Sweaty Innovations

We humans are driven to newer and better. Fitness seekers are always right out there on the innovative edge. Entire industries -- bikes, water bottles, exercise equipment, running shoes, recovery beverages, heart rate monitors, wet suits, supplements, clothing -- compete to help make us faster, stronger, more comfortable, look better or improve endurance. (Confession: This TOJ is no exception with an entire rack of running shoes in the garage and exercise do-dads all over the place.)

It's like we're always waiting to see what's next. With Internet, word spreads fast. Witness the meteoric rise of Vibram's FiveFingers, which are back ordered at retailers like REI. A couple years ago, Chris McDougal wrote Born to Run, a book, in part,  about the incredible Tarahumara distance runners in Copper Canyon Mexico, who knock off hundred mile runs in primitive huaraches, basically a piece of tire tread with some leather thongs to secure it to the foot.

Part of the book was also about barefoot running, but most yuppified runners don't have tough enough soles to really do it (including me), so Vibram introduced a weird looking substitute for huaraches that promises all the benefits of barefoot running and works well for weight-lifting, too.

Standing in a line to use the porta-potty before the start of the Bolder Boulder last May, the guy in front of me had on a pair and he couldn't say enough good things about them for running.  Next thing I know, my daughter has a pair she's using for CrossFit  workouts and trail running. Though I'll resist the urge, I bet I own a pair within a year.  

This TOJ isn't big on gym machines, preferring basic, cheap equipment, and exercising outdoors as much as possible. But that doesn't mean that there aren't  worthwhile ways to exercise and improve fitness and health for people who enjoy gyms and apparatus.

A track coach at Linfield College in Oregon (he's also a big fan of Bill Bowerman, the great track coach Nike co-founder)  has invented a new way to exercise in water. Originally, it was developed to help people recover from serious injuries, but has caught on with professional athletic teams, too. The coach designed wetsuit that is buoyant and has webbed feet, sort of like the creature in the old horror movie "The Thing." The person puts it on and runs around the pool, propelling the their floating body with feet and arms. The resistance of the water provides at whatever level of strenuousness is desired; the harder the person goes, the harder the resistance. People who've tried it say its a great workout. Google AQx Sports to learn more.

Another interesting exercise invention, soon to be product, is called the NeGator. Developed at the University of Florida, it relies on what is called eccentric resistance. The system is based on a little known fact about the human body -- surprisingly, we are able to hold up and lower more weight than we can lift up. The NeGator, through a system of cams, pulleys and motors (this will definitely be an expensive device like Nautilus once on the market) actually increases the weight as you lower it and decreases it to a range you can handle as you lift it. What is really unusual is that the machine is designed to have you do only one set per week! In just one set, you take your muscles to full exhaustion. The UF orthopaedists and exercise physiologists claim it provides the shortest, most efficient workout possible. (I guess this has been designed for people who hate exercise -- I'd like to exercise longer.)

I always try to observe TOJ's Fifth Rule: Respect all exercise religions, even those you don't believe in.

Positive Side Effects

After his narrow victory in the next to the last stage of the Tour de France, Tour champion Alberto Contador commented that he had not been feeling too good, had not slept well, and had a stomach ache. In fact, he'd had physical struggles over the entire 2,200 mile race. He commented to reporters, "Cycling is not like mathematics." He might have added, "because our bodies, no matter how well trained or fed, are unpredictable and complex."

Some days when you go out exercise or compete, you feel and perform just the way you hoped. You've got the groove. But sometimes you don't. You're not sick or injured, you just start into your run or ride or lifting routine and your strength or energy just isn't there. Don't feel bad -  this happens to elite athletes as often as it does to the rest of us.

Sometimes you know the cause. Yesterday I did a kettlebell workout and jumps, leaving my legs tired (the squats were a killer). Today I went for a post-work trail run, with temperatures in the mid-90s under a blazing sun. Ttwenty steps up the trail, I knew each step would be tough going. 

Just as often you don't know why your bio has no rhythm. Maybe you haven't recovered enough from your last exercise session (which is what happened to me) so the glycogen levels are low and your system is busy repairing micro-tears in your muscles. You haven't allowed adequate time for recovery. Or maybe you have some stress at work or in your life that is running you down. Or you are not eating nutritious food.

It's very normal to have days like this every now and then. Just because you don't feel your best doesn't mean you shouldn't proceed with your workout. You might start feeling better after your warm-up. Even if you never feel great that day, you still get the benefits from the exercise. Years ago I read an interesting book called Maximum Performance by a UCLA physiologist who had worked with many elite Olympic athletes. Once he did a survey of people who had set world records, asking how they felt minutes before their event that day. Surprisingly, many complained that they had trouble sleeping the night before, had indigestion, and felt weak. Yet, like Contador, they won. 

However, you want to be on alert if this lethargy or "just ain't got it feeling" occurs on several consecutive days. You might be over-training. A good way to find out is to know your normal resting pulse in the morning an hour after you've gotten out of bed when you've been feeling good. If it starts drifting up over a period of days, say 4-6 beats more per minute, you know you've been pushing too hard and need to take more time off before your next workout or lower the intensity of it. An exercise journal is useful to see if something is changing and what might be the cause.

Most times on days when you don't feel so great but go ahead and continue your workout, you're glad you did. 
Even if you're slow and struggle, you still feel better afterwards. Exercise is a drug with very positive side effects.

Cool, Cool Water

This afternoon I skipped rope and swung a kettle bell outside for about an hour. It was a beautiful, hot summer day - 95 degrees. Though most times it's smarter to do workouts earlier in the day during the summer to avoid the added stress to your body from the heat, sometimes it feels good to exercise and get really hot, sweaty and exhausted.

Today was one of those days. Dripping with sweat and breathing in the hot air, I kept thinking about my favorite country and western song, "Cool Water" by the Sons of the Pioneers. Although it's about cowboys herdin' cattle out in the desert, not exercise, it perfectly captures that special feeling we have towards water, especially on a hot day because the human body is over 70% water. When at rest, the human body is at thermal equilibrium when the outside temperature is at 82 degrees F.

Dehydration is a side effect of exercise because our body heat rises with metabolic rate. Most times dehydration is no big thing, as it wasn't to me today because I could get to water in a matter of seconds - I working out on a deck right outside outside our kitchen and had a water bottle nearby. (But I've gotten in trouble in the heat; see "The Self-Made Road to Hell and Back" in a 2008 blog.)

Our bodies have an incredible system of controls to maintain our core body temperature at a normal 98.6 degrees F. Just 8 - 10 degrees above this, we are delirious or dead.

The body cools itself by routing blood to 3 million sweat glands that use a fine network of vessels near the surface of the skin to give off heat via sweat. If you're interested in learning more about all the processes, pick up a copy of "Surviving the Extremes: What Happens to the body and Mind at the Limits of Human Endurance" by Kenneth Kamler, M.D., who has been a physician on several expeditions into hostile environments. He explains in detail the body's response to heat in an incredible story of survival of an ultra-marathoner who got lost during a race in the Sahara Desert.

As long as we have the fluid in our systen to sweat, everything is fine. However, when you add intense exercise with hot ambient air, you begin to loose body fluid fast and start to be unable to dissipate your internal heat fast enough. Assuming you have been drinking enough water before you exercise, most times dehydration is not a major concern if you are working out, or even racing, for less than an hour. Longer than that, replacing fluids becomes more critical and challenging.

The key indicator of dehydration is loss of body weight. When you lose 1-2% of body weight, which is typical of a hard workout or run on a summer day, you're usually fine. At 2% loss you will start to feel some discomfort and performance is affected because dehydration begins to interfere with the utilization of glycogen (needed to produce physical energy) in skeletal muscles, the ones that lift, run or turn the crank on your bike.

Between 3% and 4% you start having severe cramping, and even dizziness or nausea. At 5% is the danger zone for heat exhaustion or sun stroke. Again, this is more likely to occur when you exert for more than an hour. Most of us don't get to this stage

As long as you're sweating, that's a good sign, but your body is still under stress. As you dehydrate, your blood plasma decreases, causing the blood to thicken which then causes your heart to beat harder. Your brain also dilates (opens) your blood vessels as wide as possible to help dissipate the heat, which also taxes the heart further to deliver blood to the muscles that need oxygen and nutrients. You see how this can lead to a vicious cycle.

Remember that as you exercise, you cannot replace all the fluids that are lost at the same rate. It takes time for anything you drink to get through your gut and into your bloodstream. But adding fluids as you exercise to offset losses works, especially if it's hot.

Thirst lags dehydration. For this reason, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 1/2 to 1 cup of fluid for every 15 minutes during exercise, whether you are thirsy or not. You can speed the transit time from gut to bloodstream by adding a small amount of sugar. If you are working out or competing for more than an hour, you can also add some electrolyte like a little sodium or potassium, which is basically what's in sports drinks like Gatorade. Below you'll find a recipe for a rehydrating drink that works and tastes great.

Note that drinking fluid will not lower your core body temperature. Research shows that even drinking ice cold water has no impact, though it tastes good. The only way to lower your core temperature is to lower your metabolic rate, which means you either slow down or stop altogether.

A TOJ knows that as time or intensity of exercise goes up, along with the outside and core body temperature, so must fluid intake. Summer, heat, sun, sweat -- and cool, cool water.

Electrolyte Rehydrating Sports Drink

2 cups coconut water

2 tablespoons sweeter of choice (alternatives to cane sugar include agave nectar, honey, stevia, and medjool dates)

Juice from 1/2 lemon

Juice from 1/4 lime

Sea salt to taste

Blend all ingredients in a blender until well mixed.

TOJs, Runner's World and Glamour Girls

I've read "Runner's World" for a long time. I've read it so often that with each new issue my brain sees a predictable pattern in the content. I probably started reading it for the same reason that a pudgy young woman reads in a glamour magazine - that someday I can be like the person on the cover. But that was then and this is now.

I'm convinced the same late twenties/early thirties man or woman body is featured on the cover of every issue. They just Photoshop on a different face, stick it on a different background. Every month you can expect that skinny, lanky runner's body, originally shot by a photographer who was crouched down and shooting slightly up to make the body seem longer and larger than life.

That cover photo is not by accident. It's the perfect runner's body described in the book Runner's World Runner's Body: How the Latest Science Can Help You Run Stronger, Longer and Faster by Ross Tucker, Jonathan Dugas and Matt Fitzgerald. Of course, almost everyone who runs will never look like the people who grace the covers because, as the book points out, elite runners look like that largely because of genetic factors that influence both their shape and the mix of slow and fast twitch fibers in their muscles.

The headers on the cover tease with the same false promises you find in a glamour magazine, too. That inside you will find the secrets of how you can do lots of things faster - run, lose weight, train in less time. You will be able do lots of things more easily and with less pain - train for a marathon, strengthen your core, run your personal best. But, what any athlete knows, there is no quick and easy way to do anything. Real progress takes a long time time, constant discipline and some discomfort. No way to escape it! And, after all that work, you still may not ever break 2 hours in the half marathon.

"Runners World," like all magazines, is formulaic. There are always the magic tips - "7 Ways to Avoid Indigestion as You Run" or "12 Tips to Beat That Lazy Slacker in Your Mind." The diet advice is always the same: eat carbs, proteins, and fats, with very minor proportion changes before, during, and after running. I'm pretty certain for years I've seen the same same recipe for skinless chicken breasts with the only change being one is sprinkled with basil and the other with curry. To their credit, they find some variety with all the different places you can go to race and the stories of people who run.

I guess I continue to read it because it sometimes has an inspiring story or tidbit of information, but "Runner's World" seems less and less pertinent to my interests as time goes by. You don't see many TOJ's in its pages or articles about the challenges of aging runners. Plus there's a lopsided emphasis on race performance versus the sheer joy of running.

Most importantly, more and more evidence from exercise science points away from distance running as the gold standard of a healthy lifestyle. To this TOJ, distance running is just another aerobic option to be included in a well-rounded approach to exercise and fitness. Contrary to a recent best-selling book, we weren't born just to run, which is why most of us don't look like skinny distance runners any more than we do sumo wrestlers.

CrossFit: Short, Intense, Effective and Cool

My daughter, who has run triathlons and marathons, let me come observe her CrossFit class in Bend, Oregon. With two kids and demanding work hours, she found herself not always having the time to go on one or more hour runs so was looking for an alternative that maintains fitness in less time. The Bend CrossFit is located in a warehouse outfitted with lots of chin up bars, free weights, kettlebells, still rings for arm dips, crunch back supporters and other basic, first rate training gear. I liked it immediately because it had the feel of a place where people go to exercise hard, not smell the ferns, share stock tips and drink carrot juice.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, there's a paradigm shift underway as to what is the best combination of exercise to maintain and improve fitness. Since the running boom started in the 60's, exercise, especially for cardio benefits and endurance, was synonymous with aerobics. However, in the mid-90's, the near cult of aerobics started to come under scientific scrutiny.

One of the first to produce evidence to challenge aerobics was Izumi Tabata, a physiologist at at Japanese institute, who proved that a person sprinting for 20 seconds at high intensity, then resting for 10 seconds, then sprinting again for 20 seconds, resting again for 10 seconds, and repeating this pattern for a total of only 4 minutes improved in both VO2 max., a key measure of cardio capacity, and in anaerobic capacity far beyond persons who run 1o times as much at a slower (aerobic) speed. (Go here to find out more about Tabata and his training routines because they are worthwhile.)

However, since the 90's, the empirical studies about exercise have gone way beyond Tabata's narrowly focused study. In many ways, CrossFit, a trademarked name for a system, is a culmination of those studies. When you visit their web site, you'll see that they intend to provide a comprehensive system that includes not only cardio benefits, but strength, stamina, balance, power, and flexibility. The system really places an emphasis on functional strength and endurance, what you need in everyday life and as the foundation for any athletic discipline. This TOJ was especially attracted to the truth in this line in the website: "The needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents differ by degree not kind." That is at the heart of a TOJ's philosophy.

One of the first things you notice at a CrossFit class is that people are warming up seriously. I saw people stretching, running brisk laps around the building, doing sit ups and pull ups, dropping into squats, starting to bead up with sweat. People said hello to one another, but they quickly got absorbed with preparation. The CrossFit gym seems pretty B.S. free. Another thing you notice is that most of the people look already lean and muscular (people not as fit could find intimidating, but wouldn't for long because fitness comes fast at that intensity level).

The class was conducted by two trainers who looked like they walked the talk and were nice enough to say hello and introduce themselves when I came in. They called everybody together and outlined the day's workout, which is always deceptively simple, very strenuous and done in the shortest time in which the athlete/person can complete the entire routine. The routine that day was 10 sets of 10 sit ups, 10 squats, 10 pull ups, and 10 dips. Routines change each session to work different muscles and provide variety. Usually people attend a class 3-5 times a week.

When the trainers looked at the stop watch and said start, the dozen participants went to various apparatus and worked out continuously. No talk, no breaks, lots of grunts and hard breathing, a little water for a couple of them. The trainers would go around and help correct posture, get someone settled into an assistance band (dips and pull up equipment had elastic foot loops to help those still who needed assistance to lift their full body weight that number of reps), and encourage the good effort being made, especially in those last few reps that looked like killers.

One by one each of them completed the routine, usually between 20 and 25 minutes. When one of the guys came to get his water bottle near where I was standing, I said, "Looks like fun."

He smiled and said, "It really is, when it's over."

This TOJ believes him. There are lots of fads in the exercise business, but this isn't one of them. They are on to something.