Using Douglas Heel’s “Be-Activated” Part II – Sequencing: Theory and Illustration

Heel’s system is designed to uncover compensation patterns in the body.  It revolves around posture, breathing and muscle recruitment, which all go hand-in-hand.  Every movement must start in the center of the body and move outwards, effectively expanding the body, instead of starting at a distal (far from the center) area and moving inwards, which causes a collapse in the body.  Heel divides the body into zones, pictured below.  1-2-3 is the ideal muscle sequencing pattern, anything else is a liability for injury or subpar performance.

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Zone 1: The Diaphragm, Psoas and Glutes:

Hip flexion and extension is the body’s primary priority – it cannot move without it. The psoas and glutes are designed to flex and extend the hip – they are in the best position to do so. The psoas will not be working properly if the diaphragm is not working properly, because the fascia encasing the diaphragm also wraps around the psoas.  If breathing is compromised, due to stress or bad posture, the functioning of the entire body will also be compromised.  If the glute/psoas can’t do their job correctly, another set of muscles will take over in order to move. I say “set” because no single muscle can do the job of either glute or psoas.

The diaphragm is involved because the fascia holding it in place connects to the psoas.  If the diaphragm shuts down due to stress, poor posture or other reasons the psoas cannot do its job.  Due to reciprocal inhibition, the glutes cannot fire if the psoas cannot fire. If the glutes cannot fire, the hamstring will do its own job AND take over for the glutes.  Because these muscles are supposed to fire first in any movement, if you can’t breathe deeply into your belly, you won’t sequence properly.

Sequencing should be 1-2-3. However, most athletes are firing zones two or three first – this means that they fire their quad and abdominals together to make up for a misfiring psoas (leaving those muscles unable to effectively do their own jobs) or firing their shin or even hand muscles first. I was surprised to see how many athletes cannot get their brain to fire a hip flexor without tensioning the ankle joint first – these athletes may have shin splints, Achilles problems, chronically tight calves or any other disfunction stemming from the way they compensate when their feet hit the ground.  The predictive value of an athlete’s sequencing pattern has been pretty on point in my limited experience testing this in my athletes.

What does a 1-2-3 look like in action? Here is Irving Saladino, Olympic long jump champion from Panama. In this picture, notice the lack of tension immediately after takeoff – you can see it in this slow motion video as well, fingers lightly curled, jaw lightly closed, toe mildly up, but there is no excessive tension in these areas when he raises his free leg upon takeoff. His psoas muscle is able to do its own job, the hands and face (which cannot add anything to the jump) are able to relax because they are not called upon to work. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbLZKY2CRk4)

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What does a malfunctioning pattern look like? Here I am, in two separate pictures. My pattern on the right is a 3-3-3 arm – this means that in order to flex my right hip, my brain sends tension to my left hand first. My psoas on that side cannot do its own job, so the brain tries to add tension in other areas to assist in hip flexion. This is why I make a strange claw with it as I jump. This need-for-tension in my hand explains how I could hit my head on the rim, but could not get anywhere near that high with a basketball in my hand – holding a ball forces my hand to open, and as a result, my brain cuts the amount of power it gives to my hip drive. This is a setup for injury as well, because my strength levels drop when I cannot/do not close my left hand. It also explains why I have injured my left thumb so often – my hand thinks it has to do hip flexion, so when it has to do its own job it is tired or out of position. My face is also holding a ton of tension, which is only hindering my ability to jump far.  My mind-body connection had blown a fuse, it didn’t know which muscle to fire when.  While I had some success this season, I also missed almost all of it because of injury.

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The way we get it working again is first by working with the breath – if the diaphragm isn’t working nothing will work properly – and rubbing neurolymphatic reflex points that cause our brain to wake up muscles that it has stopped using, whether because of stress, bad movement patterns, or other reasons. The result is that there is a measurable difference in performance in controlled tests. That difference can be flexibility or strength, depending on the area. The pre/post test differences are often shocking – 45* to 90* range of motion in the hamstring, two fingers pushing down a raised knee to my full bodyweight on said knee. It can resolve pain and optimize performance. It’s pretty cool.

Using Douglas Heel’s “Be-Activated” – 4 Week Reflections – Part I

This system has completely changed the way in which I look at the body and mind – posture, body language, breathing, recovery, focus, and performance.  I now activate almost every point we were shown every day, in the morning and/or before training.  I have many of my athletes do a smaller version of activation before practices/workouts.  Our reactions are below:

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What’s changed for me?

Running/jumping feels effortless

Used to sleep with a pillow between my legs because hip pain would wake me up at night, and have avoided playing basketball to avoid aggravating my hip’s FAI impingement/damaged labrum – pain is completely gone at rest and during intense activity

Low back (SI joint) pain gone a few hours after bothersome activity (heavier weight training) instead of a few days. This recovery time is still getting shorter as well (update: have not had pain in several days, for the first time in a year)

My usual head-tilted-to-the-right posture has diminished significantly

Left hip can raise up above 110* while standing, when it could not go much past 90* previously

Significantly less soreness in hamstrings after sprinting/doing posterior chain work, more soreness in the glute

Passive range of motion of the gastrocs (calves) went from barely 90* to 15-20* past that – if the calves can only get to 90* the whole body will have to compensate

Previously fractured area of my right foot no longer goes numb in the cold/with tightly laced shoes – felt a serious rush of blood in there during one particular treatment

Right knee pain can be reduced/almost entirely eliminated immediately by rubbing a particular point and repeating 1-2x daily for a few seconds – and every time it comes back it comes back less

Neck and shoulders no longer stuck in forward position – feel taller, more confident, with significantly less tension

Jaw finally jiggles while sprinting – gotten rid of harmful tension there

Have not gotten my usual monthly migraine, even with a more stressful month than usual

Butt (glute muscles) have grown significantly relative to others

Maintaining posture feels easy/effortless by focusing on breathing – in slouching I am aware of how much it restricts my breathing!

Can breathe into my belly with no extra effort

I can get out of fight or flight stress response much more quickly than before to make rational choices while under stress

I do almost no stretching now – once the right muscles fire, your body removes the tightness it created as a way of protecting itself from your dysfunctional movement patterns

What’s changed for my athletes?

I have tried the technique (mostly zone 1 – diaphragm/glute/psoas) on friends, family and a large portion of my collegiate track athletes – their reactions listed below. The first few are almost universal, while others are more specific; although I may have included a specific quote all reactions I list here were mentioned/seen in more than one athlete/client:

Improved strength – ability to contract zone 1 (psoas/glute) without tensing jaw, shin, or other distal areas to assist – meaning changed order of sequencing – more on that in part II

Ability to breath into belly more easily/more deeply

Changed posture – taller, reduced head forward/rounded shoulders position

“I feel lighter”/”like I lost 20 pounds”

“Effortless” feeling while walking/running/sprinting

“I didn’t notice much until halfway through my run – my legs didn’t feel heavy where they usually do”

Improved mechanics while running – greater push through hips, knees appear to pop up without extra effort

Relaxation – at rest, and seen while running (ability to relax jaw)

Improved ranges of motion – as drastic as hamstrings going from 45* to 90*, calves from 0* past 90* to 25* past 90* in one 10 minute session

Reduced/eliminated pain in back/hip

Reduced anxiety during strength test after treatment (less feeling of “things about to snap”)

Feeling “cleansed”

And my favorite reaction, from an athlete that was clearly not sold after treatment, halfway through the toughest workout of the week: “I just feel so loose right now. I feel amazing.” Then he proceeded to crush the rest of the workout.

The Story:

The morning of the Super Bowl was a little manic for me – our local Patriots were playing that night, and a blizzard was scheduled to hit before work the next morning. But both of those things were not really on my mind, as I was trying to reserve a spot at Douglas Heel’s “Be-Activated” Level One seminar the following weekend, looking into the last-minute travel arrangements that would go along with it.

To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect – the videos/articles I saw showed results, but since this system didn’t fit into my previous knowledge – touching points on the stomach to gain flexibility in the calf, for example – part of me was not sold. We worked in partners on both days, one partner for each day, to learn activation. My partners were novices in activation work, as I was – one had experience with manual therapy as an osteopath, the other was a high school track & field coach. Video from another course, but similar to what we saw (and experienced) while in Chicago.

The Seminar

**Part II of this article will explain some of the theory behind why this works**

Felt cleansed afterwards – endorphins out of this world, perhaps partially because some of the points were so painful – but I also felt that I had let go of things that my body and mind had held onto for years. Difficult to describe, but profound and worth mentioning, since I am not the only one who mentioned feeling that way.

I have studied Zen, tai chi, and chi gong for 7+ years…I thought I knew how to breathe into my belly. After that day I took breaths into my belly that I don’t think I had taken since high school, if not longer – activating the diaphragm and psoas made an impact on the quality and natural depth of my breathing.

I visited a friend that night who is living in the area – he remarked that I seemed “really excited” about my work as we talked – I had a ton of new energy, that’s for sure.

SINCE THEN

As a former athlete recovering from several injuries, a couple in particular combining to end my college athletic career early, I have always felt a feeling of the wheels about to fall off while sprinting.  It’s not a happy feeling, it is my brain receiving signals from my body that something ain’t quite right.  Upon returning to practice, I noticed myself running back and forth between coaching venues the way a kid runs – getting somewhere serves as an excuse for the joyous activity that is running. I was bouncing off of the walls with energy. That feeling of the wheels falling off being imminent was completely gone and I felt freer than I had in a long time. Later that week, there was a day in which my car’s battery died and I had to wait at the shop all day, missing both of my jobs for that day – despite the initial stress, I was able to return to a state of acceptance about missing work by focusing on my breathing and my posture. The next day, I had too much energy and a blizzard was threatening after I picked up the car – I didn’t have time for a workout at the gym, as the snow had already started to fall, I knew my sanity for the next two days holed up in my home was at stake. So I laced up my trainers and ran. A couple minutes in I noticed that I didn’t feel any tightness, so I turned it up for a stride. Before long, my “run” turned into sprints on pavement at about 85-90% intensity. In 30* weather, with the snow falling – without any tightness, without the usual anxiety accompanying maximal effort. It was awesome.

While the initial rush has worn off, I am in significantly less pain on a daily basis than I have been in at any point in the past 6 years, and my posture is effortlessly so much better. Perhaps just as important, my relationship with stress has changed – I am much more able to address situations calmly, with an open mind. By changing my posture, I can change the way that I feel and think for the better – perhaps because our posture influences the hormones our body releases. I really buy into Heel’s saying that “what’s in the body is in the mind, what’s in the mind is in the body.” Look in a mirror, close your eyes, then picture your most embarrassing moment in vivid detail. Open your eyes again. From demonstrations I’ve done with my athletes, 100% have adopted a forward neck, rounded shoulders, hip-out-of-alignment posture, sometimes even with crossed arms. How can you perform in that position?? Any trainer, coach or mom can tell you that a body looking like that cannot safely and effectively perform. On the flip side, the posture that kids adopt on their best days – a light, open posture – is exactly what Heel’s system builds. This is the position that trainers dream about their athletes getting into, and coaches picture when they picture their team succeeding. Don’t take my word for it, watch people on their best and worst days. Change the body and you change the mind, change the mind and you change the body.

To learn more about activation, and to try it yourself, contact me at swuest22@gmail.com,

check out this article (http://www.joekelly.me/pdfs/Muscle%20Activation.pdf) in Runner’s World UK,

or check out this list of US practitioners (http://itccca.com/9825/2015/02/dont-implode-explode-be-activated/)

I have to thank Joel Smith, Tony Holler, Dr. Tom Nelson and Chris Korfist for providing enough information/excitement for me to fly out to Chicago to learn from Heel in person. Smith, at just-fly-sports.com for posted an interview with Chris Korfist in which he mentions Heel’s Activation work – causing me to google around and see Tony Holler’s articles on Activation, Nelson’s videos/website (activateanddominate.com) on the activation work he does with Nazareth’s football team, along with actual injury statistics and player/coach reactions.

You can read Smith’s articles here:

http://www.just-fly-sports.com/epic-speed-training-interview-with-chris-korfist/

http://www.just-fly-sports.com/chris-korfist-interview-on-ankle-rocker-speed-and-vertical-jumping/

You can read Holler’s articles here:

http://itccca.com/9825/2015/02/dont-implode-explode-be-activated/

http://itccca.com/8430/2014/10/you-only-know-what-you-know/

http://www.freelapusa.com/3-reasons-why-activation-is-a-game-changer/

http://www.freelapusa.com/hamstrings-activation-and-speed/

http://itccca.com/8163/2014/09/speed-never-sleeps/

HOW TO BUILD BULLETPROOF BONES, PARTS III & IV: Where to get what you need, and how to cook it

As a basketball player and high jumper, I racked up 10 stress fractures over the course of 8 years.  Upon hearing this, acquaintances often ask, “oh, did you not get enough calcium?”  Actually, I did.  Doctors checked my blood, my calcium levels were normal.  So were my vitamin D levels.  I always came back slowly from these injuries as well – they never seemed to heal in the 4-6 week timetable my doctors would allot, even in college with the help of athletic trainers and physical therapists.  I would always ask the doctors, what am I doing wrong?  They could never answer.  So I eventually did my own research, and, as it turns out, I was doing quite a bit wrong.  This will be a four part series focusing on the role that diet has on bone strength and development:

Part I:  The Milk Myth

Part II:  What Matters Most – How Calcium is Absorbed

Part III:  Where to get the required minerals to maximize calcium absorption (listed in Part II) – Foods, Herbs & Supplements

Part IV:  The Bone Builder’s Cookbook – Several Easy Recipes

Part III:

If you read parts I & II of my “Bulletproof Bones” series, you’ll notice that I talked a lot about the minerals involved in getting calcium into your bones (not your bloodstream) and keeping it there.  The following are the best sources of bone-building magnesium and other minerals.  #1 is at the top, the rest are in descending order:

#1:  Cracked Bone Soup.  I did a post on this a week ago where you can read up on the bone and joint building benefits of this bone soup.  Is commonly made from chicken, beef, or fish.  Follows the ancient healing principle of “like heals like” – the animal has concentrated bone building vitamins and minerals in their bones.  Humans need the same nutrients, so we benefit greatly from this food.

#2:  Pumpkin Seeds.  Power-packed with magnesium, with around half of your daily requirement in just a quarter cup serving.  Also rich source of zinc and antioxidants.

#3:  Beans.  Lentils, Soy, mung, adzuki, black, and lima beans are all great sources of magnesium, as well as protein and other beneficial vitamins and minerals.

#4:  Whole Grains.  Especially quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice, wild rice, barley, millet, oats, rye and wheat (in descending order of magnesium content, from whfoods.com).

#5:  Green Vegetables.  Chlorophyll makes plants green, and at the center of the chlorophyll molecule is magnesium, making these guys a great source as well.

Note:  Much ado has been made in health circles about the phytic acid content of beans and whole grains, with some (usually paleo…) people advocating that we leave them completely out of our diet for that reason.  Phytic acid is one of the ways a plant avoids being eaten – it is a toxin whose intent is to render the plant inedible, by binding to vital nutrients and rendering them unusable by whatever animal were to try and eat them.  However, research has shown that the body produces its own chemicals to break down phytic acid.  I personally soak grains the night before I use them (just put ’em in a mason jar and let ’em sit on the counter covered in water, then drain the water and put it in the fridge, preferably use it within a few days – soaking is as simple as it sounds) because it breaks down phytic acid to a negligible amount by beginning the sprouting process (during which the plant’s nutrients are most bio-available).  I first read about soaking grains in Paul Pitchford’s “Healing with Whole Foods,” a book on western and eastern nutrition.  Since so much of Traditional Chinese Medicine’s nutritional recommendations are focused on getting the most nutrients possible while wasting as little of the body’s energy as one can to assimilate those nutrients, I feel that soaking is worthwhile.  I usually place a lot of faith in traditional wisdom, due to its strong track record (our survival).  I feel I get less of a dip in energy (less food coma) immediately after I eat soaked grains (vs. non-soaked).  Could be placebo though…You decide.  As for beans, soaking DEFINITELY makes a difference by reducing the content of particular sugars that upset your stomach.    

Part IV:

Minimal Work Recipes

There are more complex recipes out there, but if you’re just starting with cooking, on a budget, or lacking a full kitchen’s worth of ingredients, then these will do just fine.

Chicken Broth/Stock

Dahl (Lentil Curry):  bring 3-4 cups water to a boil.  Add 1 cup soaked lentils.  Simmer until soft, then add a tablespoon of curry powder OR turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, cayenne and coriander (all powerful anti-inflammatories, especially turmeric), add salt to taste, and cook 5-10 more minutes.

Gretchka (made with Kasha, which is simply toasted buckwheat):  boil 3 cups water, add 1 cup Kasha and salt to taste, simmer for ~20 minutes, add a sliver of butter and parsley if desired, cook another 5-10 minutes (until the water is soaked into the buckwheat – 1 cup of buckwheat will look alarmingly bigger after cooking!)  Millet can be made this way as well (though I don’t often include butter with millet, as it is creamy in texture as is).  Wild rice and brown rice are similar as well, although wild rice will take more like 45 minutes.  I will often sauté a vegetable in olive oil or butter on the pan, then add water to boil, then add grains – adds veggies to the meal, and flavors the grain!  I like mushrooms with buckwheat, onions with lentils or rice, broccoli with millet – this addition is something worth experimenting with.

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From Bazaar on Cambridge St. in Allston, MA, a primarily Russian grocer – Millet is $2.89, Barley $1.89, and Kasha $2.79 for 22 servings – that’s less than 13 cents per serving for a food nutritious enough to be a staple of one’s diet – they said eating healthy was expensive, did they?

Finally, to bring it all together I have a recipe a client gave me last week – this one is a little more involved, but since it uses a crockpot/slow cooker it is super easy.

(Slow Cooked) Sweet Potato, Black Bean & Quinoa Soup

Ingredients:

1.5 lbs boneless skinless chicken breasts*

1 cup quinoa (soaked)

2-3 sweet potatoes, depending on their size

1 can black beans (rinsed) OR equivalent of a can (~1 pound) dried black beans soaked and then cooked somewhat (boil, 20-30 minutes simmer)

2 big tomatoes

1 teaspoon minced garlic

5 cups chicken broth – since I make my own broth, I’ll often cut it with water, i.e. 3 cups broth, 2 cups water – my broth is much more flavorful than store bought broth

Chili Seasoning – 1 tbsp chili powder, 1 tsp ground cumin, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp onion powder, 1/4 tsp cayenne powder, 1/4 tsp garlic powder, 1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper – you can use this ratio to make a bunch of chili seasoning for use in other dishes, storing for up to six months

Instructions:

Pour in liquid – broth or combo broth/water

Add in chicken, quinoa, rinsed beans

Peel sweet potatoes (or not, if you’re as lazy as I am) cut into cubes and add to pot

Dice tomatoes and garlic and add to pot

Add chili seasoning to pot

Place on high for 3-5 hours or low for 5-8 (I do high for 4.5 hrs)

Use two forks to shred chicken, stir & serve

*Note:  I often skip the chicken if I’m cooking for myself, replacing it with another pound of black beans or adzuki beans – I don’t eat meat more than a few meals a week.  Why I do this will be discussed in future posts.

Bon appetit!

How to Build Bulletproof Bones, Parts I & II: The Milk Myth, and What Really Matters for Calcium Absorbtion

Note:  You can see the summary from this article at the bottom of the post.

As a basketball player and high jumper, I racked up 10 stress fractures over the course of 8 years.  Upon hearing this, acquaintances often ask, “oh, did you not get enough calcium?”  Actually, I did.  Doctors checked my blood, my calcium levels were normal.  So were my vitamin D levels.  I always came back slowly from these injuries as well – they never seemed to heal in the 4-6 week timetable my doctors would allot, even in college with the help of athletic trainers and physical therapists.  I would always ask the doctors, what am I doing wrong?  They could never answer.  So I eventually did my own research, and, as it turns out, I was doing quite a bit wrong.  This will be a four part series focusing on the role that diet has on bone strength and development:

Part I:  The Milk Myth

Part II:  What Matters Most – How Calcium is Absorbed

Part III:  Where to get the required minerals to maximize calcium absorbtion (listed in Part II) – Foods, Herbs & Supplements

Part IV:  The Bone Builder’s Cookbook – Several Easy Recipes

Part I:  The Milk (and Supplement) Mythmcgwire-milk4501

Drink enough milk, they say.  It’ll give you strong bones, they say.  Lower rates of milk drinking are often cited as a reason behind the current epidemic of osteoporotic injuries (injuries from weak/brittle bones) in America.  The International Osteoporosis Foundation estimates that “around 40% of US white women and 13% of US white men aged 50 years will experience at least one clinically apparent fragility fracture in their lifetime.”  Some doctors believe that this problem is because of a lack of calcium in the diet.  But is this true?

If we were to look at the countries with the highest per capita dairy consumption, we’d also see the strongest bones, with all the calcium that dairy consumption provides, right?  Wrong.  Scandinavia is leading the way in dairy consumption, and guess who has the highest rates of osteoporosis in the world?  I’m not quick to say that dairy consumption causes bones to weaken (although that’s a possibility: cheese contains high amounts of phosphoric acid, the same substance that is believed to be why colas (not all sodas) have been scientifically proven to cause bone loss).  The lack of sun must also be involved in the Scandinavian epidemic, as vitamin D “turns on” calcium absorption.

If dairy doesn’t work, what about supplements?  If just getting enough calcium doesn’t work, vitamin D will help, right?

The US Preventative Services Task Force actually recommends not taking calcium and vitamin D supplements, since the evidence does not clearly show that they have any effect on fractures in women.  There are actually concerns about the safety of calcium supplements, as some studies have shown an increased risk of heart disease for those taking the supplements.  Sunlight and a healthy diet are highly correlated with regular vitamin D levels, which are highly correlated with strong and healthy bones, and supplements of vitamin D have been shown to effectively raise levels in the blood in many cases.  However, in my case, and in the cases of at least three fellow stress fracture-plagued athletes I met through my career, our vitamin D and calcium levels were tested and came back normal, and we still kept breaking bones.  Is it possible that we had normal calcium and vitamin D in our blood and they were still not doing the jobs that they were supposed to do?

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Part II:  What Matters Most – How Calcium is Absorbed

Magnesium & Vitamin D

WebMD.com says that “magnesium is a mineral that is present in relatively large amounts in the body.  Researchers estimate that the average person’s body contains about 25 grams of magnesium, and about half of that is in the bones. Magnesium is important in more than 300 chemical reactions that keep the body working properly.”  More than 300 reactions, including those in which vitamin D is involved.  Actually, magnesium turns out to be a cofactor in every interaction requiring vitamin D.  Carolyn Dean, MD says that “When you take high doses of Vitamin D and if you are already low in magnesium, the increased amount of metabolic work drains magnesium from its muscle storage sites.  That’s probably why muscles are the first to suffer magnesium deficiency symptoms — twitching, leg cramps, restless legs and charlie horses.  Angina and even heart attacks affecting the heart muscle are all magnesium deficiency symptoms.”  This is very important for athletes that play sports outside – if you use magnesium to metabolize vitamin D, and you get a lot of vitamin D (from the sun) then you must make sure that you are getting enough magnesium.  One reason for the lack of attention that magnesium gets by the average doctor may be because it is very difficult to test for.

Calcium, Magnesium & Calcitonin

Magnesium stimulates the release of the hormone calcitonin.  Calcitonin is produced by the thyroid, and is a regulator of calcium and phosphorous levels in the blood.  It actually prevents the release of calcium into the bloodstream.  When the message reaches the thyroid that there is a large amount of calcium in the blood, the thyroid releases calcitonin, which both enhances the uptake of calcium and phosphorous by the bone AND slows the activity of osteoclasts (cells that recycle bone).  If you want stronger bones, you want less osteoclast activity, as the osteoclasts break down bone to release their mineral content (osteoblasts, on the other hand, are the cells that build bones).

Lastly, studies have shown that even a small amount of missing magnesium from the body can interfere with the quality of your sleep  and sleep is required to rebuild the bones and all of the tissues of the body.  Another interesting fact is that magnesium is required for serotonin production.  Low serotonin can cause migraine headaches and is associated with depression, anxiety and other mood disorders.

In Summary…

-Getting enough calcium is important, but it isn’t everything.  Ever been told drinking milk will build strong bones?  Countries that eat the most dairy products, per capita, have the weakest bones.  What matters is how much calcium actually gets absorbed by your bones.

-Phosphoric acid (in colas) has been proven to weaken bones.  Sorry, no more Pepsi/Coca Cola if you’re going to be an athlete person.

-Vitamin D is crucial for calcium absorption, but cannot be absorbed if it there is not an adequate amount of magnesium in the body.  Due to the Standard American Diet (processed foods lose much, if not all, of their mineral content), magnesium is often a missing link for American athletes.

                -If you play sports outdoors or consume a lot of vitamin D in food or supplement form, you must be sure that you are getting enough magnesium.  Your body’s demand for it is greater.

-Magnesium also is involved in the release of the hormone calcitonin, which is required to keep calcium in the bones (where you want it) instead of the bloodstream and soft tissues (which can lead to calcification of the arteries and arthritis, among other things).

-Magnesium deficiency is hard to test BUT some signs that you may not be getting enough are leg cramps and charlie horses.

-Further, magnesium can help to improve your mood, relax your muscles and your mind (as serotonin production is dependent on magnesium), as well as helping you to sleep better by relaxing the central nervous system.

Next Monday we will look at both the sources of bone building substances in the food world and also common inhibitors of those substances.  In addition, we will look at some popular (and lesser known) herbs and supplements, their function in building super-strong bones, and some of their pros and cons.

UPDATE:  Further research has shown that the alkalinity/acidity of the blood (highly influenced by diet) also has a huge impact on the health of bones and soft tissues.  Later this October a specific post will summarize this rather complex topic.

Mindfulness in Motion

“It’s not about how much you practice, it’s about how much your mind is present when you’re practicing.”

If you follow psychology at all, you may have noticed that in recent years, the term “mindfulness” has been garnering a lot of attention. The most commonly accepted definition of mindfulness is “the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment.”  Mindfulness is not a trance state, it is not someplace that you can get to. It is a way of being in the present moment.  It is not some clear-minded, peaceful fantasy world.  Noticing the breeze brushing against your cheek is mindfulness, but so is noticing your desire to check that text as you drive.

Chinese Study showed that after only 20 minutes a day for 5 days a group given meditation instruction scored significantly better than a control group (given relaxation training) in:

Attention

Lowered anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue

Decreased cortisol

Increased immunoreactivity (increased immune system functioning)

Recently, researchers from Harvard have also begun to study mindfulness meditation on a regular basis.  Using randomly-assigned studies where they have taken before and after shots of the participants’ brains have shown that over the course of 8 weeks the group that practiced mindfulness meditation had significant changes in their brains.

Brain

What were these changes?

Increased gray matter in:

The left hippocampus – involved in both short & long term memory, as well as spatial navigation.  Team sport athletes – imagine being able to learn and absorb your team’s playbook more quickly than ever. Imagine being able to navigate the court knowing exactly where your teammates are, developing court vision like Chris Paul.  Individual skills and sport benefit from increased gray matter in the hippocampus as well – memory is necessary for learning, so this finding would imply that you would be able to remember and re-create that perfect forehand on the tennis court or a spot-on approach in the long jump.

The posterior cingulate cortex – link between several different regions of the brain – if your parts of your brain can’t communicate with the others, you can’t function.

The temporo-parietal junction – used to process incoming information – think of how much information you have to process during a competition – your coach, your opponent’s intention, your teammates’ intention, their location, etc.  Improved ability to do this would theoretically lead to improved skill on the field.

The cerebellum – this piece of the brain has a large role in motor control, i.e. coordination.  Damage to the cerebellum has been shown to mess with motor skills and posture among other things.  As an athlete, you need this area in tip top shape!!

, in the body, stress markers such as cortisol were proven to have become significantly lowered – cortisol is implicated in disease and overtraining, among other things.

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But wait…aren’t these meditators sitting the whole time staring at the floor?  How do these changes in brain structure apply to performance in a sport?  It’s a fair question.  Let’s bring it back to the Kobe Bryant quote at the beginning.  You cannot improve without being present.  If you aren’t paying attention, or are otherwise putting in poor-quality work, it is not going to be of the same benefit as high quality work.  You can’t even know if you are putting in high or low quality work if you aren’t present and paying attention!  Being present is a skill.  Some people are better than others, and these people generally learn faster than the rest of us.  However, like any skill, you can practice it.  Just like training for strength in the weight room can benefit an athlete on the track, training in formal mindfulness can benefit an athlete by helping them stay focused.  Formal practice is helpful, but you can also practice it without sitting. It can be walking to class or brushing your teeth, an everyday moment.  I used to use segments of collegiate practices throughout the week as specific times to hone my focus – warming up, cooling down, during downtime.  I would try to stay as much in the present moment as I could.  By doing this I noticed two things: first, that I would become more aware during the rest of practice as well, and second, I would notice a lot of things that I had never noticed – feelings and thoughts that were there all along were brought to light.  Simply using your mind to pay attention to whatever may arise in the present moment – worries about the upcoming test, regret that you didn’t say more to your crush in the dining hall a few minutes before, the sensation of sunshine on your face, whatever might be swirling around in that head of yours– is practice.

A key to mindfulness practice is being there for anything that comes up – often we like to run away from thoughts or feelings that we don’t like, and often make our situations worse for ourselves by doing so.  Procrastinating is an example – the work does not go away, and the anxiety only gets worse with each passing moment.  While mindfulness practice does not mean that you must resolve anything, it requires courage to face it.  It takes effort to be with suffering without running to a social media feed or whatever we like to use as a distraction when we would rather be someplace else.  One must be there for our sensations, thoughts and emotions in the present moment like we are there for a loved one – unconditionally, through good times and bad, without judgment.

On the playing field, this means that we are not only present with thoughts and emotions that we like – the sound of the ball hitting the back of the net, the thrill of a big hit – we are present with things that we do not like, like our self-judgment after a mental error, or the butterflies in our stomach.  By harshly condemning our response to our errors, we make a mistake in the way we handle our mistake.  The first step is to stop digging, to accept what is, and to move on from there.  Mindfulness’s contribution to sports psychology is not in that it changes our thoughts and emotions as much as it changes our relationships to our thoughts and emotions.  They may change as you really face them, examine them, hold them up to the light – but they do not have to.  It may be enough to understand that we can tolerate fear, embarrassment, anything.  In the same way that the thought that “this is going to be a great game” doesn’t always turn out to be true, by staying present and accepting of the opposite thought (i.e. this is going to be terrible), we do not have to trap ourselves in the self-fulfilling prophecy that that thought often leads to.

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As a track & field athlete, some days, practice was pretty painful.  However, as both my mental ability and meditation practice developed, I was able to stay with my dislike of workouts that I wasn’t good at, and shift my attention back to what I needed to do to get better.  Many track runners, and other athletes as well, mindlessly blow through repetitions without realizing that every step is an opportunity to perfect their form, their speed, even work on their attitude as they practice.  So although the workouts still hurt – and I still didn’t look forward to them – when I left the track I could honestly say I was better than when I arrived.  Had I tried to avoid those negative feelings…I would have completed the workout, sure, one way or another…but I would have missed the opportunity to improve that my new acceptance in the present moment gave me.  Sport is all about small improvements. In track & field athletes train for months to get fractions of a second faster.  In team sports as well, an inch will often separate a basketball from a defender’s outstretched hand.  Every little thing matters – the question is, are you going to be present to improve?

What is this, and why should I keep reading?

This blog is everything I wished I knew as a high school and college athlete.

Sustainable athletics is health and fitness for life.  This blog is designed to help you understand the key components of health, with particular emphasis on helping you live a competitive, happy, active lifestyle in the present, while planting seeds to help you to continue to enjoy that lifestyle in the future.  In order to make serious improvements as an athlete and as a human being, you need time.  You must learn be sustainable, to allow yourself to be able to put the work in necessary to improve.

How I got here:

In 2005, the track & field coach at my school saw potential in this tall, lanky, scrawny freshman sitting on the end of the bench on the school’s basketball team.  What followed was an absolute love affair with the jumping events – I gave up parties, desserts, and trained my butt off for years, and the work paid off – I came in second at states in Massachusetts and competed for both the University of Maryland and Boston University track & field teams, earning all-conference honors at the latter.  I went from being barely able to grab the rim and hang on my freshman year in high school, to being able to hit my head on it 8 years later.

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However, all of that progress came with a price – I missed more than half of the competitions that my teams competed in due to injury.  As much as I hated it, it became my story: a ton of potential, but never fulfilled.  From 2006 to 2014, I was cleared to run in the month of December only one of those years.  Combined year and a half in a boot, blah blah blah…don’t want to ask for sympathy, plenty had it a lot worse.  However, my injuries were pretty consistently stress fractures – 2 in high school, 8 in college.  I looked everywhere for info, usually in the wrong places, but I occasionally found something, and later found myself able to better separate solid information from flaky, non-evidence-based information (for example: the nutritionist that told me that I should “snack more” to deal with my injuries, while not checking in on trace mineral levels).  I also work with athletes every day, and have come up with a lot of quality information about health and athletics.  That’s what I plan on sharing with this blog.

You might notice that a lot of the information here is focused on nutrition, and practical ideas for preparing, cooking and enjoying food.  While training is of the utmost importance, and this blog will get to it in time, I’d say that there is already a lot of information out there, from physical therapists, coaches, and others.  I have read numerous books on coaching and training athletes where there is 0 mention of what we put into our bodies.  This is absurd.

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TRAINING MEANS NOTHING IF YOU DON’T RECOVER FROM IT.

No one hits a personal best after a hard workout.  It is the adaptation that takes place as you recover that is most important.  If you do not eat, you will not recover.  Likewise, if you eat crappy foods, or crappy combinations of foods, you will recover in a crappy manner.  This is often overlooked.  Some still believe that calories-in, calories-out, is relevant.  It isn’t.  Some still believe that the argument is about carbohydrates vs. protein vs. fat, their ratio etc.  This is important…but the quality of the food that you eat matters more.  Different ratios work for different individuals, and if we are talking athletics (which we are) then it depends on the sport.  Anecdotally, I crave and perform better off of a diet with an emphasis on protein when I am lifting and training for speed and power, while I thrive off of grains and carbohydrates while I am either not training or doing more aerobic work.  These things matter.  I have noticed that this sort of information (while there are many different opinions and some contradicting views) is out there.

However, the most important thing is removing foods that are toxic to your body, or empty of nutritional value, and replacing them with nutritionally power-packed foods.  You can only consume so much food in a day, so if performance is your goal, you must get as many vitamins, minerals and energy out of the food that you do consume.  I look at someone eating pasta as a meal, with no vegetables or meat – it’s a waste of digestive fluids and actually toxic, if you compare it to something such as toasted buckwheat, which because it has not had the nutritious bran and germ removed from its seed, is power-packed with minerals, does not spike blood sugar levels, and actually does other helpful things as well, such as stabilizing mood (to be discussed further down the line).  The way I think of it is this:  Eating the white pasta is like driving three hours out of your way to a 7-11 when you need groceries, while eating the buckwheat is like walking to the large, inexpensive yet fresh and healthy, grocery store down the street.  By choosing nutritionally subpar foods, you are making it harder on yourself by driving a great distance (i.e. straining your digestive system, hormones, and other parts of your body) but really finding very little of value once you get there (after your body is strained by digesting this processed food, your body has very little to gain from the pasta except for quick, sugar energy).  Additionally, you are not going to spend (much) more money, and what you spend is an investment to help you avoid orthopedic and other medical visits in the future.  Your health is the best investment you can make.

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So what will this blog do for me?

Practical advice on what to get rid of, what to add, and how to to that – including recipes.  As someone who has worked two jobs at a time while being a full-time graduate student, my recipes are not the typical ones you’ll find on a cooking blog.  They are as quick and easy as possible, there aren’t too many frills to them (I don’t have a million ingredients in my cabinet), and perhaps most importantly, they will dispel the myth that eating healthy is expensive.  If need be, I can (and have) adjusted my diet to live on $5 a day in food – you can barely get a full meal at McDonald’s nowadays for that kind of money.  I believe that this piece is the most important for all people, not only athletes, because that myth needs to die hard.

We see plenty of health advice focused around what to get rid of – we will tell you what to cut, for sure, but also what to replace it with.  I often see individuals hear of the dangers of certain foods, avoid them like the plague for a while, then go back to them.  Why?  Because they left an empty hole in their place.  This is why very few will keep to a low-carb diet, even though it has helped many to lose weight in the short term.  We gain from cutting carbs, which in our society are usually nutritionally devoid of value, but since we do not find some form of “better” carbohydrate to replace it with, our diets are deficient, and our body knows this.

This is not a bible of information – it is intended to spark conversation and to give you new, healthier ideas about how to live your life on and off of the playing field that I find most athletes are lacking.

So, what am I aiming to live without?

Overly processed foods.

Some may be surprised to know that this includes things such as:

Soda – which you may have known aren’t the best for you, but you should know that they literally weaken bones (!!!!!!)

Commercial fruit juice

Low-fat dairy products

“Whole grain” cereals, breads, and pastas (which lose many of their minerals, vitamins and nutrients during industrial cooking processes – notice the routine addition of certain vitamins and minerals, to make up for those lost)

Anything with added sugar, which is most commercially available foods – you might not know that a Yoplait yogurt has sugar equal to many desserts – you must look at the labels of foods!!

Vegetable oils & margarines – you’d be surprised where you can find these (all processed foods, chips, cereals, and salad dressings, among other places)

Anything from a can

And most alcoholic drinks, excluding wine and “hoppy” beers

So, what do I replace these with?

Well, there are a lot of options.  However, most of them require planning and preparation.  You must learn to cook.  You must know what is in your food, and if you don’t make it yourself you just don’t know.  Many “health foods” are processed in ways that ruin their nutritional content.  You’re going to have to soak grains and legumes, find fresh produce, make your own chicken stock (more on that later) and learn to prepare food in a way that the body can easily and effectively assimilate it.  National Geographic ran a great piece in September of 2014 on “The Evolution of Diet,” which stated that what made humans who we are is not what we ate, but how we prepared it – we are the only species that cooks, the only species that will not survive healthily on raw food alone.  This article also proves wrong the misconception that our “paleo” hunter-gatherer ancestors ate mostly meat – except for areas that were covered in snow much of the year, plant foods (starches included) have been a huge part of cuisine even before we started to grow them ourselves during the agricultural revolution.  They go on to suggest, not surprisingly, that humans are actually pretty bad at hunting, so we are very used to subsisting on grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and the like.

The nutritional content of food is important, but during cooking and digestion, that content changes.  Even different combinations of food eaten in the same meal has a profound effect on the net health effect of said meal.  This is why Traditional Chinese Medicine warns against eating salads in fall, winter, and spring.  It’s too hard on your body to absorb that nutrition, you pay more than you benefit.  Upcoming posts will shed light on both traditional and modern perspectives on food.  What we eat is less important than how we eat it.

What else are we talking about on this blog?

Although food has a huge role – it’s how we get energy from the environment – there are other things (i.e. training and lifestyle) that influence how our body uses said energy to rebuild itself in a more effective way, both for general health and athletics.

We’re talking about why most plyometrics are used in a way in which they were never intended, and why they often hurt more than they help.

We’re talking about the specific impacts of training and nutrition (and sleep!) on the health of your bones.

We’re talking about why salads and uncooked leafy greens are bad for your health….unless it’s summer.

We’re talking about glycosaminoglycans (the larger group of molecules that include the popular joint health supplements glucosamine and chondroitin), why you probably aren’t getting enough of them in a modern diet, and why this is a HUGE problem for athletes.

We’re talking about the limitations of self-massage (foam rolling), and other modalities such as gua sha and instrument assisted soft tissue therapy that can speed your return from injury – but also why their necessity could signal other problems.

We’re talking about the problems with low/non-fat dairy products, and where the calcium from these products goes if you remove the fat (hint: it isn’t where you want it).

We’re talking about fascia, and its importance in training athletes.

We’re talking about organ meats, sprouted grains, chicken feet!

We’re talking about applying wisdom from traditional (chinese, ayurvedic) medicines to athletic performance.

We’re talking about the differences between the way that USA’s training differs from the Ukraine’s.

We’re talking about why food that tastes bad is probably bad for you, and vice versa – provided that you don’t add anything toxic to it.

We’re talking about mindfulness in training, and how Bruce Lee and Kobe Bryant used this to become the amazing athletes that they were.

We’re talking about why so many athletes keep getting hurt, and why the problem is currently getting worse.

And much, much more!