Fitness Q&A

Disclaimer: I am not an authority on nutrition, sports medicine, or any medicine for that matter. I don't even play one on TV. This section is meant to provide suggestions and information to people who are looking for answers to simple-ish questions. These are questions i've been asked in passing conversation by people who know i'm a fitness freak who reads everything I can get my eyes on about performance, fitness, strength training, health and nutrition.

My sources include people such as the owner (who trained with Schwarzenegger back in the day!) and trainers at my local gym, health and fitness books and magazines, my training as a certified group exercise instructor and course work for my Fitness Technician certificate (Anatomy & Physiology, Exercise Science, Sport Nutrition, Kinesiology, Fitness Assessment & Exercise Prescription, etc.), my mom, who's studied an absolute mountain of material on health and nutrition, and my personal experience with ACL reconstructive surgery and rehab. While i'm only including answers that seemed to resolve the problems of the people asking, if you choose to act on the advice provided below, you do so at your own risk and peril for disaster, bad luck, the deformation of your first-born and god forbid, death. But hey, it's your choice and that's what freedom is. If you have a question, by all means email me and if i believe i can offer a constructive suggestion, i'll answer below.

(Um, Middle-Age) Muscle Recovery

Q: How important is massage for recovery? - Steve Porino [NBC analyst]

A: Michael Valgren is a professional cyclist who’s ridden in the Tour de France and according to him, the top three priorities are food, sleep, and massage. In an interview with Porino, Valgren said, “I would definitely not go to the start at all [in the Tour de France, without a massage after the previous day’s stage]. It’s almost worse than a crash if you didn’t get a massage.”

I recently got this text from a friend: Joined a gym, been working out [a little] more. Suggestions on improving my recovery time? This old bod ain’t what it used to be. This person happens to be in the latter half of his 40s and his was the third or fourth conversation of this sort I’ve had recently with someone that age. It seems to be a pivotal point when the body rather suddenly reacts differently to strenuous exercise. I can vouch for this from experience. As this article explains, it becomes more important to train smarter, rather than harder. While Valgren is only in his mid-20s, as a pro, he’s spent more time on a bike than most 40-year-olds and already understands both the mental and physical rewards of massage.

One more thing: find a massage therapist who specializes in sports massage. “Sports” massage can be tailored to your activity and a good one focuses on the muscle chain, rather than muscles in isolation. In other words, if a muscle in your back is tweaked, it can trigger a tight hamstring. The sports massage therapist works up and down the chain from the problem muscle, hitting all potential trigger areas and enabling muscles to more-easily release. With monthly massage, I might have an issue after a tough workout or, say, sitting on an airplane too long, but more often than not, the problem areas release within two or three days.

Stretching

Q: Do I have to? – Caterina

A: Stretching is a component of fitness. What that essentially means is, if you can’t touch your toes, there's critical work to be done.

One of my yoga instructors recently told me, “We have at least one gentle stretching class every day. They’re the most popular lately.” There’s a logical reason for that.

Fitness trends come and go and the most recent wave is all varieties of EXTREME. If you haven’t pulled a muscle or three in the last week during your CrossFit workout, you’re a kidney (the polite term. Kidneys are one of the weakest organs in the body).

It's taking it's toll. The young and genetically gifted typically get away with abusing their bodies to a point (yes, abusing, meaning causing a lot of wear and tear and not indulging in enough rest and repair). Everyone else – including anyone who ages – is in for trouble. Trouble, in rough translation, means possible injury now and/or limited mobility later.

Everyone is busy and every expert is telling you to take more time to take care of yourself, whether it's by flossing, getting more sleep, or taking time to really enjoy your life. (Do it!) I'm adding one more thing to the list. Thank me later.

Even with stretching, there’s a right and wrong way to do it. It sounds crazy, but you can injure yourself stretching. I know! Here’s how it works:

Dynamic stretching includes movement and is good for pre-activity, while static stretching a cold muscle will decrease overall functionability, so save it for after your activity, when muscles are warm.

Use good form and never push to the point of pain. “Mild discomfort” is the phrase used often in the fitness profession.

As with the other components of fitness, you need to do it a few times a week. I’ve heard adrenalin junkies complain of not being able to sit still long enough to stretch. Badasses don’t stretch, they infer. To them I say, Live recklessly and die uncomfortable. Otherwise, treat your body with a little consideration now and avoid the certain revenge it will wreak on you later.

Muscle Cramping

Q: [Paraphrased] I’m biking to and from work, about three hours total each day, but my calves cramp badly at night. I’ve heard it could be a potassium issue, so I’m eating more bananas. Any suggestions? – Robbie

A: There are a few things that might help, potassium certainly being one of them. Several food options are high in potassium. Another critical factor for cramping is hydration and that's why it's No. 1 below:

1) It's just as important to pre-hydrate as it is to drink during activity (and afterward). Three hours of riding a day is a lot. Be sure to drink plenty of water as soon as you wake up in the morning and a couple hours before you ride home after work. If you haven't already, try drinking electrolyte water during the rides.

2) Be sure to stretch your calves once you get to work and especially when you get home in the evening (hammies and quads are a good idea, too. One tight muscle can trigger other tight muscles).

3) From a bio-mechanical standpoint, you may need to alter your pedal stroke. If you pedal with your toes angled downward, you’re over-taxing the calf muscles. Drop your heals some instead, so you feel the tops of your feet pressing the inside tops of your shoes as you execute the upstroke. As your foot shoots up and over the top, it works the shins somewhat, which allows for better calf-shin muscle/effort balance.

4) Elevate your legs in the evening. It’ll make your legs feel better even if it doesn’t stave off muscle cramping. Elevating helps rid the legs of lactate and toxins.

If none of these suggestions resolves the issue, try massage and perhaps acupuncture.

Nutritional Information

Q: OMG – I’m lovin’ Chipotle! Its food is pretty good for you, right? – Albuquerqueans

A: There are several great things about Chipotle, like local, organic ingredients “when practical,” ingredients from sustainable farming, meat and dairy without antibiotics or hormones “whenever possible.” But all great things should be scrutinized, especially nutritional information.

That’s why I picked up a Chipotle nutritional information pamphlet and Holy Chipotle! there’s a lotta calories in a burrito! The Chipotle website has this way cool Nutrition Calculator that allows you to add up the calories in your menu item of choice. I entered a chicken burrito with brown rice, black beans (pinto are cooked with bacon), guacamole, and red chili sauce for a grand, whopping total of 950 calories. That’s at least two – more like three – meals’ worth of calories for a tiny woman like me, who eats four to five meals a day.

Even for a larger guy, that’s nearly two meals. (Hitting the stomach with that many calories at once isn’t good for anyone, really.) If I was the burly man apparently trapped inside my little body, I’d order my burrito with steak, cheese and sour cream rather than guacamole. Not a significant difference, but I’d be topping out at 1,025 calories.

Let’s tinker around with this. If I go for the burrito bowl with chicken, black beans, guacamole and salsa, I’m at 500 calories – not too bad. I’ve avoided the white tortilla that turns to sugar stored as belly fat. I’m getting plenty protein and fiber. My chicken tacos come out to 760 calories with cheese and soft corn shells. But my salad comes out to 860 – I used vinaigrette (260 calories) rather than salsa (15-80 calories). Mistake! Maybe get it on the side and only use a little. (Hopefully the oil is olive oil, right?)

You might be wondering why the heck I keep getting guacamole, which is 150 calories and 13 grams of fat in Chipotle’s 3.5 oz serving. The thing is it’s so healthy. The fat is monounsaturated, “healthy fat” and it’s rich in vitamins, nutrients and anti-oxidants. So get the guacamole on the side and split it with your hungrier half.

You knew this, but chips are bad news all around – way bad. Meant to be split, chips and guac alone are 720 calories, while chips and salsa are still 610. But when you’re out-n-about and hungry, Chipotle is, by far, not the worst choice. A kid’s quesadilla meal with chicken is tempting, at 430 calories if you skip the chips. Just be sure to order the brown rice.

Flat Abs

Q: What’s the best way to get flat abs? – Raj

A: Flat or six-pack abs are clearly the bane of most Americans’ existence. If I see one more magazine that claims you can create flat abs through a couple simple exercises, I’m going to scream. It’s practically a crime. Plug your ears, ‘cause it’s inevitable – and there’s a reason for it: people continue to hold out hope.

This particular male scientist wondered how to get flat abs despite the very limited time he can spend in the gym (he disclosed his diet is fairly good). I suggested he use his brief gym time to run on the treadmill and very importantly, incorporate intervals (bouts of increased intensity).

By the way I, too, do not boast flat abs, so I’ve researched a wealth of health and fitness material and here’s the funny thing: an entirely ineffective way to literally “flatten” your abs is precisely what all those magazines are telling you: sit-ups and other abdominal muscle exercises. Abdominal and core muscle exercises give you better posture, which is hugely beneficial, plus strengthen the muscles and give them shape. But think about it: what muscle exercise flattens the muscle?

I take it back – I do have flattish, shapely abs. Mine, and likely yours, are simply overlaid with bloated fat cells. That’s what we need to reduce.

My photographer friend shares a story of a photo shoot with a shirtless, male model and his six-pack abs. He says the model was hungry. So much so, he stopped the photo shoot to eat one of the plain chicken breasts he brought in a Tupperware container. Point being, if you aren’t genetically blessed, while getting flat, six-pack abs isn’t impossible, it takes the sort of discipline Tibetan monks strive for. By all means, don’t let me discourage you from any behavior that benefits your health. But honestly, is the reward worth that level of deprivation? If you answered “no,” but you’re not the sort to give up, increase your aerobic exercise and intensity, back away from the junk food, and promise yourself to enjoy the results you see. Otherwise, do what I do: stand up straight and suck it in.

"Healthy" Snacks

Q: What’s wrong with fig newtons? – Andy

A: Depends. Why are you eating them? I ask in case you’re trying to avoid what Chris Carmichael refers to as “garbage barge” foods - ones that literally pollute your body. If you don’t mind a snack with partially hydrogenated oil (trans fatty acids), high fructose corn syrup and sugar, and artificial flavor at a whopping 110 calories for two little newtons (90 for fat-free), it’s all good. Sort of.

Apparently a lot of people – even athletes – assume fig newtons are a harmless snack. (Who, in his right mind, would put figs in junk food?) So they're casually stocked among much healthier snacks in a "one of these things just doesn't belong" scenario, carried on long athletic endeavors for refueling, and supplied at the end of races as a recovery snack. Maybe excepting Barbara's multi-grain newtons, sweetened with pineapple juice and made without oil (haven't tasted them), there's a better way. Spend five minutes in the snack isle reading nutrition labels. It could change your life. And if you're somewhere other than a convenience store, you'll find a better option.

Protein

Q: How many grams of protein a day would a 160 lb. man who lifts weights, hikes and plays ice hockey need? – Dave

A: Despite the mass consumption of protein supplements by body builders, as well as the known benefits of protein for muscle recovery/repair, research results are mixed on whether protein supplementation is beneficial for athletes. The consensus of a significant body of research presented by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Dietetic Association suggests an appropriate recommendation for you – given your range of activities – falls around 1.4 - 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight (1 lb = .45 kilos. Your weight in kilos = 72). That’s 101 – 115 grams of protein a day. Just so you know, the National Academy of Sciences disagrees, stating a "balanced" diet alone, amounting to about 73 grams/day for you, is sufficient. The difference between the two is significant. The choice is yours.

Regardless, your protein should come from quality food sources like lean meats, including bison and skinless chicken or turkey breast, tuna and trout. While bacon is tasty, it’s much higher in calories and saturated fat per serving and therefore a “poor” source of protein. Here's a comparison: a quarter-pound hamburger patty typically has 19 grams of protein, 23 grams of fat and 290 calories, while a quarter-pound bison patty typically has 23 grams of protein, just 6 grams of fat and only 190 calories. Big difference! Quality non-meat sources of protein include beans, legumes (lima beans, peas, edamame), and nuts (raw, unsalted is best – retrain your taste buds).

Metabolism

Q: You hit forty and BOOM! I'm gaining weight. What's up with that? - Kelly

A: While decreasing lean muscle mass as a result of lower activity levels is a big factor for decreasing metabolism, it does slow a little with age. The most significant strategy to address a slowing metabolism is exercise. If you're not getting enough, step it up. If you are, add intervals to your routine. Find something - anything - you enjoy doing. Resistance training is great. Walking is fine. Cycling is better. Studies have shown adding green tea to your daily intake will rev metabolism a teeny bit, too. And never, ever skip breakfast. Make the effort now, while reasonably easy changes can make a difference.

Recovery Snack

Q: What's the single best recovery snack after a mountain bike ride, when I can't get a meal for a while? - Alan

A: Way back in 2001, Outside Magazine said chocolate milk was a quality supplement option. In 2004, Olympic medalist Michael Phelps told the media as much. My sport nutrition textbook, Nutrition for Health, Fitness & Sport, also references a book called Nutrient Timing that asserts chocolate milk does a body good as a post-exercise recovery snack.

Here's why: A 3 or 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate:protein (in addition to essential amino acids - leucine is the biggie) serves to rebuild and repair torn-down muscle fibers, as well as replenishing glycogen stores (sugars = muscle fuel) more than carb replacement alone. Sports drinks typically contain carbs but not protein, whereas milk contains naturally-occurring protein. And it's scrumdelicious!
For more details, check out the research: Chocolate Milk: The New Sports Drink?
lowfat chocolate milk effective post-exercise recovery aid
USDA

Fun with Fitness

Q: I've been thinking about getting more exercise in my life. I'm not really a sports person, but I do enjoy swimming and dancing. I also like taking my puppy for walks. I was wondering if you could help me create a new thought process around exercise... especially putting the fun into it. - Karen

A: Coincidentally, I just wrote an article for Albuquerque The Magazine titled "5 Wild Ways to Get Fit in 2010." One of the opening lines is, "Why not make it about fun?" While you can order a copy of the magazine here (Dec/Jan 2009/10), since you don't live in Albuquerque, I'll go ahead and reveal the five fun activities: Hooping (as in Hula Hooping - see www.hooping.org for more info); Zumba (see www.zumba.com to find a class near you); Indoor Rock Climbing; Boot Camp for Women; and Agility Training - with your puppy!

Since you've done some thinking about it, the next step is taking action. You have a huge head-start by knowing what you enjoy. Make a commitment to swim, dance, and walk weekly. Register for a fun dance class or commit to a specific swim time when the pool is open, take a friend, train for an event, try agility training. If those activities aren't fun and motivating enough, choose another activity you'll look forward to. There's so much out there! (See paragraph above.)

I could write volumes on this topic but it sounds like you're well on your way. No more excuses. Go girl!

Reversibility

Q: How long does it take after i quit exercising for me to lose strength and endurance? - Slackers

A: Most of us have asked ourselves this question after we miss our weekly hockey game or mountain bike ride a couple weeks in a row and find ourselves sucking wind when we return. It's also something we ponder as we sip fruity drinks on Day 5 at the beach, tallying the number of gym workouts we've missed. Studying for my group exercise certification, I found an answer:

This decrease in strength and endurance is called reversibility. The general rule is, that which you don't use, you lose. Specifically, you'll begin to lose muscle strength after about three days and cardiovascular endurance within 10-14 days of lethargy. If you don't want to hang at the back of the pack wheezing curse words, don't miss two consecutive bike rides. This source from High Sierra Cyclists claims, "About one-half the benefits of aerobic training are lost within 2 to 3 weeks if training stops." And if you don't want to struggle with the jelly jar, better mix in a few push-ups during that week's vacation in the Bahamas.

Groin Injuries

Q: I recently pulled my groin getting out of my truck the day after an intense volley ball game. I've been doing easy stretching, but it's been almost a week and it's not improving much. Is there something else i should try? - Zach

A: Wait wait wait! Stop stretching! Stretching loosens muscles. Groin pulls are one of those super temperamental things that take forever to heal properly and the last thing you wanna do is loosen that muscle any more. What you do want is for the muscle tissue to constrict and heal, and ice is the miracle treatment. Try it. You'll thank me.

Otherwise, if you can't bear to take any time off from your activity (in your case, volley ball), to avoid further aggravation of the muscle, be sure it's plenty warm before you play. Warm up slow and easy (a set of 15-20, 1/4 squats works well) but do not stretch! If it's bad enough, you'll want to wrap it with an ace bandage beforehand (really though, consider missing a game). As soon as you can after your game, ice the groin 20 minutes or so and if you have time, again an hour later.

Bruising

Q: What can i do to ease the pain, swelling and bruising from being hit by a hockey puck? - Ken

A: There are several things you can do for bruising, whether it be from a hockey puck or a mountain bike wreck or even bashing your leg into the corner of a desk. Let's address the puck bruise first.

If the area swells (it often does), you should ice it. Otherwise, applying Arnica gel (Boiron makes a good one) will typically reduce the pain and discoloration. This is key though: apply Arnica to the area as absolutely soon as you can. It's significantly more effective than if you wait overnight, for example. Another side note: i've never tried the Arnica cream because my good buddy Brij told me the gel is better. You decide.

If the bruising is accompanied by muscle pain and/or inflammation, a stronger option is Traumeel, which is a wonderful, homeopathic anti-inflammatory ointment. I also use this stuff when i feel like i've tweaked an ankle or knee or tendons. (As i mention in the disclaimer, i'm not an authority, so visit your doctor if you might have an injury.)

Finally, my mom would say to be sure you're getting plenty of vitamin C, and loads of respectable authorities say that severe bruising is caused partly by a vitamin C deficiency. Bonus! A recent article in Women's Health says, "vitamin C encourages collagen formation, crucial for rebuilding injured ligaments." [July/August 2008]

Cross Training

Q: Not so much a question this time. My more-active buddies and i commonly discuss the benefits of cross training, so here's a quote i pulled from an interview with NHL Edmonton Oilers defenseman, Matt Greene, in USA Hockey Magazine, June/July 08.

A: Matt sayz: "In the NHL, people aren't just hockey players anymore, they are athletes. You have to be well-rounded. Playing baseball is great for your hand-eye coordination, and playing basketball is great for your hands and legs. It's just about having fun, too."

On that note, i recently participated in a sprint triathlon and believe me, i got plenty of cross training with swimming, running (just a little), cycling, mountain biking, playing and officiating hockey, and weight training. A little too much cross training, perhaps. But back to the original point, most of my peeps agree mountain biking is a great way to build up the anaerobic lungs for hockey, and cycling is a great way to keep the aerobic power in good shape. Try it! Here's proof.

Speed Training

Q: I have one week before i ride in my first Century [100-mile] bike race. Last month i rode 60 miles and felt fine. What should i do at this point? - Douglas

A: Full disclosure: Douglas is that type of person who is always a degree of fit. He rides his bike around NYC for transportation and takes pretty good care of himself overall. Honestly Douglas, it's your "saddle muscles" that are gonna kill you. Two words: chamois cream. Use it. Otherwise, don't pay any less than about $80 for your cycling shorts (unless you buy them on sale). Trust me, all chamois is not created equal. On to the rest of the answer.

Normally, at this point you'd be "tapering off" your training, so don't do any big efforts between now and the race. However, don't be a sloth. Speaking from experience, just keep your muscles prepped - which is easy for you since you ride your bike everywhere. The night before the race, be sure to carbo-load with a quality dinner including pasta and/or brown rice, fresh veggies and protein. Stay well-hydrated. Better not to drink alcohol but if you do, limit it to one glass of wine or one beer. Get 8-9 hours sleep.

On race day, eat a good breakfast (toast and eggs, yogurt, oatmeal, etc.). The most important thing during the race is to stay hydrated and fueled. Don't overdo the sports drinks but certainly include them. Try to automatically take a few sips of fluid about 15 minutes. Most races provide bananas, oranges and cookies - and these things are great. What most races don't provide are hi-tech snacks like GU energy gel, Clif Shot Bloks, Jelly Belly sport beans, Clif Mojo bars, etc. Take a few of these with you. Most GU flavors have a little bit of caffeine in them, and that's a good thing.

Otherwise, listen to your body. Take breaks when you need to. On the bike, wiggle your toes now and then. Roll your wrists and bend your arms to keep your elbows from aching. A good neck stretch is to tuck your chin into your chest and hold it for 8 seconds. (Don't do it while another sexy cyclist is rolling by 'cause you'll look like you have a double chin.) After the race, keep hydrating. Do some gentle stretching. You'll be tempted to celebrate but wait as long as you can (at least 2 hours is ideal) before drinking alcohol. Eat a really good meal (and fries - everyone craves fries after a big effort). Elevate your legs for 20-30 minutes before you go to bed. The following week, take it easy. It'll take a few days to feel "normal" again. Have fun!

Coping with Fear

Q: It's hard for me to have fun mountain biking, especially on downhill sections. I get so scared. How do you cope with the fear? - Angela

A: This is a tough one but there are a few things that seem to help significantly. The first thing is not to let someone much more advanced talk you into doing something over your head. The second thing is that, just like with skiing, the more times you do the same trail, the more comfortable you become. Once you're familiar with a trail, you're more able to relax and focus on improving your technique because you know what's around the corner. If you're focusing on technique, you're less likely to notice your fears. One thing to keep in mind if you're riding over obstacles and loose rocks is that going too slow makes you more likely to crash. Momentum is your friend. It takes a little trial and error to descend in control, yet with enough speed to carry you over things that will slam you if you're going too slow. Third, I always have a rockin' good tune rolling through my head to distract me from fear and inject some fun. Lastly, there is no shame in walking a section that scares the crap out of you. Better to live to ride another day.

Ice or Heat?

Q: My knees ache after a long hike. Should i take a warm bath or ice them? - Adam

A: Most often, ice is the way to go for "overuse" discomfort after activity, to help reduce inflammation and pain. I have a personal example for this one. A few years ago, I was involved in an event where I played several hours of hockey within a 24-hour period, several days in a row. After a couple days, my groin muscles were shot. I couldn't walk a straight line. Out of ignorance and inexperience, I assumed it was a good idea to use heat on my overused muscles, but that was absolutely not the case. A teammate suggested I try icing the muscles instead. It's a miracle! The next day, the muscles felt about 75 percent better. The thing is, ice constricts and heat loosens. It makes perfect sense if you think about it, that if you've overused and therefore overstretched muscles, ice is your friend (think of all the movie scenes of athletes in tubs of ice). Or, if you've had an injury within the last 48 hours, use ice ASAP to reduce swelling. That's not to say heat isn't good for some things, like before your activities and recovery workouts, to relax and loosen tight muscles.

Carbo-loading

Q: I do a lot of triathlons and the first event is swimming. I'm so nervous about the event, plus i feel sick if i eat before i swim, so i don't eat much - if anything - before the start on race-day. Does this affect my performance? - Sarah

A: I've never done a triathlon so i have no idea what the standard is for triathletes, but i have done several 50+ mile bike races and i'm guessing the two are similar in certain ways. The research i've read for cycling emphasizes that the meal you eat the night before your event is just as important (if not more so) as race-day breakfast. I'm betting your performance will significantly improve from eating a quality dinner the night before you race.

Post-Event Refueling

Q: What's the best snack to eat right after a hard work-out or game? - Frank

A: The information i've read emphasizes a few key things for recovery: protein to fuel your muscles for building and repair, glycogen replacement and rehydration. A small handful of raw nuts like pecans and almonds make a super fast and easy, protein recovery snack. The general rule of thumb here is to eat a small snack as soon as you can grab one and then eat a healthy meal, including protein and complex carbs, no later than 2 hours after your work-out or event. If you play sports in a midnight league and hit the sack asap after you get home, an ideal smaller meal is cereal (high on the glycemic index) or yogurt with sliced almonds and fresh berries.

Pre-Event Hydration

Q: I'm a hockey player and during my games, i get a cramp in my foot. I know cramping is often caused by dehydration but i drink lots of water during my game. What's wrong? - Candy

A: While it's important to stay hydrated during exertion, you also need to pre-hydrate. The general rule of thumb i've found in my research is to drink plenty of water the day of your event, right up to 1.5 hours before start-time (if you drink closer to start-time, you risk having to pee about five minutes into your event). I drink an 8 oz glass of water 1.5 hours before i play hockey and then just a couple ounces of a sports drink 15 minutes before i hit the ice.