Train like an athlete

Health and fitness is everywhere – from your food being marketed as ‘high protein’ or a ‘post workout bar’ to your favourite influencer dancing around in an Ivy Park tracksuit. It’s inescapable, and as someone who used to be teased for eating healthily and enjoying the school PE classes, it’s exciting.

However, I find myself questioning more and more how much these people and brands are actually focussed on fitness and health. I 100% believe that brands focussing more on health is generally a good thing, even if that’s just jumping on the bandwagon in an effort to look ‘cool’ or sell more products, but I worry about the amount of people buying into things that will make them LOOK more #fitness without actually providing them the actual fitness to back that up.

I am probably biased – I have been doing ‘fitness’ since I was about 15, always in the form of functional training, whether training for the national schools squash championships, BUCS cross country or my latest boxing match. But seeing people take part in a 12 week plan to ‘grow their booty’ (without any focus on actual fitness/strength) and then give up is frustrating for me. The amount of emphasis placed on looks (often at the expense of performance) leads me to worry about the longevity of the West’s ‘passion’ for fitness. It reminds me of when I was growing up and the Kate Moss ‘heroine chic’ look was in – you didn’t have to take heroine, as long as you looked like you hadn’t eaten in 3 weeks (thinking about it, this was probably for the best, but since fitness is actually very good for you, it would be nice if people were as dedicated to BEING fit as they are to LOOKING fit). 

It’s easy to imagine my view comes from a place of ‘I was here first, everyone else is just pretending’ but that’s genuinely not it. There are a number of reasons for my concern, and all (I believe) are legitimate. 

  1. When you train for aesthetics, the emphasis gets placed on your looks and how much working out can make you look a certain way. For every person who sticks to fitness after discovering the other benefits, there is someone else who quits after they become disillusioned about the lack of a six pack they were promised after 90 days. Fitness isn’t looking a certain way, it’s about a bunch of internal factors that we can’t even see. 
  2. There are a lot of actual, real life athletes on Instagram, whether they’re competing for the country or working overtime to allow them to self-fund their training and competition fees. However, brands are often choosing to work with people who ‘look’ a certain way over those who actually DO a sport. As someone who works in the fitness modelling world, I see this all too often. Of course, aesthetics are important, but I’ve been told I’m ‘too muscly’ for a job that literally requires lifting weights. Who could look more like a person who lifts weights than someone who got the body they have by literally doing just that. It would be nice to see a little more championing of people who actually DO a sport. 
  3. I like to think that we’ve moved past the point of extremes, because health is sort of by definition ‘balanced’. However a number of fitness guides and classes encourage plenty of extreme behaviour to look a certain way. Sure, they work, but are they ‘healthy’? Training like an athlete (i.e. functional training) focusses on performance and all-round fitness. Runners lift weights, rugby players practise sprints and everyone works on mobility and balance. Training purely for aesthetics can lead to serious physical problems further down the line, especially from poor form and over training certain areas. This is something I’m still working on too – it’s the only way to make training sustainable.

Thankfully training purely for aesthetics often becomes the gateway drug for all the other benefits of exercise, and those who start working out to lose weight can discover a plethora of other benefits. Other factors become the driving force behind working out, and at this point a person’s fitness becomes way more balanced (I’m sure a number of you can relate)!

It’s not entirely necessary to want to run a marathon or to achieve a triathlon PB, but training like an athlete can leave you feeling mentally healthier, accomplished and physically sound well into your older age. Rest and recovery is a key part of an athlete’s training plan, and whilst reducing workout intensity might not give you THAT body in 90 days, it sure as hell will keep you motivated enough to continue working out long, long past then. 

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Supplements – what, why and how?

I’ve been asked so many times what I think about X supplement and approached by brands to promote new bizarre sounding pills claiming to solve all your training problems. Whilst some of them may have tentative supporting evidence, a lot don’t. I know the supplements market is a total minefield, so here are some of the most popular supplements out there, and evidence for and against them. Obviously research is always coming out saying X, Y or Z – I’ve included a lot of reviews and meta analyses to try to get a balanced view of the literature but always think critically about what people are trying to sell you. Just remember: there’s no magic pill that’ll suddenly make you fit or give you the perfect abs. Training is hard whatever supplements you take, and quite often it’s worth spending the £50 you spend on supplements on a personal training session or a few books on nutrition. Knowledge is power (literally in this case!).

 

Protein

Our muscles are made up of protein fibres, some of which are broken down and rebuilt each time we exercise. Protein supplements/shakes claim to enhance recovery of muscles and aid growth, thereby improving performance. However, the level of conflicting information (and the price of a lot of the supplements) warrants a closer look at the evidence of their efficacy.

The evidence: Looking at muscle recovery time, muscle soreness and muscle growth, the data are inconclusive. Some meta-analyses state that here’s no evidence to suggest that muscle recovery is faster when someone consumes protein before, after or during a workout. However, a lot of the studies looked at small sample sizes, and measures of ‘muscle soreness’ and recovery are often hard to quantify. There is, however, fairly strong evidence to suggest that people in a calorie deficit may benefit from taking protein supplements, and that protein can reduce muscle catabolism (break down) following a workout. Verdict: if you’re looking to build muscle and/or are in a calorie deficit, protein may help you out. However, if you’re looking to reduce DOMS or decrease recovery time, the jury is out on whether protein can help. Because of the mixed evidence, it may be worth trying it out, especially if you’re vegan or struggling to fit in enough protein in your diet and wanting to train hard. Find what works for you!

 

BCAAs

BCAAs or branched-chain amino acids are amino acids with side chains. There are three types: leucine, isoleucine and valine. The supplements are sold to increase protein synthesis, purportedly increasing muscle mass (even while in a calorie deficit) when paired with the right training. When taken regularly, supplementation may decrease fatigue during exercise by reducing the increase in serotonin during exercise, which contributes to fatigue.

The evidence: BCAAs are one of the most heavily studied supplements on the market. In terms of exercise (there are many other uses of BCAA supplementation), there are two main factors looked at: increased exercise performance and reduced muscle breakdown. The former has much mixed evidence, mostly suggesting that BCAAs are unlikely to significantly improve exercise performance. The latter, however, has much more evidence supporting it. Multiple studies show that supplementation before and after exercise reduce muscle breakdown after strenuous exercise, reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

 

Creatine

Creatine is produced naturally in the body and stored predominantly in skeletal muscle. However, it is also sold as a supplement and marketed as helping to improve energy production for short duration, high intensity exercises. Theoretically, it is used by the body as a substrate to form ATP (the little packets of energy our body uses), and therefore supplementing with it means more ATP (energy) can be produced.

The evidence: Creatine is one of the more sound supplements on the market. According to one review paper, creatine is the most effective supplement to increase high-energy exercise capacity and muscle mass during training. As it turns out, of the 500 peer-reviewed papers looking into the effects of creatine, 70% concluded that it benefitted high intensity performance. However, when looking at more endurance exercises, the evidence is inconclusive, showing that if you want something for long-distance running, you should probably look elsewhere.

Nb/ There have been concerns that creatine supplementation may alter liver and kidney function, so if you have underlying conditions, creatine use should be avoided. In general though, it seems to be relatively safe!

 

Beta-alanine

Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that is used by athletes to improve performance. Purported benefits include improving exercise capacity, building lean muscle mass and improving physical functions in the elderly.

The evidence: This supplement definitely shows some clear evidence that it can improve performance by reducing fatigue, thus making building muscle easier for those who take it. The benefits are seen most clearly in high intensity activities lasting 60s to 300s. However, the side effects are not widely studied but commonly experienced. If you’ve ever taken beta alanine you’ll probably be aware of the tingly feeling you can get, which is unpleasant at best. Few studies if any have looked into the safety of this supplement, and whilst it appears safe at recommended doses, take it at your own risk.

 

Electrolytes

When we exercise we sweat, losing salts as well as water. Salts are important for our muscles to function properly and too few of them cause the body to cramp up. If you’re into endurance exercise or workout in hot places, chances are you’ve considered taking electrolytes. Electrolytes help replenish the salts lost when we sweat, thus keeping our muscles working properly, and are provided in a way that doesn’t give our body too much of any one type of salt (e.g. sodium). Supplementation aims to reduce heat stress, muscle cramps and aid rehydration.

The evidence: electrolyte supplementation has been shown to reduce cramping caused by electrolyte loss (lots of sweating), but cramping can still occur due to other factors. It reduces heat stress, so if you’re working out hard in a hot country (e.g. racing or competing abroad) this may be something to consider. If you’re not working out in extreme heat for extended periods of time, electrolytes are probably not required for your everyday training schedule.

 

I hope this helps clarify some things for you!

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Choosing supplements to aid your workouts can be a minefield

10 reasons to lift weights

When I first started playing sports, the idea of a girl lifting weights was laughable. The only girls who did were the rowers and field athletes– everyone else thought it was manly, and my secondary school weights room was literally only for boys. The main gym was mostly cardio equipment, and without a doubt cardio was what was expected of the girls, if they went to the gym at all. Seven years on and the attitudes towards women being fit and healthy rather than skinny have changed so much. The rise of social media stars who incorporate weights into their routines has undoubtedly helped. But what are the benefits of lifting weights, and why do people swear by them for getting in shape?

Nb/ As a disclaimer I’d like to say that I also condemn those who shame anyone who does cardio – there are health benefits to all exercises, and I for one love a good sweat session. However, this post will be focussing on the health benefits of lifting weights. If you’d like to read more about cardio, please check out my post on how to get better at running.

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I got into weights late in the game because I was afraid it’d make me ‘bulky’ – it didn’t and won’t for you either!

  1. It’ll strengthen your bones

Most of us don’t think of our bones as living things, but they are. They respond to how we live, especially when we are young. As we get older, our bones lose density, becoming more brittle and prone to osteoporosis (this is why older people are more likely to break and fracture bones). If you lift weights, your bone density increases, meaning you’re in a better position to protect yourself from these issues later in life.

 

  1. It’ll make you happier

Whilst all physical activity is great for mental health, strength training has been linked to lower levels of anxiety and depression, as well as fatigue. In addition to the benefits of just getting moving, watching yourself progress with strength training can help you focus in other areas of life and give you a sense of achievement.

 

  1. It’ll give you a higher BMR

Your BMR is your basal metabolic rate. It’s the rate at which you burn calories when you’re doing absolutely nothing. So not only will lifting weights burn calories when you’re doing it, lifting also increases your muscle to fat ratio, meaning that you’ll burn more calories just lying there. And guess what that means… More food!

 

  1. It helps other sports

If you’re not lifting weights because you’re focusing on other sports, you could be harming your progress rather than helping it. Lifting weights strengthens both supporting muscles and the muscles you may use for your sport, meaning that whatever you do, lifting weights can help you do it harder, faster and better. It’s one form of cross training you don’t want to miss out on.

 

  1. It doesn’t take a long time

If you’re short on time, having a 30 minute workout is perfectly fine when lifting weights. My glutes sessions are around 40 minutes long, but when time-restricted 30 minutes works absolutely fine. Lifting can work around your schedule in a way that running a 5k can’t.

 

  1. Muscle is denser than fat

But what does this actually mean? It means that if you do lots of strength training and gain some muscle, it’ll take up less space than fat does. This is what allows people to get leaner leaner when they weightlift. You may not weigh less, but you’ll definitely look like you do! This is also why lifting weights as a girl certainly won’t make you look bulky. Whilst you probably shouldn’t be doing something purely because of aesthetics, there’s nothing wrong with wanting some toned curves!

 

  1. It’s good for your heart

Cardiovascular exercise is undoubtedly excellent for your heart health, but lifting weights has similar benefits. It can lower blood pressure as effectively as cardio and can mean you’re at lower risk of heart disease, stroke and heart attack. The American Heart Association recommends at least 2 strength training sessions a week.

 

  1. It doesn’t require much space

Whilst getting to the gym is useful if you want to lift heavy, if you’re short on time and space, you can do bodyweight resistance training at home. Also when your gym is super busy, getting on all the machines can be a nightmare, but grabbing some dumbells and a small space for a mat is sometimes all you need. Lack of time/space isn’t an excuse here!

 

  1. It’ll help you sleep

All exercise can help with sleep – those who exercise frequently report the best sleep, both in terms of length and quality. In addition, getting good sleep helps with muscle growth, so the two work together perfectly. Do more of one and you’ll get more of the other. It’s a win-win!

 

  1. You’ll live longer (and heathier)

All of the factors above lead to a reduced risk of disease, meaning you’ll live longer, healthier and happier. What’s not to love?!

 

I hope you find this post helpful! To see more of what I do why not check out what I’m up to on Instagram or TwitterLIFESTYLE_1384.