Archive for June, 2009

Getting fit on six minutes a week

June 29th, 2009

Last summer, I wrote about a series of interesting studies coming out of Martin Gibala’s lab at McMaster University. The gist: you can reap a surprising range of exercise dividends in a very short period of time — if you’re willing to work very hard. The latest article in Gretchen Reynolds’ New York Times column tackles that same research, with the alluring title “Can you get fit in six minutes a week?

Surprisingly, the answer [SPOILER ALERT!] seems to be yes — at least to a certain extent, and with one key catch. As I wrote last summer:

There is a catch – the disclaimer at the end of the infomercial, if you will. To cram the benefits of an hour-long workout into a few short minutes, you also have to compress the effort you would have spent.

“That’s the trade-off,” Dr. Gibala says. “Going all out is uncomfortable. It hurts.” But at least with this approach it’s over quickly.

For most people, the smart approach is some sort of middle ground. Don’t aim for an absolutely minimal five-minute workout — but do throw in some high-intensity surges to maximize the time-efficiency of your exercise.

Core strength is more than just abs

June 24th, 2009

Good article by Gretchen Reynolds of the New York Times on the difference between strengthening your abs and strengthening your core — and why it’s important:

“There’s so much mythology out there about the core,” maintains Stuart McGill, a highly regarded professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada and a back-pain clinician who has been crusading against ab exercises that require hollowing your belly. “The idea has reached trainers and through them the public that the core means only the abs. There’s no science behind that idea.” Read more…

A four-day, 894-kilometre science experiment

June 23rd, 2009
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Check out this Canadian Geographic article on a neat effort to learn more about the science of multi-day endurance running. It’s about a race called Blaze: Niagara Escarpment Race, a four-day, 894-kilometre relay from Tobermory to Queenston Heights. What’s unique is that the participants were extensively tested before and after the race — and even stopped to give frequent urine samples DURING the race!

For the past two months, the 20 elite endurance runners (10 members per co-ed team) participating have kept meticulous records of their training routines and diets. Elaborate pre- and post-race assessments of such data as heart rate, aerobic capacity, carbon dioxide production and muscle damage promise to reveal a host of escarpment-centric revelations, from the carbon footprint left by the runners and the number of heart beats and litres of blood pumped during the run to the caloric cost and the determinants of success, including age, nutrition and training.

The results of the study will eventually be posted at and submitted to peer-reviewed journals. Should make for some interesting reading!

Tired brains, sprint supplements, and tunes that make you faster

June 22nd, 2009
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The July-August issue of Canadian Running is on newsstands now, which means the latest “Science of Running” column is available online. Topics covered: why mental fatigue can slow you down as much as physical fatigue; how a supplement called beta-alanine can boost your sprint finish even at the end of a long race; how running compares to cycling and weight-lifting for building bone strength; what types of music boost performance; and the best pacing strategies for racing in the heat.

Of course, there’s lots of other good stuff in the issue, including (pardon the self-promotion) a feature I wrote on how running has influenced human evolution, and what it means for our current attempts to avoid injury. To whet your appetite, here are the first few paragraphs: Read more…


Water, sugar, salt: the key ingredients in sports drinks

June 20th, 2009

[UPDATE: See this post for a homebrew recipe]

New Jockology column posted here, on sports drinks:

If you’re an old-school type who thinks plain water is all you need, consider this puzzling fact: Rinsing your mouth with a drink containing carbohydrates will boost your athletic performance, even if you don’t swallow and can’t taste the carbs. [keep reading]

The column takes a look at which ingredients you need (and which you don’t) to keep you fuelled and hydrated during intense exercise. I’ve received a couple of e-mails already asking for recipes for “home-brewed” sports drinks. That’s an excellent question, and I’ll do a little research then post something in the next few days. In the meantime, if anyone has any recipes to suggest, please post them!


How long does it take to get fit?

June 12th, 2009
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I just noticed an interesting study from the May issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. German researchers had 18 untrained subjects go on a one-year, three-days-a-week walking and jogging program, and measured their progress during the year see how their fitness progressed. The key was that they controlled the intensity of the 45-minute sessions using heart rate, so that the subjects were “trying” at roughly the same level throughout the year.

So how long does it take to see real gains, and when do they start to plateau? Read more…

More on sleep

June 9th, 2009

Okay, I posted too soon about the sleep research, before I saw a couple of other interesting studies from the same conference (the 23rd Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies). Read more…


Yes, sleep is good

June 9th, 2009

A new Stanford University study asked five members of the women’s tennis team to extend their sleep times to 10 hours a night, and monitored the changes in athletic performance:

Results of the study indicated that sleep extension in athletes was associated with a faster sprinting drill (approximately 19.12 seconds at baseline versus 17.56 seconds at end of sleep extension), increased hitting accuracy including valid serves (12.6 serves compared to 15.61 serves), and hitting depth drill (10.85 hits versus 15.45 hits).

This is not earth-shattering news. Cheri Mah, the researcher involved, presented similar results on swimmers in 2008, and on basketball players in 2007. I also wrote a Jockology column about this research last summer.

Still, even though we all know about the benefits of sleep, that knowledge is usually a sort of abstract idea that “sleep is good” — so it’s interesting to see the benefits quantified (albeit not very rigorously). And it’s also interesting to see that the goal sleep time for hard-training athletes was 10 hours, a lot more than the eight hours most of us wish we could find time for.

How to swim faster without training

June 8th, 2009
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bosquet-jaked-suitYou may remember the avalanche of world records in the swimming pool last summer in Beijing, thanks to the reduced drag of Speedo’s new LZR suits. (Olympic records fell in all but two events!) The Science of Sport has a very interesting post about how records are continuing to fall this year, thanks to an even newer generation of suits, such as the polyurethane-covered suit worn by Frederick Bosquet to break the 50m freestyle record (see picture):

So good are the new suits, that Bosquet, a man who had never, in 7 years, made an Olympic final, managed to smash 0.34 seconds off the old world record in the shortest event in the pool.

Read more…

Exercise for back pain

June 7th, 2009

The biggest conference in sports science, the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, wrapped up last week in Seattle. It’ll take a few weeks to sort through the rubble and pull out the worthy new studies, but I figured I’d start with a University of Alberta study on back pain, since it’s something that will afflict about 80 percent of North Americans at some point in their lives.

Researchers took 240 people with chronic lower-back pain, and had them exercise with weights two, three or four days a week, or else not at all. The verdict:

“While it could be assumed that someone with back pain should not be exercising frequently, our findings show that working with weights four days a week provides the greatest amount of pain relief and quality of life,” said Robert Kell, lead author of the study…

Over the course of the 16-week study, the four-a-week group reduced pain by 28 percent, the three-a-week by 18 percent, and the two-a-week by 14 percent. Obviously we’ll need some more details of what, exactly, the exercise program consisted of — but it seems to jive with the general trend towards active recovery rather than immobilization.