Myth Behavior

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Fitness for the Outside Athlete, January 1997

Myth Behavior

Don't believe everything you overhear in the locker room. This year's top ten fitness fallacies.
By Ken McAlpine

In the early sixties, New Zealander Peter Snell shocked the track world by winning double gold (in the 800 and 1,500 meters) at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. His secret: 100-mile training weeks. Thousands of runners immediately began quadrupling their mileage--until they wound up spent and splayed like tossed laundry on their living room floors.

Then in 1980, and again in 1984, Sebastian Coe of Great Britain took Olympic gold in the 1,500 meters with the opposite regimen: low mileage, hard intervals. Runners everywhere began flogging themselves on the track. Soon Achilles tendons were popping across the globe.

"Everybody thought these guys had a magic formula," says Carl Foster, director of cardiac rehabilitation and exercise testing at the Milwaukee Heart Institute and director of sport science for the U.S. Speedskating Association. "But the truth is, Snell was a big man who could stand a lot of mileage and Coe was a little guy who couldn't. The problem comes when other people think that something that works for one athlete will automatically work for them."

The result can be a fitness fad that's often, at base, a fallacy--not to mention a prescription for disaster. Remember the trend of backward running several years ago? Or the vogue for oval chainrings that swept cycling? Or that brief moment, maybe only a week or two, when every athlete seemed to think he needed bee pollen?

This year, a new set of fads and fallacies is monopolizing locker room gossip: Coffee right before a race will propel you faster to the finish line. Only carbo-gel can save you from a bonk. Stretch before every workout.

None of these is strictly true, some are actually dangerous, and many just make working out more rigid and less fun.

So herewith, in the interest of keeping 1997 healthy and sane, today's ten most widespread workout fallacies--and the real skinny on each, according to the nation's top fitness experts.


No heart-rate monitor, no quality workout.
"Certainly not," says Dave Morris, exercise physiologist for USA Cycling in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Still, everybody and her brother sports one at races--and tries to spy on competitors' readouts to gauge their midrace form. And though HRMs are fine for measuring high-intensity workouts, meaning those in which your heart rate is 90 percent of its maximum (subtract your age from 220 for a ballpark figure of your max), they're not infallible. "A heart rate monitor can't always determine how hard you're pushing," Morris says. Lack of sleep or a previous day's workout can lower your pulse, making you think you're loafing when you're not. "You don't need a fancy device to know a great workout," Morris says. "Have a little faith in your natural ability to make that workout intense."

I'm tired and bored with my workout. I must be overtraining.
Nice try. Severe overtraining, though a voguish ailment, remains relatively rare for most of us, especially early in the season. Its symptoms: a resting heart rate that's significantly faster than normal (usually by at least ten beats per minute), greater susceptibility to injuries and illnesses, unexplained weight loss, irritability, and fitful sleep. A more common problem is burnout, essentially the mental analog to physical overtraining. Its primary symptom: You can't bear the thought of another workout. To treat this, Ellen Coleman, a registered dietician and exercise physiologist at The Sport Clinic in Riverside, California, suggests...a break. "Take two or three days off," she says. "Think of this as a weekend away from exercise." Then make sure you eat enough carbohydrates. Carbo depletion contributes to that worn-down and exhausted feeling characteristic of burnout. Coleman suggests aiming for at least four grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight per day.

Abdominize or bust.
The nation's ab obsession shows no sign of abating, with magazines running monthly updates on "Fab Abs" and sales of gadgets like the Abdominizer reaching multimillion-dollar levels. Fueling this industry is the notion that doing sit-ups is complicated. "It's not," says Harvey Newton, executive director of the National Strength and Conditioning Association in Colorado Springs and coach for several U.S. national and Olympic weightlifting teams. "People hear that they need to 'isolate the left oblique' or 'work the upper part of the rectus abdominis.' But all they need to do is the old-fashioned crunch. It works everything." To crunch properly, lie on your back, feet elevated, knees bent 90 degrees. Rest your hands loosely behind your ears. Keep your lower back pressed to the floor. Then raise your shoulders, ideally high enough to touch your elbows to your knees. That's it. No contortions. No fancy gadgetry. As for the Abdominizer, Newton says, "It makes a comfy seat for watching TV."

Chow down right after a long ride or run and you'll have completed that carbo replacement thing.
Well, no, says Ralph La Forge, exercise physiologist and director of the Lipid Disorders Training Program at San Diego's renowned Cardiac Center Medical Group. It's true that getting carbohydrates immediately after a workout is important for replacing the muscle glycogen you've just expended. And for the first four hours after a hard workout, your muscles can absorb this glycogen almost twice as fast as at other times. But even at this accelerated rate during this carbo-loading window, your muscles regain only about 5 to 10 percent of the fuel they've spent. So a glass of Gatorade and a nap after exercise will not revive you sufficiently. "You have to keep snacking throughout the day," says La Forge, who advises serious athletes to consume small helpings of carbohydrates--a baked potato, a cup of rice, a banana, or a quart of Gatorade--every two hours until their next large meal. "The main advantage of starting right after exercise is that you're not wasting time," La Forge says. "But then you have to complete the job."

If it can't be downloaded, it's not worth knowing.
Computerized training logs are one of the hottest fads du jour, especially among technophilic cyclists. But often they're overkill. "Even the most serious competitive athletes need only pen and paper," says the Milwaukee Heart Institute's Carl Foster. His recommendation: After each workout, rate your effort on a scale from one to ten, with one being "easy" and ten being "nausea-inducing." Multiply that number by the number of minutes you exercised: If you ran for 40 minutes at a moderately difficult "five" pace, for example, mark down 200. Add the numbers at the end of the week and compare the totals week to week. "Over time, a perfectly clear numerical window will appear," Foster says. "It'll show how you were training when you felt well or raced well and how you were training when you didn't. What more do you need to know?"

Pssst--have I got a tip for you, kid: chromium.
This year's "super pill" is chromium, a mineral sold at drug and health-food stores. It's being touted among athletes as an instant route to weight loss and muscle-mass gain, based largely on claims made by dietary supplement marketers. But one of the most important recent scientific studies of its effects showed a rather less desirable result: People on chromium got fat. "Even took it myself," says John Ivy, director of the exercise science lab at the University of Texas, Austin, where the study was conducted. "Gained four pounds in eight weeks." And none of it was muscle mass.

You gotta have GU.
GU, Clif Bars, Powergel, Endura--all these carbo-supplements are trendy right now. All are useful. But none is essential. "Water is the most overlooked athletic aid," says nutritionist Coleman, who has completed the Hawaii Ironman twice. In fact, water is all you need during any workout of less than an hour. For those that last longer, you'll need to replace carbos, Coleman says, usually to the tune of about 30 to 60 grams per hour. But it needn't come from packaged, expensive energy foods. A banana or four Fig Newtons will do fine, and both are more digestible for many people than PowerBars et al.

Never work out without stretching first.
Never follow this advice. "One of the few things we're sure about is that a stretch shouldn't be used as a warm-up," says Lucille L. Smith, an exercise physiologist at Chicago's Northeastern Illinois University. That's because cold muscles, less able to stretch, are easily overextended, causing them to tighten and contract reflexively. These extra-tight muscles and associated ligaments are especially prone to tears. Instead of stretching, start with an easy five-minute jog or spin. After you've broken a light sweat and warmed your muscles, you can safely stretch--if you like. Otherwise, continue to warm up gradually, preferably for at least ten minutes, before any intense training. Save stretching for after the workout, when it will help prevent residual muscle tightness.

I'm an endurance athlete. Too much weight work will make me bulky and slow.
This is not a fallacy just for the new year: It's a hardy perennial, especially among those looking for any excuse to stay out of the weight room. "That lifting heavy weights is going to make you huge is one of the biggest misconceptions there is," says strength specialist Newton. "Size comes from calories. The only way you gain weight is by putting food in your mouth." Muscular strength does, however, allow endurance athletes to train harder and longer with less risk of injury than when they're reedy. And a good strength program needn't be time-consuming. "One exercise for the legs, one for the abdominals, one for the lower back, one upper-body pushing exercise, and one upper-body pulling exercise," Newton says. "It doesn't have to get any more complicated than that." For the fastest strength gains, he adds, it's best to lift heavy weights and perform only six to eight reps. More reps with lighter weights will build muscular endurance--but that's not usually what long-distance athletes need to increase.

I can't race unless there's a Starbucks near the starting line.
Caffeine, one of the most popular of ergogenic aids, can improve race performance. It raises blood levels of epinephrine, aka adrenaline, thereby stimulating the release of free fatty acids, which allow you to use fat for fuel--and everyone has far more fat than muscle glycogen. Your body's total glycogen store amounts to only about 2,000 calories, whereas a single pound of body fat contains 3,500 calories. But timing is everything with caffeine. Exercise causes epinephrine levels to rise anyway. So if you drink coffee just before a workout, by the time it kicks in, you get little additional benefit. Instead, Coleman recommends, "Take the caffeine an hour before you exercise, so that your epinephrine levels are up when you start." But don't forget that coffee is a diuretic. The headiest of adrenaline rushes will be more than offset by frequent midrace pit stops.

Ken McAlpine is a Ventura, California--based writer who writes frequently for Bodywork.

Copyright 1997, Outside magazine

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