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Mountain Biking Fitness at 40+

One of the natural progressions for many as they get older is a change from road running to trail running. The constant change in surface as well as gait is far less harsh on the body than running on hard surfaces.

Cycling is no different. Many get into road cycling initially as their body can no longer tolerate running in the first place. Over time they develop a love for all things two wheels but as we get older still there is often a subtle shift towards trail riding/ mountain biking. Unlike road running this has little to do with the trauma of cycling on a hard surface, and far more to do with local traffic. More and more I hear from guys in my age group that they no longer want to ride on the road anymore because of concerns over traffic. And next thing you know they’ve ditched the lycra for baggies and are looking at mountain biking. In fact, one of Australia’s best ever cyclists – Ryan Bailey who was a double gold medallist in track cycling at the 2004 Games – has said he no longer rides on the road for safety.

Eventually, after a few rides and getting to know the sport, people start to wonder about entering an event and how they should best train for these things. Mountain biking can be roughly split into two categories – cross country (XC) and gravity events like enduro and downhill. While there may seem to be some similarities between road racing and cross country, the physiology required is quite different. And then from cross country to enduro it is different again.

When it comes to figuring out how to train the best place to start is with a simple self-analysis. Included below are the bare bones physiology of road racing, cross country, and enduro. You’ll see that what is required for each sport is different enough that success in one won’t imply success in another. It should also give you the best starting point for where your own training plan should focus to begin with. The statistics below are taken from male elite competitors in each event. If there are two or more numbers listed it’s because I also found non-elite numbers. If there are three figures listed it’s because there was also a “competitive” class listed. This is normal in road racing where you commonly have four or more grades of racing possible, with A or Category 1 being  the highest.

Road Racing:
VO2max – 74.8, 78.7, 85.6
Body mass (heigh and weight)  – 179cm/ 66.9kg, climbers – 175cm/ 62. 4kg.
Power – 332.8, 391.5, 438.5

Cross Country MTB:
VO2max – 70.0, 75.4
Body mass – 177cm/ 67kg
Power – 375.5, 395.4

Enduro:
Vo2max – 63.5, 65.8
Body mass – 69.6kg, 75.1kg
Power – 541w, 658w (between 5.5w/kg and 6.2w/ kg)

Why do these numbers matter?

Numbers matter because they can tell you what can realistically be expected from entering an event. For instance, if I planned to enter a 100km MTB XC event I could never expect to win. I am 15-20kg too heavy. That weight comes at a huge penalty whenever an uphill section needs to be completed as it would be like having to carry a spare bike slung on my back for the entire event. In organised events using short loops where you may have to repeat the same climb multiple times in a single event I could never hope to finish high up compared to someone who had the same fitness but carried less weight penalty. It always strikes me as odd that cyclists in general will spend thousands on carbon to make their bike lighter but spend nothing at the supermarket to buy foods that will help them maximise their functional weight on the bike. Between fancy new carbon wheels and a salad I know which I’ll choose every day of the week for performance gains. In fact, Tyler Hamilton – one of the best cyclists of the modern era, both for his race performances as well as his drug use – has said that given the choice between using EPO to increase his hematocrit 3% or losing three pounds that he would take the three pound weight loss every time.

Looking at peak power you may think that for XC racing that power isn’t so important. Don’t be fooled by the numbers. A road race is performed on smooth roads where tire grip is excellent. On a slippery dirt track that may be covered with slick roots or rocks grip is hard to find. The lower power numbers seen are taken from in race data using power meters, not on an erg. What you do see is that body mass is very similar to uphill/ climbing road race specialists and that makes complete sense given the nature of XC racing that features multiple short climbs in a single event. Looked at as an average over a season of World Cup races the average men’s XC race features 1942m of climbing in a two hour time frame. The infamous Alpe D’Huez climb in the Tour de France has fast times around the forty minute mark, and sees a gain of 1071m, for some reference. So in a two hour XC race the men will cover roughly two climbs up the infamous Alpe made up in multiple short climbs.

It’s these short climbs that tends to really set MTB apart, even when looking at enduro. An Enduro World Series event will typically take in ~55km and feature over 1600m of climbs. While that may sound like not a lot of climbing you have to take into account that more than half of the distance covered in an enduro event will be done going downhill. The Alpe D’Huez climb is 13.8km so that means that again roughly double the height of the Alpe will be done at each event getting your bike back to the top of each hill before your next run. This effort will be combination of both walking your bike uphill as well as pedalling. Because the climbs aren’t timed the body mass of competitors can be a bit higher, aiding their strength and strength endurance for these long punishing days.

How should I train?

The first step in any training plan is to focus on your health first. There’s not much point in throwing away your health chasing performance in your hobby. Usually when I work with clients we focus on fat loss first because I know it will have the greatest impact on their overall health as well as their performance for most outdoors events. The short version is that your doctor will love you and your endurance performance will go through the roof as you drop some weight. Looking at the numbers you’d also need to ask yourself if that is healthy and realistic for you to try to match elite cycling weights. I know that dropping down to 70kg would be unhealthy for me, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to maximise what I can and minimise non-functional mass. That means the first objective of my training plan should be weight management and getting rid of as much fat as possible.

The second part of the training equation is base fitness. Regardless of whether you want to do an XC epic that is 100km or enter your local gravity enduro you’re still going to be on the bike for hours. The best way to develop all day fitness on the bike is… to do longer sessions on the bike. Despite what the modern fitness world will tell you, you can’t gain all day fitness on short interval training. Save that for close to your event to develop event specific climbing ability to allow you to punch out short climbs. One of the most frequent comments I hear from people about their event performance is that they suffered from cramps. The usual suggestions then are to start using electrolytes. A better way to think about it though is that it’s not a chemical problem, but a physical one. Muscles cramp in longer events because you’re asking them to contract more times than they ever have before. The simplest and most obvious solution isn’t to spend money on supplements, but to become fitter.

The best way to develop all day fitness is with low to medium intensity rides lasting two hours or more. There is no reason these can’t have a technical component to them. One thing to consider with technical training is that at high heart rates the brain struggles with fine motor control. In other words, if your heart rate is sky high because you’re going as fast as you can on the descent you’re going to struggle to learn new skills. Calm it down a bit, ride at about 70% of your maximum speed, and work on those technical abilities. remember – if you can’t do it slow, then you won’t be able to do it fast either. Keep the climbs moderate and work on those technical skills on the descents. You’ll be amazed at what deliberate practice can do for you versus just going for a ride on the ragged edge on every descent.

The next part of the training base is climbing ability. As mentioned before, weight loss is a vital factor in climbing ability so step one of developing your climbing will take place in the kitchen. Step two is deliberately working on climbs as part of a normal trail ride. Climbs can be a useful way to maximise your return on training time. They can develop power, fitness, and obviously climbing ability. If you target the right climbs then you won’t need to do much other specific fitness work prior to an event. My favourite hill climb reps involve a hill that is 3-4mins that can be done completely seated. I’ll repeat the climb three times, with just a roll down recovery. On the third climb go and do a technical descent working on your skills and repeat. Keep in mind that enduros and XC races will often feature 1000m+ of climbs for the day so that is a good target for an individual ride.

In the following basic week format I’ve included performing strength training because smart masters’ athletes know they should keep it in their training year round. Strength training is like armour plating your body against injury.

Basic week:

Monday – upper body strength, core.
Tuesday – 2 sets of 3x3min climbs.
Wednesday – Full body strength, core.
Thursday – Easy technical ride working on bike handling skills.
Friday – 3-4 x longer 10-20min climbs.
Saturday – Long easy ride, technical descents, easy climbs.
Sunday – rest day. (Bike washing and food prep).

Conclusion:

While elite endurance athletes are often very different to the rest of us in terms of body shape and size we can still get clues as to what is the best way forward regardless of our passion. Right size your body to fit the demands of the sport so that you can get the most enjoyment from it then tailor training to fill in the gaps in physical performance. Don’t forget that a large part of MTB racing – whether enduro or XC – will come down to bike handling. There’s no point in working on your fitness solely on an erg on Zwift and building a big engine only to have zero bike handling skills. Where possible the most important element is to ride your bike as much as possible

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Fitter at 40.

Let’s be honest about most training advice online. It’s awful.

It’s awful in general, but doubly so if you’re in the forty-plus crowd. And it’s awful for one very simple reason…

…it’s not designed for us.

The fitness industry as a whole is largely based on two things: Making young guys muscular and lean, or making females skinny and hot. Because of the market that all the training is aimed at no one gives a thought to how that training might work in forty or fifty years time. Because at forty-plus we have to ask ourselves some very serious questions about our training time, the rewards we get from it, how it’s impacting our life, and whether that impact is positive or negative.

Every week I speak on the phone with men and women in their forties and beyond all wanting to be in the best shape possible. While many have some experience with fitness they all feel lost and unable to make progress any further because of the burn out created by their training and/ or diet. You know, the program they’re following that was deigned for someone half their age. The reason those programs all fail comes down to one thing…

They’re not sustainable.

Let’s imagine that you decide to get in shape once and for all. You sign up to the gym and commit to going every day. Great job! The first few days are hard but a little uncomfortable for you as you push your muscles harder than they’ve been pushed in years. The only problem is that after a few years of inactivity your muscles aren’t used to doing so much work and within that first week you now have so much muscle soreness you can’t even walk without pain. So within a week, despite your best intentions, you’ve made your fitness journey unsustainable.

A far better start would have been to have a think about this game you’re playing. The fitness game isn’t a short term activity that runs for a few weeks. It’s for the rest of your life.

So if we were going to start a race that lasted from now until you died, how fast would you start running right now? You’d run, because it is a race after all, but you likely wouldn’t start running flat out because you know you need to pace yourself for many years to come. Make no mistake though that this is a race. It’s a race against muscle loss and fat gain. A race against ever increasing poor health. So while you may not need to run hard now, you do need to get moving. But that movement should come with the question, “can I still be doing this at age eighty?”

This question crystallizes our activity into what is and isn’t of vital importance. For instance, most fitness approaches – the ones aimed at younger trainees –  won’t have a care for long term consequences. Female fitness is rife with this. Just drop their calories low so they lose weight and look good in a bikini. Never mind about the problems you’ve just caused to the menstrual cycle or for long term bone density problems by dropping energy availability to dangerous levels. Looking good now is all that matters and to hell with any consequences for this short term diet. Youth comes with a feeling recklessness and invincibility. Mature age not so much, especially for those of us who may have had a few injuries and know how long and annoying the recovery process can be.

So the question about what you should be doing, and how hard you should be doing it, is easily answered when you use this long term view.

If we’re honest about what you’re going to need at eighty we can then work back from there and figure out our short term plan. You can still lift weights at eighty, but your plan will be limited to the most important exercises. My mother still deadlifts and squats. But she only deadlifts once per week, and never anywhere close to her maximum. She still squats, but she does kettlebell goblet squats and not barbell squats. For pushing and pulling we tend to use bodyweight exercises like push ups and rows using either gymnastic rings, or a TRX. The rest of the gym training plan is devoted to performing mobility work to make sure her body stays as supple as possible.

Why is suppleness important? Because the moment you can’t tie your own shoes anymore, or dress yourself, you have lost independence. And both of things require a degree of flexibility that you may not notice when you’re younger, but you certainly will as you get older. Flexibility and mobility are also the things that help you stave off some easily avoided injuries. For those who want to perform any running related activities, there are studies (like this one) that show that reduced ankle range increase other landing forces and make you more likely to suffer injuries. Simply spending time to ensure that you have full ankle range of motion (that’s 3-4″ FYI) will help to prevent most running related injuries then. And it’s the same for strength related activities too. To safely perform a deadlift you’ll need some spare range of motion beyond just being able to touch the bar. A good rule of thumb is to be able to perform a standing toe touch with straight legs to ensure you’ve got enough spare range to deal with the added load and stress of deadlifts.

So we know you need some strength training and we know you need some flexibility work to stave off injuries and retain independence, but what about cardio? Again, think about eighty-year old you and what kind of activities seem likely? Will you really be doing that HIIT class or do you think you’re more likely to be going for a walk? That walk may be “just a walk” to you now, but at eighty walking will likely be enough to get your heart working hard enough to maintain, or even gain fitness. If walking on flat is too easy then add a hill.

So the Fit After Forty plan involves some basic strength work, flexibility work, and some easy to moderate steady state cardio but what diet are you following? Are you going to be following the crash and burn starve yourself beach body diet, or are you going to be doing something sustainable? I was in a fitness group on Facebook this week and a guy on there was asking about his diet. His current diet was seeing him either be extremely constipated or the opposite. So basically either shitting his pants or unable to go at all. Hardly seems sustainable, right?

Let’s go back to our guiding question about what you’ll be doing at eighty… What kind of diet do you see yourself following at eighty? is it the extreme diet you’re on now that excludes whole food groups like ketogenic or vegan diets or is it something that is going to be able to fit into any social or travel situation? There is no problem in the short term for the extreme diets – they can be excellent to change health quickly – but eventually they become problematic for one reason. Sooner or later you’re going to come off that diet. Either by choice because you’ve achieved that short term goal or because you fell off it and found yourself face first in whatever food you’d been excluding. There’s also the social environment to consider when you’ve got a family and kids. Don’t be the guy who doesn’t eat your kids birthday cake because it isn’t paleo. That’s not making your life any better by excluding you from that activity (and humans have bonded over food for a million years). Instead, think back to being eighty and think about if you want to spend more quality time with your family and how you might accomplish that? For sure there are going to be a number of family social events in there that involve food. Wouldn’t it be better to have a diet that allowed you to eat at those meals freely while still allowing you to stay healthy, lean, and fit longer term?

When we look at all the various factors here from training to suppleness to food, it is pretty obvious which one should have your main focus…it’s the food! Sooner or later training is going to have to be diminished. There is no way you’ll be able to train with the same intensity at eighty as you do at thirty or even fifty. I see so many people focus on the wrong things and wonder why they don’t get anywhere and the answer is simple – they’re focused on the wrong things. In order, to stay healthy, lean, and fit after forty these are your priorities:

Diet
Suppleness
Cardio/ walking
Strength training

Don’t do it back to front and wonder why your health seems to be negligible and your results non-existent.

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#1 Diet Tip to Stop Snacking

When it comes to diet everyone wants to make things more complicated, as if the reason they’ve failed is lack of complexity.

Let’s be honest, the reason people fail is lack of discipline.

And when it comes to lack of discipline the biggest downfall for most is snacking after dinner. People can happily go without for breakfast. They can even eat light for lunch. But once the sun starts to go down, and the focus from work starts to disappear they suddenly find themselves famished. At that point they become a victim to whatever is in their cupboards. Boredom and stress are the two biggest drivers of late night snacking.

Diets all work in only one way – they restrict the number of calories you eat over an extended period of time so you lose body fat. Vegan diets restrict calories by eliminating animal protein. Ketogenic diets by eliminating carbohydrate. Fasting eliminates time that you can eat during, and thereby restricts your total intake. But they all work by restricting calorie intake in some way.

Given that the most important thing to losing weight is total calorie intake, does it really matter if you eat all your calories in one meal, or in a few smaller meals during the day? The answer is not really. (Although I need to add that if you’re used to eating one massive meal a day your stomach will be stretched out and give you the appearance of never having a flat stomach, even if you are lean). I usually try to get most people to eat three to five meals a day.

Why the difference between meal how many meals?

Because a smaller female doesn’t have to get in as many calories as a bigger male. In larger guys if they try to eat only three times a day serving sizes become quite large, and it can be difficult to get in adequate protein. By spreading out the number of meals it makes each serve of protein smaller, and easier to digest. It also has the benefit of keeping the stomach smaller, as I mentioned, which will help give a more flattering look. A two hundred pound male will need about two hundred grams of protein a day – that’s the equivalent of almost two pounds (700g) of chicken daily. Trying to eat that in only two or three meals becomes difficult. It’s just far easier to split those meals into multiple smaller pieces. Making it easier makes staying compliant more likely over a long enough period of time for the diet to work.

Given the number of calories per meal isn’t the most important thing, here’s the best tip I can give you to fix that:

Make your meals during the day slightly smaller – it’s much easier to deal with hunger while busy at work. If you need two hundred grams of protein a day and eat three times during the day then eat around thirty to forty grams of protein with each meal. That will leave you around eighty grams for dinner, which will feel like a double serve compared to the rest of the day. Don’t eat your carbohydrate content during the day. You can eat green leafy vegetables and a single serve of fruit but otherwise save all those carbs for dinner.

Make your evening meal slightly bigger. As I said above, it can be as much as eighty grams of protein at this point. Add your carbs in – most guys will be eating one hundred to two hundred grams a day. After having eaten vegetables and a piece of fruit during the day you’ll likely have about one hundred grams spare. That’s the equivalent of five small potatoes. Keep your carb sources to root vegetables (potatoes rate highest for satiety out of all foods), or rice.

That way you’ll go to bed on a full stomach, and not feel like you need to snack after dinner. You’ll still eat the same number of calories for the day but this will be far more satisfying. In addition, the carbohydrate will help you get to sleep. This can be enhanced if you choose a protein source such as turkey, which has tryptophan in it, which also calms you and helps sleep.

I’ve used this strategy successfully, even with guys who are already really lean like Mark here. Believe it or not, even guys in this kind of shape still want the same snacks and treats that you do, we’ve just figured out strategies to keep them still trending in the right direction even when they break their diet through stress or boredom.

That’s the real power of coaching – finding a way for that individual to be successful. If you’re looking for the best way to get your diet and training on track then PM me for more information.

How do you stop snacking?
One simple diet tip helped Mark achieve this amazing physique.

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Where do I start...?

We live in the age of information. At our fingertips lies the collected wisdom of all of civilisation. And a lot of cat videos. There’s so much information it’s easy to get lost and overwhelmed.

So where is the best place to start?

I speak to a lot of middle aged men and women every single week and hear all their thoughts on where they are versus where they would like to be. When I speak to them I even make two headings on a piece of paper – Results and Reality. Results is where they would like to get to, and Reality is where they are right now. I then add a third heading to that piece of paper after we’ve spoken about both of these – Roadblocks. Most of the people I speak to are not beginners when it comes to exercise. In fact, many times they have worked with at least one other trainer, and many times with multiple trainers over a period of years. In their heads they know what they’re meant to be doing.

And yet, that end Result still evades them.

The end Result is usually not very difficult. Most people have tried and failed a number of times before speaking with me. They feel like their age is against then as they’re on the wrong side of forty. Or that it must be their genetics to blame. Or maybe even that because they don’t want to take drugs it’s all impossible. None of those things are true. Many times when I hear their goals I tell them that because of the minimum time I work with people for they’ll need to make their goals more challenging as we’ll tick off all of their goals in the first four to six weeks. In other words, they have tried and failed so many times they have lost all hope of even accomplishing things I think of as basic. As an example, many people tell me they’d like to lose some weight – perhaps ten pounds – and say they think it will take them six months. Nope. That’s four weeks for a middle aged man who does everything right.

And because of this enormous misunderstanding of what is required to actually get in shape past forty I thought I would write a primer for mature aged trainees. For ease of reference, this will be broken into three distinct types:

1) You are a beginner and know you are.

2) You’re still a beginner but mistakenly believe you’re not.

3) You’re actually in shape and want to get whatever extra you can extract from your body.

Most people are in category two. Category one trainees are easy to deal with and happy to be shown what to do. They have faith that they hired an expert and make great clients. Category three trainees are fantastic. They’re the ones that you use for marketing purposes with their awesome topless testimonial pictures and race times. Right now, out of exactly fifty clients, I have seven category threes and forty-three category ones. These days I tend to steer clear of category twos as I know I can’t be successful with them until they change their mental state and allow themselves to see where they truly are and what needs to change. Most simply are too attached to a particular image of themselves, what they perceive as their performance, and their ego gets in the way of any real success being achieved to make it worthwhile taking them on as customers.

So what makes a category two mistakenly believe that they are not a beginner?

Training.

That’s all. They believe that because they are training hard, and have some experience with that, that they are not beginners. However, and this cannot be stressed enough, just because you have a level of skill or experience in one area does not make you advanced or experienced in another. I can remember working with a pitcher in Major League Baseball. This was a lifelong pro athlete earning $2.5mil a year. He was able to throw a 94mph fastball for eighty pitches, eighty games a year. But he couldn’t do a single push up. Luckily, we both understood why we were there. I was there to help him start his season pain free and he was there to build strength and resilience for the upcoming season. We began at the beginning, as that was his level, and he was fine with that approach. That’s the mark of a professional.

In contrast, many category two clients come along expecting that they know what is right or wrong, despite all evidence to the contrary. Let me make some easy distinctions as to what classifies someone as a beginner:

Overweight.

I cannot stress this enough. If you are overweight you are a beginner. It shows clearly that you don’t understand diet and its importance in health. You also quite likely don’t understand the importance of sleep, general daily activity, training stress, and how to balance all of that so that you make progress. Even beyond all of that, being overweight places a strain on your system and predisposes you to multiple different life ending problems. Seven out of ten of the leading causes of death have to do with these misunderstandings. I don’t care if you can train the house down (although I’m yet to meet anyone in this category who can) your inability to understand that health must come first, places you in the beginner category. Until your mindset changes you will always be a beginner.

The second biggest mindset problem is that you tend to think of yourself as an athlete. Many identify with a particular tribe and will refer to themselves as a runner, a martial artist, or any other activity based label they can find. No, you’re not. You’re a human being and those are merely activities that take up small amounts of your week. Because of this misplaced identity you strive to become as specific as you can at your chosen (usually ill-performed) activity. Let me be clear – if you train an hour a day, which would be a fantastic start for most people ( and amounts to an hour a day of exercise), you’d still only train for less than four percent of your week. Can you really count yourself as a runner if you only spent four percent of your week doing it? If you were more honest with yourself you’d identify as a forty-plus year old office worker who runs daily for their health. Until you make the leap to being honest with yourself about your health, lifestyle, and athletic ventures you will always be a beginner.

The final big sign of being a beginner is your inability to perform basic exercises to a decent level. I can recall a recent client suffering from this delusion telling me how strong he was. Meanwhile, my seventy-eight year old mother who weighs nearly half of what he does, can out lift him. He suffered from all three of these delusions – overweight and not seeing how it was holding him back, focused on performance despite having a health issue that needed addressing, and unable to perform basic lifts to any real degree of competency. Not surprisingly, that relationship finished quickly as I realised I had an unteachable client on my hands. Many of the people in this category would be better off saving the money they want to invest into personal training and spending it on a therapist instead to better unravel all the insecurities and stories they tell themselves about their reality. Their lack of self-perception is perhaps the biggest giveaway as to their true status as beginners.

So what should a beginner do once they have identified their status?

First, and most important – drop excess bodyfat. Seventy percent of the world is overweight or obese. You can be fit but fat but you cannot be fat and healthy long term. The leading cause of death for over forties is heart attack, and seven of the ten leading causes of death are controlled through a good practice of diet and exercise. Frankly, that you are currently overweight says that you don’t actually know how to do this, or have several mental roadblocks stopping you from being successful. I know people will automatically react angrily to this and say, “But I know how to eat right”. To them I ask, how come you’re overweight? Is it just laziness, then?

They say actions speak louder than words. It doesn’t matter if you say you know how to eat right when what you’re showing me is you don’t. Your actions, or lack thereof, speak so loudly and clearly it doesn’t matter what lies you tell yourself as I can clearly see whether you truly know how to eat right or not. If you can tell me how far you ran yesterday but not how many calories you ate or how many grams of protein you had, you are a beginner.

Secondly, when it comes to training at forty-plus, more is not better. In fact, usually better progress comes from doing slightly less and backing off the intensity. I know all the fitness websites tell you to train harder, and you have this burning desire to prove that you can still hang with the kids, but the reality is that you can’t. Biology prevents that. The only thing training at high intensity all the time does for you is either burn you out or hurt you. Getting hurt is nature’s way of telling you to take a break and reduce your overall stress levels to something more manageable. Given the choice between adapting to a workout or surviving it, the body will always choose survival first. Adapting – growing muscle, losing fat, or changing structure within cells takes energy. When you are stressed you don’t have an energy surplus. As you get older, and biology is stacked against you, work pressure mounts up, the kids are being annoying…and suddenly you’re up to the eyeballs in stress. Add in even more stress in the form of some really hard workouts and your body has no choice. Next thing you know you’re training hard but you look like a water balloon. That’s stress.

The only way to make progress is actually decrease stress and training intensity so your body is able to adapt. This is something that is easy to take onboard for either a beginner or advanced client. They trust the process and are happy to be coached appropriately. The category two feels he or she knows better and tries to blast through with more volume and intensity, believing the problem is they’re just not working hard enough, and next thing you know they’re sick or hurt. Again, nature’s way of telling you that you’ve yet again over stepped the boundaries of your abilities and need to slow down.

The thing most people should do is simple – hire in a professional to help them and ditch their own ego. The fact you’ve been on the path for a while and seen no genuine improvement should tell you all you need to know about your actual abilities to objectively decide on what you need to do. However, ego doesn’t work like that and we’re all capable of telling ourselves some fanciful excuses to back up our own cognitive dissonance towards our results.

I got so sick of this with new clients that I created the 28 Day Challenge. It teaches people the most important pillars that support health and fitness, and does so in a way that leads to spectacular results in such a short time frame. I’ve had guys in their sixties run 100mi ultra marathons off the back of the 28 day Challenge, and others drop nearly twenty pounds of bodyfat in the month. I’m not kidding when I say that the program has likely helped more guys in their forties achieve a six pack than any other fitness program you can find. The program is designed to be truly helpful but it also weeds out people that I can’t work with. If you can’t follow the plan for a month I have no desire to work with you for months into the future. It’s an audition to see if you have the right mindset to be successful with your training or not.

The real roadblock to this entire thing is always the same – it’s you. It’s the mistaken belief that you are better and more capable than you really are, despite all evidence to the contrary. Until you fix that six inches between your ears, you always be a beginner.

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Confidence, Competence, Comfort, and Goal Setting for the Masters Athlete

One of the biggest things I hear from clients is that they wish they had more confidence. That they wish they could somehow take their hopes and dreams and make them a reality. Usually at this point they start looking at setting some goals.

And then they fail.

Not surprisingly, when they fail, their confidence takes a hit, and they have more fear of any further attempts to accomplish this goal. Let me tell you why they fail.

Goal setting in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. However, most goals are not well thought out. The most common acronym used for goal setting is SMART. That is, to make your goal Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time Based. For instance, a common fitness goal to lose some weight is usually seen as a poor goal because while it is entirely sensible and realistic, it has no time attached to it, or way of measurement. Generally, your guru would suggest that a better way to write that would be that your goal was to, “lose 5kg within 10 weeks”. By adding an amount and a time frame it brings it into focus more clearly.

And yest still people fail. In fact, when it comes to weight loss, most people never truly succeed and it’s entirely down to the way they think about their goals.

Most people don’t lose that 5kg and never gain it back. Most people lose that 5kg over and over again, always returning back to the same place as before. A continual cycle of what is called yo-yo dieting, where the cycle just repeats on itself. If you’ve failed to keep that 5kg off several times prior, how much confidence will you have in keeping it off this time?

When we make goals we open our mind to possibility. We can envision this other version of ourselves as fitter, leaner, or faster. However, the rational mind doesn’t allow you to live in daydream land, and this is where the “if you dream it you can achieve it crowd” fail. I can tell myself that I am going to run a sub ten second hundred metres as much as I like. My mind knows that is impossible and will stop me. After I’ve failed multiple times to become a ten second runner I will lose faith in my ability to accomplish my goals, and give up trying to accomplish other goals. Success is an amazing thing and a lot like money – when you have some of it, getting more is easy. When you don’t have any, getting even a little is difficult.

How do you fix that?

Well, for starters, you need to realise that what we often mistakenly call confidence is nothing more than a comfortable competence at a skill. If we think about physical skills – whether it be losing weight or running faster – they all have skill components. In the case of losing body fat the skills are in meal prep, tracking calories, and even cooking skills to make foods palatable longer term. When I hear from people they struggle to lose weight because they don’t like to cook all I can think is that it’s probably about time they learnt. But how do you start making healthy, tasty meals for yourself if you haven’t cooked for years?

You start with a better, smarter goal. Tiny little short term goals that allow you to have incremental wins. Maybe the first goal is simply to eat a high protein breakfast. A simple thing to do is make an omelette that will satisfy those needs. You crack a few eggs, whisk them, chop some vegetables to add to your omelette and it’s pretty easy from there. Sure, the first few may look a bit messy, but compared to a bowl of sugary cereal a messy vegetable omelette is miles better. So here we are, it’s 6am on day one of your diet, and you’ve already had a small win. How motivated are you going to be now versus if you’d tried something more complex and struggled with it? The former makes you feel good about yourself and eager to try something more later in the day. The latter may just be enough already to decide this is too hard and that losing weight is going to be impossible for you.

Getting comfortable with the process is where confidence comes from. Having consistent small wins at the important things is what matters to building competence and therefore confidence in yourself. I used this process myself when I tore my hamstring off the bone in 2001. I’ve been around sport enough to know the importance of having a hamstring for explosive actions. Having a significant injury to one is a death sentence to the competitive aspirations of many. Without one your hopes of running fast or jumping high are over and even with one reattached it will never be the same. Mine was a significant enough injury that only two surgeons in my city were willing to operate on me. So my first goal was actually to get in to see one of those guys quickly, and organise surgery just as quickly. I didn’t worry myself thinking about rehabiltation or what sports I might be able to play later. I just focused on getting in to see the surgeon.

My initial appointment with a sports doctor was a Monday. I had an MRI the next day. I saw the surgeon on that Saturday and was being operated on by Wednesday the next week. Given I knew someone who had been waiting for eight months just to get an appointment to see this surgeon for a first visit it says something about my determination to achieve this goal when I went from zero to an operation within ten days. The same actually held true for when I needed shoulder surgery. I had had to delay surgery due to some work obligations but I had scheduled an appointment with the surgeon on the day they finished and knew he was operating the next morning. I pleaded my case and was being operated on the next day instead of having to wait months.

With my hamstring I knew the road to recovery would be slow taking at least a year before any sort of genuine strength or fitness would be returned. Again, I set an immediate short term goal of making sure the wound healed fully. I had about eighty stitches total in the muscle and surrounding wound so there was a lot of potential for infection. Stitches normally come out between ten and fourteen days and at about the halfway mark I was out for dinner when I noticed my pants were stuck to my leg and I was bleeding through them. A quick trip to hospital showed that the wound was a bit infected and that some of the internal stitches weren’t breaking down as planned. In fact, they were trying to force their way out through the wound like a massive ingrown hair. The next morning my surgeon pulled out the knots much like you squeeze out an ingrown hair and the relief was instant. I got a round of antibiotics and a new dressing and went back to making sure I didn’t get any further infection. A week later and things were back to normal. My stitches came out as planned and I at least got to be able to have a shower without wrapping Glad Wrap around my thigh.

My next goal was to do whatever training I was told to do exactly to the letter. Once the stitches were out I was told I was not allowed do anything for the first twelve weeks. So I did nothing. It’s very difficult when you’ve spent years training regularly and moving a lot to sit still but that’s what I did. I set the goal to heal by following the doctors prescription to the letter.

Once I was allowed train it was very little at first. The first thing I was allowed do was swim with fins to ad some work in extension. So I swam daily with fins on. My simple goal of getting to the pool every day helped enormously. So far, in three months of rehab work I had three goals, if you’re counting – no infection, rest, swim. I made it no more complicated than that, achieved all my goals, and knew that when I was allowed train harder I would do well.

Fast forward to 2012 when I was at a conference and had the opportunity to do some force plate analysis work. I discovered that my left/ right balance was about seven percent in favour of my good leg. That’s actually not that bad as up to a ten percent difference is seen as normal. However, in running athletes less than five percent is desirable. At this point I’d gone from being told that I’d never run again to being within normal, although not athletic ranges. Over the course of the next twelve months I worked on that left/ right balance issue and got it down to within five percent. Oh, and I did an Ironman and several half Ironman races. Fair to say that my goal setting had accomplished what it set out to all those years ago to return my leg to being as strong and durable as possible.

If we contrast my healing and rehabilitation to the normal process we’ll see how powerful this small, incremental win strategy was. How many people do you know who are forty-plus and don’t do anything anymore because of a knee operation or having had a sore back one time? I didn’t just wait for my injury to become pain free. I rehabilitated it so I was able to go back to what was normal life for me.

I didn’t start with a goal to finish an Ironman. I started with a very small, easily achievable goal to get my leg to heal fully. Over time, as my confidence grew, I could take on bigger, and harder challenges. I’ve since translated that into even bigger and more audacious goals and succeeded in all of them. But I did it all by building confidence in myself with small achievable tasks, that ultimately made me comfortable with these new skills, just like learning to cook an omelette opened a doorway to cooking to healthily for me.

So don’t look for confidence. Look to make yourself comfortable with smaller tasks on the way. Break that big goal down into small chunks that the mind can envision. As your competence with these new skills grows, so will that confidence you seek.

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What can a 40-year old expect in a month of training?

I get asked a lot of questions. A lot. Every day I get at least a dozen questions about training for over forty-year olds.

A lot of the questions are about specific exercises or the best ways to accomplish a specific goal. But easily the number one question I get asked is one thing:

How do I get back in shape at forty-plus, and how long is it going to take?


The answer is often a mix of my all purpose “it depends” coupled with my own questions about their own personal health history. Let’s split the answers into two categories – category one will be guys who previously were in fantastic shape and over the last two to three years have found themselves out of shape. Category two will be people who have been out of shape for longer, maybe even their entire lives. When I’m talking out of shape I am really speaking about two main variables – body mass and actual fitness and strength.

The reason body mass is a first priority is simple – being overweight brings an enormous number of extra risks with it. It’s linked to higher rates of cardiac disease, strokes, various cancers, high blood pressure, and diabetes. If I could give everyone in the world one gift it would be to stop them being overweight. The savings alone to our health care systems would be in the trillions of dollars globally. So body mass has to be a concern for those reasons but there is another reason too…

As we age it’s easy to feel invisible. Like our best years are behind us. Having a flat stomach, or arms that bulge from under your T-shirt are important parts of how we feel about ourselves as men. Equally, being seen as attractive in the eyes of our partner is important too. The number of guys I have spoken with who tell me that their partners have flat out said to them that they find them unattractive is overwhelming. There’s simply no reason why we should become less attractive to our partners as we age.

As we age there are some factors that conspire against us. Many people will point to a slowing metabolism as they age as being responsible for the fat gain. While there is some slowing of the metabolism, it isn’t as pronounced as many think – it’s only one to two percent per decade after twenty. In other words, in your mid forties your metabolism is only a maximum of five percent slower than it was when you were at university. That’s not a significant enough difference to account for the fifteen to twenty kilograms of excess weight most carry.

A far bigger factor is food intake. Put into the simplest terms possible, if your metabolism has slowed by five percent then eat five percent less than you did at twenty. But the problem with food is that there is often a lot of tied up emotional baggage with it. For instance, did you ever get hurt as a child and get a treat off your parents to stop you crying? Congratulations, you now have a relationship with food as consolation for any hurt or injury, emotional or physical. That can be a tough bond to break. Do you have a plan in place to do that?

During the 28 Day Challenge we begin with something very different. We don’t start with the program or the diet. We start with listing all of the Risks, Triggers, and Obstacles that you face during your journey to better health and fitness. A common problem is that when you’re in a group setting, either work or social, that you tend to over consume food and alcohol. Once we’ve identified that it makes it easy to start making plans to overcome it. This is the key difference in what makes some people successful versus others as adults trying to get into shape. Very few people will be able to change deep rooted habits overnight into completely new ones. The rest who are successful have seen an area of weakness and then treated it like a work problem and sought to find a way to overcome it through better planning. Perhaps it means learning to say no to some engagements, or making sure to drive to others so you can’t drink. Maybe it means eating a meal before going to the office party so you’re not tempted with finger food as much. Regardless of what the plan looks like, having a plan will always beat not having one. Even if that plan isn’t fully successful it gives a starting point to further change behaviour and modify for next time. It’s very seldom Plan A that works. In diet situations it’s more likely Plan F, G, or even M that sees you finally fix all those issues.


Once you’ve identified why you have negative behaviors, and set plans to overcome them, you need to know exactly what you should be eating. That doesn’t mean you need a nicely made up PDF meal plan. In fact, I never provide meal plans to any clients as I believe there is a massive flaw in the logic behind them. You don’t need to be told that you need to eat two eggs, one cup of spinach, and half a banana for breakfast on day one of week one. While that’s not a bad breakfast it doesn’t explain the reasoning behind it. Because if you have to travel for work suddenly and don’t have access to the foods from that perfect looking PDF, what happens then? I’ll tell you – you’ll revert back to all those bad behaviours seen in your Risks, Obstacles, and Triggers. A smart nutrition system isn’t reliant on specific foods just like a smart training plan isn’t reliant on specific pieces of equipment. They’re both reliant on why certain things are done instead of specifics. When you understand the reasons certain choices are made then you are also free to change things to suit your own life and lifestyle.

When it comes to how much to eat, we already know you need roughly five percent less than you did two decades ago. But what else do we need to know? It’s not enough at our age to try to eyeball the right amount of food. Not if you’re trying to maximise body composition. Many people will tell you that you don’t need to weigh and measure food to be lean. Most of those were born with six-packs and have no idea what it’s like trying to suddenly lose twenty kilograms at forty to avoid a heart attack. I’ll make this easy – if you’re overweight then you have a flawed concept of how much food is the correct amount. Your body mass clearly shows that. Once you’ve worked out how much food you need to eat it is a matter of only eating that amount.

Interestingly, eating the right amount of food can seem like both a lot of food and not much. It’s an odd phenomena because when you start to eat clean you realise how relatively few calories are in most things. An apple and a handful of almonds is two hundred and four calories – or roughly a tenth of what most adult men will need to consume in a day. A Snickers bar and a can of Coke is six hundred and twenty-seven calories – this is nearly a third of a normal calorie intake for a forty-year old office worker. So you actually can be quite full on a relatively small amount of food. However, it’s still likely going to be less than what you’ve been used to thanks to stretching your stomach out eating from too much. That will fix itself within a short time frame, and the new food amounts won’t leave you feeling hungry.

How much can you change just from this one element alone? One of my clients just lost three kilograms in his first week of really watching his food. When was the last time you lost three kilograms in a week and knew you could keep it off?

Food is usually the biggest hurdle to tackle when to comes to weight loss but it’s by no means the only roadblock. Did you know that getting less than six hours of sleep per night doubles your chances of both having a heart attack as well as being obese? In these days of everyone wanting to show how busy they are sleep often gets left out. “Sleep when you’re dead” is the cry, except usually it’s made by unhealthy people holding themselves together with sugar and coffee. You may be able to hold the back the bursting dam that way for a while but sooner or later those flood gates will open and the crash will be massive. Your mother was right – you need eight hours of sleep per night. As a sign of how powerful sleep is when I trialled the 28 Day Challenge program for the first time the client didn’t want to address food. But by getting more sleep, drinking more water, and walking each day he managed to drop twenty kilograms. Pretty nice to lose weight while you’re sleeping, right?

I just mentioned walking, and it’s value can’t be underestimated. The human body is a little bit like a shark’s in that we are designed to move a lot. Far more than many of us do in modern life. It’s estimated that foraging for food took between five and eight hours a day, totally fifteen to eighteen kilometres of movement. That sounds like a fair bit more than most of us get, right? Now I know most people can’t find the time in a day to move for five hours, but adding in a single thirty to sixty minute walk daily can make a tremendous difference. I’ve seen studies on a single outdoor walk daily leading to improved mood, work function, lowered stress levels, and of course, lower body fat. Walking is such a powerful tool in the fitness arsenal it’s even been linked to decreased risks of Alzheimer’s. If you walked an hour a day for a month, with no other changes to your diet, training, or lifestyle you’d lose one kilogram of fat each month.


The guys in the 28 Day Challenge are usually surprised that out of all the elements involved that they enjoy the walking the most. It’s a great time to get some alone time, as well as gain all those other benefits. And who doesn’t want to lose a kilogram of fat in a month?

By now you’re probably wondering what is wrong with me? I’m known for my hard and complete training programs, yet I haven’t mentioned training at all. Instead I’ve written about walking, sleep, food, and underlying psychological traits. The thing is that while training is important, it is just the fuel. Lifestyle – food, sleep, and your daily movement habits – are the spark. A jerry can full of petrol might be dangerous if it’s on top of a spark, but left alone without any way to ignite it it’s harmless. We clearly need both but there is no point in worrying solely about the training – as most plans do. When you make it all about the training you’re focusing on less than one hour a day to get healthier. That’s the time you’ll take to train. Instead, if you focus on sleep, food, walking, and the rest of your lifestyle you’ll be living a healthy lifestyle twenty-four hours a day. When you add the training onto that twenty-four hour mindset, don’t you think it will be more successful?

As the guys in the 28 Day Challenge will tell you, it’s amazingly successful. The training plan within is less than an hour a day. In fact, it works out to about four and a half hours each week. But it doesn’t need to be huge because we’re living that twenty-four hour fitness lifestyle. When we add the fuel on top of the killer spark we’ve got it doesn’t just flicker and go out, like most fitness plans do. It explodes with results. In fact, I’ve never seen anything get results as fast as the 28 Day Challenge does for men over forty. The average result from guys who finish the program would be between four and six kilograms of fat loss. They usually report better sleep, less work stress, and energy levels through the roof thanks to a carefully constructed, well-balanced plan. (They also usually report back to getting more action from their wives too!)

So my real question is are you losing four to six kilograms of fat in a month and feeling better? Or are your results less, and is it leaving you tired and beaten?

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The Biggest Benefits of Bodyweight Training for Older Athletes

It’s no secret that age will catch up to all of us at some point. No matter how hard you could go when younger sooner or later everyone becomes that old man or woman who is forced to walk slowly and struggles to stand up.

But it’s up to you how fast you get there.

I see a lot of people in their mid to late thirties who are seemingly hell bent on breaking their bodies down as fast as possible. As you get older all that heavy work will eventually catch up with you. Usually around this time people either shelve exercise completely or they try to find less harmful activities as they’re sick of the constant nagging pain. This is where you suddenly see guys who were once hard men turn to yoga and pilates instead of deadlifts and interval runs. If you find yourself with a list of exercises you need to avoid that is longer than the list of exercises to keep doing, you should probably have made the change earlier.

So what is the change and what should you be looking for?

You should be looking for ways to train and stay active that leave you feeling better the next day instead of worse. Those days of trying to lift so much weight you can’t bend over the next day are done, if you want to spend any time playing with your kids. Instead you should be worried about lifting enough to stay strong and healthy and then move on.

The reality for most mature aged trainees is that they’re already close to their maximum potential anyway. Striving to lift more, without the volume or genetics to support it, is a quick way to get hurt. Once built, strength is relatively easy to maintain. A program focused on basic lifts of 3-5 exercises done 3-5 times per week for 3-5 sets at a time is an easy way to remember what to do. But that can be quite quick. My normal strength work takes me about 20-30 minutes. My total gym time also includes a 10-minute warm up. So that leaves me 20 minutes every session. What do I do for 20 minutes?

I mostly do bodyweight circuits.

The benefits of bodyweight as you get older are simple:

1) Reduces stress on joints.
2) Allows muscles to work through more range of motion than most loaded exercises.
3) Helps relearn motor patterning that can become faulty under high loads.
4) Allows a lot of work to be done without risking injury or burnout.

I need to distinguish here between what I am going to call hard and soft calisthenic work. In days past these terms were used to categorise the difference between basic bodyweight training and what would go onto become gymnastic skills. High skill/ high tension work such as levers, planches, and other difficult bodyweight moves have just the same number of injuries and problems associated with them. In fact, I’ve seen way more injuries comparatively from people attempting things like one-arm pull ups than I ever have from regular gym work. So the bodyweight work I am speaking of is basics like push ups, squats, sit ups, and so on.

The problem is that because you can pump out a lot of reps you can still create problems for yourself. Even an exercise as benign as the push up can cause shoulder problems if you do enough of them. So you need some variety and a way to moderate that training so that the volume and intensity vary enough to keep the body fresh.

That’s where programs like Convict PT came in. I initially was writing it as a stay at home workout plan suitable for clients going on holidays. I wanted the workouts to be able to be done with zero equipment in a space as small as a hotel room. Midway through writing it the COVID19 virus really hit and most of the world has gone into lockdown. Some people, who rely on going to a gym for all their exercise equipment needs, have been really caught short so this fills the gap for them. The other big benefit from this is that the CNS is not hit as hard from bodyweight circuit work as it is from heavier lifting. During times of high stress, such as those during the lockdown, you want to stay active, as being fit and healthy is important. The mental benefits you get too are needed during these times, but you don’t want to send training stress too high as stress in general is already very high. The same goes for travel. Flying into a different time zone and sleeping in a different bed is already stressful enough. Do what you need to in order to maintain health and sanity and then get to work or go enjoy your holiday.

So bodyweight circuits like in Convict PT are a great way to fill that need. The workouts are fun, challenging, quick, and contain enough variety to keep your joints healthy. Even if you aren’t on lockdown, away from home traveling for work, but have been hitting the weights hard for a while now might be the best time to give your body a break and cycle through a bodyweight only training period for a few months.

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The Three Best Deadlift Variations for Ageing Athletes

In the world of strength training there are definitely a handful of exercises that are deemed to be “the best”.

If you look at what the human body can do – push, pull, squat, lunge, bend, twist, and gait – it’s pretty obvious that some exercises fit those criteria better than others for older athletes. It’s one thing to spend an hour in the gym performing a push specific workout as a younger guy but once you get a bit older you need to make workouts far more time efficient. So it’s normal to start looking for the exercises that use the most muscle in those movements.

This is where most functional training enthusiasts fall over. They worry about what it looks like and not which movements it helps. I’d much rather spend my time on push press or bench press than on single arm cable press from a split stance if I were worried about improving my function, for example.

When it comes to lower body there are two moves in particular that are seen to rule the roost – the squat and the deadlift. Thanks to misunderstandings by many these have been basterdised as representing two lower body patterns so we should clear that up here. The lower body is capable of three different movements patterns – feet together, as in a squat or deadlift. Feet split as in a split squat, lunge, or Bulgarian squat. And single leg, as in a pistol squat or single leg deadlift. These three movements can then be broken down further into either quad or hip dominant exercises based off a single factor – how far back your hips move during the movement.

People will automatically tell you that the squat is the king of quad dominant exercises. It is if you’re built like a weightlifter with a relatively long torso and short femurs with excellent hip flexibility. However, if you’re six foot tall with a narrow waist and long femurs, as I am, the squat is still a hip dominant movement. It doesn’t matter at all whether I front or back squat, have my heels raised, or any other trick you can come up with. My femurs are relatively very long and I have to sit back a long way to squat. The further back your hips go the further forwards they need to extend. So if you have short femurs and can squat with a relatively upright stance your hips will travel back a short distance and you will end up with big quads. Guys built like me will get a bigger ass from squats.

As we get older this becomes problematic. We end up with a relatively greater amount of trunk angle forwards, placing more strain on the lower back. Sooner or later an older back is going to complain about that. All that extra time spent sitting in the car or at work will catch up with you and you’ll find your body agrees with squatting heavy less and less as you age, and doubly so if you’re built like me.

The solution with the squat, as world famous therapist Grey Cook says, is to maintain the ability to perform it but not to attack it as a strength movement. We can do this simply with either bodyweight, goblet squat, or double kettlebell squats that see far less stress on the spine. So what can you use as a max strength exercise for the lower body if we’re going to avoid loading it with the squat?

The deadlift becomes the obvious choice and has a string of benefits that come with it, as it:
Improves hip and back strength
Improves grip strength, which is positively tied to health and longevity
Has less spinal loading
Is far more useful in the real world as we’re more likely to pick something up from the floor than put it across our backs and squat with it.

However, the conventional deadlift still has problems attached to it for older athletes. Many will have decreased flexibility thanks to more time spent sitting making it harder to get to the ground to grab the bar. The use of a mixed grip places the bicep tendon at more risk as well as places rotational stress on the spine and back. Finally, as an older athlete ego needs to be put aside and other than bench press the deadlift is the one most likely to injure people as they seek to hit high numbers.

So what are the best alternatives to a hip dominant pattern without using the conventional deadlift?

This is where those who look at only at the deadlift and mistakenly call it a hinge fall short. When you’ve only got one alternative to what they mistakenly call the hinge pattern you are stuck with just the deadlift. But the best choices involve optimising stress and hitting as many muscles as possible in the three possible foot positions. As a reminder they are – feet side by side, feet split, and single leg. And we’re looking for exercises where the hips travel back as far as possible and hit other muscle groups and patterns too. Honestly, for this age group and this task, the barbell is the worst training tool you can be using. Because it locks the hands together and forces you to use a symmetrical stance you’re stuck for options with either conventional or sumo stance lifts.

However, if we switch to a single kettlebell we get far more possible options, along with hitting many more patterns. Here are the best choices for the three different foot positions:

Bilateral/ feet side by side – the one hand kettlebell swing

The advantage of the kettlebell swing over the deadlift is twofold. Firstly, you use far less weight. That means less back stiffness, making it unlikely your hip based exercise choice will prevent you from being able to play with your kids. Because ego is not usually involved with swings there is far less tendency to let your lack of restraint cause you any harm. Secondly, because we can train single sided there is a fantastic anti-rotation element to this exercise, along with the requirement for excellent shoulder stability.

The bonus of the kettlebell swing is that most older trainees perform very little speed or power work. That’s usually a good idea as it can often lead to big muscle or tendon injuries as these become more brittle as we age. However, if we don’t use it we’ll lose it, right? So we need to find a safe way to produce power and help slow down the loss of those fast twitch muscle fibers are the swing is a good choice.

When you add the power element to the hip, anti-rotation, and shoulder benefits it gives it is a clear winner for the bilateral stance hip dominant movement for older athletes.

Split stance – the kickstand deadlift

When it comes to split stance work everyone tends to think that there is one version – feet split evenly apart so that joints are at ninety degrees. That’s certainly one option but there are also all the other options from feet side by side to extended out to that ninety degree point. One of the key elements to a hip dominant movement, along with the hips traveling backwards, is that the shins need to be vertical. Because the legs are not in a bilateral stance we’re really only concerned about the front leg in this case.

The set up of this is simple – take a short step back on one leg. I like to position the back front very slightly behind the front heel, with the heel of the back foot raised. Feet set hip width apart so you have a stable base. Place the kettlebell in front of the back foot so that it is in line with the front foot. Grasp with the opposite hand to the front foot. i.e. if your left foot is forward you’ll be gripping and lifting with your right arm. Pack the shoulder into position by pulling it down towards your hips and lift normally.

The lift is basically a suitcase deadlift performed with s short split stance. However, unlike the suitcase deadlift, which is hampered by the weight banging into your side, the split stance here allows you to lift it without impediment. Because of the single sided nature of the movement we get all the same anti-rotational properties that the one hand swing gets, however we get the added advantage of performing this in one of the other key foot positions instead of always just working from a bilateral stance.

Single leg – single leg deadlift

The single leg deadlift is perhaps the greatest option available to the older trainee to gain hip function, aid stability for activities like running, build grip and shoulder health, and decrease stress on the spine. It can even be used to help strengthen feet. I made this short video describing how to perform this lift.

Give these options a try instead of the conventional deadlift and notice quickly how your body feels and how function improves for other athletic tasks.

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Functional Hypertrophy and the Ageing Athlete

The number one thing I work on with clients is maintaining athleticism as we age. My guys are all pretty hard charging, fit, older guys. The kind of guys who embody old man strength and definitely do not fit in the dad bod basket.

So how do I accomplish that?

The first step is in training the forty-plus year old athlete so successfully is identifying the changes occurring as they age, and modifying programs accordingly.

Often the first downturn in performance happens in the mid to late thirties. To be honest, this little slide is noticeable but isn’t like the sliding off a cliff face that happens later on. For me, the first really noticeable downturn was at 38. Suddenly I felt the cold for the first time and staying lean was harder. Muscle soreness after exercise was increased. And that was for regular workouts. If I did a new movement that I wasn’t accustomed to the soreness was next level.

But then you hit your forties and things start to make more noticeable and frequent downturns. First at 38, and then at 43, and 45 things have taken a few noticeable steps back. What are these steps I’m speaking of that may affect older athletes?

VO2max can decline
Max heart rate is reduced
The volume of blood the heart can pump with each heartbeat is reduced
Muscle fibers are lost, resulting in decreased muscle mass and/ or strength
Aerobic enzymes in muscles become less effective and abundant making fat loss harder
Blood volume is reduced

That all sounds very gloom and doom however having spent my entire life as an experimental crash test dummy I can safely say that it doesn’t have to be that way. In the last five years I’ve managed to keep my body fat levels the same, gain 6kg of muscle, and keep my VO2 the same as it was at my peak for Ironman in 2013. So how did I do that?

As I said above, the first steps in successfully navigating these possible backsteps is in being aware of them. One of the problems with what is thought to happen with ageing and what can actually happen is the population that the research is based on. Our grandparents, who this research is based on, lived very different lives to us. As an example, not so long ago doctors told people over forty to stop exercising and take it easy. These days they’re rightly encouraged to do so and you can see the huge change when you look at Masters’ level competition. The men’s 40-44 age group at an Ironman event will likely have a winner only half an hour behind the top pro winner. The Masters’ World Championships for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the biggest competition in the world, far eclipsing the open world championships for participation. These days, it’s quite normal to find fit forty-year olds. So that is going to significantly change what you see in research over the next twenty years.

The key point here is that if you stay active you can offset much of the negatives associated with ageing as long as you correctly identify the biggest issues associated with ageing that can’t be changed.

For instance, connective tissue becomes less elastic as you age. There’s nothing you can do about that, even with hormone therapy. You just lose some of your bounce as you age. So some exercise options, like sprints and jumping, can be fraught without disaster if the body isn’t properly conditioned. I have clients who perform these types of activity but we’ve spent two years or more building them up to deal with them. They are not drills for beginners or casual exercise enthusiasts, despite what fitness magazines will tell you.

The loss of enzymes that utilise fat is a much bigger issue as it means that older trainees will often carry more weight because their ability to burn fat is impacted. That’s further hampered by the use of most calorie charts as they over estimate calorie usage in older athletes. Metabolism decreases by 1-2% per decade after twenty years old. By forty then you will have somewhere between a 3-5% deficit versus what the charts tell you. It doesn’t sound like much but a 5% difference is enough to gain 1kg of fat every two weeks. If you’re over forty and you’ve been eating the same and training is stable but you find yourself struggling to stop that slow, constant weight gain this is why.

That’s easily fixed with the use of smart aerobic training. That’s the good thing about aerobic work – firstly, it burns far more calories than any other workout can. Forget HIIT, forget EPOC as none of that pans out when you look at what the research really says on both. What you’re looking for is something that is sustainable and can be done year round, and moderate, steady state aerobic work is it. The second notable thing about moderate steady state work is that it actually encourages the body to make sure that you keeo plenty of those fat burning enzymes. HIIT doesn’t do that.

The magic thing that people miss about steady state work is the rough percentage of maximal effort that it ends up being. The magic number is 70%. You see this magic 70% number turn up again and again when it comes to training. And this brings us nicely to functional hypertrophy work for the ageing athlete.

As we get older it’s really important to rid ourselves of some of the stupidity of the fitness industry. Don’t forget this is an industry that was built off the back of bodybuilding and the sham supplements that were designed to help people try to pack on muscle. However, if you strip away all the ills of bodybuilding what you really have is a desire to be muscular and lean, and those aren’t bad goals. The caveat is that as we get older, because of our slower metabolism there needs to be a conscious effort not to fall into the trap of the endless bulking cycle that many guys seem to be in. There are a lot of fat, older guys walking about with imaginary watermelons under their arms thinking how swole they are. No mate, you’re fat, and at your age it’s a bad idea. All that perma bulking cycle ends up doing is sending you to the doctors for a chat about your blood pressure, cholesterol, visceral fat levels, and how being overweight has crashed whatever remains of your testosterone levels.

So how big should you be? The answer is simple – you need to be strong and muscular and get away from that size at all costs mentality that many guys get sucked into. Think Spider Man, not The Hulk. Because I hate to break it to you – if it hasn’t happened at forty, it isn’t going to happen. All you’re really doing is stuffing yourself one hamburger closer to that impending heart attack (because these guys never want to do any actual cardiovascular work because they’re worried about losing all their gains).

So what kind of rep ranges should older guys be doing?

This is where it gets really interesting. On a continuum from 1 rep to 15 there are a lot of different possible results that you can get based on what you choose. These results all come about from various types of strength training. Did you know that there is more than one kind of strength? There’s maximal strength, absolute strength, relative strength, speed strength, starting strength, strength endurance, and even a thing called general strength.

All of these types of strength have a blend of what is known as metabolic and neural components. The easiest way to think about what those terms mean is that metabolic components change something within the muscle, such as the number of mitochondria, or even the size of the muscle cell itself. Neural changes are more like swapping the connection from the brain to the muscle from dial up internet to cable. The stronger the neural connection the more strongly that muscle fiber can contract. And all of these types of strength, and all the rep ranges that correspond to them, have varying degrees of each.

So how do you pick the best rep ranges for a forty-year old athlete?

This again goes back to having a think about what is likely to damage an older body. An older spine isn’t going to appreciate max effort reps in the 1-3 range on the squat and the deadlift. Elbows and shoulders will complain in those ranges on exercises like bench press too. The best crossover for strength and muscle gain (both neural and metabolic properties) happens in the 5-8 rep range. But again, too much time spent there performing multiple exercises, will eventually cause joint and tendon issues.

What about that magic 70% number? What happens there? Well, 70% when it comes to strength training is that general strength thing typified by 10 reps per set. Strangely we see that a lot in bodybuilding rep ranges. The difference here is that instead of using it for isolation work we will continue using it for compound work like bench press or similar. It allows a lot of joint friendly reps to be performed and helps keep as much muscle as possible to offset the ageing issue. We even use circuit type work here not discriminating between bodyweight or resistance training with external load. To be honest, it’s the rep range I care about, not what the exercise looks like.

It’s always funny to me when people blast hypertrophy work (ie bodybuilding rep ranges) as being non-functional. Well, if you stand still in a gym, or just sit on machines, and that’s all the activity you do then perhaps you won’t be very functional. But I don’t train those guys. My guys may be standing still in the gym doing supposedly non-functional exercises but on their days out of the gym they’re running, boxing, climbing, and generally kicking ass and looking amazing doing so.

You see, function is not about what an exercise looks like but about how it helps you perform. People say squats are functional. Maybe. But past a certain age squatting with a decent weight is going to make you feel like crap, and that’s not going to lead you to do a lot of other activity. So how is that functional? To be honest, a lot of older guys would be better off performing something like moderate load kettlebell goblet squats in their warm up to maintain that movement, and then do the majority of their leg work on the leg press or with lunges. I know it may sound heretical but I’ve got the results to prove it. In fact, I doubt anyone in the world has more forty-year old guys with six-packs crushing athletic events. And the best part is we’re doing it without pain and in all cases so far having been able to remove blood pressure and cholesterol medication.

So what are the takeaways?

Keep body fat low through eating strictly.
Help maintain cardiovascular fitness and low levels of bodyfat with moderate, frequent aerobic sessions.
Perform one key lift per pattern per week in the 5-8 rep range.
Perform 2-3 exercises per pattern per week in the 10 rep range to maintain joint health, muscle mass, and stay injury free.
The majority of your training should be around the 70% average intensity mark for best effect year round.

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The Fallacy of Specific Training for Older Guys

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein

In fitness there is a lot of money to be made from specialization and niche programming. There are fat loss coaches, strength coaches, running coaches, speed coaches… the list is nearly endless. You see, the way fitness is sold to new trainers is that it is better to become an expert in a tiny niche and dominate that than to be an all rounder. You know the saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none”? That gets thrown around a lot but the reality, like most things with fitness, is that if you scratch the surface even a little you find the truth to be very different because the full saying is actually, Jack of all trades, master of none, but often times is better than a master of one”. As Heinlein points out above in his classic quote on specialization only insects specialize. Humans are the greatest all-rounders the planet has seen.

Why do I tell you how fitness professionals are taught to market themselves?

Because when they have a single product to sell you – run faster, lift heavier, etc – the only way they can earn money from you is to make you believe you need that product. That’s called marketing. So they create an ad that addresses what are called “pain points” to make you feel bad about yourself. Common ones would be something like, “do you feel low on energy”, “remember when your back didn’t hurt”, and “wouldn’t it be great to fit into your skinny jeans again”? At this point, after having been poked until you’re feeling bad about yourself, the trainer miraculously offers up their program, which will have all the answers you sorely need.

In the case of specific training, and I’m going to use something unusual to prove the point, let’s look at motorcycle rider physical training. Motorcycle racing, like many sports, is skill based. As in, it is not the fittest or strongest who wins, but the most skilled. Can being fitter and stronger make a difference though? The answer to that is absolutely yes.

But here is where it gets interesting… In the strength and conditioning world there are two key parts to the year – general preparation (called GPP) and specific preparation (SPP). SPP is what you do to play your sport better. GPP is everything else that assists it but is not specific to your sport. For example, a motorbike racer might spend some time on a mini bike or motorcross bike to mimic the technical needs of racing without having to cope with the demands of the sport or risk big injury causing crashes. GPP meanwhile might be base cardiovascular training, keeping body composition within the correct levels, and all the other strength work that is not bike specific. At elite levels some of the year will be dedicated to GPP in the pre-season, but when the competition season rolls around training tends to be very specific so as not to needlessly tire out the athlete. At this time of year for MotoGP riders, for example, they have done one test only for 2020 on their new year bikes. The entire rest of their training is GPP at this point unless it is on a bike.

So that’s what the elite guys do – they spend as much time as they can on something with two wheels that has a motor – and then they fit their other fitness training around it. Fitness is clearly an important quality when it comes to high level racing. You can see this simply by having a look at how much they train. Mick Doohan used to train with world triathlon champion Miles Stewart. Troy Herfoss is fast enough on a push bike that he was offered a pro contract last year. Troy Bayliss used to train with an Italian pro cycling team. The Bostroms and John Hopkins used to do Ironman triathlons (minus the run as it would beat up their backs and knees too much). Cal Crutchlow makes sure his push bike is always packed into the LCR boxes so he can ride anywhere in the world. Scott Redding is a keen cyclist and boxes. And even Nicky Hayden (RIP) was sadly killed while on a training ride on his bike. It’s pretty obvious that fitness is a prized commodity among top racers.

But here’s the difference between them and you – you’re not getting millions of dollars a year to ride your bike. You have to look after your kids, pay your mortgage, and you get to look wistfully at your bike and take it out for a track day even now and then. In other words, there are far more important things for you to worry about than that last 0.1 second. You need to worry far more about GPP than SPP.

Don’t think for a second that GPP is weak and that without SPP you won’t be able to ride hard. (Remember that is just fitness marketing to suck you into buying a product). GPP includes:
Aerobic endurance
General strength (typically found in the 8-12 rep ranges)
Maximal strength (3-5 reps)
Strength endurance (15+ reps or the ability to make repeated submaximal efforts over time)

It will also include making sure your diet and body composition are in order too. No one ever wants to address their food but let’s quickly look at why it is so important for production motorbike riding:

A 80kg rider on a 200kg 1000c bike with 200hp will cover the quarter mile in 8.47s. That’s about the distance from the start line to the first corner at Phillip Island. Meanwhile a 70kg rider will do that in 8.37s. It doesn’t sound like much but if you’re pulling out 0.1s out of each corner that rider will be 1.2s in front by the end of lap one. If you’re comparing a typical track day rider at more like 100kg the difference is 0.3s (with a time of 8.67s). 0.3s on the exit of each corner is a 3.6s difference by the end of a single lap, or roughly half the time it will take a 1000c bike to exit the final corner of Phillip Island and make it to the start/ finish line. Lap after lap they’ll pull out that distance solely due to their bodyweight advantage. So if you want to ride fast an important component of that is making sure you are light as possible while not giving up any durability (I’m looking at you Dani Pedrosa).

So at this point, if you’re wanting to improve your lap times as a rider, is it better to spend big on more horsepower and come carbon fiber – both of which are pretty expensive – or maybe just buy a salad? It’s easy to see which one will have the biggest effect and be most cost effective.

Before we look at the actual training we need to understand the three most common types of strength training methods – weight lifting, power lifting, and bodybuilding. All three are sports that revolve around lifting weights. In the case of weightlifting and powerlifting there are two and three lifts respectively that are both competition lifts (therefore performing them is SPP) as well as being used to build general strength (GPP). In the early days of strength and conditioning coaches were usually retired weightlifters or powerlifters and their training programs reflected their own history and what they knew worked to make themselves stronger for competition. So the choice of which lifts to use for your training is largely based on their own bias from their own competition – but weightlifting is not motorbike racing.

For example, do you think it matters that you can squat 10kg more to ride your bike faster? The only way that answer is a yes is if you currently can’t squat at all. For everyone else you already possess enough leg strength to ride. However, the strength coach sells strength above all else and will tell you that if you squat more your performance will improve. I’ve seen these guys on track – they usually end up with leg cramps and having to sit out sessions because they lack the endurance. When you look at riding a track like Phillip Island it is easy to see why endurance is a more prized component than strength. There are 12 corners. There are actually only 8 changes of direction as some of the corners, for instance turn 11 to turn 12, where you don’t need to change body position at all. Over the standard 20mins for a track day session or 6-8 laps for a club race that is anywhere from 48 to 80 squats you need to perform. Easy to see why by the end of the day your legs can be shot if you do 5 sessions as it turns out to be about 400 squats. So strength endurance is a much more prized commodity than maximal strength and you can tell this from observing what the top guys spend their time on. However, the strength coach has his product to sell and he will continue to harp on about the benefits from high load strength work. The only way to test what actually works though is by lap times – either you are able to ride at higher speed for longer or you are not. If you’re talking about SPP for bike racing and trying to figure out what helps you make lap times then the only thing that matters is what helps those times. Everything else is wasting your gym time.

The other downside to chasing strength is the muscle soreness it brings. Gym folklore is filled with pithy captions about leg day and not being able to walk afterwards. That’s fine if you want to sit in your cubicle all day but if you have to go to the track and do 400 squats for the day it’s probably not a good idea to be so sore it hurts to move. It’s also going to impact your ability to stay relaxed on your bike, which is a key element in how it handles.

So what have we really got for a recreational rider or racer to maximise their on track performance? We have a diet that allows us to minimise body fat and keep body mass as low as possible and we have a training plan that is not focused on building as much as size or strength as possible but instead focuses on three types of strength and endurance work. That just sounds like a well structured GPP plan to me, or the exact type of plan that everyone in the world who isn’t an elite athlete needs. Because your job is not to worry about those last 0.1s but to be a good husband/ father/ employee/ boss. Being focused just on one of those elements sees you head down that path of specialization and unless you’re an insect it’s not a great idea. If you’re looking to ride faster you need to ride more and your fitness plan should support that, not see you end up acting like a powerlifter and wondering why you’re not getting any faster.

 

 

 

 

 

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I wish you a Healthy Christmas

I see you.

I see men and women just like you every day.

You’re smart and high achieving and you think you have all the tricks worked out. You’ve got a nice car and a fancy house. Probably got your kids enrolled in a private school too. You take the family on expensive overseas holidays every year. You’re killing it, right?

But a more appropriate statement would be that you’re killing yourself.

All those long hours. The work travel. Eating out with clients all the time. The pressure to succumb to alcohol more often than not. Late nights and long days add up. And you use them all to justify your failing health.

Then you go home and it’s more stress. Kids, housework, bills, a partner who is frustrated you’re away all the time and doesn’t know how to verbalise it. It’s frustrating watching you become more overweight, unhappy, and more stressed. It affects everyone around you but you’re too selfish and self-absorbed to see how your health impacts everyone.

But you’re smart. You read a lot. You’ve been around gyms and know what to do. Or do you? Because your waistline says differently. So does your doctor, because they’re worried about your blood pressure. They’re also worried about your cholesterol and impending diabetes. They’ve been trying to get you to slow down for years but the money is too good, right? You’ve got as much invested in this vision of yourself as a corporate ass kicker as you do in the stock exchange. You’re that go getter who makes deals and earns big. You’re the one who brings home the presents to the kids and pays for the expensive treats. And you’re not prepared to give that up yet despite your body’s protests, are you? You think back to that time you lost a lot of weight. But it was short lived. You soon gained back all the weight lost again.

Up until now you’ve had it easy. Your relative youth has saved you. Below late forties your body will counteract most of the poor choices you’re making. But wait a few years. Get to fifty-plus and see how it all falls apart. Suddenly you’re in front of the doctor and she’s telling you that you need to look after yourself better. Again. Because this isn’t the first time you’ve heard this. In fact, if you look back at your life with any honesty you’ll see that you have been getting steadily more and more out of shape and less and less healthy decade after decade. You’ve heard this before and angrily shut out anyone who mentioned it. It’s not just physical either. You feel stressed when you wake up before the day has even begun.

And everyone else at work is the same. The same grim faces. The same emails going around telling you that Bob from Accounting had a heart attack last week at fifty-five. They can see the writing on the wall even though they won’t admit it, just the same as you.

It’s easy to hide at work. Everyone looks the same. Stressed. Overweight. Eating poorly together and washing it down with alcohol. And then you go home. You buy bigger clothes. Looser. You stop tucking shirts in and avoid tight pants. Females start to spend more time in stretchy yoga pants, despite clearly never actually going. Every meal is a treat because hey, you made it through Wednesday. That clearly deserves a double helping of dessert and half a bottle of wine or more to celebrate that momentous achievement. The days are so long and hard and the couch is so soft and comforting. And hey, you already ate poorly today. Why not have another treat now? You can start eating well tomorrow.

But it’s all been unraveling lately, hasn’t it? Tomorrow never really seems to come. Instead it’s more doctors visits, or maybe even a trip or two to the hospital. And it’s not the small stuff anymore. They’re talking about your heart. Or maybe it’s cancer. So I hope all that money you’ve been earning is enough. I hope it’s enough to pay for all the sick days you’re going to need and all the treatments you’re going to have to pay out of pocket for. I hope it’s enough to cover the school fees and the car repayments. I hope you had enough fun with all that money to justify spending the last decade of your shortened life being sick. I hope it sets your kids up to live well enough without dad or mum around.

So for Christmas this year I don’t hope you get anything fancy. I hope you get healthy. I hope this is the year it really sticks. I could cheapen this message by inserting links here for my own services which would 100% help you, but I refuse to. Money will only distract from what is important here and that is you finally taking charge of your life despite the decades you’ve been unwilling to. That is you getting help on this journey because you’ve proven time and time again that you can’t manage this on your own. I hope I’m wrong. With every ounce of my being I hope I am wrong. Your family is scared and hates seeing you like this.

Make the change. Please.

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Kung Pao Turkey Meatballs

One of the challenges with staying healthy is having good quality food at hand. Meal prep is always a struggle for people when there are kids, work, and other responsibilities sucking up your time. Well, these turkey meatballs fix that. Simply prepare a large amount and have ready made serves of protein that can be added to salads or heated up quickly.

For the Meatballs:

  • 1 lb. ground turkey (93/7) 1 egg, beaten
  • ¼ cup panko breadcrumbs *
  • ¼ cup crushed pineapple 1 tbsp. minced garlic
  • 2 tsp. ginger
  • 2 tbsp. reduced sodium soy sauce 2 green onions, chopped
  • salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 1 tsp. macadamia nut oil (or coconut oil)

For the Sauce:

  • 1 bottle (16.75 oz.) Kung Pao Sauce
  • ½ cup crushed pineapple
  • ¾ cup water

* You can sub these for gluten-free breadcrumbs if needed.

Directions:

1.    To make the meatballs, in a large bowl add turkey, egg, panko, ¼ cup pineapple, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, green onions, salt and pepper.

2.    Using your hands, mix until fully combined (try not to over mix).

3.    Make the meatballs by rolling into golf ball size pieces and place on a foil-lined baking sheet (sprayed with cooking spray). This recipe should make around 20- 25 (mine made 25). Place baking sheet in the fridge for at least 1 hour.

4.    In the crockpot (sprayed with cooking spray), pour bottle of sauce, ½ cup pineapple, and water and whisk together.

5.    Heat 1 tsp. oil in a large skillet on medium-high.

6.    When the pan is heated, place 4-6 meatballs in the pan and sear for 1-2 minutes on each side (this will lock in the moisture and prevent them from crumbling).

7.    Once all the meatballs are seared, place them in the crockpot and set on LOW for 6-7 hours. Once they are done, you can place the meatballs and sauce on a bed of rice.

Nutritional Information:

Calories: 264

Fat: 8 g

Carbs: 25 g

Protein: 20 g

Serving Size: 5 meatballs

Servings: 5 servings

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Strength Endurance - the key to Old Man Strength

When I was younger I would always watch my father in the garden. He just had this amazing ability to work non-stop all day long. It’s not like he was a lumberjack or worked on a road crew though. He was a normal 9 to 5 office worker. But he came from a different generation that did more manual work around the home and had spent years and years doing it. He had tough hands and a work ethic built on years and years of hard work in the Aussie sun.

In comparison, most men these days have hands so soft it’s doubtful many have ever even held a shovel. My neighbour doesn’t even own a mower or a saw for basic yard maintenance.

How do we reclaim that old man strength and the ability to go all day?

The problem for most is adequately identifying the best place to start. There are many strength groups on the internet who will tell you that chasing max strength is the most important quality because all the other qualities of strength are built from it. For people who don’t know there are many different types of strength – relative strength, absolute strength, speed strength, starting strength… and even strength endurance. To a degree maximal strength does impact the other qualities but at some point it will actually detract from it. For example, I bet the person you know who has the biggest bench press isn’t the person you know who can do the most push ups. At some point the max strength work has detracted from strength endurance and seen their performance get worse. When these groups joke that “anything over 5 reps is cardio” you know they aren’t really taking their endurance work seriously. And that all turns up in testing when guys fail military PT tests or they’re on a hike somewhere and just run out of gas.

Strength endurance is probably the most important factor in being able to enjoy yourself outside. It’s the thing that allows you to carry a pack for hours on end or ski run after run without your legs turning to jelly. It’s a bike ride in the morning and then a run up a hill in the evening to watch the sun set while on holidays. It is the thing that is going to allow you to keep doing all the fun things outside as you age.

At this point it usually all falls to pieces and people start doing all kinds of crazy circuit work trying to mimic the non-stop nature of strength endurance activities with their training. But that’s a mistake too. Circuit training is usually too low load to have any real impact on strength gain. What you end up with a series of workouts that leave you tired and sweaty but that don’t have any genuine impact on long term performance.

So what’s the answer?

To find the answer we need to break down what is involved in strength endurance. The strength side has a few components – max strength, strength endurance, and maybe even power and power endurance. The endurance side has aerobic fitness, muscular endurance, and anaerobic endurance (which can also be split into two sides). It’s no wonder people get lost.

So what’s the priority? Can we just skip to strength endurance work and get the best benefit? The answer is no. To develop a deep reserve of endurance of any kind takes an enormous amount of work – something missing from the world in general today, but especially from the fitness world. People are encouraged to do less as if doing less ever brings a greater result anywhere in life.

The beginning of this process is something called general strength and is best categorised by something normally scoffed at in today’s fitness world – 3 sets of 10 reps of a whole body program performed 3 times a week. Yes, this looks like every old school beginner routine ever written. That’s probably a clue – when a workout method stands the tests of time it’s worth investigating further. While this might look like a beginner routine imagine the kind of beginner you’d be if you could squat and bench bodyweight for 3 sets of 10. That’s a pretty impressive beginner. While you’re developing that kind of general strength base it’s time to get to work on aerobic development. The easiest way to do this is with Maffetone based running/ cycling/ rowing and lots of walking. (A daily walk should never be removed from your program even as exercise volume goes up). This process is slowed by the tissue adaptation needed for running and may take up to two years if the person was not used to running prior. For my clients I usually have a goal of them being able to run for 3 x 1hr sessions each week with no next day muscle soreness. The entire purpose of this period is to slowly build work capacity and get the body used to the new strains being placed upon it.

Many of the strength groups will focus solely on the strength side but they’re doing their clients a great disservice. The biggest killer in the world isn’t a weak bench press. It’s heart attacks. And, with 70% of the world overweight or obese the biggest overall problem facing people is lack of movement and an unhealthy heart led by that. So the best way you can train someone is to give them a healthy heart and work on their diet with them. As a trainer now I spend far more time on those two things than I do on strength. I am not downplaying the importance of strength at all but getting a diet and fitness improvement is something I will chase preferentially over increased strength any day of the week.

The next thing they’ll tell you is that you can somehow combine their much loved strength work with the MAF system to get improved fitness. Except you can’t really. One of the keys for increased fitness (which is more about how well your body can use oxygen) is that the body needs to suck more oxygen out of the blood. This forces the body to learn how to use it better and increases a thing called your VO2max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use while working aerobically. But when muscles are tense, like when you lift weights, blood won’t flow through the muscle. No blood flow, no oxygen uptake. No oxygen uptake, no increased VO2max. In fact, at a given heart rate your oxygen use is no better than 70% of what it would be if you had the same heart rate while running or cycling. There’s just no way around it – if you want to actually get fit you need cardio.

But, because we’re chasing strength endurance we need strength too. It makes sense then to combine some kind of traditional cyclic activity to some kind of strength work. Most people here will again revert back to crazy WODesque workouts that leave them gasping and sweaty but the for maximum aerobic improvement the number we’re looking for is something around 60-70% of your max HR. The MAF formula fits perfectly here for most and should be used as a guideline. The basic rules for cardiac output training are that you want between 120-150bpm and for a minimum of 30 minutes.

The workout:

Set a timer for 30mins. Perform 2mins of any type of moderate cardio like rowing, running, or cycling. Then perform 2-3 strength exercises working at 70% of your max effort. Make sure HR stays within your MAF range the entire time. If you can perform more than 7 circuits in 30mins you’ve gone too easy. If you can only perform 6 you’ve gone too hard and are having to rest too often. Either slow down your cardio slightly or drop the weights/ reps used so you need less rest between stations.

What’s the power of strength endurance work? I have clients in their 40s, 50s, and 60s able to run 100 mile ultra marathons and out work younger men half their age. That’s real old man strength.

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Stress Management for Over 40s Trainees

Training really comes down to one thing: stress management. In the gym you add stress to try to push your body to a new level. Outside the gym, you do everything you can to alleviate the stress imposed in the gym.

When you achieve the right balance, you get what is called super-compensation, or training adaptation. When it’s wrong, you get over-reaching, which could make you too fatigued to train hard enough to stimulate change. If you go even further down the wrong track, you end up with over-training, which can lead to a near total system shut down.

Most people only look at the training performed in the gym or on the track when assessing levels of fatigue. However, the body doesn’t differentiate between mental, emotional, or physical stress. As far as the systems of the body are concerned, stress is stress..

That time your boss dropped a big pile of work on your desk that had to be done before you left the office was just as traumatic for your body as a max effort squat day. The last thing you should be doing if you’ve just had one of those days is head to the gym and max out. This seems counter-intuitive. When you have a bad day, it’s natural to want to take out that aggression in the gym and let off some steam. But when you do, you’ve essentially had what amounts to two max effort sessions in the same day, as far as your body is concerned.

There are two types of stress – specific and non-specific. Examples of specific stress are the volume or intensity of your workout, training frequency, and competition frequency. Non-specific stress includes all of the lifestyle factors such as financial stress, quality and quantity of sleep, travel, and family or work social functions.

Before we get to the actual stress-management solutions you can accomplish at home, let’s discuss some of the problems with most gym training models. Like it or not, anaerobic training produces the same type of energy seen in our fight-or-flight responses. It has to, because we need it to help us run away from predators for survival. But all that energy being produced so quickly has a damaging effect on your body. It is highly inflammatory, just like your stress-filled days at the office.

This is the main reason why people who do the Men’s and Women’s Challenges achieve such great results – we systematically work to reduce their stress levels so they can actually make fitness gains. Most people are so overstressed through poor diet, lack of sleep, being overweight, and then trying to train hard they can’t possibly recover. The Challenges meet them where they are and deliver an appropriate amount of stress, while clearing up all the underlying stressful factors in their lives.

This is where movement quality comes into the picture. Movement quality has both a physical and a mental component. The energy systems and connective tissue are the bodily components, but they are driven by the autonomic nervous system and motor control, which are managed by the brain. The role of the nervous system is to perceive threat through the use of all of your senses and is linked to motor output functions (such as speed and power), and these functions are linked to your motor control.

The sympathetic nervous system drives extension-based postures and activities, such as running and jumping, as well as most lifts. In other words, it is your fight-or-flight posture and supports higher force activities. However, as motor control is based on threat perception, an overuse of both this system and these postures results in negative changes in motor control. These changes to motor control lead to higher levels of fatigue. Those higher levels of fatigue lead to less movement variability – you become more robotic – and that leads to more injuries. In other words, spending too much time in your fight-or-flight postures performing high-force activities leads to greater likelihood of injury. What can you do to fix all this?

The body perceives new activities as a threat. This applies whether it is a new load, new exercise, or a new distance – they will all be viewed the same way by the body. That drives you straight into your fight-or-flight system and instantly turns what is meant to be an educational session into something that is perceived by the body to be a maximum effort. So we need to slowly introduce new stressors to training. This is precisely why you shouldn’t learn the barbell snatch on day one in a gym. There are just too many things that are new if you’re not familiar with barbells and weightlifting.

To counteract all that stress you need a training systems that soothe the body and allows your system to reset. For example, a day where you learn new moves should finish with an easy aerobic cool down to return the body to a suitable resting state that is responsive to training. Just as your warmup should prepare you for stress, your cool down should ready you to absorb the stress. And that is best done with a settled mind and body. The worst thing you can do for workout adaptation is to hit a max effort on a new lift and then walk out of the gym.

But all that could still change if you choose the wrong recovery format. I’ve known beach volleyballers who weren’t great swimmers choose to go swimming for recovery the day after a tournament. Unfortunately, their skill level at swimming meant that their bodies didn’t agree that it would be easy, so what should have been an easy session smashed them further. Walking in cool water would have been a good choice for them, but as poor swimmers there’s not much chance that swimming was going to be a good recovery session.

Remember, if your body perceives a threat then it will react as if under threat with that same fight-or flight-response. Next thing you know, you’ve turned your recovery session into another hard session and your system will be depressed even more.

Some activities lend themselves better to recovery than others. Here are three I recommend:

Flexion-Based Postures: The parasympathetic nervous system features flexion-based postures. Activities like cycling and rowing make for far better choices than running, as it is extension based (not to mention most people are poor runners so every run is a fight or flight activity). Yoga is also an excellent choice featuring many flexion based postures such as child’s pose, downward dog, and deep forward bends.

Breathing: The quickest, cheapest, and easiest way to influence the parasympathetic system is to focus on respiratory function. Methods such as FMS have had highly successful results from exercises as simple as crocodile breathing. I have had clients who have found huge improvements for shoulder pain after five minutes of targeted breathing practice, combined with education about how to recognize and manage signs of stress. When combined with flexion based postures such as downward dog it’s easy to begin understanding how yoga has such a good reputation for making people feel amazing thanks to its stress reducing properties.

Meditation: A friend of mine has done some interesting studies on using guided meditation to reduce stress among his Division 1 athletes. He and his colleagues found that following a daily guided meditation made up for poor sleep and dietary habits often seen in college athletes burning the candle at both ends. In my experience, the best time to perform this is before bed so that sleep quality is enhanced. There are plenty of free apps available that will run you through guided meditations if you don’t know where to start such as Omvana and Headspace.

Once you’ve got your recovery figured out, the final step is monitoring training intensity and frequency. Most forty-year old trainees can’t handle more than two or three hard sessions per week, and the days between should be filled with active recovery to stimulate the system, not further deplete or stress it. My clients are often surprised by how little intensity I program in for them, yet how good the results are. The results are all thanks to balancing training stress and recovery. With decreased recovery ability because of their age training stress also has to be decreased.

The goal of training is to improve the body, not test its limits. Focus on adding guided meditation and focused breathing work, as well as aerobic recoveries and cool downs, and you will be surprised at how much better your body feels.

 

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PB Oatmeal Cookies

These Peanut butter and oatmeal cookies are a great treat for over 40s athletes  – all healthy and natural. You can add protein powder ( I suggest vanilla) to your dough to increase the protein amount.

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup natural peanut butter
  • ½ cup light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1¼ cups old-fashioned oats
  • ¼ cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk

Directions:

1.    Preheat the oven to 180 Celsius

2.    Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

3.    In a medium bowl, use a hand mixer to mix together the peanut butter and brown sugar.

4.    Stir in baking powder and old-fashioned oats.

5.    Slowly start to pour in the almond milk.

6.    Stir everything together until fully incorporated.

7.    Using a tablespoon, spoon onto the baking sheet (12 on each sheet) and flatten out a little with a fork.

8.    Bake cookies for 6-8 minutes, until lightly golden.

9.    They will feel a little doughy still, but they will be just right after they cool.

Nutritional Information:

Calories: 378

Protein: 12 g

Carbs: 48 g

Fat: 18 g

Serving Size: 6 cookies

Servings: 4

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Why lunges are the best leg exercise for over-40s.

It’s high time that the lunge got the respect it deserves. Most strength coaches push bilateral work like squats and deadlifts over lunges but when it comes to real world application for most people these lifts falter.

Let’s break this down into bite-sized chunks:

There are three possible foot positions – standing with your feet together like in a squat or deadlift, a split stance like a lunge, and single legged work. So if you remove lunges from your program you’re deficient in 30% of the possible stances you may end up in. Athletically you will see split stances turn up far more often than an evenly weighted bilateral stance like in squats. Finally, the lunge is a transitional stance. It is the link between bilateral stance and single leg stance. many people who have trained bilaterally for years realise the error they’re making and try to jump to single leg training with no transition steps and wonder why they fail. Add in that middle step of lunges and the transition will be fine though.

Keeping with our transitional theme the lunge turns up as a transition in other ways too. In the developmental sequence you progress from lying on your back to face down, to a quadruped stance for activities like crawling. You then need to get through transitional stances like sitting and kneeling to get to standing, which is our final posture. One of the fastest ways to correct someone in standing is to regress back to a lower posture where they exhibit better control. So you would transition from standing to a position called half kneeling, which is really a kneeling lunge position.

Not only do you regress posture/ stance when trying to correct movement but you can also simplify it. The overhead squat is the hardest movement to get right as it has so many components that all need to work well. You can regress it by removing the overhead component and turning it into a regular squat. You can place the load below shoulder height such as in a goblet squat, which creates better trunk stiffness. But sometimes you need to address each leg individually. The problem is that many people who can squat on two legs are completely incapable of doing it on one. And that’s where lunges come back in as they are halfway between a double leg quad dominant pattern and a true single leg exercise.

Most leg exercises are broadly categorised into either quad or hip dominant. At one end we have an exercise like the squat, which is considered the king of quad exercises and at the other end is the deadlift, which is the king of hip dominant moves. (Although would suggest the snatch grip deadlift is the true hip dominant king over the conventional deadlift). Every exercise has to include a portion of each. A true hip only exercise, for example, would be a straight leg deadlift or good morning – neither of which allow the use of the same sorts of loads as the regular deadlift. In the deadlift there is a degree of knee bend. While the hips do the majority of the work there is an element of knee extension, which is quad driven. So we accept that all exercises have varying degrees of involvement from both of the major lower body patterns why aren’t we just looking for an exercise that hist both equally and saves us time in the gym?

The lunge features a large degree of knee flexion/ extension as well as nearly the same amount of hip extension as the deadlift (on one side). The verticla shin angle on the front leg is far more knee friendly on older joints than what you might see from a squat, yet it has the same amount of knee extension as a parallel squat will. The lunge allows a completely upright torso meaning little load an older backs. And, while many people think that the amount of weight used is the most important thing, as you get older you’re going to appreciate exercises where the muscles are targeted effectively that don’t require large amounts of axial loading on the spine. Put simply – eventually heavy squats and deadlifts are just going to make your older spine feel bad. The lunge allows far more variation in terms of performance and loading that will allow development every bit as good as squats and deadlifts without any of the potential downsides, while adding a better degree of function for most activities.

So let’s get to a smart progression to teach the lunge properly. The first step should be that thing I spoke of before from kneeling, or rather half kneeling. Half kneeling is a super powerful position to learn static motor control of the hip as well as core control. It can have elements added to it to teach upper body control too. More people should be training more often from half kneeling. So now we have a static posture that teaches us static stability we need to add to it.

For many the nest step is to go straight to lunges. However, there is a step prior that needs to be hit. That step is a split squat. The difference between a split squat and a lunge is movement. In a lunge you either step backwards or forwards into the split squat position. That clearly requires movement but you have to earn that movement by displaying control in a less challenging variation, which is where the split squat comes in. After we’ve drilled and proven we can be successful we can move onto lunges.

Again, most people go straight to forward lunges but the alternative to step backwards is far better for older knees. When you step forwards there will be a tendency to allow the knee to travel forwards too. That’s not all bad as the further forward the knee travels the more quad involvement there is. However, the further forward the knee travels the more stress there in on the knee, which can be problematic for older knees that have a lot of miles in them. far better is a reverse lunge where you step back. By stepping back you keep the front shin vertical, which is far safer for the joint. In fact, a vertical shin position is so safe it is used post knee surgery to begin the rehab process.

The next step is not necessarily to add movement. The natural progression for many is to take success with lunges and continue onto walking lunges. There are a number of ways to progress an exercise and movement is not necessarily the best. Walking lunges don’t really fit many purposes other than being hard. While that may make the workout feel effective that doesn’t mean that it was any more beneficial from something else. A far better idea at this point is to remove some of the base of stability. Remember when I said the lunge was a transitional exercise? Well, now is the time to start transitioning to single leg work via an exercise called the rear foot elevated split squat, or more popularly known as the Bulgarian squat. As the name says the rear foot is raised during the performance of this exercise placing more stress on the front leg.

The final step is to fully transition to a single leg squat with the non-working leg behind. This is known as a shrimp squat although another name – the airborne lunge – makes more sense.

Now we’ve talked about all the exercise progressions we need to add on load progressions because with the nature of this exercise it’s possible to load it in a variety of ways. Following are the ways you can load each one, from easiest to hardest:

No load
Double suitcase (ie weight in both hands with arms straight and hands at hips).
Double rack (this can be achieved with kettlebells or a barbell, with kettlebells being harder).
Single suitcase (placed on the opposite side to the front leg. ie if left leg is forwards the weight will be in the right hand).
Single rack (again, with weight held contralaterally).

For people who don’t believe that last bit – take the weight you normally use for a double suitcase position Bulgarian squat and place it in one hand on the opposite side to the working leg. If you’re doing Bulgarian squats with 2 x 20kg kettlebells and suddenly hold 40kg in the rack you’re going to be extremely challenged.

Try it for three months progressing through all the options, developing control and strength, and see how your body feels as well as how your performance goes. I will bet you don’t even notice that you’re no longer doing squats or deadlifts. The thing you will notice will be improved stability in various sporting situations, less back and knee pain, and better core stability.

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The Right Question - keys of progress to lifting after 40.

In the fitness world most people seem overly focused on one thing:

What the exercise plan consists of.

Nearly every single question I see comes down to sets/ reps/ exercises. It’s a shame that those elements make the least difference in changing someone’s health and fitness, especially for those of us past 40.

The number of click bait articles I see aimed at a crowd who should know better is ridiculous. “Top six ab exercises for over 40s”, “The 4 best leg exercises for older athletes”, and “The 4 best tabata workouts for over 40s” are all horrible ideas.

The trap of the fitness industry is this – we want to sell you exercises because we have entire gyms filled with expensive equipment. If we make you believe that this weird contraption over here does something you can’t replicate at home then we have you halfway signed up. If we make you believe that you can’t get in shape without this battery of expensive cardio machines then we’ve got you.

Not only do we want you to believe in the need for our fancy equipment we need you to believe that we have a secret workout plan that will melt your fat away in 3 x 30min sessions you can at home (and then fold away the equipment under your bed). We’re going to lie and swindle you out of your money because this thing right here in my hand is the secret, the magic beans, the answer to all that ails you. No one else could provide you with this because no one else has my magic beans. And only someone new who no one has ever heard of could have those magic beans because if the experienced ones had the magic beans they’d have worked for me by now.

But it’s all a lie. And you, dear consumer, have not only been duped for decades but you’ve allowed it to happen. Instead of searching for people with a proven history of success you’ve held onto your hope that this time, finally, you’ve found the secret. Except we all know that there are no secrets. Most people’s fitness hopes are the equivalent of buying a Powerball ticket every week. Yes, it is possible to hit the jackpot. People certainly do. Except the odds of winning Powerball in Australia work out to be about 1 winning ticket every 7500 years (provided you buy 50 games weekly, 50 weeks a year). So you have a chance to win once every 1000 lifetimes.

And that’s how it is with fitness. People making desperate plays in the hopes of somehow getting that winning ticket this time.

So let’s fix that.

I don’t like to make assumptions based on feelings or fads. I make my plans based off numbers. Cold, hard, undeniable fact. So let’s look at some facts:

1) Most First World countries share an alarming trait – roughly 70% of the adult population is overweight or obese. It’s 1-2% different from country to country but the UK, Australia, Canada, and the USA all share a figure that is roughly the same. That means that the single most important thing anyone should be focused on is diet, not training.

Believe it or not the reason for this is simple – it has nothing to do with aesthetics. It has to do with heart attacks and the other 3 leading causes of death. The first 4 of the leading causes of death can all be controlled via diet and exercise, with diet being more important as being overweight is a major factor in poor health.

I’m sure this comes as no surprise to all the mature readers but you can’t get away with the poor habits from your 20s and 30s. No more weekend long binges. No more junk food daily. It just doesn’t work anymore if you want to stay at a healthy bodyweight. How many of you reading this have felt like you were working hard in the gym but it’s not even obvious? You catch up with a friend and they don’t even say, “you look great, are you working out?”  Perhaps it’s time to start working just as hard in the kitchen and getting rid of your childish poor habits?

For a mature trainee, let me ask – if you are what you eat, why would you choose to be cheap, fatty, and unhealthy?

2) Given most people, even ones who work hard at their fitness, won’t train for much more than an hour a day 6 days a week, is it really the exercise that has the most impact on health or is it the rest of your lifestyle that makes up the remaining 162 hours?

If you want to be fit and healthy then you need to adopt the habits of people who are healthy and fit. Those habits do not include daily junk food, daily alcohol, or late nights. They include water, lean proteins, salads, early bed times, limited screen time, and ample quiet time to destress. These are not once a day things. These are every day things.

Like the Powerball ticket idea when it comes to training we can apply the same here – those who binge drink (classified as more than 5 drinks for men and 4 for women), eat junk daily, and rarely perform exercise are the ones you will find going on sudden “detox diets” in the hopes of magically fixing in a few days damage caused over months or years. Contrast that to the lifelong healthy lifestyle of someone gave up all their self-destructive childish habits and figure out which one do you think will live a longer, healthier life?

3) Before we worry about sets, reps, and how much weight to lift in the gym the first and most important muscle to work is the heart. Again, heart attack is the number one cause of death in over 44s for both genders not having a weak deadlift. While strength training is important for a variety of reasons it comes in a very distant second place to training that makes the heart strong and healthy.

Any trainer who isn’t targeting your heart in this three-pronged manner of diet, healthy lifestyle, and cardio training is doing you a great disservice.

So instead of asking your trainer about whether he uses kettlebells or barbells ask him what kind of diet he wants you to follow. Ask his recommendations to clean up your lifestyle. Ask him about his understanding of cardiovascular training and health. Only once you have those nailed down should you even worry about the magic beans of the actual training program.

For anyone wanting to fix these issues once and for all – to finally not just feel good but look good too – you should consider the entry programs available on this site. For men, the 28 Day Challenge is unmatched for the results it gives. For women the 12 Week Challenge is the only women’s training plan that doesn’t just address the above issues but honours the fact that your hormone levels and body composition are very different to men’s and require a different approach (which is why the Women’s Challenge is 12 weeks and not 4). Don’t be fooled by the term “entry programs”. It has taken me nearly 30 years of experience to be able to create and deliver these programs in such a concise and actionable format. Many very experienced mature aged trainees make incredible progress on these plans because they actually address the most important factors and don’t allow people to try to fake their way to health and fitness.

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Spicy Tuna Burgers

One of my favourite recipes…

Ingredients:
For the tuna cakes:

3 cans of chunk light tuna (in water)
½ cup white onion, chopped (you can substitute these for 3 green onions too, or, as I do, simply use /12 white onion)
1½ tbsp. Cajun seasoning
1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes 2 egg whites
½ cup old-fashioned oats (can substitute w/ panko – this is the best option for binding) 1 tsp. hot sauce (Sriracha is the best)
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper

For the sauce:
For the sauce, you can use a store-bought remoulade. Just make sure to pay attention to the serving size (in this case, it was 1 tbsp./serving). Sauces can quickly add more calories than you think – in addition to sodium – so it’s best to measure them out.
Directions:
1. Open cans of tuna. Place in a strainer and with a fork press some of the liquid out.
2. In a medium bowl, combine tuna and remaining 8 ingredients and mix well.
3. Form mixture into 6 equal patties.
4. Place in the fridge for about an hour so they can set up.
5. Using a large skillet, spray with cooking spray and cook tuna cakes over medium heat about 3 to 4 minutes on each side (you just want them to be golden brown).
Serve with sauce on top or on the side.
Nutritional Information:
Calories: 200
Fat: 1 g
Carbs: 14 g
Protein: 30 g
Serving Size: 2 cakes Servings: 3

Some notes:

You can use 2 eggs instead of egg whites and it’ll hold together better. It’ll change the macro information slightly though.

Cook off the onion first. For details on how to dice onion go here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCGS067s0zo

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Real World Conditioning

It’s good to be strong. It’s good to be fit. It’s awesome to be both. Most workout plans are really good at one or the other – either size and strength or fitness. Very few deliver on both.

The reasons are actually pretty simple – people think of “fitness” in a single way. It either means something like a MetCon type workout or maybe some prowler pushes for conditioning, or it means mindlessly slaving away at low intensity for hours on an elliptical machine for cardiovascular fitness. But there’s actually four different types of work required to get both a big gas tank and a big engine. And, if we want to really be strong, fast, and durable we need legs that can withstand any and all punishment.

Let’s quickly look at the different energy systems and what they do:

ATP/ CP system – max power output is approximately six seconds. Think an all-out sprint or 1RM. That’s the ATP system in action. Because ATP replenishment is slow – roughly 3 minutes for full replenishment – these sessions feature short periods of near maximal output and lonmg rest periods.

Glycolytic system – 20 – 40 seconds. The glycolytic system is the one that makes the muscles burn and is represented by a 400m all out run. A lot of training ends up using this training zone but gains here are very hard won and limited. This is mindless but fun sweating that often doesn’t produce an improvement in line with the effort put in.

The aerobic system – contributes more and more to total energy from about 75 seconds onwards. Even for events as short as a 2000m row, which is completed in around 7 minutes by most males, is 87% aerobic. [1] In other words, if you want true all day fitness you’re going to need a strong aerobic system. I’ve seen plenty of WOD monsters who can crush short 20 minute workouts be ruined by having to repeatedly put out all day long during selection type events.

Now we’ve covered how your body makes energy there is a fourth factor to take into account – muscular endurance. There are plenty of people who tell you that maximal strength work in low rep ranges will give you better efficiency. The problem is that for some tests, like a military push up test, a higher bench press won’t translate into greater push up numbers. Having a big squat also won’t help you pack march 20km either. You’re actually going to have to develop some local muscular endurance, which means some higher rep training. Having said that, I’ve also seen too many great runners who can go all day but fall to pieces when they have to carry something heavy. Muscular endurance is better termed strength endurance and it bears remembering that you first need some strength before you worry about the endurance part of that equation.

The main factors to consider:

We want to avoid the ugly middle ground as much as possible.
For legs that can truly tackle all tests we need a combination of power, strength, and strength endurance.
There still needs to be longer, low intensity, steady state work that teaches the body how to be strong and durable, helps us recover, and builds that big gas tank.

It may seem at this point that you should just add more intensity more often to get the desired result. However, the opposite is true, especially for athletes concerned about maintaining muscle mass. An all HIIT routine led to a 3.7% drop in body mass (and this was in elite endurance athletes who don’t have a huge amount of extra muscle to begin with).[2] What they found was that in a single week of six sessions the training time for best results were broken down like this:

2 x 60min HIIT sessions.
2 x 150-240min low intensity sessions (that included 6-8 5s maximal sprints).
2 x 90min low intensity sessions. (<80% max heart rate).
If you add all that up what you get is about 22% of the week being HIIT and 78% lower intensity. The down side is that while this training was effective for increasing VO2max and time to exhaustion I’m also sure that most people don’t have 11 hours per week to focus solely on the various elements of energy systems work without taking into account the strength endurance protocol.

So how do you create a plan that provides for this?

The easiest way to get the low-level work in is walking. Not loaded walking like with a pack. Just walking. A recent study by Song et al found that, “A short walk in a forest can have significant physiological and psychological effects on middle-aged hypertensive individuals. Compared with walking in the urban environment, walking in the forest environment significantly increased parasympathetic nerve activity and significantly decreased heart rate. These results are consistent with those from previous studies that examined physiological responses to a forest environment in young adults. HRV responses are often detected during relaxed states such as during rest, a massage, or after performing yoga. Therefore, we concluded that participants who walked in the forest were in a physiologically relaxed state.”[3]

Why is this so important? Because high intensity training can burn you out mentally and physically quickly. In the original Tabata study all participants said they wouldn’t repeat the protocol because it was so draining. Given it only lasted six weeks and our plan needs to be one we can use for years we need something that is more sustainable. Charlie Francis, Ben Johnson’s legendary sprint coach, had this to say about CNS fatigue, “CNS overtraining is caused by high intensity work occurring too frequently in the training cycle, in too high a volume in a single training session, or by the attempt to introduce high intensity work too rapidly into the program when residual fatigue still exists. Symptoms of CNS fatigue include loss of performance or technique, frequent cramps, involuntary trembling or shaking of the muscles after a workout, flickering eyelids, loss of concentration, sleeplessness, and general malaise”. So we probably want to avoid that.

The reason why the low intensity work features so prominently in these plans is because it has a calming effect on the nervous system. The best way to think about HIIT style training is that it represents the icing on the cake. Low intensity work is the cake. If you really want a great end product you better make sure you have some cake to put your icing on.

So goal one of the program is a daily 30 minute walk, five days a week. On the 6th and 7th days, when you presumably have more free time and flexibility a longer one-hour walk is required. That gets us four and a half hours of low intensity work per week, which means we can spend between 50 and 60 minutes each week on our anaerobic and strength endurance work. I can’t stress enough that the walking is the most important part of this entire program. Without it the high intensity work may be too much and you’ll soon find yourself sick or injured.

The following sample program gives an idea on how to set up the time each week as best as possible for maximum return. The conditioning protocol used hits the entire body extremely effectively – you’re likely going to find muscles, particularly around your abs, that you haven’t ever felt. I’m not kidding when I say that I’ve had clients suffer extreme muscle soreness for days the first times they’ve used these protocols.

Because the repeat sprint protocol is so hard on the body, and the primary source of running injuries is a body not prepared for the length, frequency, or speed of a session you should follow the following 4-week break in plan to running:

Sprint length – 50m.
Frequency – two times per week.
Rest – 3mins between sprints.
Sets – 10

Week 1 – 30m
Week 2 – 25m
Week 3 – 20m
Week 4 – —

Rather than try to start from zero and hit maximum speed straight away in week 1 you’ll smoothly accelerate up to top speed over 30m and run the last 20m hard. In week 2 you’ll accelerate a bit harder and build up to top speed over 25m before finishing hard over the remaining 25m. In week 3 it’ll get a bit faster still and you’ll be at top speed within 20m and then blast the final 30m flat out. In the 4th week you go as hard as you can right from the start for each sprint.

Workout plan:

To make the body strong enough to withstand both the rigours of running as well as make it truly strong and fit, our training plan needs to cover multiple fitness qualities. To cover multiple fitness qualities in a single week means that a conjugate training template is needed. The short version of this is that we want to cover speed/ power, max strength, and strength endurance, in that order, in a single week. They are placed in that order because as fatigue mounts up the ability to work with true power decreases so it makes sense for speed and loads to decrease as the week progresses before a rest on the weekend to rejuvenate.

After every sprint strength session perform 150-200 reps of abdominal work. I suggest picking 5 exercises you like and working through 3-4 sets of 10 for each in circuit fashion. Given the size and strength of the spinal erectors it is critical that abdominal strength be developed and maintained at a level that allows effective counter-balancing of spinal erector strength.

There is a caveat to this type of work – you can’t begin this plan until you’ve gone past the beginner stage for conditioning. The beginner phase is two years of 300+ hours annually of low intensity endurance work. That’s 6 hours a week for 50 weeks a year for 2 years to get past the beginner stage. If you are sitting there thinking that perhaps you’ll never get to this workout then you are right – this is not a beginner workout and most people are absolute beginners when it comes to conditioning work. You don’t walk in the gym and start trying to lift as heavy as possible on day one and you don’t earn sprint conditioning on day one either. Spend the time to build the base. You may find, as most of my clients do, that they don’t really need anything beyond the base layer anyway. I have only a handful of clients now who are ready for this type of work and they have been with me for years. If you attempt this without having built the base adequately you will get hurt, or your fitness will actually go backwards.

 

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19707782

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3912323/

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4377926/

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The A Game

Recently on social media I saw a post by Craig Liebenson, a well known clinician, regarding comments made by Mike Boyle, a well known strength coach. The summary of Boyle’s comments are that more people should train at a higher intensity. His argument is that most people have never trained hard enough and that they’re wasting their time on lower intensity work.

This is absolutely untrue and anyone who has actually spent a lot of time training people will know why. I know Mike has a great history with college athletes but as his business and reputation has grown he has moved from college strength coach to PT business owner. I doubt very much he is getting up at 5am to be there for his 6am members and run them through their workouts. In other words, like many training gurus online, he is out of touch.

Many people train for many different reasons. Perhaps the most common is aesthetics/ weight loss with performance in a recreational activity somewhere in the mix. However, if we’re being honest with ourselves the most important reason anyone enters a gym is health. To be healthier so that they can live a longer and more fulfilled life. To see their kids and grand kids grow up and to be a good role model for them. Health comes first. If you don’t believe me, try training for a marathon with a broken leg. You need to be healthy before you can worry about anything else.

If I could speak to the trainers in the room for a moment – you want your clients to get the best possible result right? Because you know that if you give them both what they want and what they need you’ll have a client long term. Here’s the thing… 70% of adults are overweight or obese. Of children aged under 19, 60% are expected to be overweight or obese by the time they reach 19. It has become common for people to be well beyond a normal BMI range.

And that’s the thing about common. We begin to call common normal. They are two very different things. 70% of adults being overweight is common. It is not normal. Science has spent a great deal of time figuring out what is and isn’t normal for the human body and we have mountains of research on millions of people that points to a rough size and shape that we should all be. However, as portion sizes have grown and snack foods have become more palatable and harder to resist then it has become more and more common to see people massively overweight.

So if we’re being honest as fitness professionals the most important thing we can offer someone is not higher intensity training. It’s fat loss. Because obesity is a leading cause of death. Not only are the high blood pressures and high cholesterol counts that come with it deadly but being obese has also been linked to 11 different types of cancer. If you’re not addressing this with your customers, turning a blind eye to the obese elephant in the room, you are doing them a tremendous disservice. The number one service we should be aiming to provide is how to exercise and eat consistently to ensure a healthy BMI is reached and maintained.

In weight training, higher intensity means one thing – heavier weights. Heavier weights need to be lifted with a thing called the valsalva technique. It is a natural breath holding mechanism we have to stiffen the core and allow us to lift heavy things more safely. Do you know what holding your breath does for your blood pressure? It sends it through the roof. If you’ve already got high blood pressure you may as well start each set by playing a round of Russian Roulette if your training involves heavy loads and breath holding. Sooner or later those odds won’t be in your favour and you’ll have a stroke.

Looking at the top three leading causes of death – heart and circulatory disorders, cancer, and respiratory disorders – I hope it’s easy to see a theme where exercise may be concerned. The heart and lungs are easily trainable through cardiac output training, which looks nothing like higher intensity weight training. Cardiac output training is usually set at 30-90 minutes at 120-150bpm, which are levels that are easily met by just about everyone. For people who are fans like I am of the Maffetone method you’ll see that MAF sits pretty comfortably within that range for most people. While the link between the heart and lungs is easily recognised when it comes to cardiac output training it may seem that cancer is the odd man out. As I said before, being overweight has been linked to 11 different types of cancer. These include breast (post-menopause), bowel, kidney, liver, endometrial, ovarian, stomach, oesophagus, gallbladder, pancreas and prostate (advanced) cancers.

In the fitness industry these days it’s all the rage to push higher intensity sessions, particularly if you offer those on a reduced time frame. It’s far more common to see people advertising 3 x 30 minute sessions of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) than it is to advocate walking for an hour a day. I get it – people don’t like to exercise and are time poor so many fitness businesses would rather lie to you than try to sell you something they know is more effective. And, doesn’t it sound more reasonable that if you work harder more often than not you’ll be in better shape?

Actually, the converse is true. As it turns out there is no real gain to be had beating yourself senseless week after week. As it turns out far greater gains in fitness can be had by doing easier sessions than harder ones. This scientist, Seilor, did some studies on a lot of athletes over a period of decades and what he found may surprise you. He found that the best athletes in the world spent roughly 80% of their training time below 70% intensity. The remaining 20% they did indeed work hard but as total volume went up, and more and more time was spent at these lower intensities of 70% and below, their results improved. Training volume was dictated by sport more than by anything else with runners having the lowest total training hours per year and cyclists and rowers at the high end, with swimming in between. (That’s quite normal as running is far more stressful on the body than cycling or rowing so it’s not that the athletes don’t want to train more it’s that they can’t as their recovery needs are higher).

At higher heart rates the heart never is never able to fully fill before it is forced to pump blood around the body again. That’s a problem when it comes to developing a bigger, stronger pump. To force the heart to become bigger it needs to hold as much blood as possible for an extended period so that the tissue adapts. Only at these slightly lower intensities in the 120-150bpm range does this happen. Higher intensities do not see this adaptation take place. Nor, interestingly, is it possible from strength training despite the rise in heart rate during training.

At this point people will say that strength training is different in how it forces change in the body and that higher intensities are needed. Well, it’s not. We have one CNS and it responds to stress the same way regardless of whether you go for a run, lift some weights, or fight off a tiger. When your body is stressed all it cares about is survival – that’s why it’s called fight or flight mode. We only improve physically – whether that be dropping body fat, running faster, or lifting more weight – when we are in the rest and digest side of the nervous system. And Russian research on lifting shows this to be true as well with elite lifters averaging 72% intensity year round. So again, regardless of whether we’re talking about strength or fitness this 70% number seems to crop up an awful lot.

So that’s for elite athletes, but what did his research say about recreational athletes like you and me?

Interestingly enough there aren’t many studies done on recreational athletes. But a recent one by Esteve-Lanao showed that recreational runners performing 4-5 sessions per week and totaling 6-10 hours of work benefit with the same polarised training effect as elites do seeing an improvement in their 10km run times at the 7 and 11 week marks. I mention this because what normally happens at this point is that people hawking HIIT will suggest that people don’t have 15+ hours per week to train like an elite athlete and that HIIT is a far better way to get the best bang for the buck in terms of training. That is completely untrue as the science shows.

And where does this leave something like walking – the lowest intensity activity you can do and still call it exercise? As it turns out walking has a lot of good stuff attached to it, and features heavily in my 28 Day Challenge as a corner stone of health based training. Recently, this article here described what happened to a man who spent a month walking all day long. He spent 29 days walking 486 miles along the Colorado Trail. The end results are quite interesting. The summary:

  • Body fat dropped from a healthy 13% to an amazing 5%.
  • Resting heart rate dropped from 48bpm to 40bpm.
  • Blood sugar dropped back to within normal ranges, cortisol decreased, testosterone doubled.
  • He went from burning 66% fat/ 34% carbs at 110bpm to 91% fat/ 9% carbs. At 145bpm he went from 52% fat/ 48% carbs to 70% fat/ 30% carbs. His lactate threshold went from 153bpm to 168bpm.

What does all this mean? Well, he lost body fat and increased performance massively solely by walking for 8-10 hours a day. As an older guy I would love to double my testosterone production while simultaneously nearly halving my cortisol production and body fat.

Here’s the thing about lower intensity training that all the salesmen who are out of touch miss – it’s healthy for you. Higher intensity training raises cortisol. That’s one of the markers typically associated with being stressed. If you’re in your 40s or beyond, with kids, a stressful job, and you’re like 70% of the world and you’re overweight, guess what…? You’re already stressed. The body can only ever adapt to so much stress at once and if you’re up to the eyeballs in stress your chance of increasing fitness is zero. The best thing you can do for yourself is to remove stress and lower intensity training does this. It’s not uncommon for guys in the 28 Day Challenge to drop 4-5kg in a month because of a focus on correct eating and stress reduction. The training is actually incredibly easy – because the focus is on stress reduction so the body can adapt. We make zero effort during the Challenge to stress the body more. Suggesting that an overweight, stressed out, father of three, who is the sole bread winner should come to the gym and smash himself with higher intensity may as well be suggesting that the best thing for him is to let a pro boxer beat his brains out. What he needs is a figurative fitness hug so his body can drop some of that stress and actually adapt to training. In general, in today’s world, people need stress reduction in their training, not stress addition.

If we’re all being really honest with ourselves in this health first training paradigm then what we should also be admitting is that we want daily activity, not sporadic activity. There are plenty of studies that show 10,000 daily steps to be a cut point for health and weight control. There are likewise many studies to show that daily activity is far healthier than sporadic 2-3 times a week hard gym sessions. Again, in the fitness industry there is a split between trying to advise people what is best and what is easy to sell. Many sadly choose the latter, although probably have far less money stress than I do. I doubt the guy who invented P90X worries about money.

The reality is that if you asked a trainer which they’d prefer – a client who trains 2-3 times per week or one who does something every day, I know what their answer will be. Only a fool, or someone with something to sell, would ever tell you that less is better. And the way exercise works is that we adapt to it. One of those adaptations is decreased muscle soreness. So my guy who does something every day will actually suffer less muscle soreness than the person who trains intermittently. Watching people at this time of year try to make change in the gym it is easy to see how discouraging muscle soreness can be to the untrained. I would rather have a client finish a workout and have zero muscle soreness so they could come back the next day than be so sore they need to take a few days off to walk normally again. Because at the end of the day my client who trains 6 times per week will have 300 hours of exercise at the end of the year. Meanwhile your client doing HIIT is going to have 100-150 hours. And who do you think is going to be in better shape? And forget just the first year. As I tell the guys in my 28 Day Challenge it’s not about this month or even this year. This is a game we’re playing for the next 40 years.

So who is in better shape at 60? If we say they start worrying about their health at 40, they’ll accumulate 20 years of training. My guy has 6000 hours of health and fitness activity. Your HIIT guy has 3000. My guy is literally twice as fit and conditioned as your guy despite never having to been destroyed in the gym – as if he has another 20 years of training on top of what your guy has accomplished. Let that sink in – in the same period of time I gave him an extra 20 years of training in comparison. I have gradually, and easily, over time gently nudged my guy’s fitness ever forwards. Meanwhile you’ve savaged him with beating after beating to try to get him there, knowing all along that it is a fruitless endeavor, because volume trumps all eventually.

Circling back to cardiovascular training at low intensities and stress we also need to understand that lower intensity aerobic work has a stimulating effect on the nervous system. It removes stress. If we picture our typical client – over 40, overweight, stressed, and needing to change surely we should be picking a training method that will help him fix all that as fast as possible? And lower intensity, high volume and frequency, continuous output aerobic training is it. It will teach the body to more effectively utilise stored fat as a fuel, burn more energy than any other form of training (especially if really overweight as the body is forced to carry a greater load), and lower stress in the body. While strength training is an important part of the overall fitness equation, if I have to pick one gift in the gym for my client I will pick longevity and health always over anything else.

If you’ve skipped to the end hoping for me to sum things up succinctly, here it is:

  1. Most people are stressed and overweight.
  2. Leading causes of death are more likely influenced by being overweight and having a weak set of heart and lungs so training should reflect that.
  3. Adding high stress workouts to a system already under pressure won’t make things better in the long term.
  4. Higher intensity isn’t actually the most beneficial form of training – for strength, fat loss, or cardiovascular improvements – and will likely slow down progress at best, or cause eventual injury or a health issue at worst.
  5. A focus on intensity and performance neglects what should be a health first focus.

 

 

 

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Running technique 101

As someone who spends every day watching people move and then trying to get them to do it better I am always amazed at the illogical approach many have to exercise. If I asked someone to make me a three-course meal, who had never cooked before, and told them that all they needed to know was how to turn the oven on I’d be laughed at. But somehow when it comes to exercise many people think that all they need to know is how to tie their shoes up and they should be fine from there on.

And the problem with running is that it is supposed to be a natural, instinctive movement – something we’re all born with. But we’ve got the movement skills of a six-year old.

I can’t count the number of times I have heard people say something similar to, ‘How you run is how you run”. But nothing could be further from the truth. Running well is every bit as technical and detailed as any other form of exercise. From foot placement to hand position to how to breathe there is beauty and artistry in running well. Taking the time to do it well will have a reward just as big as improving your squat technique or pronouncing words correctly in a new language.

But, and there is a big but, there is no evidence at all to show that all these supposed “technique” coaches you can now find are actually doing any good. In fact, there is research that shows that altering a runner’s natural stride and form actually slows them down and makes them less efficient.

Lydiard hinted at this in a famous article featured in Sports Illustrated in 1962 where he said, “Forget about form. If a joker throws his arms around, that’s fine, so long as he is fit and relaxed. Then he runs smoother and easier, and form takes care of itself. We want the chap who can run for two or three hours and come back looking as fresh as he did when he went out”.

The thing that separates the best runners in the world from the rest of us is their ability to hold form while running. This skill is hard won over many years of pavement pounding and is one of the main reasons why you don’t see many great young runners in distance events. But the fact remains that the elite have spent many years perfecting their form just the same way a boxer learns the ins and outs of the fight game. As they’ve developed higher and higher skill levels they display this by racing faster and further.

A good runner is one that has learnt what it takes to go fast. When was the last time you went out the door with the sole intention of figuring out how you run and how to make it better?

Before any discussion can be had on training plans, pacing strategies, or which shoes to buy we need to first look at how to run. It sounds so simple, but trust me, it’s not.

My friend Rob de Castella, a former world champion and world record holder, knows a thing or two about running. During one of our conversations about running he gave me the simplest truth I have yet heard.

“Running is about kicking the earth as hard as you can on each stride”.

The physics is simple – the harder you push the earth, the harder it pushes you back which results in forward motion – Newton’s third law in action. But usually people are so distracted while they run that they may not even have realized this is what is happening. Perhaps they’re tuned out by listening to a favourite track, or they’re looking at the scenery to distract themselves from the pain they’re feeling, or maybe they’re busy thinking about how they need to tackle a problem at work. If I can give you one piece of advice immediately to carry through all your training from now it is to eliminate distractions from your running. Focus on making every step of every run more perfect than the one preceding it. Tune into your body and don’t be distracted by your iPod.

Running form discussions are usually derailed by minutiae. One minute some guy stumbles out of the desert saying he’s just been hanging out with some amazing barefooted Indians who are powered by chia seeds, and the next a Russian guy is talking about energy return, while at the same time there’s a guy in a lab coat telling you that the most important thing is the gravitational effect of Mars on earth’s atmosphere and if you time your running to coincide with the alignment of the planets that you’ll be faster.

The problem with a lot of the commentary on running technique is that most of it is based on personal experience. But in today’s world of information overload all of a sudden we have access to a nearly limitless supply of personal experience, albeit by other people.

But let’s make this as practical and based in science and biology as we can. After all, despite all of us on the planet being different, we share the same biology, so what works for one body will largely work for another.

Underneath the body are the legs. While the mass above the legs is largely non-functional mass in relation to running, the legs need to serve a variety of functions from support to shock absorption to force generation. And during each stride they’re performing all these actions at once. Underneath the legs is the ground, and as we said before, we need that so that we have something to kick against to provide propulsion for us.

Running is best described as a series of one-legged hops done in rapid succession.

Propulsion and lift off: When you push off.

Recovery: When you pick your leg up and extend it.

Impact and braking: When gravity brings you back into contact with the ground and friction halts your forward motion.

While we could break out here and discuss enough scientific research to make your head spin the most important take away is that your legs effectively act like springs throughout your run. “Tread lightly” takes on a whole new meaning when you start to consider the impact these forces have on your performance.

Many running coaches will try to shoe horn you into their idea of universal good form. Given that we are all built slightly differently, and that limb lengths, weight distribution, and even previous injury will change the way we run trying to achieve some textbook ideal for form isn’t going to work. Not only that but it will likely lead to injury.

I’m not sure perfect form exists in relation to running for most of us. With individual discrepancies in limb lengths, heights, and even body composition most of us will never move like an elite runner. Trying to shoe horn your body into someone else’s mechanics can be a fast path to injury. That being said there are some consistencies that hold true for all of us that can be worked on.

The Head. Good posture remains the same regardless of where you are or what you are doing. A neutral spine has a head position that is the same whether you are sitting, standing, or running. If your head is pushed forwards because you spend all day staring at a screen or slumped in a chair you’ll carry that same head position when you run. Because the head is so heavy it needs to be counter balanced somewhere else in the body. What happens is that to counter the weight of your head going forwards you tend to push your butt out behind you. This leads to a break at the hips so that you are never actually standing tall as well as heel striking.

With the head held in a neutral position you should be able to look at the ground at a point about three metres in front of you while simultaneously being able to scan for low branches.

The Shoulders. Good running involves little in the way of upper body rotation. In fact, the entire reason for moving your arms is to counter rotation to keep the upper body still. One of my pet peeves is people trying to run with what looks like military posture. If you try to run ramrod straight you won’t be able to use your arms effectively. The shoulders should round slightly, not enough to cause rounding of the upper back, but enough that the arms can swing freely.

The Back. While the back shouldn’t be held ramrod straight, as if you are a soldier standing at attention, it shouldn’t have excessive curve to it. An excessively curved back is a sign that some strengthening is needed to maintain posture while running. Without good posture you won’t be able to effectively counter all the forces created while running.

The Arms. The arms should hang in a relaxed manner from the shoulders. It’s all too common to see runners with their shoulders shrugged up near their ears and wonder why they unduly fatigue when running. The goal of running is relaxed economy and the arms play a big role in that. In distance running the arms swing from a point just outside the body to a point almost in the centre of your body, in line with the bottom of your sternum. As one of my triathlon coaches once said to me you should think of flicking your nipples as you run. As you speed up the arms will move in a straighter line so that they travel more parallel to the hip instead of this slight cross-body action.

The arm action itself is not one of pushing the arms forward, but pulling back and letting it relax on the way forward. It is the elbow drive backwards that pulls the opposite knee up and forward, so focus on elbow drive backwards, rather than on arm swing forwards.

The arms themselves will be held at about a ninety-degree angle at the elbow on the backswing. As the arm swings forward this will close. The main thing to remember is to stay tight and compact without wild swinging motions of the arms that waste energy.

The Hands. The hands should be loosely clenched as if holding a small stick in each hand. One well-known triathlon coach, Brett Sutton, even makes his athletes run with M&M containers in their hands to enforce this. They are easily spotted even years after moving on from him as they all run with imaginary M&M containers in their hands with thumbs suspended midair over where the top of the container would be.

The Wrists. Every time your wrist bends or the hand flops around you are wasting energy. Like with the back we don’t want joints held rigidly but there needs to be some firmness. Think of making the body like a young tree branch – springy and bendy, yet firm enough to give structure. If, on the other hand, we make the joints rigid and hard like an old branch, we become stiff and inflexible, unable to generate the kind of bounce needed to run well.

The Pelvis. Many people spend their days in what is called anterior pelvic tilt – that is with the pelvis rotated forward. While this may be your natural stance it is not ideal for running. This position is often due to overly tight hip flexors. This over tightness needs to be addressed otherwise the thigh is not free to extend backwards on each stride. For many people slightly rotating the pelvis forward will simply bring them back into neutral. A good test for this is that if you push your hips as far back behind you as you can (imagine Beyonce twerking to get this position) you’ll feel your abs are disengaged. If you begin to pull your hips towards your rib cage you’ll feel your abs start to engage. At the point where your abs are lightly activated you are now in a good position to run where the leg can swing freely underneath the body. The pelvis and the back must be working together to allow you to “run tall”.

The Legs and Feet. Before we discuss how the legs and feet operate we need to differentiate between “ground contact” and “landing”. Merely having your foot on the ground doesn’t equal having all your weight on it.

Percy Cerutty believed that running should be a free and uncomplicated movement. Work on relaxation before you worry about speed or distance – think easy, light, and smooth. We’ll get to fast eventually, but to start with let’s work on those three. One of the biggest benefits of running slowly is having the mental space to work on the dynamic relaxation required for running. If you can’t run relaxed and economically at 6min/ km you certainly won’t do it at 5min/ km or 4min/km.

So where do we begin? Tony Benson has this to say:

“First we need to practice getting the landing right. Start by jogging on the spot and feeling the natural landing position. As long as you keep your body vertical you will stay on the spot. If you want to move forward simply push your butt forward (don’t arch your back) so you are leaning from the heel not the waist and you will move forward (actually you will accelerate forward) naturally. Now find a straight line (i.e. as on a track) and start running along it. Have someone check your landing. Your right foot should cover half the line when it lands and your left should also cover half the line on landing. If your feet are not landing in this way or your heel is ok but your toes are pointing out you are not landing under your centre of mass. If you are landing in this way the outer edge of the foot will make contact first because the foot has a natural tendency to hang that way when relaxed while the backward pulling action will automatically align the foot into the correct position. The landing will also be relatively light because the foot is not landing all at once.

If you are landing correctly the foot, lower leg and thigh will have been swept backwards at the time of landing because if your landing is not active the heel will hit first and the braking effects that accompany a full heel landing will occur.

To be successful in achieving a correct landing position you will need to develop the power to be capable of applying a millisecond of downward force as the lead arm is pulled backwards. The corresponding downward drive of your opposite leg then causes your body to rise. This means your foot has more time to swing back into a position directly under your body.

Landing under your body means your foot spends less time on the ground than if you land on your heel with the foot out in front of your body because you do not spend unnecessary time pulling your body forward to get into a position to push off into the next stride. More importantly if you have ever been told to “lift your knees up” or to “run tall” ignore these poorly stated directives because, as per Newton’s law, to focus on lifting the legs will cause the hips and indeed the whole upper body to drop”.

Running is every bit as technical as any other activity you can find. It is not a matter of lacing your shoes up, sticking your head phones in and tuning out the rest of the world while you mindlessly plod around the streets.

Make an effort to make every step better than the one before it. Focus on posture, breathing, hand position, how you carry your arms, footfall, and most of all turnover. Your goal as a runner is to keep the body as a stiff spring to make it an efficient energy return device. A large part of that is a high cadence of around 180 steps per minute as it gives you an increase in stiffness for no extra physical training. There is nothing else you can do that can make you 100% better at running instantly. There are many free metronome apps available for phones these days. I suggest downloading one so you can use it in training to monitor your cadence. It is free speed and injury resistance.
Spend some time focusing on not how fast you run but how well. Make every step better than the one before it. The increase in economy will help you run faster for longer than before.

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