The Perfect Fit Part Three

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, December 1998

The Perfect Fit ù Part Three
A good workout doesn't end with the body ù you've also got to train your brain

By Paul Keegan

Jim Loehr
It's cold and dark outside, making that long run a dreary prospect. Inspiration, so plentiful as you vowed to get into shape, has now been devoured by monotony. Physiologists, unable to offer biochemical explanations for such recurring moments of sloth, nevertheless have noticed that they become more frequent at year's end, as the season of nog and tryptophan reaches its insidious climax.

But fear not, wayward athlete ù your mental trainer, Jim Loehr, is here. A renowned sports psychologist and author of the best-selling Stress for Success, Loehr has straightened out many a notorious head case, from tennis star Jim Courier to NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh, not to mention countless amateur neurotics like you. He's devised a program that will not only help you find time for exercise within your hellish schedule, but also make this element so central to your life that it'll seem just as basic as eating and sleeping.

In fact, this third installment of our five-month fitness program (strength and cardiovascular training were tackled in the last two issues) may prove to be the most important of all. By explaining how to build "islands of sanity in the storm," as he puts it, Loehr will show you how to be as tough mentally as you are becoming physically. "You should have control of your life, even when it's complete mayhem," says Loehr, a trim and dapper man of 55 who runs a training center in Orlando, Florida, called LGE Performance Systems, "so that no matter what happens, you can keep yourself in balance."

Since a central tenet of Loehr's philosophy holds that proper nutrition is every bit as crucial to your mental well-being as exercise, we've also asked Kristine Clark, the 44-year-old director of sports nutrition at Penn State University and one of the nation's leading experts on food and performance, to provide a set of clear rules to ensure that you're consuming what you need to power you through this program and beyond. With Loehr shoring up your gray matter and Clark taking care of the fuel, don't be surprised if, by month's end, you find yourself bounding off the couch eager to tackle those bone-chilling winter runs.

The Joy of Stress

Though Loehr can sometimes slip into psycho-jargon and vague pieties about making the world a better place, what's refreshing about his approach is that it's based on years of research rather than New Age nostrums. "We work hard not to get touchy-feely," he says of his team at LGE. "Otherwise our clients would be gone in about two seconds. They want practical advice." They must be getting it: Each year 20,000 people, including executives from bottom-line-oriented companies such as Price Waterhouse, pay a visit to Loehr.

A former college tennis player, Loehr started his work in the field 25 years ago, when he began studying why certain athletes could lift themselves to astonishing levels of performance while others of equal talent languished. In examining the athletes' daily habits he quickly realized that the clutch players were "all the same." Indeed, each of these subjects had precise daily rituals for eating, sleeping, and working out. They used their working hours efficiently. They made time for family and friends. They performed some kind of meditation or mental preparation. In short, they led carefully balanced lives instead of letting any one aspect of life control them.

Loehr also spotted a physiological link to this finding: Just as your muscles need time to recover after lifting weights, your brain needs rest too. "People think that mental activity is on a different plane than physical," says Loehr. "But they both follow the same laws of energy expenditure and recovery." The latest research bears this out: Neurologists have determined that when you focus, chemicals in the brain such as serotonin ignite the necessary electrical charges. If that stress goes on too long, however, the chemical stores become depleted. The upshot is that the longest a person can concentrate under high stress is about 90 minutes at a stretch, after which we all need a break of 10 to 20 minutes to recharge.

Loehr believes that these recovery periods do more than simply prepare you for the next burst of activity: You're actually becoming stronger mentally, meaning that you can absorb increasing amounts of stress and still perform at peak levels. "Recovery is where most people miss the boat," says Loehr. "Stress is the stimulus for growth, but recovery is when you actually grow." Thus Loehr's program is designed to slowly build your capacity to handle stress. Interestingly, he employs the same term ù periodization ù that our strength and cardiovascular experts, Harvey Newton and Dave Scott, use in explaining their physical regimens. It's a term physiologists have coined to describe routines that alternate periods of stress with periods of recovery according to precise schedules, ultimately bringing you to an athletic peak. Loehr calls this "the ideal performance state," which is akin to the "zone" often referred to by top athletes.

Of course most people, whether highly paid pros or creaky weekend warriors, have no idea when these moments will occur. But Loehr insists that anyone can set the stage to attain this state with his training. True, learning how to perform at your best requires discipline, meticulous scheduling, and maybe even a little anal retentiveness. After about 30 days, however, Loehr promises you'll begin forming new habits and seeing results.

Here's how to get started: Using Loehr's template (see Manifest Destiny), create your own training log. Unlike a time-management system, which outlines a to-do list, this log is an honest record of what you actually did and thus provides an easy way to make adjustments that will help you manage the stress of day-to-day life.

The most important component of the log is what Loehr calls "the rituals of success." All great athletes have rituals that they use in life and competition, he says, and so do you ù even if you aren't aware of them. They may be as mundane as getting ready for work each morning by performing your ablutions in order, or as simple as walking the dog the instant you get home every evening. The goal is to make sure you perform these rituals without fail: They bring structure to your days, are familiar and comforting during times of stress, and can trigger powerful physiological responses that lower your blood pressure, slow your heart rate, and calm your brain-wave activity. Best of all, after a short while they'll become automatic.

You Are How ù and Perhaps When ù You Eat

Loehr feels that among the most important rituals are consistent eating habits. Not surprisingly, Clark wholeheartedly agrees. They both suggest recording exactly what you eat each day to give you a clear picture of three things: the quality, quantity, and frequency of your food consumption.

The first two, says Clark, are equally important ù and are often abused by those who think working out regularly and rigorously gives them license to pork. The reality is that you're not burning that much fuel: Since the average person expends roughly 300 calories in 30 minutes of exercise, Clark estimates that even our ambitious workout program is probably costing you no more than about 2,100 calories per week, the equivalent of half a PB&J a day. So to maintain your weight throughout the program, Clark figures that the average man (154 pounds) needs 2,800 calories a day; the average woman (121 pounds), 2,200.

Kristine Clark
Of course, within those parameters it's also key to strike the right nutritional balance. Though plenty of anecdotal evidence exists to suggest that some athletes can benefit from dialing back carbohydrates while boosting their fat and protein intake, Clark says that 50 years of research data clearly show the importance of a high-carb diet for active people. "No matter how you cut it," she says, "carbohydrates are the key energy ingredient for working skeletal muscle." Thus she recommends that at least 55 percent of your daily caloric intake be in the form of carbohydrates. But doesn't the program's weight-training segment increase your need for protein? Indeed it does, answers Clark ù from about 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day to about 1.2 grams, hardly enough to warrant lining the kitchen with tubs of protein powders.

Speaking of which, Clark holds most such supplements in low regard (see Strength in a Bottle?). Vitamins and minerals, however, are things that athletes should take daily. This, she says, is especially important for women, who often have trouble getting enough iron, calcium, and B-vitamins in their diet. Any generic multivitamin-and-mineral supplement will ensure you're getting enough of vitamins A, C, and E ù the nutrients we often miss out on.

And what of the final item you should be tracking in your log, meal frequency? Clark says she doesn't much care how often you eat, so long as you don't overdo it, but Loehr is a devotee of a popular new trend in sports nutrition that entails avoiding large meals and instead eating every couple of hours. He points to studies that show this approach raises your metabolic rate and stabilizes your mood and energy levels, and he argues that pausing for an apple and a bagel, for example, provides a welcome mental-recovery break.

A Day in the Life

Aside from ritualizing your food intake, Loehr says that the most crucial pattern is the way you begin your day. And strange as it may sound, what he advocates is "starting" with a presleep routine 30 minutes before going to bed ù any practice that clears your mind and calms your nerves. Next, try to get up at the same time each day, which trains your body to become alert and sleepy at the appropriate times.

During the day, try to adopt the rhythms your body naturally wants to follow. If you can, schedule work that requires mental precision for the morning, since chronobiologists say that's the time we're sharpest on details (your alertness should peak around noon). Late afternoon, when your mind begins to sputter, is best for repetitive tasks, so you might use those hours to organize files, catch up on correspondence, return phone calls, and the like. Allow yourself one recovery break in the morning and another in the afternoon: Stop working for 10 minutes and either do some exercise ù walk around the block, jog stairs, etc. ù or indulge in the aforementioned apple-and-bagel hiatus.

Beyond the scheduling, Loehr also suggests that you create a priority list of tasks that need to be accomplished each day and then spend 10 minutes each morning in a "mental rehearsal" of how you're going to march through the list in an ideal performance state. At lunch, spend another 10 minutes picturing an upcoming event or pivotal workout. Many athletes swear that if they can lucidly picture, say, sprinting past their opponents, it actually ends up happening.

The process certainly worked for Dan Jansen, who was widely acknowledged as the world's best speed skater until 1988, when his sister died of leukemia the morning of the Olympic 500-meter race. Jansen was expected to win but slipped and fell on a live telecast. After struggling for several years, Jansen sought out Loehr, who helped him develop a mental-training log that included exhortations such as "I love the 1,000," an event that had given him fits. In 1992, Jansen won an Olympic gold and set a world record in the 1,000.

Even if your biggest goal is simply to drag your butt out of bed early enough to hit the gym before work, Loehr says the same principles can help you. All he asks is that you keep a log for 30 days and then conduct an internal audit: Do you have more energy and passion? Are you more focused? He is certain the answers will be yes. "If you train mentally every day, just as you do physically, you can reach the ideal performance state frequently," Loehr insists. "Life's still tough, but now you're challenged by it, not overwhelmed or cynical. Once you get going like that, you never want to go back."

Next month, in part four of our series, Paul Keegan will focus on athleticism: agility, balance, flexibility, and coordination.

December: Making the Big Push
You may be tempted to ease up over the holidays, to reward yourself for two months of diligence, but now's the time to focus. This is perhaps the most crucial stage of the physical program: In the gym, resistance-training sage Harvey Newton has you doing true strength work two days a week, boosting the weight so that you can do just six reps of each exercise and bumping you up to five sets. Add crunches to each workout and back extensions only on A and B days. Meanwhile, on the cardiovascular front, former triathlete Dave Scott has you pushing harder and longer in the Aerobic Economy phase. Mondays call for multiple five-minute lactate threshold blocks: For each, start with an eight-minute warm-up at level 8 on the perceived exertion scale, speed up to level 15 for three minutes and to 16 for two, and then head back down to level 11 for two minutes of recovery. Continue doing pickups on Thursdays, but in week 10 increase the time to 30 seconds with 60 seconds' recovery. On Saturdays, go long.
  • WEEK 9: (M) CT-14(30), 2xLT, ST-A(5/6); (T) off; (W) off; (Th) CT-12(20), 8xPU-15, ST-B(5/6); (F) off; (S) CT/LD-12(69/123); (Su) off
  • WEEK 10: (M) CT-14(30), 2xLT, ST-A(5/6); (T) off; (W) off; (Th) CT-12(20), 5xPU-30, ST-A(5/6); (F) off; (S) CT/LD-12(75/135); (Su) off
  • WEEK 11: (M) CT-14(30), 3xLT, ST-A(6/6); (T) off; (W) off; (Th) CT-12(20), 6xPU-30, ST-C(6/6); (F) off; (S) CT/LD-12(81/153); (Su) off
  • WEEK 12: (M) CT-14(36), 4xLT, ST-A(6/6); (T) off; (W) off; (Th) CT-12(20), 7xPU-30, ST-B(6/6); (F) off; (S) CT/LD-12(86/168); (Su) off
  • WEEK 13: (M) CT-14(36), 4xLT, ST-C(6/6); (T) off; (W) off; (Th) CT-12(20), 8xPU-30, ST-A(6/6); (F) off; (S) CT/LD-12(91/180); (Su) off

M = Monday, T = Tuesday, W = Wednesday, Th = Thursday, F = Friday, S = Saturday, Su = Sunday

CT-14 (30) = 30 minutes of cardiovascular training not to exceed 14 on Perceived Exertion Scale;
2 x LT = 2 lactate threshold blocks;
4 x PU = 4 sets of pickups;
CT/LD (69/123) = long-distance cardiovascular training, 69 minutes of weight-bearing exercise (jogging) or 123 minutes of nonweight-bearing exercise (cycling, swimming, cross-country skiing);
ST (5/6) = strength training (5 sets of 6 reps);
A = dumbbell press, lat pulldown, squats;
B = bench press, pull-ups, leg presses;
C = incline press, seated row, dead lift;
ST = strength training: (1/15, 2/12) = one set of 15 reps followed by two sets of 12.

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