The Perspective Diet

hunger cake“What kind of diet do you follow

…pretty clean, right?”

“Nothing, really. By typical American standards, clean. By fitness culture, athletic and other standards, I eat like a garbage disposal.”

I’m (semi) often asked about diet for fitness and sports performance. I don’t claim to be an expert here. But I’ve had some official coursework, have worked with and heard the stories of hundreds of patients and athletes, and have been interested in this, simply paying attention to nutrition concepts for over twenty years. But I want to be careful here. People seem to be really attached to their way of eating ; ). 

It was well over a decade ago that I decided to intentionally avoid any nutrition movement. The organic variations. The low carb. The Zone/Paleo/Atkins. The raw food. The blood type. The vegan. On and on they roll in and out of style. Next week the trend will be to eat something that was forbidden 6 years ago, and avoid something else.

Maybe it’s because I’m not a nutrition expert. I’m not. Maybe it’s because I’ve been blessed with relatively good health (so far) and haven’t been subject to desperation. But I do have an ideal of seeking perspective and truth, wherever they may lead. I have nothing to gain ($) or lose from making soft nutrition recommendations.

Specific diets are justified in the name of health, wellness, or fitness. They explain illness with a clear-cut nutritional imbalance. There are rules, of course. Many diets are bad religion. When obesity, illness, sub-optimal performance, etc occurs (and it will), it’s because of something you did not follow correctly regarding the diet. Pretty soon you’re sitting by yourself at home drinking raw, certified organic beet juice, wondering why you’re still tired and stuffy in the nose.

The diet experts seem to miss that what “works” are the basics that we’ve known for decades: most people (well, Americans anyway) eat too much, eat too many processed foods, and move far too little. They seem to forget that humans have proven relatively resilient through the ages, thriving and healing (miraculously in my opinion) on a great variety of dietary habits. Do they forget that we all eventually wear out, become ill and die?

It is main line scienchunger olde and not fringe dietary conspirators that progress our understanding. For example, we now know that starchy carbs are easy to over eat, natural sources of fat and cholesterol are good for you, and we can benefit from more omega-3 fatty acids.  Ethnic variation does exist. Eskimos and native Americans have adapted few pancreatic enzymes, and those populations suffer drastic consequences from eating the standard American diet. Also, it is reasonable to follow a specific dietary regimen for specific conditions like gluten intolerance or genetic predisposition to high cholesterol.

Just like many other areas of life, the diet gurus take an ounce of legit science and run with it, offering answers to every malady with scant evidence for benefit beyond what a generally clean lifestyle provides.

If it turns out that any of the diets do provide above and beyond benefit, I doubt they’re worth the costs. I suspect that all the extreme behaviors are unnecessary at best. Maybe a dose of perspective is the perfect recipe to those of us who imagine that bananas have too many carbs, that organics are essential for good health, or one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day is really needed to achieve a certain aesthetic or level of performance.

While the majority of people throughout the ages have starved and suffered extreme malnutrition, we sit at our computers arguing over whether or not it’s optimal to cook our carrots and homogenize our milk. Would we tremendously benefit from a few weeks of service in one of the many parts of the world where they eat rice for dinner and have no lunch at all?

And now I’ll offer something beyond criticism.

Prior to ascribing to any specific diet and needing proactive or reactive health care, spend at least 3 months at least trying the following:

1. Think of diet in terms of behaviors and choices, not eat this/don’t eat that. Don’t count calories or grams for more than a few days, in order to get an idea regarding portion sizes. Do not take up an off-the-wall restrictive diet that made sense when presented by the person selling it. Instead, keep a written tally of the ratio of wins/losses, the “good” to “not good” choices you make that are compatible with your goals.

You may find that you make good choices 60% of the time, and would greatly benefit from moving that to 85%. A child may thrive on 50% good choices, but a middle age person trying to lose weight may need to stay around 90/10 (%). The same applied to those looking to lose weight / lean out (less total food) as well as the person looking to gain weight/muscle mass (needs a lot more total calories).hunger kids

2. Try not to over eat.  Always easier said than done where food is actually available. Good choices are much more difficult to over eat than poor choices.

3. Get the majority of daily calories from minimally processed foods. Don’t make your definition of good/bad choices into rocket science. Hamburger with tomatoes on a bun is probably okay for most people, even good. Loaded 1/4-pound bacon burger with a huge side of fries and a coke – not good.

4. Sweat some. The perfect diet will not accomplish for your body and mind what physical activity can. Your diet does not have to be -precision- if you build a little formal exercise and a little more informal movement into your life.

5. Rest. As if it really matters – one of my own greatest struggles. Relatively new lines of research into weight loss/gain indicate that the wake/sleep cycle is critical in the regulation of hormonal balance that, in part, drives our appetites and behaviors.

6. Laugh. Truly the best medicine, so keep it light.

7. Have the cake. Have the cake is a state of mind, enjoying life and seeing the big picture. I mean, if you can’t join in to celebrate the birthday of friends and family, then what are you here for? You have approximately 20 other chances during the week to make your own healthy choice, so don’t make your family or friends or party hosts jump through dietary hoops to avoid feeling awkward.  Besides, who are we kidding? You can’t afford a small dessert once in a while? If you’re going to skip the birthday cake, you better have diabetes or a national level Olympic event next week.

Have fun. Eat a little cake, and return as you were.

8. Skip the fries. If you really want to have a rule or restriction, make it this: No fried foods. They are almost always nutritionally useless and possibly damaging, and very easy to over-do. Plus, it’s simple to skip the fries without starving or making it a big deal for yourself or others.

9. Serve others. While diet and exercise are both all about my body, my health issues, my performance goals, less self focus seems to cure many ailments.

10Give thanks. Practice gratitude (see point number 1). Read up on it. Pray. Gratitude may be the closest thing we have to a miracle on demand.

If you disagree with these recommendations or simply have to narrow your focus, at least go with the final two.

A word on running faster…

The idea of running fast requires some context. Are we talking about moving 5-yards as typically demanded of an offensive (football) linemen? Are we referring to covering 26.2 miles in less than hours:minutes? Does the activity also require rapid and frequent changes of direction?

Incredibili - Incredibles

The stage is set: early pre-season among some of the regions best of the best 16-year olds at the Baltimore Armour of the US Soccer Development Academy. [The point is to understand the kind of athletes that Loc is running up against here].

How did Loc get those kind of wheels? Well, from a few YEARS of consistent hard work.

I remember Loc bouncing around the BLC (gym) as a very average 12-year old, mostly shirking my gentle invitation to learn some light movement patterns. With some encouragement, he began hitting the weights while his brother and sister were here. Later he added  some mobility and speed and agility work, and”Plyo Friday” almost every week. And, he physically grew over a time of attending (probably) hundreds of soccer practices and games. And there you have it. Well,…someone has to come in first ; )

Do you know what does NOT provide that kind of sprinting ability?

  1. Long distance running. There is a time for it. But it’s often over-done, and of little benefit for making an athletes sprint and accelerate well.
  2. Agility Ladder. There is a time for it…little time. It has some rehab (physical therapy) application. But in my opinion, doing the agility ladder will eventually make you a pro at…doing the agility ladder.
  3. Skills/ball control circuits. These are  worthwhile, and can certainly provide a high degree of conditioning. But they’re far less than optimal for actually increasing lower body power, range of motion, and functional core stability (factors involved with peak speed).
  4. Insanity/P90X style circuit training. Again, these will provide some degree of conditioning, getting “in shape.” But unless the athlete is very out of shape to begin with, they will benefit running speed very little.
  5. Trendy stuff like running in sand pits, “jump shoes” with no heels, squats on unstable surfaces, and other gimmicky ideas that have limited application. These often fail to acknowledge that speed is about generating 1) ground reaction forces 2) quickly over a 3) broad range of motion!

Okay then, wise guy, what should we be doing to get faster? 

  1. A tune-up. Find and fix any specific muscle imbalances and mobility restrictions due to joint stiffness or faulty movement patterns. These vary widely among athletes, and require just a little time and attention to address.
  2. The Weights.” Some athletes need an emphasis on muscle gain while others just need to control their body more efficiently. Do the corrective work (see #1 above) and progressions/regressions to dial in perfect form on the big movements like squat, dead lift, lunge, loaded carries, and other leg/core exercise variations.  ** Attention to detail is required, because even with the big and best exercises, athletes will often try to move around their weak areas. “Finish the lift with hip extension and not lower back extension.” “Keep the torso upright and do not twist when you press.”  These are the type of cues that initially cause us to cut back on the amount of resistance that can be handled. But they make the exercise far safer and more effective for improving function outside of the gym.

    running form
    Form matters! Don’t sprint like this.
  3. Sprints of various distance and intensity. Be smart about gradual increases. There is no substitute for a video to provide immediate feedback and attention to running mechanics.
  4. Plyometrics – are not just for basketballers and high jumpers.  All athletes can benefit from getting the most out of gravity. They provide a challenging stimulus for athletes to use the entire body to generate and control ground reaction forces. While plyometrics done well are certainly somewhat fatiguing, do not use them to achieve a conditioning effect. There are safer and better ways to build work capacity.
  5. “Conditioning”  This is also sport- and athlete specific. I readily admit that some lower intensity running to achieve a base level of running economy and fitness does indeed help when it comes time to really fire up the engine in sprinting.

I absolutely concede that speed is at least partially genetically determined. But everyone can improve, and with the right training, to a great extent. Think about what may be holding you (or your athlete) back from being the fastest, most resilient version of themselves, and specifically address those issues.





Run for the Hills!

…a small tip for getting back to running.

If patients in my office are a somewhat representative sample of the entire population of people with orthopedic issues, there are many people in the “I’d like to get back to running” boat. They want to run for weight management, fitness, or because they enjoy it. But they can’t because they’re coming off an injury. Others simply feel “out of shape”, coming off a long period of sedentary living. They assume that walking is good (it is), but they want to increase the intensity and benefit of their time in exercise.

Conventional wisdom says to progress jogging with a gradual increase in time duration , walking the hills until you get in shape. But I say to attack the hills for a relatively short duration of whatever effort that you can safely muster. Walk (or stand and rest) for however long you need until attacking the next hill. It is difficult to suffer injury while running up hill*, especially if you’re conscientious of proper warm up and mobility of the hips and ankles.

With the standard advice of a steady build up in jogging time or mileage, many folks usually start to hit a wall around the thirty minute mark, and they’re back to square one.cemetery hill

At this point it’s necessary to recall that impact is usually the primary bad guy when it comes to running injuries. So…manage impact! Monitor and modify how much of a beating the knees, hips and lower back will need to tolerate in your fitness endeavors. Running hills demands that you pour on the effort, but the strides and flight time are relatively short, with impact greatly reduced. That’s why hills are one of the best ways to “get in shape” relatively quickly while sparing the joints yet toughening the muscles and tendons for the strain of long duration jogging.

If you’re new to exercise, don’t imagine that you MUST jog to get in shape. If you enjoy jogging, get in shape to jog, and try not get hung up on traditional long distance, low- or moderate intensity standard. Hit the weights and use some imagination.

So find a grassy hill or a small, private drive. You will be surprised at how quickly your appearance and fitness level improve.

Just one problem…

While hill sprints do not cost much in terms of money or even time, the hill will ALWAYS kick your butt. Hill sprints (or even walks) are difficult, and I do not anticipate the masses who want to lose weigh and get fit crowding up the local hills. Or, as the great Ronnie Coleman would probably put it:

“Errbody want to be healthy and look good…

     But ‘aint nobody want to run them steep-ass hills.”


*Select orthopedic issues such as Achilles tendinopathy and some types of lower back pain MAY be irritated with hill sprints, although I have yet to hear a person actually complain of this.

What’s the Big Deal About Dead Lifts?

“We see you make all the dead lift comments and entries into the Dead Lift Photo Gallery…So what’s the big deal about dead lifts?”

DL function

Why are dead lifts useful and awesome? Oh, here are a few of the reasons.

-Because dead lifts are a part of everyday life, unless you’re going to “seated shoulder abduction” a ladder over to the clogged gutters or leg press a suitcase up the airport stairwell. So we may as well train the brain and body to “pick things up and put them down” well. Dead lifts demand ground reaction forces and core stability, naturally teaching us how to maintain a rigid neutral spine and efficiently push with the legs, benefiting us well after the training ends.

-Because you feel like (and eventually ARE) a beast when you can easily move a boat load of weight. Dead lifts provide a fairly straightforward route to seeing and feeling fairly drastic improvements. For example, exercises like bench press and bicep curls recruit a relatively small amount of the body’s muscle mass, and adding 10 pounds to these movements is unreasonable. But a ten pound increase in the dead lift is no big thing because the work is distributed across a broad area of the body.

-Because dead lifts are one way to truly learn what we are capable of. Very few people, athletic or non-, understand how to coordinate multiple body segments, bracing some joints like a stone while others push and pull with intensity. BUT…once you learn how to be a rock in some areas and a piston in others, you find that moving your body weight off the ground is easy. And you’re are a legitimate game-changer, dishing it out rather than being trucked on the athletic field.

-Because most people, athletic and non-, make poor use of their gluteal and hamstring muscles. The “posterior chain” includes the largest muscles in the body, yet most people move with knee-dominant patterns that emphasize quadriceps activity, which eventually leads to knee and lower back problems. Dead lifts are a direct route to train up stronger hips and a faster, quicker athlete.

-Because when you think of training the core for peak performance, you need to think less 7-minute abs and more dead lift, split stance squats, and single arm overhead presses. This is a matter for another essay, but there is no other endeavor that will provide more core strength than learning how to easily move one- to two times your body weight. Not a single crunch, leg raise, TRX or physio ball rehab movement, Pilates, Yoga, home DVD fitness plan, or machine-based exercise will cause the core muscles to work more than handling a relatively heavy load of free weights. Not everyone can jump into heavy dead lifts without some preparatory work. But as far as core strength for sports performance, dead lifts are king.

-Because dead lifts are a not too technical total body exercise. There is definitely an art to learning how to dead lift well, knowing how and when to implement progressions and regressions, and safely building up the resistance on the barbell. But they are somewhat safer and much easier to learn than the Olympic lifts that require the use of heavy resistance with momentum and fast bar speed.

-Along those lines, dead lift are relatively safe when programmed well. By this I mean using appropriate form (or progressions/regressions to achieve good form) as well as reasonable increases in resistance, recovery, and a sound over-all training plan. I recently looked at a collegiate off-season weight training packet that had athletes deadlifting the day after heavy squats and power cleans. This is terrible programming.

DL huge
World Record Deadlift >1100 lbs probably not “healthy” and definitely unnecessary. But yeah…I’m still impressed!

It is important to note here that all things can be taken beyond what is beneficial, to unhealthy extremes. Easily dead lifting twice your body weight is a reasonable and exceedingly beneficial long-term goal that pays great dividends in performance and body appearance. But dead lifting triple body weight, or dobule body weight for 20 continuous reps, or body weight for 120 reps, are all fairly berserk endeavors and probably not exactly healthy. And I do not wonder why my hip hurts : /


Let the Dead Lift Gallery Roll On!

The Doughty brothers had some recent dead lift PRs! Jackson 300 lbs and Spencer 315. Ridiculous strength given their age, size and less than one year training duration.

Watch out for them this fall!!