Elevation Training

imagesI am spending the week in the Mile High City, commonly known as Denver. As it sits at such a high elevation, I find my lungs burning and feel a little dizzy when I go out for a run. It’s not easy running in altitude and many athletes come to Colorado to train simply because the elevation makes their bodies stronger-almost like feeling as though they have a third lung.

I researched how best to approach elevation training and found the following helpful tips:

Attend a week-long camp. Don’t expect to head to the mountains and spend a day or two training and come home and run faster. The best approach is to attend a running camp that will help you alter your training to make improvements. These include changing your head space–you will find a new level of calmness that you can take to the city streets. It changes you mentally.

Spend more time recovering when running the mountains. You will need to hydrate with more frequency and take a day or two off between runs. Why? In higher elevation, plasma volume decreases and the air is generally much dryer than near sea level. Also, it’s cleaner–and your body will need to adjust to that, as strange as it sounds.

Expect body issues. Because of the thinner air, it’s harder to sleep, making it more difficult to rise up early and strap on your shoes. Also, elevation can affect your gastrointestinal issues, so watch what you eat and be sure to maintain a diet similar to that at home. You may also experience headaches from the dry, thin air, making hydration that much more important.

During the first three days, run at a less volume, even as much as half of what you normally would on any given day. Your body is producing more red blood cells and shifting fluid to the body.

Good luck if you head to the mountains this year! If you are a skier, these tips should help you should you desire to do a little cross training when you head to the slopes.



High Protein Diets Lower Blood Pressure

High protein diets have been all the rage among athletes for several years now. Along with the muscle-building benefits of protein – which is obviously key to protein synthesis – a high protein diet has been linked with weight loss as well. One extremely fascinating study even found that subjects who were following a high protein diet (where 30 percent of their calories came from protein) with no restrictions to their calorie intake lost more weight than another group that was under caloric restriction. The prevailing theory, based on previous research, is that protein increases feelings of fullness so that the subjects self-limited and simply craved less food than they normal would.

But there have been concerns about the effect that this sort of diet might have on the human heart. New research not only answers these fears but even shows potential cardiac benefits connected high protein diets.


Protein and Blood Pressure

Using 11 years worth of information from the Framingham Offspring Study, researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine looked at the effects of protein intake on blood pressure. The researchers concluded that people who stuck to high protein diets had statistically lower blood pressures now, as well as a lower risks in the long-term.

It’s also interesting to note that the study found that these positive effects were increased when a high protein intake was combined with a high fiber diet.

Okay, so high protein diets have the potential to treat and prevent high blood pressure. But what exactly is a “high” protein intake and does it matter where the protein comes from?


Picking Your Sources

One of the primary reasons for the concerns regarding high protein diets and cardiovascular health is that many protein sources are also high in fat. Especially in the case of red meats, these fats are of the saturated nature. While saturated fats aren’t as bad as they’ve been made out to be, they should still be kept in moderation. For this reason, stick to lean protein sources – those that have low levels of unhealthy fats or high levels of healthy fats. Salmon and chicken as good examples of lean protein sources that also include healthy fat.

The study also found that the blood pressure related benefits of high protein diets occurred regardless of whether the protein came from plant or animal sources. When combined with the conclusion that high fiber intake increases these benefits, it makes sense to try to make are much of our protein come from plants are possible.

So how much is enough, then? While the exact definition of “high protein intake” has been heavily debated for a while now, the study saw these benefits in people who ate an average of 100g of protein every day.

Combined with the other emergent research on high protein diets, the evidence is mounting that this is an extremely beneficial way for everyone – especially athletes – to eat.









Running Can Make You Smart

girl runningWe’re all know running comes with plenty of added benefits: a stronger heart, a fitter body, and tighter, more compact muscles to name a few…but new studies show that working out can also keep your mind working as well.

In a new study reported in PLOS ONE, researchers tracked 88 healthy but “low-fit” participants aged 60 to 78. They were asked to wear tracking devices to monitor their physical activity over the course of a week, as well as submit to brain imaging.

The study used two types of brain imaging: “The first, diffusion tensor imaging, offers insight into the structural integrity of a tissue by revealing how water is diffused in the tissue. The second method looks for age-related changes in white matter, called lesions.”

Results showed that adults who engaged in physical activity showed less white matter brain lesions whereas those who maintained a sedentary week had “lower structural integrity,” which can affect memory and learning.

Is this only true for those of senior age? Think again.

In another study reported by Science Daily, physically fit children have thicker brain white matter than less fit kids. In research conducted at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana and published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the team used diffusion tensor imaging, otherwise known as MRIs to the rest of us non-medical types, to look at five white-matter tracts in the brains of the 24 children aged 9-10 years old.

Researchers looked at social and economic status, puberty, IQ, and learning disabilities that might have contributed to the reported fitness differences in the brain. They discovered fitness-related differences in several white-matter tracts in the brain.

In addition, the same research team is conducting a five-year randomized, controlled trial on how white-matter brain tract is affected with a physical routine that is maintained over time. Results to come.

Makes me wish I started fitness earlier in life!




Unhealthy Health Foods

Last night, my wife and I had an interesting and unexpected nutritional experience. Craving something sweet, we dug through the cabinets and came up with a box of fat-free/sugar-free chocolate pudding. That seemed promising and, though we normally avoid artificially fat-free/sugar-free foods, desperate times call for desperate measures.

It was a disaster. Flavor-wise, the pudding was fine. But both our stomachs immediately protested. My wife couldn’t even finish her serving. And this got me thinking. I’ve written in the past about the lie that is fat-free food so I wasn’t totally surprised by these results. Still, the severity of it startled me. So, here’s the question: What did this do to us and when is it better to avoid these so-called “healthy” variations? Is there such a thing as unhealthy health foods?


The Truth About Sugar and Fat

Food manufacturers are very aware of buzzwords that sell their products and use them liberally. Among the most popular, and time-honored, of these are those featured on the aforementioned pudding box: Sugar-free and fat-free. But do these features automatically make a food more healthy? Should we always do what we can to avoid sugars and fat?

That all depends on you and your goals, especially when it comes to sugar. This oft-maligned ingredient comes in many forms but is always used as a sweetener (obviously) and is always a simple carbohydrate. It’s classification as “simple” means – among other things – that sugar has a large and rapid impact on your blood sugar levels. In the case of people with diabetes or at risk for the condition, it’s extremely important to keep your blood sugar at healthy levels.

For athletes, however, strategic use of these simple carbs can be a powerful weapon. Not only does sugar provide a boost of energy, insulin spikes – soon after exercise – encourage muscle growth. So, proper timing of simple carbs – in otherwise healthy people – can actually be a very good thing.

Likewise, fat has been seen as a dietary villain for several decades now. Recent research, though, has shattered these notions. Fat, like protein and carbs, is a nutrient that is vital to proper function of the human body. Despite its reputation, dietary fat does not automatically create body fat. It also does not immediately poison your heart or harden your arteries. In fact, certain types of fat have been associated with improved brain function, cardiovascular health and weight loss.

Clearly, then, sugars and fats do not totally deserve their bad reputations. When proper choices are made in the right context and in moderation, sugar and fat can have a place in the athlete’s diet.

But there’s also a darker side to artificially fat- and sugar-free food than just being unnecessary.


What’s Really Happening

Similar to their natural counterpart, artificial sweeteners have also come under fire in recent years. Various claims have been made about the effects of these substances, including an increased risk of cancer, with mixed results in the lab. One thing that is known about artificial sweeteners, though, is that they do not actually help you lose weight. Which is especially concerning because most artificial sweeteners are essentially calorie-free. Artificial sweeteners have been linked with obesity, diabetes and increased food cravings in high-quality studies.

Fat-free foods are also achieved through some odd means. When it occurs in foods, fat does several things. First, it makes food delicious. Second, fat acts as a thickener and gives food texture. When the fats are removed, a substance needs to be added that will replace flavor and give the resultant food a natural feel. Various additives are used to accomplish this, including fat substitutes. These chemicals are particularly strange because, although they chemically resemble fat, your body can’t actually digest them. Essentially, these fat-like additives pass through your body totally unharmed which can cause all sorts of digestive discomfort.


The Bottom Line

If you are trying to avoid sugars and fats, it’s best to do so by choosing foods that are naturally lacking. At the same time, both sugar and fat can have a place in a healthy diet when eaten in moderation.








Running Gear for Weather Changes

152941946Where I live, a heat wave blasted us with extreme temperatures to the point I called quits on my long run this weekend. My schedule called for 14 miles and I cut it short by four miles–even struggling for the 10 I did complete. But in two days, the forecasters call for rain. I love autumn, but the weather often becomes unpredictable and ranges from extreme hot and cold. Here are a few solutions for the changing season:

1. Wear running sleaves. If you feel yourself constantly rolling up your short sleeves or running in tank tops, you’ll appreciate the light running sleeves you can pull out of your pocket when the wind starts whipping. Only a small portion of your shoulder and upper arm will remain exposed to the elements. They can even protect you when it is hot out from UV rays.

2. Headbands. You can cover your ears when you get cold–ears are part of the body that feels cold temperature the quickest–and then pull it back behind your ears when the weather gets warmer and use it to hold back your hair. For men, if you don’t want to look like your wearing a headband when it warms up, you can remove it and wrap it around your wrist–making it look like nothing more than a wristband.

3. Compression socks. Not only do these help with lactic acid build up, they can keep your legs warm for those bothered by running tights. If you feel too hot, roll them right off and stick them in a pocket.

4. Warm-up suits. First to the Finish offers warm-up outfits that you can even do your long runs in if you need, offering both wind and rain resistance. If you warm up, they are easy to get in and out of–simply wear lighter running clothes underneath.

Happy training.

What Is The Best Weight Loss Diet?

There are tons of diets out there, all vying for your attention. In fact, entire websites exist to provide a platform for reviewing these various protocols in an effort to answer the pressing question: What is the best weight loss diet?

To make the debate even more frustrating, new diets are constantly cropping up and being pushed through books, magazines and websites. In the hopes of providing an answer to this ever-present question, a team of researchers from the United States and Canada reviewed 59 different articles to try to find the single most effective diet. What did they come up with?


The Study and Findings

As mentioned, the meta-analysis included 59 different articles that studied the effectiveness of a range of “named diets” – branded eating-styles like the famed and controversial Atkins Diet. Of course, the major difference in most of these diets rested in their manipulation of macronutrient distribution (low-fat, low-carb, etc.).

After reviewing the body of existing research, the paper concluded that “the largest weight loss was associated with low-carbohydrate diets.” So, that’s it, right? Debate over. Low-carb wins!


The low-fat protocols still resulted in significant weight loss and, the article was careful to note that the differences were minor. Looking at specific brand diets, though, the researchers ultimately concluded that there was no significant difference in the efficacy of one diet brand over another.

Okay, so you probably just want an answer. What is the most effective diet? The one you can stick to. Or, in the clinical language of the analysis: “Patients may choose, among those associated with the largest weight loss, the diet that gives them the least challenges with adherence.”


Cautions, Caveats and Reality

Unfortunately, this doesn’t totally give you carte blanche to eat however you want as long as you do it consistently. First off, there’s the concern about micronutrients that can be lacking from some restrictive diets. For example, many people get so excited about the prospect of gorging on steak while on a high-protein diet that they totally neglect their need for greens. That does not go away.

There is also the fact that all of the diets covered in this review are “calorie-restricted,” meaning that the weight loss is primarily linked to a low caloric intake. That is a key ingredient to stimulate weight loss.

Remember, as well, that all the rules change if you have a medical condition such as diabetes that is directly linked to certain dietary habits. Low-carb (specifically low glycemic index) diets have been shown time and again to benefit type II diabetes. Athletes also have specific dietary needs to be addressed.

The take-home from this paper, then, is not that you can eat however you want. It’s that you can select the best diet for your situation – which may bring you to a lesser-of-two-evils situation – as long as it’s a healthy diet that you can follow for years.








Hypothyroidism and the Endurance Athlete

ankle sprain, painAs runners, we perform more cardio than an average exerciser–and most of us can’t imagine a life without running. However, as with all forms of exercise, we need to be cognizant of the challenges that come with extreme amounts of exercise.

Researchers have discovered that heavy amounts of cardiovascular exercise causes the body to stay in flight of “flight or fight mode” and this can cause it to lower the production of the thyroid hormone called T3. This can lead to hypothyroidism.


Symptoms include:

Weight gain


Sensitivity to cold



Joint or muscle pain

Paleness or dry skin

In a study published in Neuroendocrinology Letters,  acute aerobic exercise on thyroid hormones was researched in 60 male well-trained athletes by performing bicycle ergometer at 45% (low intensity), 70% (moderate intensity), and 90% (high intensity). At each intensity level, heart rate, blood lactic acid, T3 (as mentioned above), T4, free triiodothyronine (fT3) and thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) values were measured.

Results showed that exercise at the 70% level, where you probably do your tempo runs, caused the most changes in the hormone values. Even at 90% intensity, where you do your track/speed workouts, the levels of T3 and T4 started to fall. Researchers concluded “maximal aerobic exercise greatly affects the level of circulating thyroid hormones.”

Another research study looked at females who ran 14 miles per week, but asked them to up it to 30 miles per week. Results showed again that an increase in cardiovascular training had negative effects on hormone levels.

This does not mean you are going to suffer from hypothyroidism because you run–often the body will adjust to the new training on its own. But it is something to be aware of and watch for any of the above symptoms, which can often be misinterpreted as simply over training.

The best way to be diagnosed with hypothyroidism is with blood tests and it can be treated with medications to help balance the thyroid.

The best athlete is the one who is informed!






Wine Is Good For Your Heart – If You Exercise

In the 1990s research began in earnest into the so-called French Paradox. This statistical riddle sought to understand why the French – whose diet is full of fats – have a remarkably low incidence of heart disease. While the entire idea is still largely controversial, the prevailing theory caught people’s attention and the concept stuck. After all, who wouldn’t be excited to hear that wine is good for your heart?

Still, research has no been totally unable to prove or explain the supposed protective role that wine consumption can have on heart health. Even though many “experts” have been touting wine as a protective measure in the decades since the theory first emerged, the hard science has been largely inconclusive.

In fact, some of the more exciting studies in to the subject were just plain flawed. For example, early buzz surrounded findings that resveratrol – a substance in red wine – was the key to its cardiac benefits. What many people didn’t know, however, is that the mice used in the study were given megadoses of the compound that were several thousand times larger than any human would ever get from drinking red wine. Additional studies also failed to support these preliminary reports.

But a statistical link between moderate wine consumption and heart health persisted. A recent study from the European Society of Cardiology seems to finally shed some light on this subject.


In Vino Veritas

The study (called In Vino Veritas) followed 146 people for a full year. All of the subjects in the study had a mild to moderate risk of cardiovascular disease and were assigned to drink either red or white wine for the course of the study. Just for the sake of continuity, all of the wine was from the same area and produced in the same year. The participants were told not to change their diets and asked to keep a log on their consumption of wine and other alcohols, as well as use of medicine and exercise.

At the end of the year, the subjects’ HDL and LDL levels were taken along with other markers for hardening of the arteries. Surprisingly, there was no change in HDL levels at the end of the study regardless what kind of wine they had been enjoying. A rise in HDL would have indicated better heart health. However, LDL levels had lowered slightly in both groups, which is a fairly good sign. Only the red wine group saw a decrease in total cholesterol, though.

Overall, then, wine consumption does not have as powerful an influence on cardiovascular health as we were all so ready to believe. There was an interesting subgroup, though, that did see improvements in HDL, LDL and total cholesterol: regular exercisers. This group experienced positive results despite what type of wine they had been assigned.

While the exact mechanisms that make wine and exercise work together in this regard are not yet fully understood, the take-away is still pretty clear. Wine does have some positive effects on the heart but only when you also exercise regularly. Just don’t do them at the same time.








Running in Alaska

race-day-720x288Two weeks ago I finished another marathon in Alaska, the last frontier of this country. Known for its vast wilderness and as a hunting-lover’s dream, I can attest  it also serves as a runner’s dream. With countless trails right next to busy streets and no severe humidity and extreme summer temperatures, I wholeheartedly promote signing up for a race in Alaska.

What you’ll experience:

Before my race, I was given instructions on how to deal with wildlife and what to do if I see a bear. Although this sounds dangerous, I never felt fearful. Plenty of other runners provided safety in numbers. But I loved that extra wildlife element normally not found in other city races.

During my race, I saw a moose and a bald eagle dip into the water and grab a fish. These special moments are rarely found in a standard city race. I love running memories like this.

Mosquitoes and other bugs populated the race and I even noticed a girl with mosquitoes covering the back of her head. This is an easy problem to solve with bug spray, but Off doesn’t work. It’s best to buy bug spray when you arrive in Alaska.

Whether the sun shines or remains hidden behind gray skies, you won’t deal with hot summer temperatures and it’ll feel refreshing to run without the summer heat as an added element.

I don’t like large expos where you park a mile away, deal with lines and scoot through a labyrinth to get out. You burn precious calories and waste energy dealing with the chaos. Because of the size of the Alaska races, you can move in and out quickly without it taking up your afternoon and waste money on parking, adding to the expense of the race itself.

I hope to return next year for another Alaskan race. Hope to see you at the starting line.