Shortening your stride mimics the effects of running barefoot

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As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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Just got back from a fantastic canoe trip in Quebec (and yes, I caught more pickerel, along with a pike and a whitefish). While I was away, my Jockology column on how shortening your stride can mimic some of the effects of barefoot running ran in the Globe and Mail:

…a forthcoming study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin suggests that many of the benefits promised by barefoot running, including a reduction of the forces acting on knees and hips, can be obtained simply by taking shorter, quicker steps.

“We found very similar loading patterns,” says Bryan Heiderscheit, the senior author of the study, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, “and you don’t have to go all the way to the extreme of getting rid of your shoes. [READ THE REST OF THE ARTICLE…]

I initially blogged about this study last month, but I subsequently had a really interesting interview with Dr. Heiderscheit. Obviously, this is a very controversial topic these days, and it sometimes seems as if everybody has a biomechanical study that supports their point of view. So I was happy to hear that the Wisconsin team is undertaking a proper randomized, controlled clinical trial that will follow runners for a year or two as they alter their stride length, to see whether it actually affects injury rates as opposed to just joint forces.

Mission: pickerel

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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I’m heading out in about half an hour for my annual canoe trip, this time on the Lievre River in the Laurentians. My mission: catch at least one delicious pickerel like this one I caught last year on the Noire. (That’s “walleye” for you Americans out there.) Also, try not to add any scars to the big one on my hip that I picked up last year while navigating a 200-metre-long rapids a few metres behind my upside-down canoe. At least this year I’m bringing a helmet! I’ll be back in a week…

Fruit and vegetables in a pill: does it work?

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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The more we study antioxidants, the more it looks like — despite the hype — popping big doses of vitamin C and so on doesn’t do much to help your muscles recover from strenuous exercise. In fact, some researchers now suggest popping antioxidants might actually hurt your recovery.

On the other hand, no one doubts that eating lots of fruit and vegetables is just about the best thing you can do, nutritionally speaking. So how about taking a supplement that is, essentially, concentrated fruit and vegetable, like Juice Plus+, which is “whole food based nutrition, including juice powder concentrates from 17 different fruits, vegetables and grains“? That’s what researchers from the University of North Carolina Greensboro decided to test, in a study now appearing online in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (funded, needless to say, by the makers of Juice Plus+).

The 41 volunteers in the study took Juice Plus+ (or a placebo) for four weeks  prior to an intense, muscle-damaging workout. They continued taking it for another four days after, while various measures of antioxidant status, muscle soreness, strength, and range of motion were recorded at intervals. The conclusion:

This study reports that 4 weeks of pretreatment with [Juice Plus+] can attenuate blood oxidative stress markers induced by [eccentric exercise] but had no significant impact on the functional changes related to pain and muscle damage.

So what does this tell us? Yes, fruit and vegetable concentrates supply antioxidants (along with, presumably, other interesting ingredients). These substances may have some health benefits — though whether the benefits are greater or less than taking pure vitamins, we don’t know. But, as far as exercise and recovery goes, antioxidants don’t seem to have anything to do with it.

So for now, my feeling is: why take a powder that might have some benefits when you can take the actual fruits and vegetables that definitely have benefits, and taste better anyway? That being said, I’ll give some credit to Juice Plus+. I’m sure they didn’t get the results they were hoping for, but at least they’re making the effort to fund independent studies — which is a lot more than can be said for most of the products on health-food store shelves!

Building muscle with light weights

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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Another interesting strength-training study just popped up, this one published in PLoS One. The claim in the press release is quite eye-catching: “Building muscle doesn’t require lifting heavy weights.” This is a leap of logic that isn’t quite supported by the paper itself, whose claims centre on “stimulating muscle protein synthesis ” and “inducing acute muscle anabolism” rather than actually demonstrating big muscles. Still, it’s a very surprising study, from a well-respected group (Stuart Phillips at McMaster University).

The study compared three different weights routines:

(1) lift at 90% of one-rep max until failure;

(2) lift at 30% of one-rep max until you’ve lifted as much as you did in the first routine;

(3) lift at 30% of one-rep max until failure.

Deeply entrenched dogma tells us that the best way to build big muscles is to lift heavy weights — option (1) in the workout routine. But the researchers injected tracers and took muscle biopsies four and 24 hours after each workout to find out what was happening on a cellular level. They found that the first and third routines were the same on most measures of protein synthesis, and the third routine was even better on some measures. Those new proteins being synthesized are what accumulate, over time, to produce bigger muscles. So as long as you’re lifting until can’t lift anymore, you’ll do as well or better with light weights as you would with heavy weights.

This is some serious heresy being proposed, and it’s important to note that they didn’t actually observe bigger muscles, just cellular markers. The researchers themselves note that “a training study in which these distinctly different exercise loads are utilized is clearly warranted to confirm our speculation.”

Whatever the training study eventually shows, it’s hard to imagine that this will affect how serious muscle-builders train. However, the researchers believe it could have important implications for “people with compromised skeletal muscle mass, such as the elderly, patients with cancer, or those who are recovering from trauma, surgery or even stroke,” since it minimizes the risk of orthopedic and soft-tissue injury. I’d generalize that even further — there are many, many people who are intimidated by the prospect of trying to lift heavy weights, but might be willing to lift a lighter weight 20 or 30 times until they can’t lift it anymore. Of course, that’s the crux: the method only works if you reach failure, so it’s still going to hurt. You’re just less likely to cause a scene at the gym by dropping the weight on your foot.

Ballistic power vs. strength training for athletic performance

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

***

If you’re trying to step up your basketball (or tennis or soccer or whatever) game, which weights routine is better:

(1) three sets of three back squats at 90% of one-rep max; or

(2) seven sets of six jump squats at less than 30% of one-rep max?

The conventional wisdom is that ballistic power training carries more bang for your performance buck, since it simulates the movements you’ll be making at realistic speeds. Other than in sports like weightlifting and football, it seldom matters what your absolute maximum strength is, especially if you can’t summon it instantly.

Certainly, if you’re Roger Federer, you’ve got a custom-tailored, periodized training plan that incorporates both pure strength and ballistic work. But what if you’re an average, non-professional athlete? A study by New Zealand researchers in the current issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise pits these two workout regimens against each other in a group of 24 “relatively weak” volunteers, measuring functional outcomes like maximal power output, jump height, movement velocity and sprint performance. The result: after 10 weeks, the two groups were pretty much identical (and significantly better than untrained controls in all measures).

In both cases, the adaptations were primarily neuromuscular — signals from the brain to the muscles were transmitted and executed more effectively. (The precise neuromuscular changes were different in the two groups: the ballistic group was able to produce force more quickly, while the strength group increased the magnitude of their contractions, but the performance results were the same.) These neuromuscular adaptations are precisely the point of ballistic training — to some extent, that’s all you get from it. The surprising result in this study was that, for “weak” people who haven’t already done a lot of weightlifting, ordinary strength training produces comparable neuromuscular benefits. But if you keep at it, strength training will eventually also produce significant structural changes — i.e. bigger muscles — that provide further performance benefits.

So the moral of the story, according to the researchers, is that recreational athletes who’d like to improve their performance should choose strength training. It’ll give them all the benefits of neuromuscular training, with the possibility of additional muscle growth if they keep at it.

From my point of view, there’s another moral we can draw from it, which is that, if you haven’t been lifting any weights, pretty much anything you do is going to trigger those neuromuscular gains and improve your performance — so don’t get hung up on the details, just do it.