We Won't Let Him Hurt You



Outside magazine, February 1998


We Won't Let Him Hurt You
Everlasting fitness through the painless Socratic method, with help from our favorite answer man By Paul Keegan


Mark Allen sits in the dining room of Maui's lush Aston Wailea resort, looking slightly Clint Eastwood-ish as he squints into the sun. A year has passed since we last checked in with the man who, at the time, was arguably the world's fittest athlete. Now he's just finished doing TV commentary at the Hawaii Ironman, the race he won six times before calling it quits 16 months ago. What better time and place to hear his saga of fitness lost?

In October 1996, having turned 38 and notched his last triathlon, Allen faced a sobering fact: He now had to earn a living in conventional fashion. Scrambling to set up his business (the standard ex-jock potpourri of coaching, motivational speaking, and product endorsements), Allen overnight became a normal person — chained to a desk and working ungodly hours while raising a family. "When I was racing, I couldn't figure out why people couldn't stay fit," he says. "I thought, 'They have no excuse.'" Allen squints again toward the West Maui mountains. "I was very naive."

For three months Allen hardly worked out, managing only a sporadic jog here, a quick swim there. "I was physically and mentally dead," he says. "My back hurt, my knees hurt, my neck hurt. I felt like I'd been beat up."

Let us pause to express a perhaps unkind sentiment: Welcome to reality, pal.

But take heart from what happened next. Allen went on a couple of bike rides, did some sit-ups, stretched out, hit the weight room twice a week. Just like that, everything stopped hurting. Tight muscles limbered up. He felt alive again.

True, a fitness turnaround may take a little longer for a diehard Master of the Remote Control. But that's no excuse for unrepentant sloth. "You just have to make a long-term commitment to your body," Allen explains. "Maybe you'll only reach your highest level of fitness for one week a year. Maybe it'll take a year just to get from walking to running. The important thing is to stay with it."

Allen exemplifies this relative approach. He's not in Ironman shape anymore, nor does he care to be. He simply wants to take long bike rides, surf, and spend ample time with his family. "My primary objective is no longer to get into peak condition," he says. "Now when I work out it's purely for my own well-being."

Allen's wife, Julie Moss, joins the conversation and talks about her transition from world-class athlete to average Jane and back. After a six-year competitive hiatus centered around the birth of their son, Mats, four years ago, she just placed second in her age group at the Ironman, at age 39 the 19th woman overall. "I'm in much better shape than ten years ago," says Moss cheerfully, noting that her time of 10:39 shaved 31 minutes off her result in 1982, the year she crawled to the finish before a nationwide television audience. Surprisingly, Moss says motherhood helped her training. "You make sure to get as much as you can from each workout," she explains, "because your time is much more valuable."

While the First Family of Fitness seems pretty typical nowadays — trying to squeeze exercise time into a vacation full of job obligations while struggling to keep Mats from ripping plants out of the resort's landscaping — they still maintain elite credentials few can match. Which makes them fine targets at which to lob your burning fitness queries, whether you're gunning for the next Ironman title or just want to still have a spring in your step when your contemporaries are out pricing support hose. The following colloquy should help with that goal, which is more attainable than you ever imagined.


Endurance

Well, of course — but how much and how often?

As we all know, cardiovascular exercise is the sine qua non of fitness. But how many days per week do you really need? Most experts say three, but since you should also be fitting two strength-training days into your hectic schedule, Allen says that two days per week is enough — providing that you also add a 10- to 20-minute warm-up before each weight-lifting session and try to add one heart-pumping outdoor activity on weekends. "Strength and endurance are of equal importance," he says, "so if you only have a few hours a week to work out, you should do a little bit of both."

How long should each session take?

Start, says Allen, at about 20 to 30 minutes, but devote one day per week to pushing your endurance envelope, gradually working up to 45 minutes after six weeks and 90 minutes after 15 weeks. This gives your body a chance to adapt to the new levels of stress you're giving it while keeping you steadily progressing.

Of course, this is as good a place as any to introduce a recurring theme: Allen and the medical establishment don't always see eye-to-eye. The longer sessions that Allen recommends, says Dr. Jody Wilkinson, medical director for the renowned Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas, are "beneficial if you want to compete in endurance events. But if you're a concert pianist, say, who just wants to stay in shape, 30 minutes of cardiovascular work at a time is fine."

How do I know how hard to go?

Actually, there are two answers to this question. The first has to do with the intensity level of your endurance sessions, while the second covers how to know whether you're gauging the first correctly. To zero in on the former, you'll need to use a formula to determine the heart rate at which you should be working. To handle the latter, Allen recommends buying what he maintains is the only piece of exercise equipment you really need — a heart-rate monitor. Allen uses his constantly: He finds it difficult to guess his heart rate, especially since how he feels at any given moment depends on such factors as his current level of fitness or how much sleep he had the night before.

What sort of workout is best for fat burning?

There are two schools of thought. Since the average person is hoarding about 50 times more fat than carbohydrates at any given moment — and since even the trimmest athletes have enormous stores of fat in their bodies — most exercise physiologists suggest keeping your heart rate at 60 to 70 percent of its maximum to ensure that your body's preferred fuel will be fat. "When you work out at high heart rates, you do burn more calories, but you're also turning off the body's natural fat-burning mechanism," says Allen. "You're going anaerobic, which is predominantly carbohydrate burning."

Some recent research suggests, however, that mixing in anaerobic exercise may actually burn more fat than sticking strictly with aerobic. Wilkinson points out that you expend more calories doing high-intensity work than you do in the aerobic "fat-burning zone." True, most of those calories are carbohydrates, but an intense workout that burns 200 calories — 35 percent of which are fat — will still burn 70 fat calories, the same as if you do a low-intensity workout that burns 100 calories, 70 percent of which are fat.

The upshot? If you choose low-intensity exercise, make sure the sessions are long enough to make up for the fact that you're burning fewer calories.

What's the best way to increase speed?

Every few weeks, time yourself running a mile while keeping your heart rate near the upper end of your aerobic training range. If your time drops — say, from seven minutes to 6:30 over several months — that means that your routine is working well. It's not only helping your endurance, as advertised, but is also increasing your speed.

But eventually you'll hit a plateau. Now it's time to add some anaerobic interval training. Choose one day a week to do some extended sprints, starting with shorter distances (400 or so meters) and gradually working up to longer ones (800s and 1,000s). Periodically time yourself running a mile while, once again, keeping your heart rate constant. If your time starts dropping, you've broken through the plateau.

Alas, inevitably you will begin to level off again. That, says Allen, is when you should return to strictly aerobic training. "It's best to keep switching back and forth," says Allen. "That'll keep your body guessing."


Strength

Do I really have to lift weights?

Of course not — you could simply let your muscles deteriorate and create that unsightly effect of skin sagging from your bones while your hormone levels drop and your risk of injury and bone disease increases. In other words, no matter how much you hate the idea, get to the weight room.

The good news, though, is that those who follow the Gospel According to Allen don't have to spend their whole lives there. Allen and his longtime strength coach, Diane Buchta, disagree with those who insist upon separating upper-body training from lower-body and working different muscle subgroups on alternating days. That'll keep you in the weight room three or four times a week and could make you so frustrated that you'll just give up. Instead, they recommend doing a full circuit twice a week, starting with one set and working up to two, which ensures a full-body workout that can be done in as little as 30 minutes.

"My goal is not to become huge," says Allen. "If that was my goal, I would do different muscle groups on different days. But you can always add that later, once you've developed a routine and proven you can keep to it. Right now, your goal should be keeping your body strong and vital and not feeling pounded by life."

Buchta, who has also worked extensively with eight-time Hawaii Ironman winner Paula Newby-Fraser, says that strength work is especially important after age 30, because that's when the average person starts losing half a pound of muscle mass per year. Lifting weights, she insists, actually reverses the aging process by halting this deterioration. It also increases your bone mineral content, thus warding off osteoporosis, and helps to prevent injury. "Quite frankly, it's better to spend six months in weight training before pounding the pavement with lots of cardio work," says Buchta. "Any rigorous physical activity first needs joint stability, and strength training gives you that."

OK — so what's the drill?

If you haven't lifted weights for a while, start with what Buchta calls Phase One, which lasts four weeks. This will establish a solid base of strength and endurance while teaching your neuromuscular system proper weight-lifting techniques. This period begins rather easily, with one set of 12 repetitions. Take two seconds to lift the weight and four seconds to lower it, thus assuring slow, controlled movements and limiting the risk of injury. Pause at the top of the repetition to prevent bouncing, or being assisted by momentum. "Pick a weight that's a challenge, not a strain," says Buchta, who suggests 55 to 65 percent of the maximum you can lift once. Be sure you can do 12 repetitions without going all the way to failure.

By the end of the second week, you're ready for two sets, says Buchta, who adds that you should rest for 30 to 60 seconds between sets to give your muscles a chance to recover. Though the traditional recommendation is that you should eventually work up to three sets, Buchta says the latest research shows that there's no additional gain by adding a third set, and some studies even show that one set is enough. There's also solid evidence that two days of strength training per week is plenty — a finding that Buchta claims can be attributed, at least in part, to psychological factors. "If you know you're going to have a third day, you might not give 100 percent on day two," she says. "People who know they're going to be done for the week tend to give me 100 percent."

Which muscles are most important?

All the major muscle groups should be worked each time, whether you're Mark Allen or Joe Blow. The only difference between Mark and Joe is how much weight you hoist. For the first two weeks, do the following exercises in order, thus mixing lower-body work with upper-body: lat pulldowns (which work the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and rhomboids); leg extensions (quadriceps); bench presses or dumbbell presses (pectorals); leg curls (hamstrings); dumbbell pullovers (pectorals); incline presses (deltoids); biceps curls; and triceps pushdowns. Starting in the third week, add squats (gluteus maximus, hips, and quadriceps); upright rows (latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and rhomboids); calf raises; and prone raises (posterior deltoids).

What happens after four weeks?

Now you're ready for Phase Two, a regimen designed to increase strength and endurance that can be used for lifelong maintenance. Do the same exercises as at the end of Phase One, but increase to 15 repetitions per set. And here's another challenge: Don't rest at all. Do the second set of each lift right away, and then race to the next station. This helps build endurance.

Since you're increasing reps and intensity, you may have to decrease weight at first. Don't worry; that's to be expected. In subsequent weeks, when the weight is no longer a challenge, it can be increased gradually — 5 percent at a time for the upper body, 10 percent for the lower body — as long as your technique remains good. Eventually, you'll reach a plateau in your weight training. Progress never comes in a straight line, but rather flattens out for a while before suddenly leaping up again. What's happening is that your body has adapted to the stress you've been giving it, and weeks may go by when you can't lift any more weight. This is perfectly normal — in fact, it shows you're working out with consistency. But rather than being frustrated with your plateau, Allen advises, view it with anticipation, looking forward to the day when you wake up being suddenly stronger. "I love it when I know I'm going to have that jump," he says.

Aren't you forgetting something? What about my abdominals?

Ah yes, those glorious abs, our national concession to vanity. We spend untold hours doing painful crunches and leg lifts until we find we simply can't, um, stomach another one. So we flop on the mat and give up.

Well, Allen insists that we've all been wasting our time, that a mere ten minutes of abdominal work per week is plenty — about five minutes near the end of each strength session. Painful minutes, yes, but at least they'll be over quickly.

Buchta suggests starting with the lower abs, the toughest to target. Lying flat on your back, raise your bent knees toward the ceiling, being careful not to arch your back, until you're near failure. Then do crunches for the upper abs — hands behind ears, elbows open, knees bent, and go very slowly. Next are the obliques, which you reach by lifting your right shoulder toward your left knee — not your elbow, which can twist your neck — and then do the reverse. Keep your hands behind your ears and elbows open, as with the crunch. Do each of these 20 times.

But do I really need to hire some Fabio wannabe to tell me what to do?

Frankly, no — pushing around slabs of iron just isn't that vexing. Then again, if Mark Allen and Julie Moss say they need trainers, maybe we should be a bit less rash. (Moss, in fact, sheepishly admits that she doesn't even know what her weight routine is because she's always had someone barking orders to run from one station to the next.) The most important reason to enlist a professional, they say, is to make sure your technique is sound. But trainers can also help to keep you sticking with your program by periodically shaking things up, thus warding off boredom. So perhaps a compromise is in order: Hire a trainer for two to four sessions to get you started, and then return every month or two to make sure you don't become a prisoner of ennui.


Meet Your Beat

While Allen tends to advocate a rather come-as-you-are approach to fitness, there's one area where he's decidedly less accommodating: the intensity at which you should conduct your endurance workouts. The key is to stay within your aerobic training range at all times, avoiding the temptation to go so hard that your body is forced to deplete its meager carbohydrate stores for fuel or so easy that you're not deriving maximum aerobic benefit. To make sure you're exercising within this range, most physiologists suggest this simple formula: Subtract your age from 220, then multiply by 0.6 and 0.8. The resulting figures, they say, form the upper and lower heart-rate limits of your preferred training range. Allen, however, insists that he has a more accurate equation: Subtract your age from 180, and then adjust that number to reflect your particular circumstances. If you're recovering from a major illness or taking medication, subtract ten; if regular exercise is a hazy memory, subtract five; if you've been working out consistently for two years or less, stick with 180 minus your age; if you've been exercising without injury for more than two years, add five. Now program the result into your heart-rate monitor and stay anywhere from five to 25 ticks below it, depending on how you feel while slogging.

Ultimately, Allen says, his formula is more precise. For example, he would set the aerobic training range of a 35-year-old who's been exercising regularly at somewhere between 120 and 140 beats per minute, versus the 111 to 148 derived through the traditional formula. "His approach isn't borne out by the studies," says Dr. Jody Wilkinson of the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research. "But then again, the research in this area is very weak — mostly short-term studies conducted in the '50s and '60s."


Well, This Might Sting A Little ...

...But it'll be over before you know it. The Professor's six-week plan for lifelong fitness.

To help you set his advice in motion, Allen has drawn up a plan that you can recycle indefinitely — no matter how diligent or how slothful you've been in the past. It's divided into six-week segments and, more importantly, three levels of fitness. So the first step is taking stock of your current corpus.

Level I is the starting point for those more familiar with the contours of the couch than the fine points of index shifting. It'll get you going with two 20-minute endurance-training sessions and two weight-room workouts per week. Next, for those who work out sporadically — you know, not fit, not fat — comes Level II, which adds about 90 minutes of weekly workout time, plus a Sunday session in which you should simply do whatever outdoor sport you enjoy. (Caveat: If you start the program by faithfully completing Level I, jump to the third week when you step up to Level II.) Level III is designed for devoted athletes, a regimen that'll keep you in peak physical shape year-round. (Skip week one if you've just completed Level II.)

The handy thing here is that you can shift between levels as your fitness fluctuates and still follow the schedule. If you've marched straight from Level I through Level III and wonder what's next, you have two options. To keep progressing, use the final week's prescription as the framework for your next cycle, while gradually continuing to increase the speed or duration of your endurance workouts, the weight used in your strength sessions, or both. If you'd rather just keep what you've got, you can simply run back through Level III; each return to week one will reduce intensity and thereby give you a well-earned break. Such flexibility will prevent you from copping an all-or-nothing attitude and thus keep you in the habit for the long haul. "Some people get psyched for a few weeks, and then April comes and they're into the chocolate Easter eggs," says Allen. "The goal is to avoid letting more than two days go by without working out. If you can go through a year that way, you've made it. You've incorporated fitness into your lifestyle."

 Week One

MON
TUE
WED
THU
FRI
SAT
SUN
Off
CWU 10 min, ST (1x12)
ET 20 min (walk or swim)
Off
CWU 10 min, ST (1x12)
ET 20 min (walk or swim)
Optional OA
Off
CWU 20 min, ST (1x12)
ET 20 min
Off
CWU 15 min, ST (1x12)
ET 30 min
OA
Off
CWU 10 min, ST (2x15)
ET 45 min
Off
CWU 10 min, ST (2x12)
ET 60 min
OA

 Week Two

MON
TUE
WED
THU
FRI
SAT
SUN
Off
CWU 10 min, ST (1x12)
ET 25 min (walk or swim)
Off
CWU 10 min, ST (2x12)
ET 25 min (walk or swim)
Optional OA
Off
CWU 20 min, ST (1x15)
ET 25 min
Off
CWU 15 min, ST (2x12)
ET 45 min
OA
Off
CWU 15 min, ST (2x15)
ET 50 min
Off
CWU 10 min, ST (2x15)
ET 60 min
OA

 Week Three

MON
TUE
WED
THU
FRI
SAT
SUN
Off
CWU 10 min, ST (2x12)
ET 20 min (jog)
Off
CWU 10 min, ST (2x15)
ET 30 min (jog)
Optional OA
Off
CWU 20 min, ST (2x12)
ET 30 min
Off
CWU 15 min, ST (2x15)
ET 45 min
OA
Off
CWU 20 min, ST^ (2x12)
ET 45 min
Off
CWU 10 min, ST (2x15)
ET 75 min
OA

 Week Four

MON
TUE
WED
THU
FRI
SAT
SUN
Off
CWU 10 min, ST (2x15)
ET 20 min (jog)
Off
CWU 10 min, ST (2x15)
ET 30 min (jog)
Optional OA
Off
CWU 20 min, ST (2x15)
ET 30 min
Off
CWU 10 min, ST^ (2x15)
ET 50 min
OA
Off
CWU 20 min, ST^ (2x15)
ET 30 min
ET 30 min
CWU 10 min, ST (2x15)
ET 75 min
OA

 Week Five

MON
TUE
WED
THU
FRI
SAT
SUN
Off
CWU 10 min, ST^ (2x12)
ET 30 min (jog)
Off
CWU 10 min, ST (2x12)
ET 40 min (jog)
Optional OA
Off
CWU 20 min, ST (2x15)
ET 35 min
Off
CWU 15 min, ST (2x15)
ET 60 min
OA
Off
CWU 20 min, ST^ (2x12)
ET 45 min
Off
CWU 10 min, ST (2x15)
ET 90 min
OA

 Week Six

MON
TUE
WED
THU
FRI
SAT
SUN
Off
CWU 10 min, ST (2x15)
ET 30 min (run)
Off
CWU 10 min, ST (2x15)
ET 45 min (run)
Optional OA
Off
CWU 15 min, ST^ (2x15)
ET 35 min
Off
CWU 20 min, ST (2x15)
ET 75 min
OA
Off
CWU 20 min, ST (2x15)
ET 30 min
ET 30 min
CWU 10 min, ST (2x15)
ET 90 min
OA

CWU = cardiovascular warm-up; ET = endurance training; ST = strength training (with the workout expressed in number of sets multiplied by number of repetitions); OA = outdoor activity; ^ = increase weight


Flexibility

Is it better to stretch before a workout or after?

The short answer is the proverbial "e," as in all of the above. But inevitably it comes down to personal preference. Conventional wisdom holds that you should begin your workouts by slowly getting your heart pumping — three to five minutes on the StairMaster, for example — just to get some oxygen to the muscles, and then spend a minimum of ten minutes stretching, making sure you hit all the major muscle groups. Allen, however, doesn't believe in stretching before working out: He prefers to simply warm up the range of motion he'll be using. (Before a running session, for example, he suggests walking a bit, then slowly jogging a mile before increasing speed to reach his target heart rate. On strength days, he recommends one set with little or no weight, just to warm up the muscles.) Rather, he's convinced that stretching after exercise does the most good. "Your muscles are like hot plastic you can mold at that point," says Allen, who backs up his theory by pointing out that he's missed only one race in 15 years because of muscle tightness. "And stretching's a nice way to let your mind relax after a workout, while your body is cooling down. It can be a very regenerative, almost meditative state."

Which muscles need stretching most?

The culture of the weight room often discourages perhaps the most important stretching you can do: those muscles you're about to use to lift weights. It seems like common sense to avoid throwing up lots of weight with tight muscles, but testosterone poisoning can do strange things to the mind.

All the major muscle groups are important — and whichever minor ones you'll be focusing on during your workout — but the loosening of pecs, shoulders, hamstrings, and quads is especially crucial, since so many body movements are dependent on them. The pecs can be stretched by bending your elbows at right angles and then gradually bringing your arms behind you. The shoulder muscles can be reached either by clasping your hands behind your back and slowly raising your arms or by dropping a towel from one hand behind your neck and grabbing it with the other hand behind you. Back muscles can be stretched by putting your hands on a wall, bending at the waist, and looking down. For legs, stretch your hamstrings with a modified "hurdler's stretch" — sit down with one knee bent and one foot resting on the inside of the leg, and then slowly lean forward and grab for your toes. Quads can be reached by standing up and slowly pulling your lower leg up behind you while pushing your pelvis forward. The gluteus can be stretched by sitting down and crossing your legs, then bringing your knees toward your chest. The abdominal muscles should be stretched by lying on your stomach and slowly lifting your upper body off the mat.

"I just sort of sneak up on my muscles and slowly stretch," says Allen. "I don't even feel it at first — I just go gradually until I feel everything let go."


Rest

How many days off should you take each week?

"Think about it this way," says Allen. "How many days a week do you not eat? Do you not sleep? If you vary your activities and train wisely, you could work out every single day of the year."

But the key phrase here is "train wisely." After 15 years of serious competition, Allen is on such intimate terms with his body and its limits that he really could work out daily. But the rest of us, especially those just starting out, should take a day or two off every week.

A good rule of thumb is not to let more than two days go by between workouts. But it's best to put two entire days between your full-body strength-training workouts, planning an endurance workout for one and a day off for the other. It's also good to balance hard workouts with easy ones, so you don't run yourself into the ground. "Rest is a great thing," says the Cooper Institute's Wilkinson. "People who train very hard tend to do better when they allow themselves more rest. Too much exercise is just a big stress on your system. The body likes that stress, but it also likes time to recover."

How do you know if you're overtraining?

Most of the signs are obvious: Your performance is dropping, you're always tired, you have trouble sleeping at night, you're losing your appetite, you have no motivation or are exercising compulsively, your heart rate is too high during endurance training, you're repeatedly getting sick or injured.

"Here's a test," says Wilkinson. "Rate your workouts on a scale from one to four. Four is the best workout you've ever had, and one is the worst. If you get a lot of ones and twos in a row, you know you're overdoing it."

If you're overworked or just stressed-out, should you exercise anyway?

"That's a great question," says Allen. "I'd recommend just taking the day off. That can help ease your stress."


Nutrition

Is it a good idea to eat before training?

If you're working out for less than an hour, you may not need to eat anything. But if you're working out first thing in the morning, you should at least have a piece of fruit or some juice. If you're going longer than an hour, however, you'll become hypoglycemic without something to raise your blood sugar. How much you eat then depends on when your last meal was. "Let's say you're working out in the early evening and you've had a normal-sized lunch," says Ellen Coleman, a respected sports nutritionist and two-time Ironman finisher. "You might have a piece of fruit or a couple of graham crackers. If you're still not going to exercise for a couple of hours, protein and fat are OK, like cheese and crackers or an energy bar. But if you'll be working out within the hour, stick with no-fat stuff. Have an apple or a banana or half a bagel."

Before strength training, Coleman recommends carbohydrates — fruit, juice, sports drinks, or even a coke — to raise your blood sugar. "Because weight lifting is anaerobic, it burns carbos, but the overall caloric expenditure is not high," she explains. "So fuel up with carbos to help you keep going longer, but keep the overall calorie count low."

When's the best time to eat after a workout?

If you're not planning to exercise the next day, it doesn't much matter. But if you are, it's important to eat 30 minutes after exercise, with a focus on carbos, which will help you recover faster. "Most people who don't refuel properly feel a sense of heaviness when they wake up the next day," Coleman explains. "Their legs tend to feel like tree trunks."

Are vitamins necessary?

Forty percent of Americans take some kind of supplement, says Coleman, "but the reality is that most people don't need them." Her advice is not to worry about vitamins unless you have a specific reason to take them. Someone with a history of heart disease might need a little extra vitamin E, for example. Women may need iron to make up for a deficiency, while men who store too much might take iron-free vitamins with antioxidants. "But you can't just say, 'Take this,' and have it work for everybody."

Allen takes multivitamins to make sure he gets a little of everything, but says to avoid super-high dosages of any one. "Vitamins can be good if you're taxing yourself physically or mentally," he says. "Try taking them for a few weeks, and let your body tell you whether or not it's a good idea."

How much water is enough?

The experts say you should drink 64 ounces of fluids per day, plus another five to ten ounces for every 15 to 20 minutes of sweating. Allen, however, thinks the recommendation goes too far. He says he once was obsessed with keeping himself hydrated until he realized that his body would tell him what he needs. For instance, if his lips are chapped, he realizes he needs more water. Now he only drinks a couple of glasses per day, plus whatever he loses working out. "Water's very important," he says, "but I don't think you need as much as science says."


Motivation

But I don't have time?!

Yes, it often seems as if the world is engaged in a massive conspiracy to keep you fat and miserable. Yet even during your life's most hectic weeks, there's hope. You have two options, neither one painful.

Choice one is to carve out just 70 minutes for what Allen calls his Bare Bones Routine: two 20-minute cardio sessions and one 30-minute visit to the weight room. Choice two is to commit the worst sin of all: Stop working out completely. "So you miss a week. Big deal," Allen says. "The worst thing you can do is stress about it."

What's this — the world's most accomplished endurance athlete is telling you it's OK to slack off? Well, not exactly. The magic word here is perspective. Allen's advice is to look at your fitness from a long-term vantage. "Think of it as a five-year plan," he explains. "If you do that, those interruptions won't upset you because you're fully expecting them. When you've really made a lifelong commitment to being fit, you know you'll get back to it and you won't stress about it."

Is there a secret to handling the boredom?

"If you really break it down to the most basic elements, working out is repetitive," Allen admits. "You're going back and forth in a pool, putting one foot in front of the other, turning pedals over. It's really not that exciting."

So here's an idea: Think of your workout as something like a meditation session. The very repetitiveness of those motions can have a calming effect, making you feel more centered. "People used to ask me what I was thinking about when I ran, and I'd say, 'One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four,'" he laughs. "Clearing my head that way makes me really quiet and calm, and it's also when I get my best ideas."

What's the best way to get started after a layoff?

Sorry, pal, no advice here — the first few weeks are actually the easy part, at least from a mental perspective. "I like that period because I'm purging all those bad habits and laziness," Allen says. "I'm releasing all that dead energy that's just been sitting there." No, believe it or not, the real hurdle comes after about four weeks, when the crisis is over, your fitness level is improving, and you start getting cocky — fooling yourself into believing you don't need to work out so much anymore. This is a dangerous trap, to be avoided at all costs. "When you're feeling better, that's when you have to start altering your workouts," says Allen. "If you've done the same run 18 times in a row, run a different way next time. Or start riding your bike instead." Or even cut back to avoid quitting altogether. "Ease off the intensity or duration of your workouts rather than stopping. Just make sure your body keeps moving."

Is it important to work out with others, or is this essentially a loner's endeavor?

Obviously, you won't always have a ready training partner, but Allen says not to work out solo if you can avoid it. "I can talk myself out of anything," he explains, "but if I know that I'm meeting somebody for a run, even once a week, it gets me out the door."

How do you stay focused during the winter?

Whether you live in San Diego or Maine, Allen says, winter requires an entirely different approach than the other seasons. "Even if there's very little temperature change, there's less light in winter, the days are shorter, and your body wants to be inside a little more," he says. "It has less desire to put out huge volumes of energy, so your runs are slower, your workouts shorter. Don't fight that: Keep the blood flowing, but let this be more of a quiet time in your training program."


Open Wiser

Mark Allen's nutritional dos and don'ts

  • Do listen carefully to your body (it knows what kind of food it wants).
  • Do eat organic foods and free-range chicken (no pesticides or growth hormones, and they taste better).
  • Do eat many smaller meals rather than three big ones (more frequent refueling means greater efficiency).
  • Do balance protein, fat, and carbohydrates (but don't get obsessed with formulas like the notorious 40-30-30 plan).
  • Do balance the type of fats you ingest (it's easy to take in harmful saturated fats, but more difficult to get enough healthful unsaturated fats).
  • Don't go on diets (they don't work because they're impossible to sustain).
  • Don't eat deep-fried foods (well, duh).
  • Don't eat partially hydrogenated fat, an ingredient found in most processed foods (your body has trouble breaking it down, and it lowers the levels of HDL, or so-called good cholesterol, in your bloodstream).
  • Don't eat refined sugar (it has no nutritional value and messes with your blood-sugar levels, which will come back to haunt you during long endurance sessions).
  • Don't go down the inside aisles of supermarkets (that's where the processed foods are; confine yourself to the outside aisles, where the fresh meat, fruits, and vegetables are kept).


Assorted Wisdom

Should you change your regimen as you get older?

Workout habits should be geared toward your level of fitness, not age. Both Allen and Moss say they're in much better shape today, at 40 and 39, respectively, than they were in their twenties. Both say they know far more about training now and have better focus. "Hey, if you're older, you should have more bucks and more time to train," Allen argues. "So if you're 60, you should be more fit than a guy who's 30."

That said, though, there are many important physiological changes taking place as we age. In addition to the deterioration of lean muscle mass, reduced calcium in the bones, and diminished aerobic power, we lose flexibility as the collagen fibers of tendons become joined, making us more vulnerable to injury. Thus it's crucial to warm up and stretch longer, both before and after exercise.

Still, these changes also make it more important than ever to keep working out. Studies have shown that strength training can reverse muscle atrophy while increasing protein retention, bone mass, and energy levels, even in the very old and frail. Cardiovascular work can lessen the decline in aerobic capacity. And regular exercise decreases the risk of age-associated illnesses such as Type II diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and osteoporosis. "Inevitably, performance is going to deteriorate," says Roy Shephard, author of Aging, Physical Activity, and Health, "but we shouldn't let that discourage us."

Once and for all: Ice or heat?

Most experts say ice is better for acute injuries — just after you sprain your ankle, for example, for 15 to 30 minutes, three times a day, for two or three days. This keeps the swelling down. But for chronic problems — that old, aching back, for example — heat and deep massage are recommended.

Some athletes, however, find that swelling also occurs with chronic problems, and ice makes it feel better. "I only use ice, never heat," says Allen. "Fifteen minutes at a time, and several times a day if needed."

What about massage?

"Massage is great at any point in your training," says Allen, "but especially when starting a new program, since you're as sore as you'll ever be." Of course, the type you should get depends on personal preference, but in general deep tissue massage is best for rehabilitation, Swedish for relaxation.

How should workouts be adjusted when traveling to high altitudes?

Actually, "high altitude" is a rather precise term, meaning anything more than 12,000 feet above sea level. At these elevations, exercise regimens do require some adjustments, like taking a few days off to acclimate before working out and being careful about hydration. But most of the populated areas typically referred to as high altitude — Boulder, Albuquerque, Laramie — are really only "moderate altitude," and don't require special consideration, says Jack Daniels, running coach at the State University of New York at Cortland, who has studied the effects of altitude on athletes. "During aerobic training, you may notice that the thinner air is slowing you down a bit," he says, "but if you're doing an anaerobic activity in such a climate, there won't be any negative effects at all. Really, you can pretty much do what you want right when you get there. In fact, we've found that people actually compete better the first day they arrive — though we're not sure why."

Does working out weaken your body's defense mechanisms?

"Moderate levels of regular exercise enhance your immune system," says Wilkinson, and there is plenty of research to back that up. But there's also evidence that excessive endurance training suppresses it. One recent study, by physiologist David Nieman at Appalachian State University, found that athletes who ran more than 90 miles a week had a higher incidence of colds and infections than runners who did only 40. And not only did their immune systems suffer, but levels of the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol were also elevated. Allen says he often felt that he was living on the edge while training hard, and that his immune system seems stronger now. "It took a while before I realized that I'd feel healthier if I dialed it back."

What's the worst mistake Mark Allen ever made?

"Training too hard, too frequently," he says without hesitation.

What's the worst mistake the weekend warrior can make?

"Thinking that you're so important to the world that you can't sneak away to work out for at least a couple of hours a week."

Correspondent Paul Keegan profiled Zone diet guru Barry Sears in the September 1997 issue.

Photographs by Michael O'Neill






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