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Dispatches : Fitness

Post-Run Cookie, Anyone?

After that long, strenuous workout, nothing sounds more appealing or more deserved than some tasty treat, right? Wrong. Very wrong. Runners need to think twice before consuming calories that are going to burn their health in the long run.

“It’s easy to pick up a pastry or cookie after burning a thousand calories because it’s fun, you worked hard, and you want to enjoy something,” says Nancy Clark, a registered dietitian with a board certification in sports nutrition. “But being a lean runner doesn’t mean you can eat eight cookies—you have to dose the poison.”

When you don’t, the results can be scary—even if you’re skinny. A recent study published in Missouri Medicine pegged marathon training to increased coronary plaque, likely caused by the dietary indifference of many runners. Every calorie isn’t created equal, when it comes to your health or to performance.

Until 2007, Olympic steeplechaser Anthony Famiglietti flat-out bragged about his junky diet that consisted of sweets, fast food, and nary a fruit or vegetable. But that year, when his body broke down and he couldn’t run a single mile without a walking break, he knew his diet needed a reality check. “You have to treat your body like the vehicle it is—like a car,” explains Clark. “You put the right type of fuel in your car before you drive it, so put the right type of fuel in your body before activity.” After replacing the stromboli with broccoli, Famiglietti found himself at the Olympic Trials running his fastest, and then posting a personal record in the Games.

But for all the press the Missouri Medicine article has received, healthy eaters can have issues too. When Amby Burfoot, editor at large of Runner’s World and a marathoner, found himself in the doctor’s office with sky-high coronary calcium numbers, the 45-plus-year vegetarian was shocked. “I’d always considered my health and my diet better than most people’s,” says Burfoot. “But with all the recent news about excess artery plaque in marathon runners, I wanted to check things out.” So how do runners approach what they put into their bodies and what they get out of it?

The answer is not clear-cut. But we do know—despite exceptions like Burfoot—that diets filled with fruits and vegetables and low on processed foods have been linked with the best health outcomes. The problem, then, is our desire to look for perfect solutions (while ignoring the fundamentals) and our unwillingness to stick with the pro-vegetable plan long-term.

Which is where the daily cheat comes in. Clark contends that up to 10 percent of your daily calories can come from foods like cookies. The theory is that if one cookie can help you eat that bowl of salad, it’s worth the sugar. That said, your cheat foods don’t always have to go toward that 10 percent buffer.

“People want yummy food,” says Clark. “But yummy food does not have to be bad food.” When rewarding yourself, she recommends that you focus on what really tastes good, instead of automatically reaching for artificially flavored and processed products. “Fix yourself a breakfast of French toast and eggs, or have a few spoonfuls peanut butter,” Clark suggests.

Running is hard work, and if you can’t earn the right to eat this stuff in the middle of marathon training, then when can you?

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What We Don't Know About Exercise

If we were to tell you that studies now show that running anything beyond 20 miles a week could kill you, you’d cut back from your 50-, 60-, 80-mile-a-week habit straightaway, right? Yeah. Sure you would.

For years, athletes, particularly those of you known to scientists as EEs (Extreme or Endurance Exercisers)—marathoners, ultrarunners, triathletes—have tended to eat whatever you damn well please, under the assumption that all calories being more or less equal, if you’re burning 3,500 a day, you can have that bacon double cheeseburger and the vanilla shake no problemo. Turns out, not only has that been magical thinking dietetically, but even more disheartening, all those extra miles may have been doing you more harm than good—if your only goal is to live as long a life as possible.

And it may not even have everything to do with what you’re eating or how much. (Though it certainly has an effect.) The issue may be in how hard you’re pushing yourself. “People on the far level of exertion may be putting themselves at risk for mortality,” says Dr. Paul D. Thompson, an 11-time Boston Marathon finisher and director of cardiology at Connecticut’s Hartford Hospital.

What got lost in all the hype over last month’s Wall Street Journal story, “Why Runners Can’t Eat Whatever They Want,” was the real issue buried inside it: that the atherosclerotic risk EEs may be subjecting themselves to has less to do with diet and more to do with what they’re overdoing. The theory is, says Dr. Thompson, “If something’s good for you, more is better. So, the more exercise, the less heart disease.” Well, everybody’s susceptible—no matter how much you exercise.

Like an ultramarathoner’s gonna cut back on their mileage. Then again, maybe they should—if longevity is their primary concern (it isn’t). Picking up on Ralph Paffenbarger’s landmark Harvard Alumni Health Study, which took a longitudinal look at the exercise routines and rates of cardiovascular disease of 17,000 Harvard alum, other researchers have shown that “the benefit of exercise becomes less and less as you exercise more,” says Dr. Thompson. “To the point where there may be no benefit at all.

What’s misleading about the Missouri Medicine study cited in the WSJ, wherein researchers found that 50 men who had run at least one marathon a year for 25 years had higher levels of coronary-artery plaque than a control group of sedentary men, was that these EEs likely “had, for one, a very unhealthy diet,” says Dr. Aaron Baggish, associate director for the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital. “They also led an unhealthy life in their 20s and 30s. And they were at high risk for hereditary heart disease before they even started running.”

As contradictory as that may appear—which is worse, eating whatever you want because you exercise all you want, or simply exercising all you want?—it’s likely evidence for conducting a study on EEs who have no significant cardio issues prior to late-age exercising and who’ve always eaten a balanced diet.

And lost in all the schadenfreude among the sedentary, who finally got to thumb their noses at the EEs, is that, while exercise is good for you (and way better than sitting on your ass and praising yourself for it), “Marathon running puts extreme stress on the body,” says Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. “That’s exercising too much.”

“The difference between running 75 miles a week and 100 is not that significant,” adds Dr. Thompson. “When you go out to these extreme levels of health, you’re doing it for something other than just exercise.”

Which, for many an EE, is exactly the point.

“The take-home message is that exercise is good for you,” says Dr. Thompson, who adds that another ongoing study of Tour de France riders shows that they’re living longer and seemingly without much damage to their hearts. “It could be there’s less benefit once you get over some threshold. We just don’t know yet what that threshold is.”

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Why Is a CrossFit Gym Suing Scientists?

CrossFit’s reputation as a workout with a pitbull personality is moving from the gym to the courtroom. A Columbus, Ohio, CrossFit gym is suing the scientists behind a 2013 study, alleging the reseachers fabricated data that 16 percent of people in a program at the gym dropped out due to injury or overuse.

The fight is the latest skirmish in an escalating debate over the potential hazards of CrossFit, a routine that melds weightlifting and calisthenics into a 10- to 20-minute swirl of muscle-burning intensity. The move presents an unusual, and troubling, dilemma for the world of academic research, where disputes are usually sorted out between scientists or by university overseers.

But Mitch Potterf, owner of the Fit Club, said he’s resorting to legal action after the scientists and the journal that published the study were unresponsive to his complaints that the study was inaccurate. "I don't like people lying about me,” Potterf said.

Since its inception in the mid-1990s, CrossFit has mushroomed into a fitness craze crossed with a social movement. As many as 8,900 gyms have sprung up worldwide. The CrossFit Games, featuring ripped athletes in dueling workouts, was televised on ESPN. While few scientific studies of CrossFit have been published, several, including the disputed one, found people made considerable fitness gains by following the routines.

But along with the popularity has come concerns that the intense workouts and the technical difficulty of some of the movements could lead to injuries. CrossFit has been associated with cases of rhabdomyolysis, a rare condition in which muscle trauma can cause kidney damage. And some experts, including a panel of military and sports researchers, cautioned that high-intensity routines like CrossFit could lead to injuries.

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CrossFit’s corporate headquarters and its devoted fans have responded with a ferocity that mirrors the workout. The company’s chief scientist—also the father of founder Greg Glassman—rebutted the military report with a 92-page critique. A company spokesman has dismissed some scientists as “experts” in quotes, and accused the chief professional association for exercise scientists, the American College of Sports Medicine, of having an anti-CrossFit bias.

But this is the first time it’s come to a lawsuit from a CrossFit-affiliated business. The suit raises this question: Is it a case of an innocent businessman ambushed by scientists peddling fraudulent data? Or is it a company trying to bully researchers when it doesn’t like the results?

This much is clear: Michael Smith, a graduate student working under Prof. Steven Devor, an Ohio State exercise physiologist, approached Potterf about studying members of his gym as a way to gauge how CrossFit changed people’s fitness. The researchers put 54 gym members through a battery of tests, then did the same tests following ten weeks of workouts. When the study was published, it stated that nine people dropped out due to “overuse or injury.”

But Potterf said nobody got injured from the workouts—that people missed the final testing for a variety of reasons such as busy schedules. Potterf said he never spoke with the scientists about injuries, and he doesn’t know where they got the data. The lawsuit says the gym has suffered more than $25,000 in damages. “The case is about a guy who starts a gym from scratch and works like crazy to put every ounce of blood sweat and tears into it, and then suffers harm by some unscrupulous doctors," said Kenneth Donchatz, Potterf’s attorney, who is also a member of the gym and took part in the study.

Smith didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment. Devor referred questions to his attorney and attorneys for Ohio State University. A university spokesman said he couldn’t comment. The National Strength and Conditioning Association, whose journal published the study and who is also being sued, declined to comment.

But in an e-mail before the lawsuit, Smith said he collected the injury information from Potterf. When people didn’t return for the second test, Smith asked Potterf what happened. “(T)he gym owner went on to tell me how one participant was a wimp, one of them couldn’t stick with the program because of their knee, one because of their back, one was too fat, etc. … All of the explanations he gave to me matched up with overuse/overtraining issues, so that is the wording we used in the manuscript,” Smith wrote.

In an interview before the lawsuit, Devor defended the study, and chalked the criticism up to an overreaction to a single paragraph in the study. “CrossFit has a bit of history that if you speak out against them they are going to attack you. And I have been attacked,” he said. “It’s all just such silliness.”

It’s not clear whether this case will ripple into the broader world of sports science. Courts have generally shied away from getting involved in scientific disputes, said David S. Korzenik, a New York attorney. He has represented consumer magazines facing complaints from companies unhappy with product reviews, and teaches media law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School.

Some companies have tried to get around this by claiming scientists faked their data, Korzenik said. But the lawyer, who represents plaintiffs in these cases, said such claims are usually little more than legal tactics. Still, just the threat of a lawsuit could have a chilling effect on scientists worried about legal action if study results aren’t complementary to CrossFit. “If a particular product manufacturer or product group brings a lawsuit against publishers of studies, then in the future people will become more chastened about taking any time to look into this,” he said.

Lawsuits alleging damage from research in peer-reviewed academic journals are rare, said Williams S. Bailey, a University of Washington law professor whose book about science and the law is scheduled to be released this summer.

This case could come down to a question of whether the research was up to snuff or not, Bailey said. The way the injury data was gathered sounded potentially “shaky” to him, but a court would have to decide if it amounted to scientific malpractice. Either way, he said, the gym can’t lose. It wins the case, or the lawsuit sends a message to other researchers to beware of CrossFit.

A CrossFit spokesman, Russell Berger, said scientists don’t have anything to worry about, as long as they don’t make up information. "The lesson here for anybody whose paying attention isn’t ‘Don’t research CrossFit.’ The lesson is. ‘Don’t do bad science and lie about your results.’”

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