Everyone Should Train like an Athlete

All exercisers should follow the principles of training used by competitive athletes. You will gain far more health benefits from intense exercise than from more casual exercise, and you will gain more strength and muscle growth. Athletes do not do the same workouts every day. If they did, they would not gain the increased strength, speed and endurance that are necessary for competition. They take an intense workout in which they feel a deep burning in their muscles, feel sore on the next day, and take lighter workouts until the muscle soreness goes away. Then they take their next intense workout.

THE FIRST PRINCIPLE OF TRAINING - BACKGROUND BEFORE PEAKING: Never try to exercise at an intense pace when you start a new program. For example, if you are starting a stationary bicycle program, ride at a very slow pace every day until your muscles start to feel sore or tight and then stop. In the first six weeks, limit your workouts to no longer than a half hour. Only after you can exercise at a casual pace for 30 minutes every day should you try to increase the intensity of your workouts. You may also want to check with your doctor before you start exercising intensely. Intense exercise can kill people who have blocked arteries leading to their hearts, and many people do not know that they have this condition until it is too late. Even regular exercisers can suffer from blocked arteries and not know it.

INTENSE WORKOUTS: Athletes divide their intense workouts into periods of *sustained effort, *short intervals, *long intervals, and *combinations of these variations. If you are not competing in athletic events, you only need to do short intervals.

SHORT INTERVALS: A short interval takes less than 30 seconds because an athlete does not accumulate significant amounts of lactic acid in less than that time. Muscle burning is caused by increased acidity in the muscle caused by lactic acid accumulation.

An athlete can do a very large number of repeat short intervals, often 100 or more in a single workout. A top runner will run a large series of short runs up to 220 yards. Cyclists often use a clock. In short intervals, athletes get out of the burn soon after they feel it.

LONG INTERVALS; Long intervals usually last two minutes or more, and build up so much lactic acid in the bloodstream that a top athlete can only do a few of them in a workout. A runner may run four to eight half-mile repeats. Cyclists may push their intervals between lamp posts or use some other measure of fixed distance of all-out riding. Long intervals are done with such intensity that the athlete is short of breath and feels intense muscle burning during each interval.

INTENSE CONTINUOUS WORKOUTS: Cyclists often use sustained workouts as the basis of their training regimens. They pick up the pace and as soon as they start to feel the burning in their muscles, they let up on the pressure, slow down, and the burning goes away. Almost immediately afterwards, they start to pick up the pace and again back off as soon as they feel the burning. Getting out of the burn as soon as it occurs allows a cyclist to take this type of intense workout for many hours.

INCREASED STRENGTH COMES FROM MUSCLE DAMAGE: The soreness that you feel usually 8 to 24 hours after an intense workout is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). DOMS is caused by muscle damage itself. Biopsies show bleeding into the muscles fibers, and disruption of the fibers and the Z- bands that hold the muscle filaments together as they slide by each other. If you don't suffer muscle damage, you do not gain significant muscle growth.

MUSCLE BURNING DURING INTENSE EXERCISE: Muscle burning during exercise means that you are applying enough force on your muscles to pull the fibers apart and damage them. However, the longer you stay in the burn, the longer it takes for the muscles to heal. Most athletes do some form of interval training that takes them out of the burn soon after their muscles start to burn.

The burning feeling in muscles that is transmitted back to your brain is actually caused by the increased acidity brought on by a buildup of lactic acid in muscles. Muscle damage is caused by the pressure on the muscles from hitting the ground with your foot during running, or pressing very hard on your pedals, and has nothing to do with excessive buildup of lactic acid. It is caused by excessive force on muscles during intense exercise. Lactic acid starts being cleared from muscles within seconds of stopping exercise. Furthermore, lactic acid is the most efficient muscle fuel, since it requires less oxygen than any other source of energy.

Athletes exercise intensely until they feel a deep burning in their muscles and then let up on the pressure. The burning usually goes away almost immediately. Then they pick up the pace to increase the pressure on their muscles to cause the burning to return. They stop the interval workout when their muscles start to stiffen and hurt.

ACTIVE RECOVERY, NOT PASSIVE: On the day after an intense workout, the athlete's muscles are supposed to feel sore. If he takes off completely, he may recover faster, but he will never reach his potential in competition. Active recovery, in which a person exercises at reduced intensity, makes the muscles more fibrous and resistant to damage during hard workouts. This allows the athlete to take more intense workouts on his hard days and makes him a better athlete. He can compete only as fast as he moves on his hard days.

A TRAINING PROGRAM FOR YOU: Set up your program so that you plan to exercise faster on three days a week, never on consecutive days. Plan to exercise at very low intensity on your four recovery days. For example Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays will be your faster days. The other four days are for recovery.

If you are a runner or cyclist, run a little faster on your hard days and much more slowly on your recovery days. If your muscles feel sore or tight on scheduled hard days, skip that hard workout and do a very easy workout or take the day off. Injuries come from taking a hard workout when your muscles are still sore or tight from a previous intense workout.

HARD DAYS: Start out very slowly and as your muscles feel more comfortable, gradually pick up the pace. When you start to feel the least burning, immediately slow down and remain in that slow pace until the burning is completely gone. Then gradually increase the intensity until you reach the burn again, and immediately slow down. Continue to alternate bursts of increased intensity with slow recoveries until your legs start to feel stiff or you stop recovering from the burn or tightness. Then quit for the day.

EASY DAYS: You are not supposed to feel discomfort or burning on recovery (easy) days. If a workout on a recovery day prevents you from taking your hard workout on the next day, you exercised too intensely or long on your recovery day. Go for as long as you feel good and quit for the day when you feel tightness or discomfort. If you feel stiff or hurt in one group of muscles on one side of your body, take the day off. Soreness in one part of your body is a sign that you are developing an injury.

PROGRAM PROGRESS: Try to increase the intensity of your hard days, and do not increase the intensity of your recovery days. If you avoid injuries, you will become stronger and healthier.

ADVANCED PROGRAMS FOR ATHLETES: Training programs should be based on two very fast interval days, one very fast, prolonged day, and four recovery days. For example, try short intervals on Tuesdays, long intervals on Thursdays and sustained hard workouts or races on Sundays. The other four days are supposed to be so easy that they do not interfere with your recoveries to limit your hard-intense days or worse, cause injuries. Remember, if you do not recover for your next intense workouts, your easy days are too long or too intense, and you should do less, more slowly on your recovery days.

Muscle Cramps in Athletes and Exercisers

This month a study from the University of Cape Town, South Africa showed that the athlete who is most likely to suffer muscle cramps is the one who runs the fastest and the one who has had previous muscle cramps (British Journal of Sports Medicine, June 2011). Of 210 triathletes competing in an Ironman triathlon, 43 developed severe muscle cramps, while 166 did not. There were no significant differences between groups in any pre-race or post- race blood mineral levels or body weight changes (a measure of dehydration). This supports many other studies that show that the most likely cause of muscle cramps in conditioned athletes is muscle damage. The most likely causes of muscle cramps in out-of-shape exercisers are lack of salt or water (1).

Cramps in athletes occur most commonly during intense exercise. Cramps occur far less often during less-intense training, because the most common cause of muscle cramps in exercisers is muscle damage from all-out pressure on the muscles.

Muscle damage: Most muscle cramps in serious exercisers and athletes are caused by an exaggerated "stretch reflex" triggered by muscle damage. When you stretch a muscle, it pulls on its tendon. Stretch reflex nerves in that tendon send a message back to the spinal cord (not the brain), and then the "stretch reflex" in the spinal cord sends a message along nerves from the spine to cause the muscle to contract. During extreme pressure on the muscles, muscles are damaged causing sustained contractions. A study from South Africa showed that the most likely causes of cramps are muscle fatigue or tearing of the muscle itself (2). Electromyograph (EMG) studies measure increased electrical activity from damaged muscles. EMGs show markedly elevated electrical activity of the nerves controlling cramped muscles. Furthermore, a review of the scientific literature shows the most common cause of muscle cramps appears to be muscle damage (3).

Warning signs: Before athletic cramps come on full force, you will usually feel the muscle pulling and tightening. If you slow down, the pulling lessens, but if you continue to push the pace, the muscle goes into a sustained cramp and you have to stop exercising to work the cramp out. Further evidence that muscle damage is the cause of the cramp is that the muscle often hurts for hours or days afterwards.

When a cramp strikes: Muscle cramps during endurance events can be prevented by slowing down when you feel excessive soreness in one muscle group or straining in a muscle. You do this by switching pressure from the cramped leg to the uncramped one. A bicycle racer moves most of his pressure to the pedal of the uncramped leg. A runner shortens the stride of the cramped leg. Continuing to put pressure on the cramped muscle can rupture the muscle.

Prevention: You may be able to prevent cramps by exercising more frequently but less intensely and for shorter periods of time, but most racers do not want to do this.

Other causes in non-athletes: Known medical causes of muscle cramps are extremely rare. If you suffer from recurrent muscle cramps, you may need special tests for pinched nerves, Parkinson's disease, low thyroid, diabetes, narrowed arteries from arteriosclerosis, low blood mineral levels, metabolic diseases that cause muscle damage, or side effects of drugs used for high cholesterol, high blood pressure or diabetes, diuretics, oral contraceptives or alcohol (4).

Dehydration or lack of minerals is less common. Some cramps are caused by low mineral or fluid levels (5). However, for the vast majority of trained athletes who suffer exercise- associated muscle cramps, blood levels of sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium are normal. Research in athletes after they ran in 52-mile races showed that the runners who suffered cramps had the same level of dehydration and blood minerals as those who did not get muscle cramps.

Athletes should take extra salt anyway. Athletes need more salt than people who do not exercise. They lose a lot of salt through sweat. The most common mineral cause of muscle cramps in untrained people who exercise is lack of salt, according to a report from the University of Oklahoma (6). The authors found that intravenous saline can reverse cramping in exercisers, and that more salt in the diet or in sports drinks can help to prevent heat- associated cramping.

If you are concerned about excess salt raising your blood pressure, get a wrist cuff monitor and check your blood pressure every night before you go to bed. If your blood pressure rises above 120, you may need to restrict salt. (Excess salt can raise systolic blood pressure. Excess body fat, not salt, raises diastolic pressure.

Treatments that usually do not work: Nobody has shown consistent benefit for trained athletes from any of the most common treatments: multivitamin pills; mineral pills with calcium, zinc, magnesium, salt and/or potassium; massage or chiropractic manipulation; drinking large amounts of water; dietary manipulations; or bio-mechanical stretching and strengthening.

Medications: Quinine has been reported to help relieve muscle cramps in non athletes, but it can burst red blood cells. Some studies show that gabapentin (an anticonvulsant), diltiazem ( a blood pressure medication), or B-complex vitamins may help to relieve muscle cramps in some people (7).

Sugar: There is some evidence that taking sugared drinks or foods during prolonged exercise helps to maintain endurance and muscle integrity which helps to prevent cramps. Take a source of sugar frequently during vigorous workouts or races, and back off if you feel a group of muscles pulling or tightening during exercise.

Lack of vitamin D: A leading cause of muscle damage, soreness and slow-healing injuries in athletes is lack of vitamin D. If you suffer frequent cramping and your muscles feel sore or you keep on being injured when you exercise, get a blood test called D3. If it is below 75 nmol/L, your problems may be caused by lack of vitamin D and be cured by getting some sunshine or taking at least 2000 IU each day of the very inexpensive vitamin D3.

Occasional cramps are not harmful. Most racers and serious exercisers accept that occasional cramps will occur, and rarely cause serious injuries.

1. Sports Medicine, April-May 2007
2. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, July 2005
3. Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, July 2007
4. Neurology 2010; 74: 691-96
5. The Japanese Journal of Clinical Pathology, November 2007
6. Sports Medicine, April-May 2007
7. Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 1998;38:1151

Hot Weather Exercise - What to Eat?

To be able to exercise intensely in hot weather, you have to maintain water, sugar and salt in your body for the entire time you exercise. How fast you can ride, run, or exercise is limited by the time it takes to bring oxygen into your muscles. If you can increase the oxygen supplied, or decrease the oxygen needed, you can move faster. Since sugar requires less oxygen to power your muscles than fat or protein, anything that allows your muscles to burn more sugar and less fat will help you to move faster.

Taking extra sugar during a competition or intense exercise lasting more than two hours is far more important than what you eat before your event. The limiting factor to how fast and intensely you can exercise in events requiring endurance depends on how quickly you can get sugar into muscles during exercise. You can markedly improve performance in endurance sports by starting to eat and drink soon after you start exercising.

Do not take in sugar until at least five minutes after you start your competition. When you eat sugar and your muscles are not contracting, you get a high rise in blood sugar that causes the pancreas to release large amounts of insulin. This can cause a drop in blood sugar levels that can tire you. On the other hand, exercising muscles draw sugar rapidly from the bloodstream without needing insulin. So taking sugar during exercise usually does not cause the high rise in blood sugar levels that causes your pancreas to release large amounts of insulin.

The energy for your brain comes almost exclusively from the sugar in your bloodstream. When blood sugar levels drop, so do brain levels, and you feel tired and have difficulty coordinating your muscles.

Another reason why you have to take sugar during intense exercise is that there is only enough sugar in your bloodstream to last three minutes at rest. To maintain blood sugar levels, your liver constantly releases sugar into your bloodstream, but your liver holds only enough sugar to last about twelve hours at rest and far less than that when you exercise. When muscles run out of their stored sugar supply, it hurts to exercise and the muscles become difficult to control.

Don't wait to feel hungry: Hunger during exercise is a very late sign of not getting enough calories. By the time you feel hungry, your body will be so depleted of sugar that you will have to eat large amounts of carbohydrate-rich food just to restore your sugar supplies.

What to eat and drink: All carbohydrates are single sugars, or sugars bound together in twos, up to thousands and millions. Before any carbohydrate can be absorbed into your bloodstream, it must first be broken down into single sugars. Human intestines do not permit combination sugars to pass into the bloodstream, so the most effective way to increase endurance is to take sugar- containing foods and drinks during prolonged exercise.

Caffeine increases sugar absorption from the gut. Taking caffeine when you eat carbohydrate-containing foods and drinks can double your rise in blood sugar (Journal of Caffeine Research, April 16, 2011). A high rise in blood sugar causes all the side effects of diabetes: blindness, deafness, heart attacks, strokes and so forth. However, during exercise, caffeine can increase endurance (Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, July, 2010) by increasing the absorption of sugar from your intestines and by increasing the uptake of sugar by your exercising muscles by as much as 26 percent (Journal of Applied Physiology, June 2006). Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, chocolate, cocoa and caffeinated soft drinks.

CAUTION! Take caffeinated sugared drinks only during prolonged, intense exercise. Taking sugared drinks, with or without caffeine, when you are not exercising causes higher rises in blood sugars that increase risk for diabetes and cell damage. Read my comprehensive report on what to eat and drink before and during hot-weather competition