling around on the Wall searching for any tossed-to-the-side bottles that contained any ounce of water left in them. Quite a sight!

Photo courtesy Jeff Leonard Photography

12K’s of Christmas. In Gilbert, Ariz., just outside of Phoenix, the annual 12K’s of Christmas occurs each December. As a treat to runners, choral groups serenade each runner at every 1K marker. From children dressed as snowmen, to professional singers donned in old-fashioned suits and dresses, this race forced me to remove my earbuds and feel the holiday spirit resonate from one kilometer to the next.


Study Confirms: Fast Food Is Unhealthy

To be honest, you likely already knew that your favorite fast food haunt wasn’t doing you any dietary favors. It’s no secret that we should all be limiting our frequency at these establishments if we want to keep our weight down and our bodies functioning properly.

But, after a wave of negative press during the late 1990s and early 2000s, many fast food chains seemingly made an effort to improve their image. During that time, a series of documentaries and investigative news features exposed the unsavory – and often unethical – nutritional practices of these establishments, leading to a huge dip in popularity.

The situation didn’t improve for them when governmental agencies began to move against the use of trans fats in fast foods. This particularly unhealthful form of fat was in just about every item on many restaurants menus and a highly publicized overhaul quickly began.

Then, of course, there was a barrage of criticism over the often ridiculous portion sizes offered – some would even say “encouraged” – by these chains. In response, McDonald’s even dropped their trademark Supersize option in 2004 – although, the chain claimed it was only done in an effort to simplify the menu.

So, with their newer, healthier images fast food chains are still a major part of the American diet. The question arises, then, are they actually any better for us after these changes?


The Startling Numbers

In two reports, researchers at Tufts University compared the portion sizes and nutritional make up of three large fast food chains between 1996 and 2013. Specifically, the team looked at the composition of fries, cheeseburgers, grilled chicken sandwiches and regular colas.

Despite all of their efforts to make it seem otherwise, the data is clear: Fast food chains have done little to improve their menus. The one notable exception was the sharp decline in the use of trans fats – but only in fries. For the most part, this was directly related to legislative action taken between 2005 and 2009. Trans fats are still alive and well in many other options, though, including burgers and milkshakes.

Even when trans fats did slowly make an exit, however, the food as a whole didn’t really improve all that much. The total calories and sodium content remained remarkably high. Depending on the restaurant, a single cheeseburger could supply you with as much as 63 percent of your recommended daily sodium intake. Add fries to that and you’re up to 91 percent of your allowed sodium for the day.

Of course, it’s not completely surprising that fast food is still unhealthy. What is off-putting, though, is how little things have changed and just how unhealthy these restaurants still are. In fact, some chains even feature menu items that cram about 1000 calories into one single sandwich. For the average person, that’s about half the daily allotment. In one sandwich. Drinks are still woefully large, too, and a single beverage intended for one person could contain as much as 800 calories. A complete fast food meal, then, with burger, fries and a drink could run as much as 1750 calories. That means that that one meal could account for about 88 percent of a 2000 calorie per day diet.

Again, this isn’t really news. But the point is that, despite their well-designed marketing campaigns that try to argue otherwise, fast food restaurants have not really changed their menus.





Apple Cider Vinegar

appleAlthough no expert in food trends, I spot apple cider vinegar mentions popping up in magazines, websites and in e-newsletters delivered to my inbox. I think it may be the newest health craze…and for good reason.

In a recent study conducted in Japan, 175 obese individuals took either vinegar or water for 12 weeks every day. At the end of the study, those who used vinegar had lost weight. On average, the vinegar group lost one to two pounds throughout the three months.

Apple cider vinegar has also been known to help with diabetes and blood sugar control. In fact, ingesting vinegar helps block some of the digestion of starch, keeping blood sugar lowered.

But don’t drink it straight from the bottle. Dilute one to two tablespoons into a glass of water and slowly sip with meals. It’ll help with digestion and possibly constipation.

Keep healthy in 2015 with this recipe!

Dr. Breckin Harris, PLLC, says, “This recipe cuts through a cold and flu in a fraction of the time. It’s antimicrobial effects obliterate bacterial and viral infections- as well as serves as minor detox, blood cleansing, acne clearing, skin glowing, atherosclerotic reducing, metabolism jump starting and weight loss, stamina improving, and energy increasing drink.”

1. Mince 1/2 cup garlic and 1/2 cup ginger
2. Boil garlic and ginger in 2 cups apple cider vinegar for 4 minutes.
3. Add 3 to 4 cups of water and 4 tablespoons of honey to the pot.
4. Cool and drink. Make sure to drink (eat) the garlic and ginger- very IMPORTANT! Add more honey or water if desired. Tho, you want it nice and tangy.
5. Drink 1 cup twice daily- or more if you can handle it.

Not to be used if on blood thinning meds (i.e., Warfarin/Coumadin). Not be used if you have a recent TIA, stroke, or heart attack or are on potassium sparing drugs (i.e., spironolactone). Use sparingly if nursing or pregnant (not to exceed one cup daily).


Tips to Keep Your New Year’s Resolution

Well, here we go again. New Year’s. The topic of resolutions is flooding websites, talk shows and magazines right now, with everyone discussing what they want to change and how they’re going to do it. But, as you’ve doubtlessly read in myriad pessimistic articles, the vast majority of resolutions fail. In fact, the official statistics claim that only 8 percent of people actually follow through on their resolutions. And, since most resolutions have to do with health and fitness, this is of particular interest to us. What follows, then, are some basic tips you can use to keep your New Year’s Resolution.

1. Set Good Goals -

The primary downfall of resolutions is that are simply not well-planned goals. As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the American Council on Exercise likes the S.M.A.R.T acronym for proper goal design. This means that good goals must be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.

So, simply saying “I’m going to lose weight,” doesn’t pass the test. While it is absolutely measurable and attainable, none of the other criteria is satisfied. A much better goal would be “I’m going to lose 5 pounds in a month.” This meets all the requirements to be a SMART goal.

2. Get Quality Advice -

The is an incredible amount of just plain bad advice available to you. It’s everywhere. For example, last week we covered a recent study that exposed the startling amount of false information being spread by means of popular and trusted medical TV talk shows. Often, it’s well-meant. But, perhaps just as often, it’s intended to sell you something. Either way, it’s important to be picky when deciding who to listen to. Not only could following faulty advice impede your progress, it could even serious harm to your health.

If you decide to work with a trainer, don’t be afraid to ask about their credentials since it’s very common for people to work as personal trainers with no education or certification in the field. When it comes to diet advice, though, even more caution is necessary. Everyone has an opinion on what constitutes a “healthy” diet and what works for them may not work for you. For accurate personalized dietary advice, seek out a registered dietician.

Whether its a trainer or a dietician, having a trained professional on your side can be a huge motivation for you to stick to keep your New Year’s Resolution – especially if you’re paying them.


3. Think Long-Term -

Another issue, closely related to the SMART requirements discussed earlier, is that many New Year’s Resolutions are last minute, emotional decisions. There’s no planning behind them, nothing to support them and no real, lasting neurological connection to them. And, while that last bit might sound a little ridiculous, consider this: Healthy eating and exercise are habits. Behind the scenes, habits are nothing but reinforced thinking patterns that form new neural pathways. After about 18 to 21 days of repeating a behavior, these new patterns become hardwired into your brain and form habits.

Keeping your resolution, then, is a matter of sticking to it for close to a month and retraining the way that your brain functions. This requires discipline and planning.





How to Help with Back Pain

heat_0Pain in runners’ bodies is usually tied to the leg (knee, hip, IT band), but often runners incur back pain at some point. With spending time in front of computers, slouched over the steering wheel, and lazily sitting on the couch watching television, most of us have developed improper posture over the years. When we run, we take that bad posture into our exercise. Thus comes the back pain. Here are a few remedies I discovered to help combat the inevitable back aches after a long run:

1. With an office job, you sit for hours in one particular position hunched over a computer. Bring in a towel or a small pillow and place it behind you. Also, try to keep your feet flat on the floor to stay in the most upright position possible.

2. Extra core work. One of the best ways to work your core is by incorporating a stability ball into your workout routine. This requires you to engage your core simply for balance alone. I like to do as much weight lifting while on it as possible because it works multiple muscles groups at once–you get more out of a gym session. Also, I like to do my standard crunches on it (much tougher than lying on a floor).

3. Not resting too much with back pain. If you are suffering from simple back aches, the worst thing you can do is nothing. Surprised? I was. Turns out, not moving can make back pain worse. The best thing to do is a non-weight baring exercise, such as swimming.

4. Tailored stretching. I’m used to stretching my legs after a long run, but I’ve tried to incorporate more back stretches. I lie on my stomach and raise my legs and arms straight into the air. This engages my back and core. I hold this position for 30 seconds and repeat five times. It’s a body part I didn’t pay attention to until recently and noticed a difference.


How Accurate Are Medical Talk Shows?

It’s pretty common that I get asked various health and fitness questions – and this is likely true of most fitness professionals – that begin with the words “Doctor Oz says…” or “I saw on the Doctors…” And, most of the time, this puts me in an awkward situation because I usually disagree with the advice being dispensed on medical talk shows. But, since I don’t regularly watch those shows and definitely don’t research each and every claim they make, I’m not exactly fair or unbiased.

A new review published in the British Medical Journal, however, took the time to do exactly that. For the article, a team of researchers randomly selected 40 episodes of The Dr Oz Show and 40 episodes of The Doctors. Every recommendation from each episode was then isolated. Of the resulting pool of recommendations, 80 were then randomly selected from each show. The team then went to work evaluating the research on each of those 160 recommendations to conclude whether the science supported the claims, contradicted them or was simply non-existent.


The Results

Taken as one large sample, the talk shows did not stand up well under scientific scrutiny. Of all 160 recommendations made on the two shows combined, only 54 percent of those claims actually had science to support them. But the paper also looked at each show individually.

For The Dr Oz Show, the evidence supported about 46 percent of his recommendations, contradicted 15 percent and simply did not exist for the final 39 percent. The paper also reports that Dr. Oz makes about 12 recommendations per episode on average. Lower quality evidence, termed either “believable or somewhat believable,” was found for 33 percent of the claims made by Dr. Oz.

The Doctors had slightly better results – but it was a very small advantage. A total of 63 percent of their recommendations had solid scientific backing, 14 percent were opposed by the research and the remaining 24 percent had no related studies to be found. However, 53 percent of the Doctors’ recommendations could be tied to believable or somewhat believable evidence.

It’s also worth noting that any potential conflicts of interest were disclosed only .4 percent of the time, between both shows.


 The Take-Away

Clearly, then, medical talk shows don’t seem to fair well when placed under scientific analysis. Although a 15 percent error rate might not seem like much, think about it this way: That equates to 12 incorrect recommendations made in every 80 – the sample size. On average, Doctor Oz makes 12 recommendations each episode. This means that, statistically speaking, one entire episode of The Doctor Oz Show could be incorrect.

The numbers work out about the same for The Doctors, as well.

Of course, there’s still the fact that over half of the information provided on these two medical talk shows is correct; It’s not all bad. But the paper rightly concludes by saying, “The public should be skeptical about recommendations made on medical talk shows.”

Instead of taking the recommendations presented on medical talk shows as absolute truth, then, allow it to be your starting point. If you hear something that piques your interest, do your own research.






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.