Thursday, 10 July 2008

Do Not Do As I Say, Do As I Do

Don't believe what I say. Not a word of it. Look at my disclaimer. It should tell you all you need to know. I have no formal medical background. I have no formal athletic background. I have no super-powers, psychic abilities or supernatural skills of any sort. I cannot divine, nor read your palm or the stars.

Do As I Do

My education in nutrition and athletic training comes from reading. Lots. Now "reading lots" does not mean "well read"! But like many avid armchair athletes, I devour as much literature as I can regarding fitness and health. The problem is sorting out the wheat from the chaff.


So How Do You Sort The Wheat From The Chaff?

After a while reading books, papers and blogs, you become adepts at spotting themes. For example, many diets are the same principle rehashed with a new title. The details may change, but the underlying theme remains the same. The low carb/paleo diet is chock-full of such diets. This is marketing at work. Ignore it. Try to understand the underlying principle of a diet or a mode of training. Once you have done this, your will see the marketing for what it is.

Ultimately, the way to develop your knowledge is from personal experimentation and to respond to feedback.

Baseline

First things first. Baseline your current level of fitness and health. Go to the doctors and get him/her to check you out. Get as much checked out as you can - cholesterol, blood pressure, body fat percentage, heart rate, the lot.

Next, take some measurements of your own. Record rashes, aches and pains. Use a diary to record daily periods of energy and exhaustion. Take key measurements such as the circumference of your waist, the size of your biceps and thighs. Use a mirror to look at yourself undressed. Can you see your abdominal muscles? Is your posture symmetrical?

Measure your resting pulse. Go for a short run. Run for ten minutes or so. How far did you get - a mile? Note the route you took. Think of a short circuit of maybe one or two kilometers, which starts and finishes at your house. How long did it take you to complete?

After running exercise, take your pules every five minutes or so. (After running don't just sit down, keep walking slowly around). How long did it take for your pulse to return to normal?

Go to a gym and get and introduction. They should give you and introductory session. Try to use this session to get an idea of your strength in basic exercises (ensure good technique). What is your maximum lift in a dead lift and/or squat? They may also provide you with an introductory program.

Ignore your weight. Ignore your weight. Ignore your weight. Ignore your weight. Ignore your weight. Ignore your weight. Ignore your weight. Ignore your weight. Ignore your weight. Ignore your weight.

Ignore your weight.

In case you missed it. Ignore your weight.


The Next Stage

Write down your goals. Make long term (up to and over one year), and medium term goals. Make sure your goals are achievable. Add in 'checkpoints' along the way.

Start off slowly. If you have not exercised for years, make your goals broad and vague. Something along the lines of "Over the next three months, I will engage in vigorous exercise for 30 minutes, twice a week."

If you have been reasonably active, then you might want to put some more specific goals in place. This might be to knock your time down on your 'favourite' run by a minute, or, to achieve 10 pull ups. In each case you should apply a time period in which to achieve the checkpoint and goals.

Devise a program to achieve your goals.

Gyms often issue a vanilla template for nutrition and exercise. It will be a good starting point for the uninitiated, but don't be afraid to change it. Make small adjustments at first - based upon knowledge you have drawn from other sources. Be critical with these changes (see below). Experiment!

Specificity is key. If you want to be good at 100m and have a goal of knocking 1/10 second off your PB, no amount of rowing is going to help you with this!

Rest! After a hard session take a day off. If you end up doing two days 'on', take the following day off. You will be the last to know when you are over-training.

Over-training can be simply identified as the point where, after your usual rest period between training sessions you continually lose gains. There are other indicators - injury (training causes localised trauma but your rest periods should be designed to allow you to recover), a lack of motivation, perpetual colds. It is hard to over-train, but harder to spot it yourself. Conversely, it is easy for others to spot in you!

You may plateau around six weeks. This is a point where you stop making gains in a particular exercise. Shake things up. Change the repetition and sets. Take a break from that exercise and try a new movement.

Work on basic movements that involve many muscle groups rather than isolation exercises (e.g. a chin up rather than a concentration curl for the biceps). Always maintain good form.

Review

There is no failure, only feedback. Periodically review your training. Did you miss a goal? If so why? Were you making the checkpoints? If so then a rest might be in order, or an extra checkpoint prior to your final goal.

Compare your current statistics to your baseline. If you wanted to lose body fat and you still cannot see your abs after a year of hard training and a careful diet. Don't panic, maybe your waist size has shrunk dramatically - you may be closer to your goal than you think.

After any nutritional change, you should visit the doctor for an annual medical.

Failure to Review

I have blogged before about some of the people at my gym. I have seen some of them training hard for at least five years in a bid to lose weight. They talk of calorie restriction and arduous sessions on the treadmill and bikes. However, they are just as fat now as when I first saw them. They are definitely fitter (they have to be, given the volume of work they do). However, cognitive dissonance stops them from looking at themselves and realising that their program is not working. I guess this is because their personal trainer is advising them - and there is a belief that the guy in the tracksuit with a diploma knows what he is on about. But if, after five years of trying to lose fat, you have not lost fat, at what point do you expect things to happen? Next month, next week, a year, five years?

Again, review your performance and be critical. Use your baseline measurements and reflect on your goals. Slow progress to a goal is still progress - don't be too hasty in getting rid of anything that offers progress, even if it is slow progress.

Drop It

After several years of training, you should be able to reach a point of instinctive training. It is still useful to note what exercise you perform and include measures of rep schemes, loads and times, but as long as you maintain variety, and are happy with results, you do not need to compulsively log each ailment, measurement and indicator.

Conclusion

There is a lot to take in here. The worst action is no action. Don't get bogged down in detail. Above all keep the changes small, the review periodic and above all experiment!

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