Gluten Gremlins

The grains - wheat, barley and rye - are increasingly on the DO NOT EAT list because they contain gluten. That's unwelcome news to a TOJ because grains taste good (like pancakes and beer), contain some important minerals, and have been a  carbohydrate relied upon by athletes for years as an energy source. But things change.

For 1% of the population, gluten is a problem because it's the cause of celiac disease, a serious auto-immune disorder. However, in the past couple of years, many of the other 99% have come to believe they might have problems with gluten as well.

The Paleo guru Robb Wolf in The Paleo Solution, for example, recommends total elimination of grains from every one's diet, and offers some good scientific reasons. It seems that many people who do not have actual celiac disease do have sub-symptomatic inflammatory response. Grains may cause their bodies to react with an immune response as if something truly harmful has been introduced. Also, grains may disrupt digestion and degrade the lining of the gut.

It would be ironic indeed if after eating grains for 10,000 years, evidence emerges that they are actually poisonous. So much for the Staff of Life. At present, there is not irrefutable evidence that this is true. That said, some valid questions have been raised that warrant more investigation.

Meantime, more and more athletes are not waiting for science to catch up with real-life evidence. had an article about a tiny handful of world class athletes that have stopped eating grains and have watched their performances improve. For instance, the road biking Garmin-CervĂ©lo Team  won the team competition at The Tour de France while eating a diet with no grains. Word of their and others successes is spreading fast.

The reason these athletes are seeing positive results may be due to having more of the valuable nutrients in other foods make it through their digestive tracts and into their cells. The nutrients help them recover faster.

Going without grains still leaves plenty of tasty options, as shown below:

Sometimes to test the impact of foods on your health and fitness requires some really hard choices, like following the vegan regimen of someone like Brendan Brazier. This is much easier -- just stop eating grains and see if it makes a difference. 

My Calves and the Denver Broncos

This week Denver Broncos and I independently discovered something important about physical training and the importance of rest.

On Saturday the Broncos won a preseason game against the Buffalo Bills. The win was nice, but what was really notable is that the Broncos had no injuries. Last year by this time, the Broncos had lost a number of key players, including their two top running backs, to bizarre injuries in practices and games.

What was different between this year and last? Last year the young kid coach Josh McDaniels, a hard ass for the TV cameras, was pushing his players hard in two-a-day practices in 90 plus degree temperatures. Each day he had them do weight lifting and 40 yard sprints on top of practicing football skills in full contact scrimmages. Naturally, the players were fatigued and their bodies prone to injury. Dehydration and consequent depletion of electrolytes reduces inhibits reflexes and muscle performance, making a player prime for injury.

However, this year, with the strike ending late, NFL teams were restricted to one practice a day. The Denver Bronco trainer convinced the new coach Fox to postpone any weight lifting until later in the season. Instead, the trainer has had the players do brief push-up, sprint, push-up routines. In other words, short bouts of high intensity, functional body work. This has enabled the players to build some strength and endurance without exhausting them, especially when training in heat. They were fresh and ready to go when they stepped onto the field.

It's very possible that much of the way the NFL has approached training has been wrong. Most of their players are already very fit athletes who body build year round and all coaches and trainers with Marine Corps boot camp mentalities do is increase injuries, not make tougher players.

What does all this have to do with a decrepit TOJ?

Three nights ago at 11 pm I awoke with an cramp in my left calf. The muscle had contracted into a hard ball and the pain was excruciating. I tried to massage and stretch it, but nothing would stop it. All I could do was wait until it passed after a minute or so. Afterwards, it was tender to the touch, but I fell back asleep.
Then at 2 am, against all odds, I experienced a similar cramp in my right calf, not as intense, but also painful.

The next day I Googled and found out it's a common problem, especially with runners, that doctors cannot completely explain, but suspect the problem is caused by muscle fatigue and a lack of potassium.

I went to my training log. The day of the severe cramping I ran my local trail, which goes two and  a half miles, steadily uphill. I ran in late afternoon, after work, when the temperature was 94 degrees. That day my legs felt lifeless, and it showed in my slower than usual time. The day before, again in the afternoon, I had done several sets of vertical jumps and lifted dumbbells, with the temperature at 90 degrees. And the day before that, when I worked out in the morning, I jumped rope for a long time with the temperature in the relatively cool 80s.

Bottom line: Three days in a row of hard exercise, very focused on my calves and in hot weather, had pushed them to their limits. I didn't even know it or intend to work them that hard. They had not hurt more than usual after those three days, they just felt tired. But they had been over-worked, which set off chemical imbalances leading to the severe cramping.

The Broncos figured out less is more and to respect what heat does to a body. I guess that's why they get the big bucks.

Women's Exercise Liberation

At the Wellness Club, we talked about the tree types of muscles in your body -- cardiac, smooth, and skeletal. Everybody knows about cardio, but few think much about the other two. Smooth muscles are in your gastrointestinal tract, blood vessels, eyes, uterus, and other places. They do work for you 24/7 without you even thinking about it.

The skeletal muscles, over which we have more conscious control, enable us to move, balance upright, protect our skeletons and organs, and, often over-looked, maintain our metabolism. The major energy stores in your body are the glycogen in the skeletal muscle system and liver. How much muscle you have has a lot to do with whether you are fit and slim or overweight and sluggish.

Although the video below is a little too focused on body image, it is a quick and entertaining recap of how women discovered they can and should exercise just as hard and often as males. Their bodies change as a result. While a buff outward appearance is fine, too, the best thing about having muscle is that carbs you eat have a better chance of turning into muscle glycogen, used as fuel when you exercise, rather than fat in your legs and butt. Yes, you look good, but better yet, you avoid heart disease, diabetes, and many forms of cancer.

What's really cool is that you can keep these benefits throughout your life. Check out the video of this 70+ year old athlete who lifts weights almost every day and runs 80 miles a week:

For decades, women were told that resistance exercise, especially lifting weights,would make them look like the Incredible Hulk. Not so. Weights help control weight.

Protein, Carbs and Fast Recovery

For most active folks, eating good food each and every day is more important for our fitness than fussing over exactly what food should be eaten at exactly what time to "optimize" performance, whether it's adding one more rep to a weight routine you do every week or running a 10K a few seconds faster.

A natural part of being physically active is a desire to find what might make us stronger, faster, improve endurance, or diminish/shorten the pain or discomfort of exertion. Lots of myths come and go regarding what  combination of foods or supplements can enhance your performance. The latest one to crash was the myth of "carbo-loading" before a hard endurance activity like a marathon. For years runners stuffed themselves with pasta and pizza in the days leading up to a race because the training establishment said that would enhance performance; however, that was often true only for very elite athletes who needed every possible physical advantage. All it would do for many average athletes was make them fat or feel sluggish.

However, solid research shows that what you eat or drink immediately after a HARD workout, especially involving resistance or high intensity, can have positive effects on speed of recovery, reducing inflammation and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Turns out a mix of protein and carbohydrate is a potent combination rather than just carbs alone.

Not that long ago, the exercise physiologists believed it was most important to restore glycogen to the depleted muscles and the need for protein was not as well understood (however, it should be noted that body-builders have understood this for a long time). Hard exercise, whether short, intense weight routines or long, pounding road runs, actually damage muscle fibers. Repair of the muscle requires protein synthesis with amino acids like glutamine and leucine. (If you want to learn more, read Nutrient Timing by Ivy and Portman.)

For every rule in health and fitness, there's an exception, and here it is. This is one of the rare times you are encouraged to consumer real sugar or dextrose! Note: Not fructose. Sugar or dextrose only. The sugar stimulates a strong insulin response (which is not good when your un-exercised muscles and liver are already full of glycogen - only after an exhausting workout) that not only quickly delivers glucose, but also increases blood flow to muscles, accelerating the delivery of oxygen and restorative nutrients, while removing lactic acid and metabolic byproducts.

In other words, if you consume a protein-carbohydrate combination, you quickly flip your body from  muscle breakdown (catabolic) to a muscle building. You will recover more quickly and keep your immune system strong. Remember that this approach is only needed if you workout almost to the point of exhaustion, which for this TOJ is only once or twice a week. The rest of the time is routine stuff.

You can make a recovery beverage by mixing 45 grams of sugar (yes, that's what's recommended -- about 10 level teaspoons --  I'll reduce mine to 5 and hope it works) with 15 grams of whey protein (sold at Whole Foods, Vitamin Cottage, many sports stores, GNC and online at sites like Defense Nutrition) in 12 oz. of water. Whey's pretty cheap, easily absorbed, and rich with crucial amino acids.  You want to drink your recovery beverage within an hour of of your workout to get the most  benefits.

Then just resume eating a healthy mix of veggies, fruits and high-quality protein.