Thursday, 29 November 2012

Running advice for beginners! Consistency

I have been a personal fitness trainer for over 13 years and over that period I must have had conversation about running with hundreds and perhaps even a thousand people. It doesn't matter if  I am out socialising with friends in a pub, at weddings, birthday parties, on holidays, at social events with my children or at home in Ireland visiting my family, I get questioned about running and weight loss all the time. The vast majority of the time I quite enjoy these conversations and hence this blog.

Anybody who enjoys running and considers themselves a beginner or entry level runner usually wants to know how to run faster or longer. Then they usually want me to convince them that they can run a marathon because they just can't fathom this as much as they would like to.
What every beginner needs to understand is that in the absence of any pathological or orthopaedic condition it is very possible to run a marathon. However getting into the physical condition to run 42.2km without harming yourself is not an easy thing to do. If it was easy everybody would run a marathon at least once because of the sense of achievement that comes with finishing a marathon.
I'm not saying that any body with a pathological or orthopaedic condition should not be able to or aiming to run a marathon. However if this is the case then this person should consult their healthcare practitioner before commencing.

Running any distance requires a certain amount of training. This training is aimed at conditioning the heart and lungs, the musculoskeletal system and the gastrointestinal system to full fill the demand that the distance you want to run will place on them. The conditioning process takes time and most importantly it requires consistency.
In an earlier post I explained that the power stations in the muscle cells (mitochondria) shut down if they are not required. The opposite is true if you start to demand more from the muscles. The more and more you run the more power stations you need. You always have a few power stations that are closed but can be opened if the energy demand is high enough (when you open these idling power stations you will have a pink red face, sweat will be flowing out of you and you will be panting like an over excited puppy), unfortunately you can't sustain this for very long because your heart rate will be too high. However if you are consistent with your running you will build more power station making energy easier to access. Therefore you can regulate your heart rate much more because you won't have to pump as much blood to and from the muscles and lungs. Your performance is going to be completely dependant on the number of power stations you have working and your ability to control your  heart rate (heart rate control will be another days discussion).
The power stations all do the same thing but some are better at burning different types of fuel. There are some all round good power stations, some that can burn carbs a little better than fats and some better at burning fats. If you don't use these power stations (mitochondria) to produce fuel they will be shut down and all the workers will go home.

Imagine you are the mayor of a small town. Your town requires a certain amount of energy every day to function so you organise 2 power stations to meet the needs. There are also a few small sites that can produce energy but they are not cost effective, reliable or sustainable. However these sites are useful if there is a one off demand for more energy.
Over a short period your town receives a few contacts to start exporting more and more of the goods it produces. All the residence are excited and every body wants to make some extra money. The energy demands go up and up. You decide that another 3 temporary power stations are needed. You build them, hire the man power to run them and it's worth the investment with the revenue from the exports. The money it costs to run the new power stations is far exceeded by the revenue they create by supplying power to the factories.
If the contracts are completed and no new deals are secured the factories power demand will drop and the power stations are no longer cost effective. The best thing to do is shut the 3 temporary power stations and once again rely on the 2 permanent stations.

You see how this story fits with running. Two mitochondria supply the energy demands of a muscle cell. You start running, demand is increased so you make new mitochondria. These require energy to run but it's worth it for you so long as you run CONSISTENTLY! If you are sporadic and miss a few run sessions then the power stations shut down. You will not make any progress and your ability to run farther will be impossible. 
It's completely normal to miss a training session from time to time particularly if your body is finding it hard to recover. Always listen to your body, think about the adaptations leading to pain and injury. If you need to skip a session don't try and play catch up by squeezing a session in on a rest day. However don't make a habit of missing training session due to laziness, if you do you will shut down some power stations and progress will be impossible.

This is only part of the story behind why consistency is essential. The other half being heart rate control achieved by opening new capillary (new pipe lines) to allow faster fuel delivery to the power stations. In the effort to keep these entries short and simple I will write about this in a separate entry.

Twitter: @flashforfitness #RunSensible

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Why is protein important?

I have been asked specific questions about the macro nutrients I outlined in earlier posts. There seems to be some confusion about their specific function and questions about their necessity in our diet. So I'd like to address each macro nutrient with its own personal post. I'll start with protein because without it we are nothing. 
I would also like to make people aware that this blog is intended to raise people's awareness about the body, how it works and why it fails. The posts are a simplification of some complicated material. There is a lot more to each subject than this blog explains. However with the intention of keeping it simple some of the more complicated interactions need to be pushed to the side. 

Proteins are most notably known as being the building blocks of the body. This is true, however they have many more very important functions too. We can not ingest the proteins that we eat because these would present in our bodies as foreign proteins and our immune cells (our bodies army) would go to war with them, this battle would continue until either one of us was dead. If this event took place at every meal it wouldn't be long before the foreign proteins won the war. 
When we eat proteins our stomach breaks them up into their more simpler component - amino acids. Lots and lots of amino acids tied together make a protein. There are 20  different (food) amino acids in total. Our liver has a unique way of using any protein source to make all the amino acids EXCEPT 9, which are know as "essential amino acids". Essential amino acids means we must eat proteins which are constructed with these amino acids otherwise we can not build the structures correctly. And therefore some structures will be weak or dysfunctional. 
Of the 3 macro nutrients I would suggest that protein is the one we care the least about but is perhaps the one we should care about the most. I think this strange lack of obsession is derived because of its apparent inability to alter weight or body fat. As I explained in earlier posts proteins are not converted to fat and are not used as an energy source so their direct role in weight control is not very much. The majority of people in the western world want to shed a a few kilos "quickly" and this involves obsessing over carbs and fats and ignoring the uber super role of proteins. 
Proteins are used to build structures in the body, to make enzymes (these make things happen), to carry stuff (iron, calcium, magnesium and lots more) around in the blood, to regulate osmolarity (make sure you don't have too much or too little water in you body) and to stick molecules together. 
Proteins make up about 50% of your dry body weight, so are they important? I would suggest "very important. " Proteins provide a rigidity and form to our muscular system. The amount of proteins (actin and myosin) in a muscle will determine it's strength. The more protein you pack in the stronger the muscle becomes. That's how weight training works, you can not grow new muscle cells (the amount you are born with can never increase) but you can pack more and more proteins in which makes them bigger and more firm. 
Picture 3 pop cans lined up. One is empty, the second is half full (half empty if you are a pessimist) and the third is full and unopened. Now you have a cavity block and you want to place in on top of one of these pop cans! Which one do you think is more likely to hold the cavity block? The full unopened one right? I'd imagine the other two would crumble under the weight of the block. Well think of your muscles as being similar. If you pack them up with proteins by doing resistance training and eating good protein they become more like a full pop can. If you spend all day obsessing over carbs and fats, eating rice cakes and drinking hot water, you'll probably lose some weight, have very weak muscles (unable to run very far or very fast), which means a very slow metabolism and therefore it will be impossible to maintain weight loss. 
Weak muscles means you'll have poor performance when running, it will become more and more difficult to reach your goals and exceed your previous times. Muscles that are low on proteins feel like they have small bubbles inside them when you rub your thumb longitudinally along it's fibres (bicep muscle - rub thumb in a direction from elbow to shoulder). 
You will also be susceptible to infections (proteins have a key role in immunity) and sickness. One of the functions of the liver is to make little proteins (soldiers)that can fight and kill bacteria and viruses. If you don't ingest enough amino-acids or the correct types you run the risk of losing the battle because you are fielding a small inequipt army.  
You may struggle with dehydration or overheating when running, causing head aches because proteins regulate water levels in our bodies. You may also have increased demands on your heart  as a result of low blood pressure, causing dizziness, shortness of breath and  many other symptoms. You may have problems digesting food (poor enzymes) leading to tiredness and anaemia. Enzymes are tiny proteins with special capabilities that enable them to speed up or slow down chemical reactions. Poor enzymes means food can not get ingested before its excreeted and you end up with malnutrition symptoms. Another reason why calorie counting is USELESS!
The list is endless and the consequences of inappropriate protein intake can not be stressed enough. 
Runners who do not intake the correct proteins in the right amounts are always going to struggle with minor/major reoccurring injuries, low energy, dizziness, recurrent infections and (perhaps worst of all for a runner) poor performance. 
By stressing the muscles with resistance training 1-2 times per week as part of your running regime you will increase your muscle tone and improve your performance. Taking time to observe food labels for protein content and it's utilisation will enable you to intake the correct amounts of proteins per day. It is recommended that we eat no more than 10% of our total daily calorific intake from protein sources. Plant protein sources will be far healthier than animal sources. 
You know your body, you know what to do! 

The next entry will be similar to this but looking at carbohydrates.


Friday, 16 November 2012

Should I stretch before running or after?

When is the best time to stretch? Should it be before running, after running or should you stretch both before and after? This is a question which will get different answers from a whole array of health care practitioners all of whom claim their way to be the best.
So what's really best? Well first of all we need to discover what you are doing when you stretch. If we can do that you will be in a better position to choose when is best for you to stretch.
The act of stretching is performed by trying to take the 2 attaching ends of a muscle away from each other.  We do this to try and maintain the maximum function in a muscle. Remember if the muscles fibers can not slide over each other in a contraction then the function will be lost. Also if the muscle fibers can not reach their physiological end point you will also have a limited function. Limiting the function of a structure but placing demands on it as if the limits were not there will require adaptation elsewhere to fulfill this function. Adaptation will suffice until one structure along the chain eventually can no longer cope. Then injury will prevail.

We all stretch to limit inflexibility creeping into our bodies, not to increase flexibility. People who want to increase flexibility do yoga and specific stretching routines. I think it's safe to say that nobody every really gains any massive increase in flexibility by doing a 5-10mins stretch routine before or after running. 
When we exercise by running cycling or swimming we repetitively contract and relax our muscles inside their physiological range (the range with no pain or effort required) and this pattern will encourage the muscle to function well within this range. However the muscle can contract and stretch further into that range and should be encouraged to do so to prevent inflexibility creeping into the body. In order to prevent this inflexibility creep we can stretch the muscle to the end (or near the end) of its physiological range. This will require a little effort on your part and you should definitely feel a big stretch in the muscle while doing this. It's a good idea to remember "know pain, know gain" (see previous post) whilst doing this, you don't want to over stretch because this will have a counter active response. And you don't want to stretch so little that you don't reach the physiological end point. Proceed with caution!!!
When we run/cycle we encourage a great deal of inflexibility because the muscles never reach even near the potential range point. They are contracting to propel us forward and relaxing while propulsion takes place on the opposite side of the body. the relaxation period is short and the stretch in minimum, hence the creep of inflexibility. Consumed over weeks, months or years causes massive inflexibility. So it's a really good idea to stretch the big muscles involved in running (Gluteus maximus "bum", hamstrings "back of thigh", Quadriceps "front of thigh", Iliotbial band "outside of thigh", Gastrocnemius & Soleus "calf" and low back muscles) for 30-45 seconds each after finishing the run. 
I don't see the potential gains of stretching these muscles before running because you haven't allowed the inflexibility to creep in before the run. So stretching before the run is not going to do a great deal to combat inflexibility which I stated is what we are all trying to avoid, although most of the time we think we are increasing flexibility. Pre run stretching to prevent injury is not going to reverse the adaptation (as a result of predisposing and maintaining factors) which has preceded the injury. Stretch or no stretch that injury would have happened because the causative factors were not addressed, NOT because you didn't stretch.
However if you are injured or recovering from injury then it is massively beneficial to do some functional type stretches (dynamic movements done in a similar pattern to the exercise you are about to do) to encourage the function of the area before exercise. This type of stretch will preload the fascia (cling film substance around muscles, joints and bones) and allow for smoother muscle contractions. 
A concentrated muscular stretch routine after exercise will be very beneficial in preventing injury and improving performance by limiting inflexibility. An injured person should use dynamic (functional) stretching before exercising and a similar stretch routine after exercise to limit and prevent re-injury.


Monday, 12 November 2012

It's such a PAIN not being able to run!

It's such a pain not being able to run when you are injured, especially if you are training for a race. So is there anything you can do to get back running pain free? Are there things you can do that will prevent the pain returning? And how do you know when to stop?
In the late 70's and early 80's there was a buzz phrase "No pain, No gain" which is now know to be untrue. There are plenty of gains from exercising in a pain free zone and I would promote all training at a beginner and intermediate level to be performed pain free. However there are times at an advanced level where you might need to push into a slightly painful environment in order to maximise the power output you are training towards. It's during these small periods where you must "Know pain, Know gain" as recommended by Lorimer & Mosley (both are Australian neurologists that specialise in Pain) in order to avoid injury. 
If you are a runner or triathlete who feels they are unable to train due to injury then perhaps you need to think again. The following information is in direct relation to a person who is suffering from a mechanical injury resulting in pain. This type of injury really should have aggravating and relieving factors, it should also respond to NonSteroidal Anti Inflammatory Drugs and/or pain killers. If the condition is of pathological origin then the following principles may not apply to you so easily.  
As we have seen in the entry "What does it mean when I am injured?" the body becomes injured and the symptoms of pain appear when you have reached the limit of adaptation. You body is failing to function within its usual capacity, you are still asking it to continue as before, eventually some structure will break, which is why you get the pain and dysfunction. Structure and function are completely reliant on each other. If the structure fails (let's say tendinitis, muscle strain, ligament sprain or fracture) then the function of that body part will fail too. 
To give an example, imagine how your calf muscle would feel the day after a training session that involved 20mins running uphill. If you were not used to this sort of training the calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) would have micro tears in the muscle fibres and the cling film (fascia) that supports them. These micro tears will not allow the muscle to contract quite as smoothly as usual, which means when you require these muscle to function during an activity like walking they can't because the structure has changed (micro tears) and you need to adapt by walking funny. After a few days, so long as you don't continuously over stretch the muscle (maintaing factor) the micro tears will repair and the function will be restored. But on some occasions the causation and maintaing factors may not be that easy to recognise so the pain and dysfunction lingers, perhaps for a few months. The function can not be restored unless the structure is repaired. 
The first thing for anybody to do that has an injury is to try and identify the initial cause, the specific injury and the maintaining factor if it's not getting better. It is essential to know what caused your injury and what is maintaining the injury if you are to recover. If you have no idea, I would suggest seeing an Osteopath or another manual therapist to discover this. Our bodies have a fantastic mechanism to repair themselves but sometimes the surrounding factors of the adaptation failure (work stress, family demands, training goals, infections, poor diet among other things) prevent this repair process. An osteopath or manual therapist may guide the body back onto this path of repair in order to achieve a speedy or full recovery. 
Assuming you know the causation and maintaining factors, you need to first address these. You need to discover the amount of function you have available in the affected area and you need to stress this in a pain free manner if you want to recover. Pain is a subjective experience which means your pain experience is completely different to anybody else's. How you feel about and respond to pain is determined by how threatening the cause is to you. One of the biggest barriers to recovery from pain is fear avoidance. 
If you really enjoy running but have stopped due to pain and injury. You need to discover if there is any amount of running you can do without pain. Even if it's only 5-10 mins it is very important to do this so long as there is no pain. A complete avoidance of the activity (running, cycling) when you have the capacity to do a small amount without pain is going to stand as a barrier to your recovery and prolong you pain perhaps for months. 
If you run with a club or a group you are probably used to socialising after the run with a coffee or refreshment. I would suggest doing the 5-10min run (or whatever you can manage pain free) followed by joining the group for the social aspect, this you will find goes a long way to over coming the fear avoidance and will keep you motivated to make a speedy recovery. Avoiding running and missing out on socialising with your friends will allow you to focus more on the pain and your inability to run. This will make it more and more difficult to perform the function even if the structural damage is repaired and the function is available. 
If you do this you will discover very quickly that you can do a little bit more each time with out having any pain. However if there is pain it is advisable to stop, continue the techniques you are using to rehabilitate the problem (strapping, ice, heat, manual therapy) and then continue try to maximise the function at the next available opportunity. 
Once you are fully recovered you can combat re-injury by staying aware of the initial causation factor and by not allowing the maintaining factors (whatever they are) to prevent structural repair. If you feel the area becoming symptomatic follow the appropriate guidelines set out by your Manual Therapist, address the cause and continue running if possible. Remember "know pain, know gain", you will know your body and it's limits better than anybody else. If you feel damage is being done then stop immediately, if you feel pain but are still within your functional limits perhaps you can do a little more. Always run sensible. 


Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Energy Gels, are they good, bad or ineffective?

If you have endured a long distance race like a marathon, 70.3 Ironman, Ultra Marathon or Ironman in the last decade you'll be fairly familiar with these little packets of sticky gunk. And you will know the difficulty that can arise when trying to swallow this while pushing your body to the limits of cardiac output. So is it worth the hassle?
Like all these things when you are racing you need to discover by trial and error if they will work for you, if you can swallow them on the move and if you can then keep it down. A lot of these gels will repeat on you for about 20mins after ingestion so it is important to find a brand that taste good but also does what it should. So what should it do?
If we look at these from a physiological point of view they are quite interesting. Energy gels are basically small packets of really easy access glucose, the energy stored in these is so easy to access that you can ingest some of it in your mouth. So about 20seconds after opening the little packet your muscles will be burning it up and the energy will be propelling you forward as you run or it will be turning your bike pedals. This happens because a very unique enzyme (these make things happen) in your saliva called amylase. 
All carbohydrates are chains of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. It doesn't matter if the carbs we are talking about are fizzy sweets or brown rice they are all still the same tree atoms, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen but what differs is the strength of the holding chains . 
The chains of very simple carbohydrates are not very strong. Picture these 3 atoms as being rocks of various sizes and picture the chains of simple carbs (energy gels) as being a paper chain which snaps very easy and therefore releases energy very easily. These carbs are already glucose (which is what we use at a cellular level) and they get burnt instantly (I gave analogies of fuel in previous posts, imagine these as burning like tissue paper) but yield energy for a very short time.
However this is where they can help us with one very interesting aspect of physiology and it's why we really only use them in long endurance races or during training for such events.  In the post "Nutrition 101" I said fats yield most energy but it's difficult to get them burning (because they are like logs of wood) and it requires a small amount of energy to do this. When you are a couple of hours into one of these races or a long training session your glucose stores start running low, you will be well into the fat burning zone and you will be burning lots of fuel. Since you need a small amount of energy to keep the fats burning and the carbs (glucose) is running low, the next easiest fuel to burn is proteins (building blocks) which is never a good idea. So to avoid this you can get the gels out!

Picture this; you set off on a 2hr run. For about 10mins you feel great. Then between 12-15mins you start thinking I'll never be able to keep going for 2hrs. Then when you get about 20mins into it you start feeling good again. You cruise along until about the 1hr10min point where you start feeling a bit tired and perhaps your pace begins to drop a bit. So you pop a gel, and you feel great then 15mins later you start to feel the energy drop so you pop another and this continues on a 15-20min cycle until you finish! And then you can refuel for the next session with some complex carbs and fats. 

Now picture this; you are cold so you crumple up a few news paper pages and set them on fire, you begin to heat up but after about 12-15mins you begin to worry that your newspaper is going to run out so you need to burn something else before the fire goes out. So you pop a few logs on your fire which take a few minuets to catch fire but 20mins after you started you have a nice fire giving you lots of heat. You keep piling the logs on and about 1hr10mins after you started you realise that you've put too many logs over the cinders, the flames are dwindling and there is a risk your fire will go out. All your news papers are gone so you take some tissues (energy gels) from the Kleenex box and stuff them under the logs. The flames ignite the logs and the heat returns. 15mins later you pile on my logs but the flames have gone. So you need more tissues (remember the news papers are gone) until you can go to the shop to buy another news paper. 

So Yes these little packets of sheer annoyance have a very important function and they work really well. They will prevent you from burning proteins which means you will recover quicker from a work out. Remember the muscle cells contain the power stations (mitochondria) which allows us to perform faster and longer, breaking these up would be counter productive. 

Next blog will be a break from nutrition and a discussion of PAIN!


Saturday, 3 November 2012

So you want to lose some weight?

Perhaps the largest presentation of injury I see as an osteopath  is mechanical joint strain. The typical areas of injury are low back, knee, neck or shoulder although just about any joint in the body can get injured. Carrying a few extra pounds of body weight is a very large predisposition for mechanical joint pain among other things. Being over weight puts unnecessary extra forces through your joints when you move. All of your synovial joints (any place where you know you have a joint, you can be sure it's a synovial joint) have supporting ligaments, shock absorbing cartilage, force transmitting bones, movement making muscles and message carrying nerves. Any of these structures can become injured and once the inflammatory process starts the pain will too! 
So it's always a good idea to control your weight particularly if you are going to start running and increasing the forces going through your joints. But that's usually easier said than done. 
The first thing I would like to say to anybody trying to lose weight (be it 1 pound or 100 pounds) is that whatever you know about weight loss is probably wrong. This is a topic that gets huge amount of media coverage selling things from, diets named after beaches or a  Medical Doctors to the promise of a " New you in 60 days" with some idiot holding a newspaper or (my favourite) a way of counting calories but still eating junk (like that's gonna work). You get the picture!!!
With all the media coverage and sales pitches trying to get you hooked on the next weight loss remedy it is truly difficult to find the real facts. So here are some facts about physiology, weight loss and maintenance of a stable weight once you reached your goal.
1lb of fat (think butter) has about 3,500cals.
The average male and female expend about 2,000 to 1,800 calories respectively per day. These are rough figures but the point is to understand the process not the actual numbers. 
2 x 1,800 = 3,600 so if a female wants to lose 1lb of body fat she must not eat anything for 2days, in which time the metabolism (see previous entry) will consume a 1lb slab of body fat butter! These figures suggest that weight loss by food control alone is going to be very very difficult. 
Most of the energy we generate in our body is heat, we know from previous entries that carbs and fats are required to generate this energy. So we need to increase total energy expenditure which will require using more carbs and fats for fuel. So the question is how do we do this?
Our muscle cells are at a fixed amount, you can not generate any more muscle cells but you can increase the productivity in a muscle cell. Proteins are the building blocks of our body and we can pack more proteins (actin and myosin) into a muscle cell by stressing the muscle (doing resistance exercise). Imagine each cell being a little village, when you exercise that cell it becomes a small town and in the case of body builders they have turned their cells into big industrial cities (which is why they have so little body fat). 
By increasing over all muscle tone using resistance exercise (to increase muscle cell productivity) your metabolism will increase. Now you as an entity require more fuel to work (you've just pushed a little harder on the car accelerator). If you also control the amount of carbohydrates you eat by reducing (not quitting) unnecessary carbs like biscuits, cakes and chocolate you will have less carbs hanging around for these (small town like) muscle cells to burn and therefore fats will be used more often as energy. These two factors (control of carbs and increase in muscle tone) will allow you to lose weight at a steady rate without starving yourself AND the weight you lose will be more likely to stay off. People doing this always report having more energy, well now you know that is because the fats they are using for fuel yield more than twice the amount of energy that the carbs were giving.
Trying to eliminate carbohydrates or fats from you diet  will enable you to lose weight quite rapidly. But unless you have the will power of a Tibetan Monk the weight you lose will be back on within a month. This is because your metabolism has slowed down instead of speeding up during that process and your muscles are falling apart instead of getting stronger. I'm not suggesting that a person needs to bulk up to lose weight, I am suggesting that resistance exercise is essential. 
The 3 macro nutrients are all very important. Cutting one out is very foolish as the all have specific jobs that we need to function. Without these nutrients you will eventually fall apart.