Things we don’t like to hear

We don't want to hear

We don’t want to hear

It has been a while.

Perhaps you thought I had gone away.

But that’s not the case; it is simply a matter of having recently started a new job, running a trial program of No-brainer Fitness: E, and getting caught in doing research for a post on dieting.

All of that busyness got me thinking about some of the things we don’t like to hear. So I decided to write this short post before finishing the more serious one.

In part preparation for the dieting post, and in part as a reaction to having to face the fact that there are simply not enough hours in any given day, here are some of the things we don’t like to hear. But must come to accept if we are to succeed in being fit and healthy for the long-term.

There are no such things as Super Foods

Most claims on Web sites are about a single item, more often than not a vegetable, sometimes a fruit, and on occasions red wine. It changes depending on the site you browse to on any given day. The fact is that any one food will not make you healthy. And in large enough quantity, any one thing is toxic. Yes, even kale.

The flip side: I once saw a list of so-called “super foods” that consisted of 63 or so items. That’s longer than my typical grocery list, despite the fact that I get kudos from the health-conscious store clerks where I usually buy groceries.

If you have to buy and eat so many different food, then clearly no single food is that super.

As is generally the case, with a balanced and diversified diet of mostly plants, you don’t need anything to be super. The overall diet is what is super. Because it is real food.

Food supplements simply don’t work

In the sense that they will not make you healthy. Especially those that claim to do precisely just that.

In situations where someone is truly lacking some essential vitamins or minerals, or to ensure that you have plenty (as for pregnant women), there may be benefits in taking some, if only to have complete peace of mind.

But claims of miracle dietary supplements to make you lose weight or cure you of whatever you are lead to believe (typically from the same ads) you suffer from, are hogwash.

But at some point, we have to grow up

But at some point, we have to grow up

It requires (some) effort on your part

This could also be called “there are no free lunches.” (Or, at least, no healthy free lunches.)

Basically, to be fit, you have to put in some sweat capital. Fitness does not come from a pill; you can’t get fit by hooking yourself up to a machine and letting it do the work for you. You have to do the work.

The trick is to find the kind of working out that is pleasant for you, and the purpose to commit and maintain good habits. But you have to move, lots, and regularly.

Coffee, wine, chocolate, and a few other things we like are NOT FOOD

Sorry. That’s just the way it is. Enjoy in moderation.

Dieting doesn’t make you lose weight in the long run

That’s the intro to my next post. You have to take my word for it. For now. But the evidence is pretty damning…


Since first writing this post, a few interesting (and timely) tidbits came my way, so I’m adding links to other readings you might consider after being done here:

Diet Lures and Diet Lies is an interesting piece along the lines of the above discussion of super foods and supplements.

Why I don’t do CrossFit is all about the importance of not training too hard. Better yet, if you read the text carefully, you’ll notice mention of how Olympians train, and that is what I am driving at with the notion of being an everyday athlete…

Photos by Pixabay

The correct way to run

Running, Technique, Shoes

Shoes matter, but so does technique…

*** Modified post. I’ve been able to get a hold of the original paper about transitioning to Vibram FiveFingers. So read on, or read again, for some slight changes to the text. ***

There’s been noise lately about a settlement that Vibram, the maker of the famous (or infamous, according to some) FiveFingers “shoes”, has agreed to pay to their customers.

The issue is over false claims, or so the class action lawsuit alleged, that FiveFingers prevent injuries and make muscles and tendons stronger.

A quick search on the subject will surely reveal quite a bit, but I’ve sprinkled a few links in this post, to provide more details. First, the oldest reference to the lawsuit I could find, from July 2012.

Blog item from ABC

The most recent article, in a Canadian magazine, appears to provide the conclusion of the process. Note that Vibram has agreed to pay; I’m no lawyer (I’m a scientist), so I would be willing to bet that the issue revolves around what would constitute a solid enough proof of the statements made by Vibram. I’m pretty sure no scientist would be willing to proclaim the statements are proven beyond a doubt. That’s just the way science works…

Blog in Canadian Running

But what fascinates me about this is the tone of some of the articles. Some “reporters” and bloggers clearly showed their stripes and did not hesitate to bash Vibram, minimalist shoes, and the whole barefoot running movement. It felt like a deep, quasi-religious, fighting line has been drawn. I won’t bother you with those articles; the ones in reputable running magazines were far more neutral, and carefully written, as they should be.

Some, however, did something very clumsy, unlike the main magazines: They linked the lawsuit to a piece of research pertaining to indicate that wearing FiveFingers leads a high percentage of runners to foot bone injuries. You can read the news about the report there:

Report on study in Runner’s World

Note that the study, and the lawsuit, are in no way related. But it sure is convenient as a coincidence. Especially for the makers of conventional running shoes.

Before going any further, allow me to state a few key points, just to be clear:

  1. In my experience as runner and coach, it is possible to run correctly in almost any pair of shoes, be they “conventional running shoes” or “minimalist”.
  2. I do not believe there is a conspiracy by running shoe manufacturers to cause harm to runners by making shoes that they know will cause injury. Even though by some accounts 70% of runners using “conventional running shoes” will get hurt at some point.
  3. What I do believe is this: there is a natural tendency to want to protect your business and market share. That’s called having a vested interest in a certain situation. There is no need for any kind of conspiracy when the incentives are aligned. Companies will do what is in their best interest.
  4. There is a correct way of running, and it is easily demonstrated. No matter what anyone in the running shoe industry says about each of us being different. They only try to muddle the issues, and it is very sad.
  5. What has probably happened with the minimalist and barefoot movement is not an indication that the safety and benefits of those shoes have been overstated, but rather that the weakening of our bones, muscles, and tendons over the years of walking, and especially running, in shoes designed to “protect us”, has been grossly under-estimated.

Now, perhaps the lawsuit was brought about by someone “strongly encouraged” to do so by the big shoe manufacturers. And maybe the study referred to in Runner’s World was also similarly sponsored. (There are some issues about that research, so please see at the end of this post for my notes. But the main problem I’ve encountered is that the second-hand source all seem bent on using it to point nasty fingers towards Vibram and minimalist and barefoot running, whereas the research paper was pretty much simply stating that transitioning must be done slowly, and carefully.)

But, ultimately who cares? The lawsuit was settled, so let’s move on. Preferably, by continuing to run.

Full disclosure: I currently own 3 pairs of FiveFingers, and a fourth one I used to own recently “died” after a long and satisfying life. Like some of the commentators on the blog posts and articles I’ve read, if I get a refund from Vibram, I will use the money to get an extra pair of FiveFingers, and I’ll keep using them for running. I even got married in a pair of FiveFingers. I hesitate to call them shoes as to me they are more like gloves for feet. I also own Ecco’s Biom Project shoes, and Asics runners (2 pairs), which I still use at times, when running marathons and ultras, and when racing triathlons. So there.

Now allow me to finish with the main point, before I forget: The correct way to run.

It is my contention that there is such a correct way, as already stated, and that it can be done in any pair of shoes. How do I know?

Not from understanding physics (which I do) and its application to bio-mechanics, or coaching a lot of runners (which I have), or transitioning myself late in life from a heel striker to a forefoot runner (which I have, over a period of 2 years). The answer is actually much easier to understand.

Consider the animals that we are. Remove us from this modern society we’ve built, and in which, by and large, we are no longer fit in an evolutionary sense. Let’s travel to the Land Before Shoes. How did we run then? Not on our heels, that’s for sure!

Test it for yourself. Take your shoes off, and try to run, even if for just a few steps.

You’ll immediately, instinctively, switch to a forefoot striking gait, and that striking will be absorbed in large part by the arches and ankles of your feet, and the tendons and muscles of your legs. Because that’s what they have evolved to do! (Normally, I urge people to do this test on soft grass, but it is possible to heel strike on very soft ground, so be cautious, and do it on a hard but clean surface, for full effect.)

Watch young children run barefoot. You’ll immediately notice that when not taught otherwise, we all run with a forefoot striking gait.

That is the correct way to run.

It’s just that over years of under-use, over-protection, we have not developed the needed sturdiness to run that way as adults.

It takes time, much more than a few weeks, to compensate. And it can be painful. And you risk injury if you try to do too much, too soon. So it should probably only be attempted with the help of a good coach.

Yet the conclusion is inescapable: There is a correct way of running.

It just may not be the way everyone can run in this day and age. For having run too long in conventional shoes, or lacking the patience to rebuild their bodies…

Running, Shoes, Technique, Coaching

In case of doubt, wear shoes, and make a run for it!

Photos by Sacha Veillette.

Notes on the original research paper by Sarah T. Ridge et al.

For those interested, and because I am a scientist first and foremost…

In terms of methodology, the design of the research was sound, as far as it went. However, I have concerns over the following items, some of which may invalidate the conclusions:

  1. While selection of FiveFingers users was random (among each group of men and women, so that’s good), all runners were experienced runners. Which means they were all used to running in conventional shoes, and had not been injured (or said so) in recent past. So far, so good. Except for a bit of psychology of running: Although the runners were given instructions on how to transition, most runners who are used to running a certain distance per week have a tendency to think they know what they are doing. In a word: they feel they can do it, no matter what. The odds of the FiveFingers group actually having followed the transition plan are slim, in my estimation. And my estimation is supported by the reported fact that FiveFingers users peaked their training volume in week 4 of the study, way too early! Simply put: they probably tried to run more with the FiveFingers than they should have, got hurt, then scaled it back down, but it was too late.
  2. Regarding the MRI results, which I’m told were taken with a somewhat low quality machine, the convention of what constitutes remodeling of the bones and injury is arbitrary. And perhaps a bit conservative. Being slightly less conservative, by only one level on the scale used, might change the conclusion. Interesting fact also reported in the article: the results are comparable to having sedentary people start running and doing it for 7 days straight. No one should go from 0 to seven straight days of running, but you would expect major work to begin in the bodies of those who do, and yes, some injuries to result from the abrupt change. Duh!
  3. There were initially 43 participants recruited for the study. They were divided roughly equally between the FiveFingers, and the control. Which means there should have been 21 and 22 participants in each group. 19 completed the study in the FiveFingers group, so a drop of 2 or 3, whereas 17 completed in the control (a drop of 5 or 4, depending on the exact split between the groups). The numbers and specific reasons for the drops were not disclosed on a per-group basis, but we know 3 participants did not show up at the end for the MRI, 2 got injured for “unrelated reasons” during the training, 2 never returned calls (so probably did not even train, or perhaps trained and got hurt right away). Hiding what exactly happened to those participants is one way to bias results. What if there were 5 drops from the control group, and it was all because they got injured, and not at all for “unrelated reasons”? For instance, for reasons related to the conventional shoes, but not in the feet, like knees and hip problems? The picture would look very different, and actually quite comparable between the two groups.
  4. Leaving aside the possibility of manipulation of the results, which I’m pretty sure the authors were not trying to do, it is worth noting what their own conclusion really said: Far from an indictment of running in FiveFingers, they indicated that transition should be done very slowly, and more slowly than prescribed at the time by the folks at Vibram. (Those guidelines, we are told in the paper, had been changed between the start of the work and the publication of the paper, by the way.) I would go even further: taking a bunch of experienced runners, who in my experience are notoriously bad at following coaches’ advice, is a recipe for disaster. When you transition to minimalist shoes, you should take a lot of time, and ideally start as if you were starting to run from scratch. Very few experienced runners are willing to hold themselves back to that extent, and that is why we get hurt. Yes, I count myself in that lot, even though it took me a long time, my adaptation is not complete yet, and I had some major pains bordering on injury.
  5. The only way to get a definitive answer on this question would be to take two groups of newbie runners through a strictly controlled regimen of training. One group in each type of shoes. That would take time, but it would be better science. Of course, if you change the way you run, you will have major adaptation and risk of injury. But let’s see who, of the two groups, would actually get hurt less, and what their feet, legs, knees, and hips would look like at the end of the program. That would be interesting. Anyone has some funding available?

Defenders – Part 2

Ironman, Health, Fitness, Defender, Racing

Racing is a little like war. The swim part of an Ironman is definitely like Naval Battle…

Since posting the first part on this topic, I received a lot of comments.

Some, because they came from people I care deeply about, I feel I must address before going ahead with the discussion.

(OK, the comments I’m going to address came from my wife, but she is right, as usual.)

So imagine again, if you will, the third scene from Part 1, but in a slightly less gory way:

At an ironman distance triathlon, a whole bunch of participants push so hard that for the most part they collapse upon reaching the finish line. Only a few, having not quite given it their all, still manage to remain functional, walking around and re-hydrating, speeding up their recovery through some (very light) stretching and eating.

Then catastrophe hits: A tsunami is announced, and everyone must evacuate immediately!

But guess what? It’s everyone for himself or herself! Only those who are still functional can escape and survive. Those who collapsed at the end, those who abused their bodies too much during the race, are swept away by the wave, never to be found again.

Only those who survive can show up the next day to claim their spots during the roll-down for the World Championship…

Still perhaps not the most realistic scenario, but now we’re getting to the point I’m trying to make.

Racing to the point of collapse, of total exertion, of no longer having the resources to continue acting for yourself after the finish, is a bad idea. For many reasons.

First, it causes serious damage to your body. This is what some are really talking about when they point out that running marathons or doing triathlon causes the equivalent of 20 years of physiological damage. It is not the training regularly, which we all pretty much agree is in fact good for your health, that is causing the damage: it is the abuse of racing “all out”. (And sometimes of training too hard all the time.)

And even though a fit runner or triathlete will recover, some of the effects of the racing linger. Accumulate over time. So your body ages by 20 years in a few hours, then over days it becomes younger again, but never by quite the same amount. That is why elite racers never last very long in those sports, with a few exceptions. Going all out takes its toll on your body.

Second, it means you need a lot more time to recover after a race. Some might say that is fair, since after all you performed a “great feat”, obtained a personal best, etc. Something to be proud of, to be sure. But that recovery time means you cannot go about your normal activities for a while. It means you lack fitness, in the biological sense.

And during that time your body is more prone to infections. Again, while we all pretty much agree that regular exercise helps the immune system, being exhausted in fact depresses immune functions. For a while. It is commonly known among triathletes that you are most likely to get sick right after your “A” races, when you’ve pushed the hardest of the season.

And those are just the two main, physiological reasons. Racing all out, it could also be argued, frequently makes jerks out of people. But that is perhaps a different topic, best left for some other post…

So what is the alternative?

It is what I call racing like a Defender.

A Defender knows that more may be demanded of him (or her) later, so training and racing are intense but never all out, never to exhaustion.

Just like their namesakes of Antiquity and Medieval times, Defenders aims to protect what is precious to them. In the past it would have been the lives of their families; in racing, it is their own health. So the pretend fighting that racing in a way represents is done in such a way as to promote fitness, not take it away.

Conversely, someone who goes all out all the time can be thought of as an Aggressor, or an Invader. These are often fanatical in their drive to win, to conquer. And fanaticism is pretty much the opposite of having a well-balanced view of the world. It is not a peaceful, healthy way of living.

In the final analysis, and this is my racing philosophy, when you cross that finish line you can consider that you have beaten all of those who collapsed, needed medical attention, or are generally not able to function normally after a race. If you can still fight, figuratively speaking, when you are done, then you have prevailed over those who cannot (still figuratively; I do not condone any kind of violence, during or after competitions).

Even if the official rankings don’t reflect this philosophy, you can take pride in your achievement.

Think like a Defender, and consider what you could still have done after the race. Consider how you could still have outrun the tsunami (with proper warning, of course).

Racing is not about how well you rank compared to others. It is a motivational device, to keep you focused.

What really matters is your health.

Defender, Health, Fitness, Racing

Could you still run away if your life depended on it?

Photos by Pixabay.