Some is good, more is better, too much is still undetermined?

Running, Exercise, Science, Everyday

Running: Some is good, more is better, but too much is… too much?

This post is about the danger, and strong temptation, of drawing conclusions when it comes to fitness.

There is a process by which it can be done: It is called science.

But it is a lengthy process, one that is deeply human (and that can therefore err) but also fundamentally self-correcting (thus its immense success, without which you would not be reading this, among other things you do on a daily basis).

There are shortcuts, sometimes pretending to be science, but in fact nothing more than wishful thinking. Common sense, sometimes based on anecdotes, falls in this category.

Science is fundamentally always questioning itself. Common sense and anecdotes appear much more solid, which explains their success.

The main issue, it seems, is that most of us are more comfortable with solid, unequivocal conclusions than with questions.

Take a recent example, from just two days ago.

A small research team published results from an analysis of data on mortality and jogging habits of people living in Copenhagen. So far, this is science.

The title of the paper indicates what was being analyzed. The results suggest a possible negative effect of “strenuous” jogging.

That’s all most bloggers and some journalists needed to draw firm conclusions. That’s news. But it is no longer science.

Take a moment to read some of these (they basically say the same thing): BBC, Time, and Huffington Post.

Those titles, and some of the statements, are strong conclusions, mostly taken from the title of the research paper and probably from a press release stating a few key aspects of the research (thus the similarities between the three).

Running, Exercise, Everyday, Science

Go ahead and do it?

The problem is that the research is still lacking in statistical significance with respect to the strongly stated conclusions. The paper itself is not strongly concluding, but stating that the results suggest an increased risk. That raises the question; it is not a firm conclusion.

Of course, to those strong conclusions, some folks with a keen interest in promoting running had to take a dissenting position. That’s what is sometimes called “a debate.” (Note: Not a scientific debate, but one in the public sphere.)

Take a moment to read this Runner’s World blogger.

He makes some valid points about statistical significance, but he also acts disingenuously when trying to imply that the methodology is not correct. (That’s what peer reviewers are there for, not some blogger.)

And by pointing out the small numbers, as if they were by themselves cause to not pay attention to the research, he is giving a false impression of what science is all about. By thus strongly concluding against the findings, he is also part of the problem.

Now, pause for a moment, and consider whether you are more comfortable with the strong conclusions, whichever you like better, or with the uncertainty that, perhaps, too much of something might actually be bad.

Because that question is worth asking.

To use an analogy: You need to breathe oxygen to live; air with a slightly increased oxygen percentage promotes recovery; too much oxygen in percentage in the air you breathe and you die.

So it would stand to reason that some exercise is good for you; more exercise is better, but “too much” can be deadly.

It is worth investigating, not denying. What it is not worth doing is becoming sedentary over…

Because even though “is too much bad for you?” is a valid question, the question “is doing some good for you?” has generated a lot of evidence behind a positive answer, even though it is also still a valid scientific question.

That’s what science provides: Degrees of confidence. Never absolute conclusions.

No matter what anyone tells you about it.

Unfortunately, degrees of confidence don’t sell magazines, or gym memberships. Certainty does.

So you should move. A lot. Everyday. And it seems pretty certain that if you keep the intensity moderate, you’ll be safe.

Safer, and healthier, than if you don’t move at all. I’m pretty confident about that.

Running, Exercise, Science

Better move than not. Better more than too little.

Pictures taken by the author at various running events.

Discipline: The 5 Practices – Practice 5

Exercise, Discipline, Everyday, Training, Sports

Find ways to find it fun to exercise. At times, it won’t be easy.

Find your fun!

There: That’s it. That’s the fifth Practice of Discipline. Nothing more to add.

Ok, maybe a few things to add.

Find your fun is an essential practice of discipline because, contrary to most people’s view about discipline, you should not drag yourself through unpleasant activities day after day after day…

That old view of discipline must go out the window.

But you must make an effort, at times, to find the fun in what you are doing. Especially when you are doing it everyday.

What does that mean, practically speaking?

Ways to find your fun

I’m a big fan of traveling and visiting places I don’t know, even in my own city. I always find that pleasant, be it on a bike or while doing a long run. Even if it is in my own city, I enjoy taking detours that I have not taken before. That, for me, is fun.

To some, it could be always doing a very nice loop (walking, running, rollerblading, biking, etc.) in a beautiful park, or in a particularly nice residential area. Perhaps to notice doing it faster each time, but that should not be necessary.

To others it might be exercising on a stationary device (bike, treadmill, elliptical) while watching a favourite show, or a “guilty pleasure show you would not be caught watching otherwise, or listening to a podcast series on an interesting topic.

Perhaps it is to pick up again a sport you used to like doing when you were younger. Think back to then: How about badminton, tennis, basketball, water-polo? Sure, it might require finding a group to have fun with, but they exist, you just have to look for them.

It could also simply be a thought while you walk/run/cycle/swim: “I’ll be in better shape for the next time I… (insert activity for which you want to be more fit).” That’s OK as well, though it is better to find your fun in the situation you are in while exercising, not just in some future version of you.

The best fun, in my experience, comes from appreciating how your body feels as you exercise, and observing the environment around you. Especially in the environment, you can find ever changing and renewed fun everyday.

I also enjoy talking to people while I run. Especially long runs, or marathons. This is my fun, not necessarily the fun of those I talk to. You have to be careful about how you find your fun, because the fun invariably ends where someone else’s NOT FUN begins…

The best fun is solitary fun

The point is, no matter what it is, you need to find some.

Many resort to finding a training buddy, or joining some sort of team or “fitness” class. Nothing wrong with that. However, a word (or two) of caution:

When you become dependent on a partner, or on a group, for your fun, you risk stopping whatever activity it is that you’ve undertaken. For instance, if your partner does not show up. Or if the class comes to an end.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of finding fun within yourself. More to the point: within your own attitude towards the exercise and the world around you.

Fun for two

Fun with a partner is, as indicated earlier, acceptable.

More than that: It is an excellent way of having great fun. The closer the partner (spouse, close friend, etc.), the better the fun, and the more likely the fun will be reciprocal, and repeatable.

Be it chatting while walking/running/stationary something, or playing doubles tennis/badminton/etc., sharing a fitness-increasing activity can enhance it.

However, as noted earlier, you should not rely on an exercise partner: What if your doubles partner does not show up? What if the exercise itself causes tension with your significant other.

Better be careful, and make sure you can find fun by yourself.

Group fun

Group fun is also acceptable. It can be an excellent way of finding fun in the beginning.

But careful if you come to rely of the stimulus offered by a group (and/or a cheerleader-coach) for your fun: That’s a pretty much certain sign that your fun is teetering on the edge of not being enough to sustain your activity level.

As we all know, too much stimulation leads to a saturation, and an inability to find the fun in more mundane situations (like fun for two, or fun on your own).

To be sure, get started and use whatever means to find the fun at first, but make sure to branch off and find the fun on your own as soon as possible.

The key thing is to move a lot more.

Your body will enjoy that.

It’s up to you to bring your mind around to enjoying it as well. And that’s where discipline comes in…

Image from Pixabay.

More alike than not… except in the details

Sports, Exercise, Performance, Athletes

A diversity of shapes and speeds at the Rome marathon a few years ago. All athletes, in a way.

Time for a story. (Isn’t it always?)

Once upon a time, in pretty much all lands on this planet called Earth, the thinking of sports federations and elite coaches was that an Olympic athlete had to be of average height and build, with lean bone and muscle mass providing a streamlined body type.

For all Olympic sports.

Such athletes were selected and tested early, then subjected to years of grueling training. Only a very small portion of even such “ideal” athletes rose to the top of each sport and were deemed good enough to represent their respective countries against the rest of the world. (The story does not say what happened to those who did not rise to the top, but rumour has it that they started hating sports, and took up knitting instead.)

This had come about because there was a clear picture of the “ideal” human shape that had endured to some extent since the time of the original Olympic games in Greece. But with more clothing. No doubt the statues of antiquity, and later re-born in the Renaissance, had helped solidify such an image of the perfect athlete.

Allied to that image was the notion, very much born of religious thought, that only through a lot of hard work and pain could the most gains be made in training. Fierce competition, even among teammates, was seen as the way to build stronger individuals.

Thus many countries went about, and generations of kids, teenagers, and young adults went about their training. Only a very small portion of all those who started in such programs ever made it, and they won medals and set world records.

But this story is not about world records and Olympic medals. It is about how athletes were selected and prepared to compete.

It all changed, of course, when atypical athletes started winning medals and breaking world records. This came about because many countries simply did not have athletes with the expected, “ideal” body type. They were not expected to win, yet there they were, running faster, jumping higher, lifting heavier than the rest.

Suddenly, coaches caught on to what biologists must have realized much earlier: That there might be something about the specific genetic make-up of an individual that might make them better athletes at SOME sport in particular.

Nowadays, we fully understand that notion, and athletes are not expected to look the same across all sports. That explains why we see a lot of Kenyans and Ethiopians win marathons, and tiny little guys and gals ride race horses. Volleyball players are tall and somewhat lanky; ping-pong players somewhat short but extremely quick.

You get the picture. We each have specific genetic variations that make us more or less good at some activities or sports. Some are very visible, others not.

As the eminent (running coach) Jack Daniels pointed out in a seminar I attended a few years ago, you would not expect Shaquille O’neal and Mary Lou Retton to perform at an elite level at each-other’s respective sports. (The reference to those athletes provides an idea of the age of Jack Daniels, and of the attendees, not of the date of the seminar.)

Big differences are expected, for instance, between a basketball player and a gold medal winning gymnast. (Just to be clear, for those of a different age…) Mary Lou could not possibly dunk a ball, and Shaquille might very well break the asymmetric bars. Hence athletes are largely selected based on their body types nowadays.

Tragically, what hasn’t changed (yet) is the notion that training has to be uniformly hard and painful for everyone. That is why we see PE programs in schools that are still based on (unfriendly) competition and pitting everyone against each other to be the best, or to meet some specific standards of fitness arbitrarily defined by someone.

That’s in large part been identified as the prime culprit for turning the vast majority of people away from doing sports on a regular basis. If all that seems to matter is winning, and there can only be one winner, that means there are a lot of losers. And nobody likes being a loser.

So it starts by hating PE, then it becomes hating sports. Except for those you can watch while drinking beer, and even then, it is watching games, not playing.

Exercise, Movement, Daily

Watching is definitely not the same as doing.

At the same time, the understanding that we are all different has been taken much too far: Nowadays, a lot of folks think that they are simply not athletic, not meant to do sports. There are winners, who are jocks, who are meant to do sports, and then there’s the rest of us who should not do sports. Who cannot do sports.

Given the premises of differences between individuals and of personally hating sports, it is understandable that many reached the (erroneous) conclusion that they are not meant to move.

But the reasoning is incorrect, and one of the premises is false.

The facts, based on biology, are all pointing in the direction of our bodies being meant to move. Needing to move. Regularly.

Hating sports and exercise is a learned behaviour; it can be unlearned, replaced by something better.

We are all different, but even in our visible (and invisible differences), we are more alike than not.

The story time being over, I’ll conclude this post by pointing out the ways in which we are alike, and those in which we differ. And I’ll come back some other time to the fascinating topic of how to learn to like exercise.

Ways in which we are all alike: Basic morphology and physiology

Cells, Physiology

The marvelous machinery of life.

  1. We all have the same number of limbs, fingers, heads, internal organs (types and numbers), etc., and they all are built according to the same plan. (Yes, I know, there are accidents of biology, but the basic plan before those accidents is the same.)
  2. We all have muscles connected to bones in order to makes us move; those muscles all work according to the same principles, and allow sensibly the same movements to be performed by everyone.
  3. We use carbohydrates, lipids, and to a lesser extent proteins, to generate the energy that allows our cells to function. Including muscle cells, which are used to move our bodies. More specifically, there are fast and slow ways of generating that energy, and although they vary in relative terms, they are all present in all of us.
  4. We all obtain such nutrients from eating; our digestive system, comprised as it is of our own guts and the microbiome therein, functions fundamentally the same way in all of us. Besides nutrients, we need water and oxygen (not too much) for our metabolism to operate.
  5. We need to move; for our bodies to be healthy, we need to move. The stress imposed on our bones, muscles, and internal organs by intense activity is what keeps bones strong, muscles large(-ish), and organs performing their normal functions. Including digestion and waste disposal.
  6. All of our bodies respond to exercise (or to a lack thereof). If you exercise regularly, the body changes to adapt to the exercise, and the organs and energy systems hum along. If you don’t exercise, the body “relaxes” and things start to breakdown, fat reserves accumulate, digestion is slower and we get constipated, etc.

That’s just how our bodies work. We are all very much alike.

Ways in which we differ: The details of performance

Because of the details of how each of us is shaped (tall or short, thick-boned or thinner, etc.) and how cells function physiologically, there are aspects of performance in which we differ. Specifically:

Sports, Physical Activities, Training

So many sports, so many choices…

  1. How much endurance we have (mostly due to differences in energy systems at the cellular level, though that’s trainable to a great extent, perhaps the most of all aspects of performance)
  2. How fast we can be (also highly trainable, but limits imposed by physiology exist in each of us, also at the cellular level in muscles)
    How strong our muscles can be (small differences there)
  3. How big our muscles can become (bigger differences there)
  4. How flexible we can be (muscles, ligaments, but also joint movement; we can’t all be circus performers!)
  5. How coordinated we can be (agility, efficiency, also technically trainable to a great extent)
  6. How a wide range of our senses perform (eyesight, hearing, smell, etc.) and how efficiently our brains put all of that together

Taken together, and in the right combinations, the accumulation of small differences is what, along with adequate training, makes top performing athletes.

So, while it remains true that there can only be one winner in each discipline, and that at the top level (Olympics, for instance), only a small portion of the population is equipped to truly compete, we all have the potential to take enjoyment in some physical activity. And we may even do pretty well, locally or within the cohort of people our own age.

What matters most, however, is that we are all alike in fundamental ways. We all need to move, a lot, to keep our one and only body functioning optimally for a long time.

It’s up to us to figure-out what makes us enjoy it the most.

Exercise, Endurance, Physiology

The author, laughing at a well-deserved muscle cramp, after having completed an iron-distance triathlon.

For an interesting discussion of physiological differences in triathletes, see the recently published book Triathlon Science by Joe Friel and Jim Vance.

Pictures from Pixabay and the author.

Theoretically speaking…

Exercise Theory, Training, Fitness, Coaching, Sports Science

A little theory has never hurt anyone. Unless you drop a big book on your foot and break something…

Because a bit of theory never hurt anyone, and because about a year ago I promised I would do so, this post is about the principles underlying training methods aimed at increasing physical fitness.

Because that theory is well understood, and very simple, this will be a short post.

Because simply saying “you train hard, and you get better” is not enough, this post won’t be that short.

A bit of biology

No matter how complex, or simple, an organism, biologically we all are the same in that we interact with our environment to find our sustenance and proliferate. (By the way, even a single-celled bacterium’s complexity should not be under-estimated. But that’s another discussion altogether.)

A large proportion of those interactions can be summarized by a simple cause and effect relationship:

Stimulus ——> Response

Even if the initial action was a movement by the biological entity, the resulting stimulus of the environment on the biological entity will cause a response. For instance, you move your hand to seize a cup on the table; at a touch (stimulus), you feel the scalding heat of coffee therein, and withdraw your hand (response).

Another example: You are sitting quietly in a cafeteria when an alarm rings loudly (stimulus); you immediately get up and leave (response).

Now, often, as the examples above show, the response is one of fight or flight or avoidance. Much like if you start exercising vigorously and find it difficult, the response to the discomfort might very well be to cease the exertion. But sometimes the stimulus is a pleasant one, like sweet food (or sweet NOT FOOD), and the response then becomes to eat more of it.

There is always a response to the stimulus.

However, there is an extension to the simple cause and effect relationship when it comes to biological systems (i.e. living beings). This comes about when the stimulus is provided repeatedly:

Stimulus (repeatedly) ——> Response (each time) ——> Adaptation

Basically, when a biological system is subjected to a stimulus often enough, not only does it respond in the short term, but it can also modify itself (its behaviour, its own sub-systems) so as to be able to change the short-term response and even deal with the stimulus.

That, as you may be able to guess, is the basis for the Training Principle.

(Admittedly, human beings have big brains that allow us to speed up adaptation, and even predict stimuli we don’t particularly care for. However, how effective we are at doing that is still subject to debate. Revisiting the example of the fire alarm in the cafeteria, if your response is to stay put because there have often been false alarms, then your adaptation to the stimulus could end up costing you your life. But I digress.)

The Training Principle

Simply stated (in my own words):

Subject the body to a specific physical stressor (stimulus) repeatedly and provide sufficient recovery time from the ensuing fatigue (response) to allow it to become stronger (adapt) in dealing with that specific stressor.

That is how all exercise regimens and training programs function.

The trick, the real job of coaches, is to vary the correct details. Because the body will adapt to the stimulus it is subjected to, and only to that stimulus.

That is why you will not gain much muscle mass by doing endurance training; that is why doing a lot of weight lifting (a.k.a. body building) will do almost nothing for your cardio-vascular capacity; and why doing always short bursts of intense activity may gain you some muscle mass and power, but will not make you burn much fat because that energy system is barely used in that kind of activity (you’d need to do longer, less intense activity for effective fat burning).

Moreover, note the potential pitfall in the principle: The body adapts to the stimulus provided. Which ultimately means that the body will not change beyond a certain adaptation if the stimulus remains the same.

That is why simply jogging 30 minutes per day will only get you so far in improving your fitness. To get even better fitness, you need to vary the stimulus once the body has adapted to it, or a little before that.

Sport scientists often use the acronym FIT to describe how the stimulus can be varied:

  • Frequency: How often one trains or exercises.
  • Intensity: At what intensities.
  • Time: Or duration of each training session.

Some even add a second T (making it FITT) by including Type, because different types of exercises also make a difference. For instance, doing core work, which is strength training, is now recognized as a way to improve running performance. But it was not the case until a few years ago.

I like FITT. That’s what coaches work with. That’s what is fun about coaching: Finding the correct mix of FITT for each person to get them to increase their fitness as fast, and as safely, as possible.

But it all starts with subjecting your body to the right stimulus. Or stimuli. Like getting up and moving.

The nice thing is that one of the ways in which your body will adapt, past the initial response of finding it hard, is to ask for more. You just have to use your big brain to deal with the temporary discomfort, and then you’ll be on your way to better fitness…

In a future post, and hopefully not in a year’s time, I’ll describe the many ways in which the body adapts to exercise. That’s also fascinating, and goes a long way in explaining why better fitness leads to increased odds of being healthy for a long time.

Picture from Pixabay.

Discipline: The 5 Practices – Practice 2

Exercise, Everyday, Discipline, Motivation, Purpose

Get moving, keep on moving, and celebrate your accomplishments. But curb your enthusiasm, or risk seeing it all come crashing down.

As I’ve explained before, discipline is what most folks erroneously think of as the means to stick to an exercise routine (and/or dieting plan). That’s the militaristic, stick-in-the-mud view of what it takes to be fit and healthy.

What you require, in fact, to get fit and remain healthy for a long, long time, is a clear sense of purpose. You should never have to use discipline to keep moving; it must be part of who you are, of how you exist on this Earth.

Purpose goes well beyond motivation, though motivation can do you for a spell. Without a clear purpose, however, even motivation will wane and your exercise habit will go the way of so many other good ideas that just end up sitting on a shelf in your head.

Does that mean discipline is useless? Far from it. But in this series of short posts, I’m trying to explain the ways in which discipline is an essential component of your lifestyle.

Those ways are what I call The 5 Practices. Because there are 5. Only 5. Well, 5 main ones that I could think of when I planned this series. Maybe there are more, but these 5 strike me as the main ones. Oh, just read the post, and let me know if you can think of any more…

So what is Practice 2?

Simply put: Curb your enthusiasm.

It is the discipline of not acting rashly even when we feel capable and eager to do more (i.e. too much), or things that we are not yet ready for.

I could have called it “Stick to the Plan,” but often the problem comes precisely from making plans that are overly ambitious or enthusiastic. Especially if you don’t have a coach.

And even if you have a coach, it is too easy to convince the coach that you are ready for the next bigger thing (or too much work for the coach to constantly talk reason to you, not to mention too risky that you’ll seek another coach if that’s the case).

So the second practice of discipline is something you must impose on yourself. Primarily about your own eagerness.

Let me be very clear, just in case: What gets you to exercise regularly is your purpose, sometimes assisted by the motivation to reach a specific goal. Discipline serves to constrain your enthusiasm so that you stick to the plan, doing no more than what you are supposed to, so as to avoid burning out or getting hurt. Basically, discipline is not what gets you to exercise, or gets you to exercise more: It is what gets you to do exactly what you are supposed to.

How does the need for this practice come about?

The positive effects of exercise on the human body (and mind) are undeniable. Physiologically, we are meant to move a lot, and our animal bodies are at their best when we do. Everyday.

This results, in the long term, in better fitness and better health overall. Provided it is done the right way, without excessive stress leading to injury, this is the way to maximize the odds of living a long and active life.

In the short term, the physiological effects of exercise are also very positive; finishing a tough (but fair) workout results in a kind of euphoria that is regularly compared to a drug high. Or at least a very real sense of accomplishment. That is followed by a pleasant feeling of quiet fatigue often attributed to endorphins.

While beginning an exercise regimen is tough, when the enthusiasm of “getting back in shape” is combined with the excitement of the high and the subsequent relaxing low, the effect is one of wanting to do more, as soon as possible. It is quite addictive.

The process of going from sedentary to getting back in shape, the progress of the very beginning, with all its positive reinforcements, leads many to do way too much, too soon, and end up getting hurt. And stopping altogether.

For some, perhaps because they are younger or they manage to avoid an early injury, the phenomenon takes place after a first race or some other major event: They get hooked, so to speak, and want to do more, go faster, register for lots of races, etc. And then they get hurt. They can end up sidelined for months without being able to do much; in some cases they stop exercising altogether.

Either way, the problem is one of too much enthusiasm leading to not following a sound plan that is tailored to develop long-term fitness. The kind of fitness that leads to health. Fitness to race, to compete, even if it is “only” against oneself, is not fitness optimized for a long, healthy and active life. It is too short-term. And often counter-productive.

What’s someone to do?

So as you embark upon a new fitness program, or as you prepare for a new season of training in your chosen sport, curb your enthusiasm. Have that kind of discipline to tell yourself to not do too much.

Exercise and develop your ability to do more at a safe, reasonable pace. You’ll still get there, wherever “there” is for you. In fact, you may end up there faster, overall, as some have suggested (put that part has not been proven scientifically).

By all means, do more than you currently are. And celebrate your successes as you keep on moving (that’s really important, no matter how small they may appear to you, or insignificant to others). If you are into that sort of thing, do register for more events because that can help keep you focused on your purpose and keep track of your progress. But do so in a reasonable way, and for the right reasons.

Call it maturity, or wisdom. Call it “what the coach ordered” if it helps. It is certainly what our knowledge of exercise science, and my experience as a coach, indicate is best.

Ideally, get a coach to build you a program that is suitable for long-term fitness, and follow the plan. Even if you think you can do more.

The simple truth is that we are not the best judges of what is enough or sufficient when it comes to ourselves. But by being aware of this blind spot and/or asking for help to deal with it, you’ll do much better in the long term.

And that is why we need the second practice of discipline.

Exercise, Everyday, Coaching,

Do more. But don’t do too much. If you want to keep on moving.

Pictures from Pixabay.