Exercise: Good for your brain, not bad for your body

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

I read three interesting articles over the past couple of weeks pointing out the value of exercise for keeping your brain in good shape. Add to that an article pointing out that "extreme" exercise isn’t bad for the body and the message is clear: keep running!

I think the benefit of exercise for the brain is a very fascinating topic. Given that we used to think brain decline was inevitable as we age, it’s fascinating to see that we can improve our brains as we age – and the key is exercise.

First up, from Runner’s World, Masters Athletes Have Superior Brain Function:

The results suggest that older athletes have a lower risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, according to Tseng. But he emphasizes the key message here is the extraordinary benefits of long-term exercise – and that it’s never too late to start.

"Brain plasticity [changes] can happen even later in life and that’s an important message from the study," he says, noting that some of the athletes began running in their 40s and 50s.

Next, from Science Magazine, How Exercise Beefs Up the Brain.

In short, exercise stimulates the production of proteins that are very good for the brain.

Finally, from the Washington Post, Need a brain boost? Exercise.

According to recent research, a single workout can immediately boost higher-order thinking skills, making you more productive and efficient as you slog through your workday. When you exercise your legs, you also exercise your brain; this means that a lunchtime workout can improve your cognitive performance, thanks to blood flow and brain food. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, is a protein that facilitates the growth of neurons and nourishes existing ones. It improves executive function, a type of higher-order thinking that allows people to formulate arguments, develop strategies, creatively solve problems and synthesize information. BDNF sits idly at the synapses of your brain neurons and crosses the synapses only with the increased blood flow that comes with exercise.

Hey, BDNF is that same good protein from the prior article. What to take from these two combined? That BDNF that is produced through exercise is good for both short term boosts and long term brain development/maintenance.

On to what exercise does to the body, we have ScienceNordic weighing in with Debunked: extreme exercise isn’t harmful:

One conclusion was that mortality rates did not increase more than usually compared to the normal population. It’s been proven on more than one occasion that exercise has a positive effect on life span.

"There’s no basis in the literature to say extreme exercisers risk dying younger," says Overgaard. "But we don’t know what happens if you continue past your prime." Exercise doesn’t automatically mean a free pass to a long life, he adds; there’s still the risk of illness and diseases.

So it’s not a silver bullet but those who claim we’re killing ourselves off are just plain wrong.

So keep running. You’re doing your brain a favor and not harming your body.

Muscle memory, protein and muscles & strong hips make happy knees

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

Wow, did I get to read a lot of great things this past week! So many, in fact, that my Thursday post may be a second installment of this type of post. Here are four of my favorites on three very interesting topics.

Muscle memory

For many years, I’ve believed it’s always easier to get back to a level of fitness once you’ve been there than it is to get there the first time. I remember talking about this idea with teammates in high school and college.

Now, we know at least part of why that may be physiologically.

As far as the muscles go, there are structural changes within your muscles (more nuclei) that occur as a result of training and do not seem to be lost when not training. This gives the formerly fit a head start on those who have never been fit.

This study was specifically about muscle strength. While muscle strength does give a runner an advantage, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if similar things happen in relation to aerobic conditioning. No research I’m aware of on that idea yet, though.

Protein and muscles

Two very interesting reads on this topic this week:

First, from Alex Hutchinson at the Runner’s World Sweat Science blog, a post on the basics of protein and muscle.

Second, from Science Daily, a full serving of protein at each meal is better for muscles than the typical American diet of a small amount of protein at breakfast, a moderately small amount at lunch, then a massive amount at dinner.

I actually read the Science Daily article first and, as I was reading it, I recalled something from a long time ago that I wanted to look up. Then the Sweat Science blog post covered it. Thanks for coordinating so well!

What I wanted to look up was the largest useful dose of protein. Hutchinson states this is 20-25 grams for a typical healthy adult, up to 40 grams for older adults.

In this case, it makes perfect sense that aiming for 30 grams per meal will be better for the muscles than 10 at breakfast, 15 at lunch and 65 at dinner. After all, depending on the individual, somewhere around half of those 65 grams at dinner are wasted and likely converted into fat.

The moral of the story: balance your protein intake. That probably means increase it at breakfast and lunch and drastically reduce it at dinner.

Strong hips make happy knees

This was a review of research on treating Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (aka Runner’s Knee).

I’ve found myself often saying recently, when something hurts, look up for the root cause. If your ankle or foot hurts, look toward the calf. If your IT band hurts, look toward the hips. Well, if your knee hurts, look toward the hips also. Including hip strengthening exercises in a treatment regimen for Runner’s Knee appears to make the regimen much more successful.

I consider this another reminder that we need to look at our bodies not as a series of individual, unconnected parts. Instead, we need to look at them as the interconnected, interdependent linkages they are. If one body part hurts, it often means a strength imbalance or lack of flexibility somewhere else. Treat the symptoms but also find and deal with the root cause or you’ll be facing a constant battle.

Polarized training and the benefits of having a coach and teammates

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

Sorry beet juice fans but no news on beets or juice derived from them this week. I hope you don’t mind.

What I do have is still interesting, though.

Olympic speed skaters and polarized training

I’ve often talked about making your easy days sufficiently easy so your hard days can be sufficiently hard. Ed is probably sick of this topic and I’m sure others are ready for me to stop harping on it also.

Well, here’s a review of the training programs for Olympic speed skaters over a 38 year period. The main factor in performance isn’t time spent training or time spent on skates. In fact, there seemed to be no relation (of course, Olympic speed skaters are all spending a lot of time training obviously). The difference in times at that level was most closely correlated to how polarized their training was.

When they discuss polarized training, they are basically discussing the idea of keeping your easy days easy and your hard days hard. The easier your easy days are and the harder your hard days are, the more polarized your training is. As this research suggests, the more polarized your training is, the faster you are.

Of course, this is looking at speed skaters but it’s a good indication of what works. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find the same in distance runners. I’d love to see this kind of review done with distance runners.

The benefits of having a coach and teammates

It should be no surprise that I’d argue there are a lot of benefits to having a coach. I’d argue the same of teammates. In a coach, you should have someone who is committed to your success and should be capable of guiding you down the right path. In addition, though, both a coach and teammates can give you people you feel accountable to. You don’t want to let down your coach or your teammates.

Well, that seems to be the case for masters swimmers.

In short, the swimmers were more committed to their training, whether doing it individually or in a team setting, when they had the support of a coach and teammates. Of note, though (emphasis added by me):

The findings suggest that in order to increase participation in masters swimming teams and reduce non-supervised training, coach and teammates should exhibit a supportive attitude and avoid over expectation.

None of this "old school" tough guy coaching. Your coach and teammates should be supportive and not place the burden of expectation too high. I’d agree with this. I don’t like the "old school" philosophy. It’s never made sense to me. Your coach should build you up and fill you with confidence, not beat you down.

Injuries, antioxidants and more on beets

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

To think, by Friday morning I was worried that I might not have anything to post this week. Then I got flooded Friday and Saturday morning with some interesting research.

First, a couple studies on injuries:

This meta-analysis of studies on the effectiveness of different kinds of exercises to prevent sports injuries had some interesting results.

In general, physical activity was shown to effectively reduce sports injuries. Stretching proved no beneficial effect, whereas multiple exposure programmes, proprioception training, and strength training, in that order, showed a tendency towards increasing effect. Strength training reduced sports injuries to less than one-third. We advocate that multiple exposure interventions should be constructed on the basis of well-proven single exposures and that further research into single exposures, particularly strength training, remains crucial. Both acute and overuse injuries could be significantly reduced, overuse injuries by almost a half. Apart from a few outlying studies, consistently favourable estimates were obtained for all injury prevention measures except for stretching.

In short, stretching doesn’t appear to be helpful in preventing injury but strength training and proprioception (balance) exercises have very positive effects.

That doesn’t mean that you should stop stretching if you already do so and it feels good. Personally, when I don’t stretch after a run, I feel it during the rest of the day and the next day. That said, don’t just assume it will make you injury free. Better to focus on strength and coordination for injury prevention. What I’m taking home from this is that the proprioception exercises I do sporadically should be a more consistent part of my auxiliary training routine and I should probably be stressing both them and a basic strength routine (something I’ve already been thinking a lot about) more with the runners I coach.

This review of studies (which I found via Running Research Junkie) looks at the causes of injuries. The conclusion kind of speaks for itself:

The main risk factor identified in this review was previous injury in the last 12 months, although many risk factors had been investigated in the literature. Relatively few prospective studies were identified in this review, reducing the overall ability to detect risk factors. This highlights the need for more, well designed prospective studies in order to fully appreciate the risk factors associated with running.

As many of us have surmised for quite some time, the greatest risk factor for injury is prior injury. This is one of the reasons why one of the first questions I always ask a runner I’m new to coaching is about their injury history. I would love to see a deeper dive into why prior injury is such a great risk factor. I have a couple suspicions. First, people tend to rush back too quickly after an injury and re-injure themselves. Second, people often treat the symptoms and not the causes. This results in the underlying cause of the injury still being present when the runner begins running again and the injury recurs.

Other causes mentioned are frequency and volume of running. To me, this isn’t a great surprise. The more you run, the more you risk something happening. Just like the more you walk, the more you risk tripping over your own feet (especially if you have my coordination).

Of note, gender was not associated with higher injury risk in most studies.

On to antioxidants:

This study investigated oxidative stress in cyclists and the effects of antioxidant supplementation.

The data suggest that well-trained athletes with suitable ultra-endurance training volume and intensity do not require antioxidant vitamin supplements to adapt their endogenous antioxidant defenses to exercise-induced ROS.

That pretty much sums it up. Another study that says antioxidant supplementation is unnecessary.

More on beets:

Last week, in my first post of this style, I mentioned beet juice and how it seemed to not help most well trained middle distance runners.

Consider this a follow-up on the topic. This study took an interesting look at nitrate (beet juice extract) supplemtation.

In the study, they took untrained men and had them supplement with beet juice concentrate and a placebo. They then tested these participants for voluntary and involuntary (initiated by electrodes) muscle contraction.

Voluntary contraction force production was statistically similar but involuntary contraction force production, depending on intensity, was either 5-10% greater (at sub-maximal intensities) or 3-15% greater (at maximal intensities).

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it suggests that there is a physiological benefit, at least for untrained individuals, of nitrate. Second, it suggests the central nervous system may somehow counter that so your real world results will not be as greatly enhanced.

Shortly after I read through this, Alex Hutchinson at the Runner’s World Sweat Science blog posted on it and had some interesting insights. Very much worth a read.

It would be very interesting in my opinion to see this kind of test, with voluntary and involuntary force production, done with trained individuals.

Finally, if you see anything interesting, I’d encourage you to comment here with it. Maybe I’ll blog on it next week. If not, at the very least, we can discuss it in the comments.

Beet juice, kinesio tape & have athletes gotten better?

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

Here we go, I’m going to give this a shot. This week, we have a study on beet juice, a study on kinesio tape and David Epstein giving a TED Talk on whether athletes have gotten better over the years.

Beet Juice

For those of you who haven’t been following recent research into beet juice, studies have been showing that the nitrate in beetroot juice appears to improve performance by reducing the oxygen cost of exercise. Unfortunately, more recent studies in more well trained cyclists haven’t been able to find these gains. Are these studies just an anomaly or is it not as effective for well trained athletes? There is reason to believe a well trained athlete may have already maximized the body’s ability to reduce the oxygen cost of exercise so the juice may not benefit this athlete.

Well, this study looked at 8 middle distance runners. 1500 PRs were 3:56 +/- 9 seconds so these are good but not world class runners. We’d have to believe they were well trained to get down to those times. They tested both taking supplements for a week (chronic) or just before the test (acute).

The result?

Acute and chronic BR did not reduce running VO2 or improve 1500 m time-trial performance in a group of elite distance runners, but two responders to BR were identified.

So, taken as a whole, there were no performance improvements. However, 2 of the 8 runners did see fairly significant improvements. 5.0 and 5.8 seconds following acute supplementation and 0.5 and 7.0 seconds following chronic supplementation.

Now, a study of 8 is too small to draw vast conclusions from but that’s what you get when you’re looking for 3:56 1500 meter runners. There aren’t hundreds of them readily available and willing to participate in a study. However, this suggests that you’re either lucky or not. If you respond, you’ll see some impressive gains. If you’re in the apparent significant majority, tough luck.

I’m not convinced based on this and other studies that, for well trained athletes, supplementation is worthwhile. For less well trained? Maybe but maybe you could also just train more to get the same benefit. Also, I haven’t seen any studies on where the line (or more likely gradient) exists where you go from likely gaining no benefit to likely gaining some kind of benefit.

Kinesio tape

This tape has been all the rage recently. You pretty much can’t watch a pro track meet without seeing some athletes sporting the colorful stuff. I sometimes wonder how much of it is some kind of fashion statement and how much is actually beneficial.

Well, it appears there is some benefit.

Through the use of elastography this is the first study to support the hypothesis that de-loading tape reduces stress in the underlying muscle region, thereby providing a biomechanical explanation for the effect observed during rehabilitation in clinical practice (reduce pain, restore function and aid recovery). Further investigations are necessary to confirm these results in injured tissues.

The first study to support the hypothesis. In other words, more study is needed. That said, this would suggest that the benefit athletes receive from this tape may be more than a placebo effect. There may be some real benefit.

Have athletes gotten better?

Finally, a fascinating TED Talk by David Epstein:

What do you think? Both of the stories above and of this kind of post. I’d love to hear your comments.

A couple interesting links

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

Alex Hutchinson weighs in at his Sweat Science blog on the latest in warmup gear. Interesting idea, though I’m not convinced of the benefit to long distance runners, especially those of us who are not elite. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but picture someone wearing these pants to keep their leg muscles warm while simultaneously wearing an ice vest to keep core temperature down. I guess I wasn’t the only one thinking that way.

I suppose that would be the ultimate tech fashion combo: a distance runner before a race wearing an ice vest to keep core temperature down, plus electric pants to keep legs warm. Seems a little much, but I wouldn’t bet against seeing that in Rio…

I wouldn’t bet against it either. Someone will decide to try the combo.

Mark Hadley weighs in on running by feel.

I already sent this link to a couple runners I coach. As anyone who has worked with me knows, I’m a big fan of running by feel. Coach Hadley does a good job explaining the benefits and giving some how-to at the same time.

Note: I’m going to try to post these on occasion. Essentially sharing links with a few quick comments. I saw these two today that I thought would be a good opportunity to kick it off. If you have feelings, pro or con, on posts like this, please share in the comments. I want to post what is wanted and I think these are of value but, if I’m wrong, I’ll stop.