Olga's Telomeres

If you've followed TOJ for awhile, you've seen an increasing focus on the importance of doing intense exercise, not just light aerobics. The evidence that hard exercise pays health dividends, regardless of your age, continues to mount.

Read this illuminating article by Bruce Grierson about a record breaking, 91 year-old athlete named Olga Kotelko. What drew my attention wasn't her athletic accomplishments, but what exercise physiologists in Canada believe is responsible for them. Grierson writes:

"EXERCISE HAS BEEN shown to add between six and seven years to a life span (and improve the quality of life in countless ways). Any doctor who didn’t recommend exercise would be immediately suspect. But for most seniors, that prescription is likely to be something like a daily walk or Aquafit. It’s not quarter-mile timed intervals or lung-busting fartleks. There’s more than a little suffering in the difference.

Here, though, is the radical proposition that’s starting to gain currency among researchers studying masters athletes: what if intense training does something that allows the body to regenerate itself?"

The source of our physical energy is in our cells, which reproduce themselves many times during our lives. Scientists believe a significant cause of the visible effects of aging (wrinkles, muscle loss) is the aging of our cells. One theory is that cells age because what are called telomeres at the end of our chromosomes, containing the code to replicate the cell, grow shorter, thus losing some genetic information with each cell replication that happens 50 or so times during the average lifetime.

What intrigues the physiologists about Olga is that she still has long telomeres, which may be giving her the lung and heart capacity and strength of a much younger person. It might be that intense exercise induces the production of an enzyme called telomerase that enables telomeres to maintain their genetic code (DNA) and thus produce healthy mitochondria inside cells that fuels human performance at all ages.

Every TOJ knows intense exercise makes you feel good. Now there's another reason to go hard. It helps you stay healthy and strong for much longer.

Thanksgiving Trail Run Poem

Minus two degrees,
snow ankle deep,
up we go.
The frozen air
burns our lungs
as Zorro and I put
one foot in front of another.

A squawking flock
of black ravens lifts
off an elk's rib cage,
bloody red, glowing
against the white.

I'm certain this mountain
gets a degree steeper
each year it ages.
Deer and elk tracks
criss-cross everywhere.
We are all cold,
on the move, alive.

Fast Twitch

Many folks (me included some years), trying to stay healthy and active by running 10Ks and marathons,  developed a high maximum oxygen uptake and low pulse rate. However, exercise science has discovered that we were exercising only half our muscles. Likely to our detriment.

Our bodies have three types of muscle fibers: slow, fast, and faster. These descriptions have nothing to do with how fast they contract, but the amount of time it takes for them to fatigue. Slow twitch are mobilized during aerobic exercise -- jogging, rowing, cycling -- and rely on oxygen. The fast twitch are mobilized in the transition from aerobic to anaerobic -- sprinting and intense weight lifting -- and rely on both oxygen from your blood and glycogen, stored in your muscles. The fastest fibers, which are mobilized for only a few seconds of the most intense exertions and called white muscle fibers, rely solely on glycogen.

Unfortunately, if you only do aerobic activities, your fast twitch fibers sit idle and unused. You might wonder so what? Because you are compromising your long term health and well-being. They play a vital role in your health by helping your body naturally produce human growth hormone (HGH), which is especially important to a TOJ. 

Once we pass our twenties, our bodies start to produce about 14% less human growth hormone per decade, a process that is called somatopause. This leads to a host of potential long term health problems. The most visible one is the tendency to carry more fat in your belly and hips. But the less visible ones are more serious, including loss of muscle mass, cognitive decline, decreased bone density, decreased totally body water, and insulin resistance, to name a few.

Watch this informative discussion between Dr. Joseph Mercola, a burnt-out runner, and Dr. Phil Campbell, trainer and author of Ready, Set, Go! Synergy Fitness. Campbell provides an insightful explanation on the role of intense exercise and natural production of human growth hormone. The good news is that very intense anaerobic exercise give you the same natural HGH boost as an injection.

Campbell has a training system that relies on extreme exertion. He often uses sprinting because he professionally coaches athletes who want to run faster, but his technique can also be applied to exercise bikes and other training apparatus. It is very simple: you go all out for 30 seconds, rest for 90 seconds, then go all out again for 30 seconds. Until you have done 8 reps. He says if you can do more, you aren't going all out. Mercola says in the last few seconds of these reps he was "nauseous" and "almost unconscious."

What Campbell advocates is at the root of all types of anaerobic training and has a sound physiological basis. It might sound extreme, but it's really not. You might feel very uncomfortable, but it's only for a short time, and there's a big payoff. You cannot stop the body changes that come with aging, but you can slow them.

So an aerobic/anaerobic balance is good for you. Yesterday, I enjoyed a leisurely trail run. The weather was clear and beautiful. I always run a few days a week. It releases endorphins giving me the runner's high, and my slow twitch muscles love it.  

Today, it's snowing. Perfect for a fast twitch day.

Becoming a Lean, Mean Eating Machine - Part 4

In case you missed for forgot the first three parts, a quick refresher: Part 1 was about the relationship of good food to fitness. Part 2 talked about how to substitute industrial, processed food made of poor ingredients with more carefully processed foods with better ingredients. Part 3 described how to substitute individual food items with bad fats and bad carbs with better fats and carbs. (Go here for 1-3)

So, on to Part 4...

This TOJ is no food purist. A Twinkie or Big Whatever once in a while won't kill you. However, I do believe (and plenty of scientific evidence validates) that a good diet of mainly fruits and vegetables (often raw) and some lean, grass fed, organic meats or wild fish helps you train and perform better, stay healthier, and maybe live longer. This mix of foods is similar to the popular Paleo diet.

There are two reasons to eat large amounts of fruits and vegetables. The first is that these foods provide crucial phytochemicals, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Many should be eaten raw because they are more nutrient dense and easily digested (bioavailable).

The second is that consumption of fruits and vegetables help the body remain in a slightly alkaline state, which is its optimum state most of the time. However, intense exercise can induce metabolic acidosis in which the body becomes slightly acidic. It can also be caused by a diet with too much meat, dairy products, starches, and grains.

The problem with metabolic acidosis, especially for physically active TOJs, is that the body will attempt to restore its natural state of alkalinity by removing glutamine from muscle tissue causing muscle breakdown, and removing calcium from bones, weakening them. Fruits vegetables counter this by restoring alkalinity, not to mention replacing vital vitamins and minerals lost during exercise.

Raw fruits and vegetables support fast recovery because of their bioavailability. Raw does not mean you take them out of the grocery bag and start munching. With some preparation and seasoning, raw vegetables are tasty and satisfying. Try the recipe at the end of this blog!

Meat also is included as a TOJ food because intense exercise leads to muscle breakdown, and to build them back (which is how you build strength) requires amino acids from proteins.

Proteins are also available in vegetables, as any vegetarian or vegan will tell you. And there are some very successful athletes who do not eat meat. Herschel Walker, the former Heisman trophy winner and mixed martial arts fighter at age 48, trains and maintains his incredible strength on one meal a day -- a salad! Successful triathlete Brendan Brazier, author of The Thrive Diet, is a vegan.

However, meat provides protein density that is just not adequately available without eating, say, five bags of spinach. So I eat meat, mostly poultry, a few times a week. If you do lots of catabolic exercise like heavy weight lifting several days a week, you may need to eat more.

When you buy meat, go organic and grass fed. Avoid the hormones and antibiotics widely used in industrial agriculture. Avoid farm grown fish for the same reason. The cost difference is worth it. Studies have show that there's a higher incidence of cancer and heart disease in meat eaters; it's likely what they put into meat, not the meat itself, that's the culprit.

Cashew Cheeze Dip

3/4 cup raw cashews. soaked overnight
6 TBS. canola oil
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 TB tahini
1 tsp. sea salt
2 TB to 1/4 cup water
paprika to taste

1. Drain cashews. Place in food processor or high speed blender. Add oil, lemon juice, tahini, salt, and 2 TB water.
2. Process until smooth and creamy. This could take up to 5 minutes.
3. Sprinkle on paprika.

Use as a dip for veggies or spread on crackers. Refrigerate.

Here are some good resources:

Brazier - The Thrive Diet
Davis, Melina and Berry - Becoming Raw
Cordain and Friel - The Paleo Diet
Larsen - Vegetarian Sports Nutrition

Run Hard, Forget Perfect

There's a fascinating article about running in, of all places, the New Yorker. It's about the former great marathoner, now Nike coach, Alberto Salazar and his obsession with discovering THE perfect running form to win marathons. While watching slow motion videos of the great African distance runners Kenensia Bekele (world 10K champion) and  Haile Gebrselassie (the world's top marathoner), Salazar noticed that their biomechanics is similar to sprinters. (I won't go into this, read the article - it's very good.)

The article describes how Salazar used his theories to train Dathan Ritzenhein, a promising, but injury plagued, American distance runner prepping for the New York marathon (which was run today). Salazar basically retrained Ritzenhein to run more like the storied Kenyans and Ethiopians. Americans have had a 20+ year plus dry spell winning against the Africans in distance running. I guess Salazar figured if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Or copy them.

But that's easier said than done. By the time a runner makes it to an elite level, the way they run is already deeply embedded in their muscular memory. And their biomechanics, the way the body works when s/he runs, is literally hard-wired with bones, ligaments and tendons. A runner will not easily change this. Salazar, to his credit, knew if Ritzenhein would risk injury during the transition. There's a video with the article that shows Ritzenhein running - sort of like an African. It's thing of beauty. The major changes that Salazar coached were how Ritzenhein moved his hands and arms and how his foot struck the ground. Ritzenhein had to relearn how to land on his forefoot rather than his heel.

Running magazines are full of articles and tips about how to train, eat and run like elite runners. For most of us, these tips are a waste of time and, sometimes, even risky. We are not anatomically equipped to run like these runners, nor do we need to be. Remember that elite runners (including Alberto Salazar during his career) frequently suffer serious injuries.

The next time you run a race, look at the people in your wave as you run and those you finish with. You run much like them. If you want to run faster, lose a few pounds, train a little faster, run intervals more frequently, strengthen your core, learn to relax. But don't monkey with your biomechanics. You are not a Gumby. Run like you've always run and have fun.

In today's New York Marathon, Dathan Ritzenhein finished a respectable 8th. Haile Gebrselassie, the runner with perfect form,  dropped out at mile 16 with a knee injury and announced his retirement. The race was won by Gebre Gebremariam -- another African.