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10 Timeless Fitness Laws

In the not-so-distant past, your food grew on a farm. Meals were home-cooked (on an actual fire, in an actual stove). The outdoors was your gym. Watches? They tracked time, not activity. Blue light, texting neck, and the masses getting supersized by McDonald’s were issues for a future generation.

Yet somewhere along the way, conventional wisdom got muddled with modern mechanisms. And the results weren’t pretty. We became much more sedentary and got fatter. And slower. And weaker (seriously). At the table, our food began to look less and less like it ever came from the ground.

“Western society is the most overfed but malnourished, sick society due to the imbalance of physical activity and real nourishment, says Stacy Sims, MSc, Ph.D., co-founder of Osmo Nutrition. “The body is designed to move all the time and use food that supports health, not quick hits of ‘feel good’ sugar and fat.”

So how do we go back? By homing in on the fundamentals and returning to the principles that have stood the test of time. Here, 10 laws of fitness your grandfather would approve of.

#1: Perfect the Pushup

When Charles Atlas promised the men of America that he’d transform them from weaklings into masses of muscle, the fitness industry was forever changed. But “Dynamic Tension”—for all its faults—also had its strengths. It was a program based on the basics: bodyweight. As the legend goes, Atlas studied lions, noticing that animals had no exercise equipment. They had no gyms. Instead, they pitted one muscle against another. And dropping down and giving 10—or 20 or 50—should still have its place in your routine. “With proper form, your pushups and pull-ups are still the best exercises you can do. They engage your core with a functional push-pull action,” says Sims.

#2: Do It Right—or Stop Doing It

Focus on form. If your technique is all wrong, you might be doing more harm than good. Why? Misalignment means the biomechanics of movement are out of whack.  The result: increased stress in different joints and potential muscle imbalances—the perfect setup for overuse, chronic pain, and injury, Sims says.

But mastering the “how to” isn’t all about taking preventative measures. “The other aspect of proper form is that you end up using the smaller, stabilizing muscles giving you core stability for daily movement,” Sims explains. And if you’re engaging your muscles all day—with good posture (yes, you really should pull your shoulders back), or by perfecting a pushup—you’re building core strength without realizing it. Slouched over, resting on your elbows, back twisted? It should be no surprise that you make grandpa noises when getting up from your chair.

#3: Drink, Baby, Drink

Athletes have been around far longer than Gatorade and the new class of beverages strewn across supermarket shelves (ones that promise to replenish, hydrate, and boost performance). And when a run was no more than a run, athletes didn’t swear by high-concentration sugary liquids.

When a workout isn’t long enough or intense enough to result in severe fatigue, plain old water works, says Matt Fitzgerald, sports nutritionist, and author of the book Diet Cults. “In fact, it's not necessary to drink anything in most workouts lasting less than an hour,” he adds. That’s not to say that drink scientists aren’t onto something: “You need a small amount of sodium to actually pull water into the body,” says Sims. That’s why low-concentration approaches (Nuun, SOS, and Sims’ OSMO) have become popular.

#4: Eat a Quality Breakfast

Rising with the sun means more hours to move and more hours to eat well. “One of the overlooked benefits of eating breakfast is that it provides an early and additional opportunity to make progress toward meeting daily quotas for high-quality food types such as vegetables and fruit,” says Fitzgerald.

It’s not hard to start knocking out nutritional requirements before your day begins either—one serving of vegetables or fresh berries added to whole-grain cereal—can make all the difference, says Fitzgerald.

Just remember composition, says Sims. A croissant and a coffee won’t cut it: “You wake up with high levels of cortisol (the belly fat hormone), and adding sugar and caffeine will perpetuate cortisol’s actions,” she says.

#5: Repeat After Us (One More Time): I Will Eat Real Food

You won’t find the recipe for a healthy diet on the back of a package. Change the way a food naturally exists, and you change the way your body absorbs it. “There is a disconnect between the marketing claims of pre-packaged food and real food made from scratch. And food can’t just be reduced to single compounds,” says says Allen Lim, Ph.D., founder of Skratch Labs.

To that extent, Fitzgerald has spent time analyzing world-class endurance athletes—a group as fit and healthy as any population on earth—finding a simple trend: “what I call ‘agnostic healthy eating,’” he says. What that means: eating in culturally normal ways, but not avoiding food groups entirely; filling meals with vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, fish and high-quality meat, whole grains, and dairy; and only sparingly eating low-quality refined grains, processed meat, and sweets. “If this formula is good enough for athletes who place tremendous demands on their bodies, it's good enough for us,” he says.

#6: Feel Your Way to Faster

The most sophisticated and reliable fitness monitoring device that exists—or will ever exist—isn’t a device at all: it’s your brain, says Fitzgerald. “If your body needs rest, your brain will communicate that to your conscious awareness in the form of feelings of fatigue and low motivation,” he explains. The symptom: a greater perceived effort: “If the body is fatigued or if its performance capacity is compromised, the brain will have to work harder to get the same level of output, and the greater the effort the exerciser will perceive.”

On the other hand? If your body is responding well to your training and is ready for more hard work, your brain will let you know that too in no uncertain terms, Fitzgerald says.

#7: Lighten Up and Have Some Fun

“The more you enjoy your training, the more you'll put into it,” says Fitzgerald. “And the more you put into it, the more you'll get out of it.” The research agrees: Your best efforts will likely come when you’re having the most fun, a 2012 study by Alan St. Clair Gibson of the University of Worcester found. Find something you like and the addiction will come naturally: “Research indicates that the association of ‘fun’ with things you do perpetuates stress release, making you want to go back for more,” says Sims.

#8: Recover. No, Really: RECOVER.

One of the problems with the evolution of cross-training is that you can go hard every day. The problem: That’s not what your body needs. The key is finding an easy-hard cycle you can give into, says Michael Joyner, M.D., and physiologist and anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic. “People have forgotten to make the hard days harder and the easy days easier.” Think in terms of “active rest”—a 3- or 4-mile run for a distance runner, calisthenics, jumping rope, or classic conditioning drills, Joyner says. “That’s really important.”

#9: It's Not All About the Bike, the Shoes, or the Compression Underwear

Aerodynamics, biomechanics, breathability—they’re words that get a lot of ink (on labels, in magazines, and in the scripts of gear salespeople across the world). And yeah, tech has its perks. Breathable fabrics make long and hot hikes more bearable. But will your gear always make the difference?

A recent University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill study found only 14 percent of runners who laced up in lightweight kicks reported injury in a year’s time; almost half of runners in traditional sneakers did. So plus one for minimalism? Not so fast. The same University of North Carolina research revealed that people who chose traditional shoes landed differently from those who donned the minimalist shoes (on their heel or mid-foot versus on their forefoot).

The point: Everyone is different. And gear that works is subjective. “Good gear makes things more enjoyable, and most importantly prevents injury,” says Sims. So don’t skimp on no-brainers: proper bike fit, shoes, and protective items—but don’t become slaves to them.

#10: Never Stop Moving

Take this in the most expansive and philosophical way: Build movement into all aspects of your life—work, home, play—and throughout your life. You name the disease and exercise is the cure. “It’s proven to reduce the likelihood of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, osteoporosis, sexual dysfunction, and a host of infectious diseases,” says Fitzgerald. Work out, and not only will you be healthier, but happier, more confident, and (bonus!) smarter, Fitzgerald adds.

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The Really Weird Trend of Breast Milk as Energy Beverage

There are grown men who drink breast milk. For some, it’s undoubtedly a kink. But for others, it’s something else: a “God-given” performance-enhancing elixir—and believers are paying top dollar for it online. Once a fringe gym-rat movement, now athletes of various stripes are chugging the stuff in search of a high-energy protein fix.

Far away from government oversight or official scrutiny, hundreds of gallons of breast milk flow through online classifieds, according to one of the leading online facilitators, OnlytheBreast.com. The site officially caters to mothers who want to sell their “liquid gold” (their language, not ours) to other women, but about a third of the requests for milk on the site are posted by men. The demand has set off an arms race among the 10 percent of women willing to sell their milk to the other sex. One St. Louis provider catering to athletes boasts that her milk is best because she adheres to a “Paleo-style diet with added grass-fed butter,” only organic foods, and a daily regimen of supplements including charcoal and probiotics.

The “breast is best” believers drink this stuff up. They say that the milk is more nutritious than anything you can get from a cow, best for body building, the secret to fighting off disease, and a sure-fire way to boost energy levels. It’s the energy drink of the future, New York Magazine reports.

It’s too bad it’s soggy logic—on all counts, says Bo Lonnerdal, a professor of nutrition and internal medicine at University of California at Davis. “I don’t see much sense in it all,” she says. “It doesn’t provide more energy than other drinks with the same energy content.”

Which brings us to protein. Fans of human breast milk point to its supposedly superior whey-to-casein ratio of 60-to-40, compared to nearly the inverse 20-to-80 of cow’s milk. But a liter of breast milk has only one-third the total protein of cow’s milk. And it contains nearly twice as much lactose sugar, making it sweeter than cow’s milk and a poor choice for those who are lactose intolerant. Then there’s breast milk’s fat content, which varies widely based on the donor’s diet.

More souring is that the heralded bioactive components within breast milk are unlikely to make it through your stomach—precisely because adult men aren’t at all like children. “We highly likely would break down bioactive components like lactoferrin and immunoglobulins long before they could have any potential function,” Lonnerdal says.

It’s just wrongheaded to think that what works for baby boys and girls will be best for grown men, says Katie Hinde, assistant professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, who tracks advances in milk research on her “Mammals suck… Milk” blog. 

“Breast milk is nature’s magical elixir for those particular infants at a particular time, but the benefits for adults are less clear. There’s still too little we know about what it does even in infants,” she says.

Then why all the fanfare? Adherents are committing a naturalistic fallacy, says Sarah Tishkoff, a professor of genetics and biology at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the evolution of lactose tolerance. They believe that people evolved to drink breast milk, not cow’s milk. They’re wrong. “No humans have evolved to drink breast milk after weaning,” Tishkoff says. Most human populations whose ancestors practiced dairy farming have actually adapted to drinking cow’s milk.

But would it really hurt to give breast milk a try? That’s not a good idea, particularly if it is purchased online versus milked from a willing wife or girlfriend. “The biggest issue is that breast milk can contain live viruses and bacteria,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Sharon Donovan, former president of the American Society for Nutrition and a professor at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

When moms donate to a hospital milk bank, they are screened before being approved, Donovan explains. But men buying from strangers could result in transmission of diseases including HIV, syphilis, or hepatitis. Most milk bought online also comes contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, as Dr. Sheela Gerahrty’s lab at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center reported last year. Granted, OnlyTheBreast.com has explicit instructions about home pasteurization.

Plus, there’s the issue of cost—at $2.50 to $4.00 per ounce, a gallon of breast milk is priced at $320 to $512, versus just $4 a gallon of cow’s milk, Donovan says. And what really sucks?  There’s a chance you might not even get what you’re paying for. Because it’s sold by volume without any oversight, the milk could be cut with water or cow’s milk, Hinde warns. These aren’t problems you find with hospital milk bank donations where no monetary gain is involved.

Getting beyond the ick factor, athletes commanding high prices for breast milk could inadvertently encourage disadvantaged women to sell their milk instead of feeding their own infants. It may also discourage women from donating to milk banks, which are crucial for supporting the needs of premature infants.

The “invisible breasts of the free market” selling their products online comes with lots of questions, Hinde says.

If you’re still convinced that breast milk is best, take heart: cows may soon be genetically modified to produce human milk, The Telegraph reports.

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The Sweetest Running Swag

Going the distance means getting some goodies. And no, we aren’t talking just the sense of accomplishment you feel at the finish line. We are talking freebies, treasures, and swag—whatever you want to call it. It doesn’t matter when it’s free. At these races you will find the best, the worst, and some of the weirdest stuff in your swag bags.

Most Luxurious

Nike Women’s Marathon; San Francisco, California
Sorry guys, but the 15,000 runners who come together in April to take on the roads of San Fran are ladies only. Lottery-only entry makes the Nike Women’s Marathon even more exclusive. But you have to be selective when you are doling out Tiffany & Co. necklaces at the finish line by the hands of firefighters in tuxedos. The beginning is just as extravagant as the end, with pre-race festivities including a four-day expo chock full of free vendors giving out boutique and spa products. For all the ladies who are always multitasking, here is a way to pound the pavement while getting pampered. 

Smelliest

ORRC Garlic Festival 10K; North Plains, Oregon
The ORRC Garlic Festival 10K does feature some pretty vanilla race goodies. Finishers get a medal and can win running gear at the raffle. Winners get plaques and ribbons. But that’s where is the blandness ends. The ice cream at the finish line is garlic flavored. So is the celebratory beer. So is the shape of the medal. In the past, “secret” prizes for the winners have included giant bags of garlic bulbs. Don’t expect to get any kisses in the winner’s circle at this event. 

Most Indulgent

Hershey Half Marathon; Hershey, PA
Well if you are a running lover of dessert with a child-like love for theme parks, the Hershey Half is a dream come true. Along with chocolate-filled swag bags, a Chocolate Aid Station at mile 12, where volunteers hand out Reese’s and Special Dark like it’s well, candy. The finisher’s goodie bag includes two tickets to Hersheypark amusement park. After running 13.1 miles, and eating an equivalent amount in ounces of chocolate, we dare you to take a spin on the Sooperdooperlooper coaster. 

Most Random

London Marathon; London, England
You would think that a World Major marathon would be handing out some pretty legit stuff but in the past, London swag has been a little swag-less. Not only do they hand out one mish-mash, but two. The pre-race bag contains the common and expected nuts, nutrition bars, and leaflets. It’s post-race where things get really weird. That one includes everything from Mars Bars, a beer, a single prune, a sachet for a pasta bake, chewing gum, and a one-size fits all shirts the size of blankets. 

Best International

Le Marathon du Medoc; Bordeaux, France
With a 2014 theme of “The Countries of the World and Their Carnivals,” you can bet the Medoc is going to be a party. Before you even get to the start line, the marathon oraganizers a proper carbo-load, called “Soiree Mille-Pates,” complete with fine china and a twenty-piece band. The pre-race celebration seems to carry right through the race, where 23 different red and white wines are offered at drink stations along the course in the middle of France’s vineyards. Wine serves as hydration and gourmet foie gras, entrecote steak, pain au chocolat, fruit and oysters at pit stops serve as fuel. Put all this together you have yourself some world-class swag. After the race, and downing nearly six bottles of wine, winners are given their weight in even more wine. All finishers are rewarded with a rose, a kiss gym bag and a bottle of vintage Medoc to go. 

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Mo Farah's Favorite Shoe

Who doesn't love Mo Farah? The current Olympic and world champion in both the 5,000 and 10,000 ran a 2:08:21 in the 2014 London Marathon, coined the Mobot, and—thanks to his huge smile and wide eyes—inspired one of the most hilarious running tumblrs ever.

And now you can run in his shoes. 

Well, kind of. This weekend, Nike released the Air Zoom Pegasus 31, designed specifically with Farah's input. "They listen to [elite runners] and work with you," Farah told reporters at a Nike Zoom media event. "I pretty much wear a neutral shoe, and the Pegasus gives me what I need."

So what exactly does a world champion require? Keeping in mind that Farah is about five-foot five and 125 pounds, not a lot (although he does wear orthotics). He can get away with much less stability and cushion than many runners.* 

Which is why the Pegasus works well for Farah. The 31st iteration of the responsive, lightweight shoe is designed to be a neutral runner's go-to trainer for high-mileage running.

Mo Farah leads a warm up on Hayward Field.

"The Pegasus...just keeps getting better," Farah says. The improved upper is simple: snug mesh with subtle supportive layers that are built in (instead of stitched on) to reduce weight. The toe box can accommodate wide feet, or just cinch the laces for a more secure fit across narrow feet. 

Where this shoe gets just the slightest bit complicated is the sole: Basically, a pocket of pressurized tensile fibers (Nike's "Zoom Air" unit) in the heel collapses when you land; as you toe off, the fibers snap back and push your foot off the ground. The result is super responsive cushioning, which is particularly awesome if you're a heel striker.

"I loved that snappiness," Farah says, "combined with the soft cushioning and protection that I need for my 100-plus miles a week." 

Runners also feel that fast snap off the ground thanks to a 10-millimeter drop sole (lower than previous models) that incorporates a slight curve under the toes to propel through foot strike and toe off. A crash rail down lateral side further aids energy transfer through the toe. 

So what's not to love about this shoe? If you're a forefoot striker, don't even bother. The Peg doesn't do a whole lot to protect the ball of your foot. Same goes for overpronators. No major arch support here. And if you're looking for a shoe for both roads and trails, keep on looking. The mesh upper is basically a sieve for dust and dirt. A five-mile run on Pre's Trail was enough to make fresh-out-of-the-box shoes and socks absolutely filthy—even on a sunny and dry Eugene day.

But, if you're a neutral runner, possibly with a bit of a heel strike, this is your shoe. Even if you're not doing 100 miles a week.

Pegasus 31

Outsole of the Pegasus 31.

* If you're a fore-foot striker, try the Nike Air Zoom Elite tempo trainer, which has the air bag in the toe. Overpronators might try the Air Zoom Structure, which incorporates a medial post in addition to Zoom Air in the forefoot and more stability in the heel. Those seeking an even lighter shoe than the Pegasus might like the very minimal Air Zoom Streak racing flat, which is built on a midsole platform with Zoom Air in the heel. (Nike says the Streak has won more marathons than any other she in Nike history.) 

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Your Biggest Training Mistakes Demystified

Everyone knows U.S. speedskaters did not perform well in Sochi. The long track team failed to bring home any Olympic medals for the first time in 30 years, prompting U.S. Speedskating to investigate what went wrong.

The organization’s report, released earlier this month, blamed training errors for the poor showing Three national coaches left U.S. Speedskating after this year's Olympic games, including all-round coach Kip Carpenter, sprint coach Ryan Shimabukuro, and short-track coach Stephen Gough. The high-performance director, Finn Halvorsen, resigned.*

So we asked the coach of 2010 and 2014 Olympian, Brian Hansen, and four-time Olympic speedskater herself, Nancy Swider-Peltz, to break down what happened so athletes from all sports can learn from speedskating’s mistakes.

Forget About Altitude

The problem: U.S. Speedskaters spent 10 days before the Olympics training at altitude in Collalbo, Italy, then left for Sochi two weeks before their first races. The idea behind altitude training is that it will make the body produce more oxygen-carrying red blood cells that will improve an athlete’s endurance at sea level. But it can also have drawbacks.

“There is a fatiguing factor in dealing with altitude,” Swider-Peltz says. “You can never go super hard.” Also, it can be difficult to maximize altitude’s beneficial effects. “You have to be very calculated,” she says. That’s where it’s helpful to have a coach who can read your fatigue and adjust your training plan accordingly.

The fix: Athletes in shorter, technical sports might want to ditch the mountains. “I don’t think you have to train at altitude to be successful,” Swider-Peltz says. “It’s better to work on the things—the little nuances that can produce that tenth of a second—than to work so hard adjusting to altitude.”

Get Lazy to Stay Off Your Feet

The problem: “Two weeks before the first race, we were up at four or five in the morning to take a bus ride to Munich. Then we walked around for four or five hours, then we went to the BMW dinner and were up ‘till midnight,” Swider-Peltz says. “Then you get up at four o’clock in the morning and travel to Sochi where the transportation isn’t quite settled and you have to walk a lot.” As a result of the intense travel schedule, athletes were physically and mentally drained.

The fix: Athletes should be prepared to take a few hits before a race, Swider-Peltz says, whether that’s an unexpected late-night out, or a hitch in travel arrangements. But take too many hits right before a race, and your performance may suffer. So do your best to save the sightseeing and socializing for after your event.

Test Everything in Advance

The problem: As the Wall Street Journal reported, the executive director of U.S. Speedskating said, “the team erred in its decision not to use the brand-new Mach 39 suits in competition before the Olympics, as well as a skate polish that the team introduced on the eve of the Games.”

Swider-Peltz says U.S. athletes were asked to make decisions about the suits, skate polish, and kinesiology tape while at the outdoor track in Collalbo just before the Games. “But [the athletes] were cold, they had to change their technique to deal with the wind and the cold,” Swider-Peltz said, making it difficult for athletes to determine if they felt the new equipment was helpful or not. Asking the athletes to “to decide if something was good or different, or if it was the polish or the uniform” three weeks before the Games, she says, “messed with the athletes’ minds.”

The fix: “In my opinion, you should test things six weeks before to determine if they’re good or not good,” Swider-Peltz says. Once you’ve figured out your ideal equipment setup—and you know it’s quick, and comfortable—you’ll feel confident and fast on race day.

Bonus tip: Vet your coach and team

“If you’re going to be a part of a team, it’s just like a marriage,” Swider-Peltz says. “Make sure you wholeheartedly respect the leader. Also, make sure you like the other people on the team, because that is going to affect your ability to like what you’re doing. If you’re distracted by the other people, that’s going to be detrimental to your development.”

*Clarification: We updated the language of this paragraph to make it clear that Kip Carpenter, Ryan Shimabukuro, and Stephen Gough Shimabukuro left U.S. Speedskating but were not forced to resign.

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