Wednesday, March 14, 2018

6 things you're probably (maybe) doing wrong in your training

I've had a lot of posts lately going over some details about training. Details are important, and a big part of why I write this blog is to organize my thoughts about some cutting edge ideas. Lately, almost all I've been talking about is aerobic development, largely because that's where I'm learning the most new stuff over the past year or so.

But not every reader of this blog has read every post, and the biggest take home points I'd like to make are probably buried a year or more back in the archives.

I don't mean to insult anybody - it's possible that you, dear reader, are training according to principles much better than mine, in which case this blog post is going to be worthless. But I have seen a lot of martial artists make some or all of these mistakes. So here are my big take home points:

1. Your strength training is too easy. Trying to get stronger? Build more muscle? (These are not the same thing, but they're related). If you're counting on pushups and deep stances to do it, that's probably not going to be effective for long. To get stronger you must do an exercise that is loaded in such a way that you couldn't do more than 10 or 12 reps or 30-40 seconds worth of that exercise. If 10 pushups is a real struggle for you, then great, doing sets of 8-10 pushups will be strength training. If you can do 25 pushups, then no number of pushups will get you stronger effectively. You have to either modify the pushup (take an arm away, change hand position, elevate your feet) or change the load (wear a weight vest, have a friend sit on your back) to make it a strength training exercise. Holding a deep horse stance for several minutes sure is hard, but it's not going to make you significantly stronger than doing it for 30 seconds.

2. Your practice techniques too hard and for too long too often. We train to kick and punch. What better way to get better at kicking and punching for a long time (i.e. improve our endurance) than to punch and kick until we're exhausted, right? Except that's probably not a good idea. Sure, doing one of those super hard challenge workouts where you're falling over at the end once in a while is probably a good thing, but you should be as fresh as possible for almost every repetition of your basic techniques during practice. Why? Because when you're tired you're slow and sloppy. Practicing while tired means practicing slow, sloppy techniques. And your nervous system adapts to what it practices. So MOST of your repetitions should be done fast, hard, and crisp. If you need to do improve your endurance, add a few sets of burpees or sprints to the end of your practice, when you're tired. After all, your goal isn't to be good at burpees, it's to be good at karate techniques.

3. You don't think enough about recovery. Do you even own a foam roller? Do you get massages? Do you measure your protein intake? Do you plan rest days and deloads into your practice? It's probably okay to stretch and so some light skills practice almost all the time, but your harder work can't be done every day. If you do your hard workouts every day, either you'll be doing them hard enough, and you'll break down and get hurt, or you are not actually working as hard as you think.

4. Too much static stretching. Don't do static stretching (getting into, and holding, a stretched position) for long periods (holding for 20 or 30 seconds or more) before training. Static stretching may be beneficial, or at least not detrimental (the research is mixed) if you do it AFTER training, but do NOT do it before training. You'll just make your muscles less powerful and impair your practice. Warm up carefully, stretching dynamically, and only do your long static stretches at the end of your workout (24 or more hours before you plan to work out again).

5. You eat like crap. Yes, nutrition matters. And it's confusing - paleo, low carb, keto, vegan, vegetarian, mediterranean... there are lots of diet plans out there. Not sure what to do? Let's make it simple. A. Eat less (ideally no) simple sugar. I'm NOT saying eat no carbohydrates, just little or no simple sugar (look for sucrose or high fructose corn syrup in the ingredients). Soda and sweets are the biggest offenders. B. Eat no hydrogenated vegetable oil. Trans fats are bad. C. Use little or no seed oils. Don't cook with corn oil, vegetable oil, or canola oil. Use olive oil, coconut oil, macadamia nut oil, walnut oil, or butter. D. Eat way more vegetables and fruit. E. If you're fat, eat a little less every day. If you're too skinny, eat a little more every day. 

6. You train  your core muscles the wrong way. Your core - the set of muscles that work together to either move or prevent movement of the spine - are super important. Lots of martial artists train their core by moving it, doing things like crunches (flexing the spine), back extensions (extending the spine), or windshield wipers (rotating the spine). This is probably wrong, and you should either never or rarely do these kinds of exercises. The thing is, you don't really want your spine moving much when you perform techniques. You don't want to rotate your spine to generate punching power - you really want your spine to NOT rotate when your hips twist, so the power from your legs can be transmitted through your arms. How do you train your core to keep your spine in place? Train it to! Think planks (hold the spine steady while gravity is working to try to extend it - anti-extension) instead of crunches (flexing the spine). Think one arm planks (gravity is trying to rotate the spine, your core has to work to keep it straight, so it's anti-rotation) instead of windshield wipers (rotating the spine to move your legs while your shoulders stay in place). Your back will thank you for it, and so will your performance.

I tried to make this post as generic as possible. We don't have all the answers to every detail around training. Think about #3 above - what exactly is the best way to enhance recovery? Should you ice sore muscles? Well, the science around that has gone back and forth, and I can't give a definitive answer right now, but I bet almost all of us could benefit from a little more quality sleep and a massage now and again. What's the optimal diet for performance? Again, it's unclear - but I know it's not centered on Corn Flakes and McDonald's.

This is the kind of advice that every strength coach in high level training for things like football or soccer would take for granted, and it's also the kind of advice every martial artists should be incorporating.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Moral and Spiritual Implications of Hard Training

I was listening to this podcast the other day, an interview with Jonathan Bluestein.

[Sidenote: Bluestein is really worth paying attention to - I really enjoyed his book. He writes mostly about internal martial arts, and I disagree with at least 40% of what he says, but most of it is well argued and thought provoking.]

In the podcast Bluestein makes an assertion about how training in the internal martial arts - such as tai chi - makes people morally better. He did that thing that drives me nuts, making an interesting claim about internal martial arts and supporting it with nonsense (I think it was something about tense muscles having a negative influence on character, which is pretty unsupported and kind of ridiculous), but he got me thinking.

My first reaction was to dismiss this idea. But this notion - that the slow internal arts lead to moral superiority - is very tightly ingrained in our culture. Think about our stereotypes - who is more likely to start a fight, a kickboxing instructor or a tai chi instructor? I don't mean that hard martial artists are actually more violent or of lesser character, only that our stereotypes align with that view. I've also heard from many practitioners some version of "I felt like a better person when I gave up external, hard training for softer, internal arts." Could there be some nugget of truth to this story?

I have an hypothesis about this topic.

First, if you don't remember what the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are, do some reading, you can look at my blog post about this topic here. Short review: these are two parts of your autonomic (involuntary) nervous system; the sympathetic is activated with fight or flight - stress, adrenaline, getting you ready to run from or kill a predator. The parasympathetic system is opposite -it's kicked in when you're relaxed, happy, digesting a huge meal or something.

The thing is, when your sympathetic system is strongly engaged, your body is preparing for violence or extreme physical activity. Generally speaking, that means you're going to have a higher heart rate, higher levels of stress hormones, and be jumpier. It also means that, at least for many people, you're going to be quicker to anger, quicker to violence, and more likely to snap at others or overreact to stimuli. Your body is primed for combat. Different people will get dramatically different degrees of this behavior, but for any given person, they are most likely to be irritable or violent when highly sympathetic.
[Don't believe me? Do something that scares the crap out of your spouse (jump out at them or set off an airhorn), then do something that really annoys them. Then, a week later, repeat that experiment, but feed them a huge meal instead of scaring them, then do the same annoying thing. Let me know how it works out for you.]

When the parasympathetic system is engaged, your personality gets pushed in the opposite direction. You're more relaxed, less prone to a quick reaction, and less violently emotional.

I'm not saying that this completely determines behavior. I'm pretty sure that a parasympathetic Mike Tyson is still quicker to anger than a highly stressed sympathetic Dalai Lama. But for any given person, they get pushed one way or the other depending on which system is most active.

Now imagine someone who does a stereotypical external art - karate or kickboxing or something like that. They engage in hard, spirited training on a regular basis. They get deeply anaerobic, doing very intense activity, flooding their body with signals that say, "we need every last bit of reserves here, we're doing some very difficult things." And remember, your body doesn't really know the difference between a hard sparring session and an actual fight.

That training style - high intensity, all the time - is constantly activating the sympathetic nervous system. That's the system that gets us through hard workouts. And some people are really naturally good at coming down from that state, and getting into deep relaxation quickly afterwards. But most people won't. They'll just have an overactive, overstimulated sympathetic nervous system all the time.

And what do you think happens when such a person runs into a confrontation or a challenging situation? We know that some hard training karateka have very tranquil demeanors, but someone who does a lot of hard training is going to be less likely to be calm and tranquil, and more likely to be emotional and tense, because their body is flooded with stress hormones and neurotransmitters that were designed to help us fight off bears.

Suppose that same person, instead of karate, had taken up tai chi. The training sessions for tai chi involve a lot of standing or moving very slowly and focusing on easy breathing. The workouts aren't intense (physically) or anaerobic - your body doesn't get the signal "start releasing energy, because we're doing something very demanding" the way it would with hard physical training. In fact, while it's not the same as tai chi, yoga (another discipline made up of slow, easy movements) has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Slow, deliberate moving is probably even better for activating the parasympathetic system than resting on a couch.

Who's going to be more likely to snap at their kids or curse and yell at someone cutting them off in traffic? We can see this with people all the time - stress makes us worse people (some people under terrible stress are still wonderful people, but not as good or easygoing as they would have been without it). And hard workouts are a stress just as much as divorce or problems at work or obnoxious kids.

This is why, in my opinion, hard training people often take up meditation or internal martial arts later in life and talk about that practice in such glowing terms. It makes them feel better. After an hour of karate, doing a half hour of seated meditation or tai chi or yoga will activate the parasympathetic system, and if yours hasn't been active, that can be a blissfully enjoyable experience (try it!)

The mistake is in thinking that the softer, easier practice is a good replacement for hard training. You simply don't get the adaptations from slow easy movement that you can get from striving to be as forceful and explosive as possible. I don't have data on it, but I seriously doubt that tai chi is going to do as much for bone density or jumping ability as Crossfit or kyokushin karate training.

So what are our choices? Train hard and resign ourselves to being snappy, angry people? Absolutely not.

The thing we need to do, especially if we train hard, is to recognize that the hard training is pushing us into a place where we shouldn't stay. We don't want to be sympathetic all the time. It's not good for our bodies or our character.

You need to plan, as part of your hard training, activities that de-activate that sympathetic system and bring you back to a middle ground. You need to plan activites that activate the parasympathetic system, maybe the day after your hardest training sessions.

Have a 2 hour sparring day? Don't just sit around the next day - actively compensate for it with some yoga, some tai chi, a gentle walk in nature, a massage, or significant seated meditation (and sorry, I doubt 3 minutes at the end of class is going to do the trick).

This will not only make you an easier person to live with, which is its own reward, but will improve your health and help you recover physically for the next hard session of training.

[Another side note: I don't mean to denigrate tai chi as a combat art, or say that its only purpose is to relax people after hard training. I only mean that I think the reason so many people feel spiritually connected to tai chi is because the physical qualities of its practice - the slowness, breathing, and mental concentration - are all likely to activate the parasympathetic system, which most of us need more of.]

Conclusion: Train hard, but relax hard too. Osu!

Saturday, February 3, 2018

What you should be listening to

I'm a big fan of podcasts - I listen to several a day, often playing while I'm either working or working out. I mostly listen to podcasts related to martial arts or to training, and I wanted to share some of my favorites.

Traditional Martial Arts
My all time favorite podcast for traditional martial arts is The Applied Karate Show, but Des hasn't posted a new episode in years, so I've had to branch out!

Whistlekick Martial Arts Radio is a really nice podcast, hosted by the owner of a sparring equipment company of the same name (I will one day buy stuff from him and review it, but haven't yet). The show is quite good, but it's greatest strengths are consistency and volume. Jeremy puts out two episodes a week, meaning there's a lot to listen to, but not every guest is stellar. I do find that later episodes are consistently higher in quality, as you might expect. Episodes formats are a short audio blog from Jeremy on some topic (they're fine) alternated with interviews with various martial artists, some of which are really well done. It focuses more on stories than on technique or training specifics.

Martial Thoughts is put out more sporadically but still regularly. Early episodes were more round table discussions, but the host settled into an interview/news format that works really well. This show has a greater variety of guests - not just practicing/competing martial arts instructors, but also people who research traditional European swordfighting, a guy who hand crafts wooden swords, and other interesting people around the martial arts world.

Both of these shows are hosted by men I identify with strongly - they both seem like people I'd be friends with. Both shows made really good additions to my listening.

Sport Martial Arts
Two podcasts focus on analysis of striking in MMA - Fights Gone By and Heavy Hands. Fights Gone By is Jack Slack's show, with every episode consisting of Jack, by himself, breaking down fights, making predictions about upcoming events, and generally being amazing. Jack Slack was the pioneer of striking analysis for MMA. If you like to fight in any way (any kind of free sparring, not just MMA), Jack's work is invaluable.

Heavy Hands might be even better than Fights Gone By. That show has two hosts, Connor and Patrick, who break down fights, but even more valuably cover generalizations and trends. For example, they spend a lot of time talking about types of fighters and their tendencies (outfighters, pressure fighters, etc.) in a way that has really helped me both in my training and in how I apreciate and understand fights I watch.

The dropoff in MMA podcasting after these two is sharp. Lots of other shows cover news, personalities, and so forth, but these two are head and shoulders above the rest for technical analysis.

General Training
I've been listening to the FitCast for around a decade, and the show has only gotten better with age. However, the focus of most shows is on the business side of fitness, coaching, and so forth - not as much on things like physiology, exercise selection, sets and reps, and that stuff. I highly recommend this show if you're a trainer or a coach or running a business, not so much if you're just looking to get in shape yourself.

For high end training info I've been really enjoying Just Fly, which is aimed mostly at track and field athletes but has really good information that can be adapted for anyone trying to be more athletic.

I should probably look into some more of this type of show to get more training information. I will, once I've caught up on the martial arts stuff (I'm about a year behind!)

General Nutrition and Health
I've gotten less and less value from general health and nutrition podcasts over the last couple of years. There was a time when a lot of what I heard was really interesting, but the message has gotten more and more repetitive (which isn't really a bad thing). I'm not going to pretend I live a perfectly healthy life, but I have a pretty good understanding of what's involved in it, and taking in more podcasts telling me to sleep more, eat whole foods, de-stress, and hang out with friends isn't going to help me do it.

I get a nice mixed bag of more cutting edge nutrition and training information from Sigma Nutrition Radio. If you're going to listen to just one health/nutrition show, make that it.

I still listen to Rob Wolf and Chris Kresser, but it's more out of habit than out of the hope that I'll learn anything new.

How to Listen
I'm an Android guy, and the app I use is Podcast Republic. It's pretty much perfect - makes it easy to get my shows, makes it easy to organize them, and is fairly intuitive to use. It has really nice sound manipulation features (for shows that are too soft or have bad sound quality), and my favorite feature, which is speed manipulation. I listen now to most shows at 1.3 - 1.5 speed. It's not hard to understand most people if you speed up their speech - I think it takes a lot more mental effort to compose a sentence than to comprehend it - so there's a lot of wasted time if you listen to a podcast at real time speed. Try upping the speed.

Also, DONATE. These shows are all free, but most have ways you can funnel them money, like a Patreon page. Obviously, if you're strapped for cash yourself, don't give Jack Slack money and skip meals. But if you can afford it, try sending them some money, both as a thank you and to motivate the creators to keep putting out quality content (and yes, I do this, I contribute small monthly amounts to almost every show on this list).

Monday, January 29, 2018

Why You Should Kiai

There was some UFC card the other weekend where many female fighters were kiai-ing with every strike, and I saw an unrelated debate on an online forum about the value of the kiai. Most of the commentary kind of missed the point of the kiai, so I thought I'd weigh in.

What is a kiai?
In case not everyone means the same thing when they say 'kiai,' allow me to clarify. A kiai is a quick, loud (more or less as loud as you can make it) shout that is done pretty much at the point of contact for a strike (or block, I guess, though more often a strike). A proper kiai should have no hard consonant sounds in it, though some people kiai with some 's' sounds in it. A super loud 'ha' usually does the trick. The louder the better, and it should not drag on for several seconds (you do see that long drawn out scream in some performance kata, but I believe that is a mistake). And the shout is supposed to come from the belly, not the upper chest (which is necessary if you want to make the loudest sound).

What are the benefits of a kiai during a match? (short answer: not much)
It's a fun little trick to stand close to somebody who isn't ready for it and kiai, to demonstrate the way their body locks up. It would be nice if performing a kiai during a sparring match or a 'real' fight would have the same effect, and maybe it could, but I rather doubt it. When someone is ready for you, facing you, and psychologically prepared for some kind of combat, I highly doubt yelling at them is going to have any significant impact.

A secondary possible benefit of the kiai during a sport competition is to help convince judges that you have, in fact, scored a point or a significant blow. I have heard this from more experienced competitors, and I'll put it out there as a possible good reason to kiai during point fighting or even contact fighting (in situations where judges sometimes render decisions about the fight outcome).

What are the (psychological) benefits of a kiai during training?
Some people (maybe most?) can feel energized by being in a class full of like minded people shouting loudly as they execute techniques. Some feel this is a display of strong karate spirit.

I am absolutely on board with anyone who sees this as a benefit. On its own, I don't see that it justifies the importance we place on the kiai in training, but there are other reasons (see below!)

What are the physical benefits of a kiai during training?
Now we get to the bread and butter of this post.

I don't talk about the 'core' enough, but here's the idea in a nutshell:
1. Your upper body (ribs, shoulders, arms) is connected to your lower body (hips and legs) by your spine.
2. Your spine is not rigid. It can bend and twist in all kinds of directions.
3. When generating power from your lower body, and transmitting it to your upper body, the more your spine twists and bends the less efficient the power transmission. Imagine trying to hammer in a nail with a pool noodle.
4. When transmitting power through your spine, you need the muscles in that region to contract, making the link between your upper and lower body as rigid as possible (it won't be perfectly rigid, that's okay, but you don't want to be floppy either).
5. Those muscles are collectively referred to as the 'core.' The core is a bunch of muscles, some of which you can see (if you're lean enough, like what people call 'abs' and lats) and some of which are 'deep' (meaning closer to the spine).
6. Even if your core muscles are strong, you have to be able to contract the right ones at the right times in the right pattern to get the most stiffness in your core.

Why am I saying all this now? Because one of the best ways to make sure that those deep core muscles are activated (working) is to make a hard, deep exhalation (blow out), using the diaphragm (so breathing from the belly, more than from the upper chest).

In fact, in sports performance, lots of strength coaches are making a big deal out of having their athletes exhale forcefully, from their bellies, when they want to perform high force movements.

Now guess what?

You can't kiai without making a forceful, deep, diaphragmatic exhalation. The exact kind of exhalation that maximally engages the deep core muscles and stabilizes your core.

Now of course you can contract those muscles without exhaling, and you can exhale without shouting. But the cue (the instruction) to kiai is an external cue, which is generally better than an internal cue (like, "squeeze your abs really hard"). For many people, especially not-great-athletes, shouting comes fairly naturally, while controlling the deep core muscles requires a lot of concentration.

Another advantage of the kiai is that an instructor can hear it. You can sort of tell if a student has a floppy core when they punch, but it's much easier to hear that someone's kiai is weak. It's a fast diagnostic that can help you figure out quickly if there is something particularly wrong with the way a student is executing a technique.

In short:
1. A kiai, because it requires a hard exhalation, will force the core to contract, stabilizing the torso and improving power transmission from the lower body;
2. A kiai can be heard, making it easy for an instructor to make sure the student is exhaling at the proper time, with the proper force.

When you should kiai
I wouldn't argue that students should kiai with every repetition of their training, every class. I think it would make your throat hurt and make classes kind of annoying. And I think that our goal should be to learn from the kiai how to use our core, so that we are able to do it without thinking and without shouting. In other words, I think the kiai should be seen as a great training tool for relatively newer students, and something to be used more sparingly with more advanced students.

But for those who think the kiai is 'just dumb' or 'pointless,' I say that it's a very effective and simple way to teach students how to use their deep core muscles, and that's extremely valuable for instructors.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Some Motivational TV and Crossfit

I'm sure we'd all love to say that we're always 100% committed to training hard, but... that's not always true, at least for everyone.

Martial arts films and books are often good ways to get re-inspired, and I've talked about some in the past.

Another type of documentary I've been enjoying lately are related to professional athletes in Crossfit or strength events. These are people who are in amazing shape, and can do amazing things, even if they aren't making newspaper headlines on a regular basis.

On Netflix in the US, catch Fittest On Earth - there are at least a couple of them out, and each covers one of the Crossfit Games events. These are the highest level Crossfit competitors on earth, and in pretty much every event each athlete does things I can't even imagine doing.

There's also a documentary called Functional  Fitness, which has more coverage of run of the mill Crossfitters (as opposed to the absolute elites). Seeing passionate amateurs doing some impressive things may be more (or less) motivational to you than watching the elites.

While you're on Netflix, if you want some good martial arts action watch the Daredevil TV show. Great fun. NOT realistic, but it's not supposed to be.

For some strongman stuff, Eddie Strongman, Born Strong, CT Fletcher, and Generation Iron were all fun (I clearly spend too much time streaming and not enough training).

None of these films are particularly worthwhile if you're looking to develop a training routine or learn more about fitness, but they're entertaining and motivational.

Now a word about Crossfit: martial artists often ask whether 'doing Crossfit' will help their martial arts. The short answer is that it might. Not all Crossfit gyms are created equal, and MANY Crossfit gyms (they call them boxes) pay too little attention to scaling workouts. Crossfit in general emphasizes workouts that push you into a very, very fatigued state, and doing high risk explosive movements when you're very tired is a very, very good way to get hurt.

In other words: doing Olympic lifts until you are ready to throw up is probably not safe. If you're a fantastic athlete you can probably get away with it, but this blog is not for people who are already fantastic athletes.

So if you want to do Crossfit, be careful that you find a gym that is less gung ho and more about scaling and safety. And no, you don't NEED to do Crossfit to get into very good shape.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Energy Systems: The Overview

Endurance is super important for martial artists for 2 sets of reasons: 1) not getting tired while sparring or performing your kata makes your sparring or kata better; and 2) not getting tired while training to improve your martial arts skills makes your training more effective. Practicing skills while you're fatigued is, simply, not very effective (remember, it's not 'practice makes perfect,' it's 'perfect practice makes perfect.' Practicing sloppy technique just makes you very good at doing sloppy technique.)

Endurance is also super important for life. I've explained before - if daily tasks cause your heart rate to go really high and leave you gasping for your air, not only is that unseemly, but it means your body is going into a high stress response to handle an everyday thing. That's really, really bad for your health, since you're pushed into a sympathetic state very frequently.

I used to think I had a strong handle on the kind of training that pretty much anybody should do to improve their endurance. You can scan old posts on this blog to see examples of that. Sadly, I had an overly simplistic view. The real story is more complicated, and training for endurance is harder (and easier, as I'll explain later) than I thought.

[Note: this post is background information, meant to be a reference. It isn't really about training, it's to set up later posts on training. Also, the information here is not particularly controversial, and has been pulled from many, many sources - this is the consensus right now, and as such I'm presenting it with a very high degree of confidence. Later on I'll get into more theoretical conclusions where my confidence is not as high.]

What is energy?
Energy in this context means biological energy, the energy used by all your bodily systems to do pretty much anything. And almost all of your body's chemical reactions, when they need it, get energy by splitting molecules of ATP into ADP and a phosphate (ATP is adenosine triphosphate, meaning it has 3 phosphates - when one gets knocked off it turns into ADP, adenosine diphosphate, an adenosine with 2 phosphates stuck to it, and a loose phosphate, and a bunch of energy.) ATP turning into ADP + P is kind of like burning wood in the sense that it releases energy but it is UNLIKE burning wood because the ADP and P can get stuck back together, giving you another ATP, ready to use, as long as you can get the energy for THAT from somewhere else. So your ATP is more like a rechargeable battery - it can discharge, giving you energy, and then recharge, as long as you have a power source to recharge it with.

From a martial arts or movement perspective, you can think of it like this: To execute any movement, your nerves carry a signal to the muscles, which contract, which exerts a force on the body. The action of the nerves (carrying the signal) and the muscles (to contract, then relax) depends on ATP - ATP is 'used,' fueling the action, and you end up with ADP + P.

Also worth noting: your cells use energy all the time, not just when exercising. They need a constant stream of energy (that's why you burn calories even at rest). All that happens when you exercise is that the amount of energy you need goes up, or you could say the rate at which you use energy goes up.

What are energy systems in general?
If you took high school biology you have a general sense of how this works from a big picture perspective - your body takes in energy from food, 'burns' it with the aid of oxygen, and uses that energy to turn that ADP and P back into ATP, where it can be used again (and again and again) to fuel chemical reactions, like muscle contractions.
More specifically, what we call energy systems are the chemical processes that directly regenerate ATP.
Or, you could say that the energy systems are the systems that provide ATP for use by your cells (and by provide, we can mean store a bunch of it, or restore the ATP by combining ADP and P back into usable ATP).

What are the 3 energy systems?
1) Alactic anaerobic system (also called PCr, AtP_CP, ATP_PCr, Creatine Phosphate Energy System, Oxidative Independent Energy System, Short Term Energy System) is the FIRST place your cell 'looks' for ATP. You are ALWAYS using the alactic anaerobic system - ALWAYS. It consists of a bunch of ATP, just sitting around waiting to be used, and some Creatine Phosphate (you can get ATP back from ADP by breaking down Creatine Phosphate super fast, so these two are sort of counted together). It's super fast, but super small - you only store somewhere between 4 and 10 seconds worth of energy in the alactic anaerobic system. And it doesn't depend on anything else - the alactic anaerobic system is just atp and creatine phosphate, to 'work' (i.e. provide energy) it doesn't need oxygen or any other substrates.
So think of your alactic anaerobic energy system as a pool of energy that is always, immediately available, in full. It's the fastest energy system of all, and once it's run down close to empty nothing can replace it as fast as you can use it - that's why if you look at Olympic sprinters, they are ALL slowing down by the time they get past 70 or 80 meters.
If all you had was alactic anaerobic, you wouldn't need to eat or breathe, and you could exert maximal power for maybe 10 seconds, but then you would DIE. That would be bad. So:

The next two energy systems are there ONLY to replenish the Alactic Anaerobic System. They don't really make sense on their own.

2) Aerobic energy system (also called oxidative dependent) is the PRIMARY way your body replenishes that ATP as it gets used. The aerobic energy system requires oxygen (that's literally what 'aerobic' means), so how fast it can pump produce energy depends on how fast your body can get oxygen to your cells, as well as a few other factors.
The aerobic system is SLOW. It can only replace a little ATP every second. When you exert yourself, you can pretty easily use up ATP faster than the aerobic system can replenish it (though your aerobic system can get better, and faster, with training).
The aerobic system can go for a LONG time, even at its maximum output. It burns fat and/or glucose, and requires oxygen.
The aerobic system is working ALL the time. Just like you are ALWAYS using ATP from the pool in the alactic anaerobic system, your aerobic system is ALWAYS working to refill that pool. When people say that their workout is not aerobic, or that it is only anaerobic, they are not really correct. The aerobic system is always involved (it may not be by itself, is all).
The aerobic system is relatively 'clean burning.' It can work without involving a lot of stress hormones or negative effects on your body. This is sort of obvious - since it's working all the time, every second of your life, your body can't interpret aerobic activity as a threat or an emergency.
Your aerobic system isn't always fully 'on.' It's working a little bit all the time, but it takes time to 'ramp up' when you put more demands on it. That's one (in my opinion, a big) reason why warming up is important - your aerobic system needs time to get into gear so it can replenish your ATP faster. If you start a workout by immediately going into high intensity work, you'll greatly outstrip your aerobic system's ability to replenish your energy.
With training your aerobic system can become able to produce energy faster, but there are limits.
When you're just sitting around or going for a walk or doing something leisurely, the ATP you burn is replaced as fast as you burn it by your aerobic system (ADP is converted back into ATP as fast as you are turning ATP into ADP). BUT once you start using energy at a faster rate, and your aerobic system can't keep up (because at that moment the aerobic system can't replenish ATP as fast as you're using it), then...

3) Lactic Acid system (also called anaerobic lactic, Lactate Energy System, Lactic, anaerobic energy system, non-oxidative glycolytic energy system, glycolitic energy system) is normally more or less dormant, but it kicks in when your alactic anaerobic system gets depleted (runs low) and your aerobic system can't keep up with the demand. This typically happens either because it's very early in your workout, and the aerobic system hasn't ramped up yet, or because your workout is hard enough, depleting energy fast enough, that the aerobic system can't keep up.
The lactic acid system is FAST. It can produce energy much faster than the aerobic system, though not as fast as the alactic anaerobic system. It burns glycogen (glucose stored in the muscles). It produces lactic acid, which will build up in your system and make you feel like crap (it's the hydrogen ions, not the lactate, that causes problems when you produce lactic acid). It doesn't require oxygen. It doesn't last very long, but it lasts MUCH LONGER than the alactic anaerobic system.
The lactic acid system is sort of an emergency system, linked to your sympathetic nervous system. When you need it a lot - when you work in such a way that you get a big accumulation of lactic acid - your body thinks "there is something happening, we need more energy than we can comfortably provide, even if only for a little while." In other words, when it is used, there's a lot of associated stress on the body. You can expect elevated cortisol, activation of the sympathetic nervous system, all the other things that happen with fight or flight.
Here's the big thing - the lactic acid system produces lactate. So as it works, lactate is made, and starts to build up in your body. The lactic acid system itself can't get rid of that lactate - only the aerobic system can do that, and it can't do it nearly as fast as the lactic system can produce it. And the more lactate builds up, the worse the lactic system gets at producing energy (it gets inhibited), and the more tired you feel. In other words, the lactic system is self limiting.

What's the big picture with how these interact?
You're always sort of sipping energy from the pool of ATP and creatine phosphate in your alactic anaerobic system. If you start to sip faster (say, by exercising), the pool shrinks, your lactic acid system starts working a little bit, and your aerobic system starts working harder to replenish the pool. If your aerobic system can't keep up, and you take energy out faster than it can be replaced, the lactic acid system works harder, and lactate starts building up in your bloodstream. At that point your aerobic system is desperately working to keep your alactic anaerobic system topped off AND to reset the effects of the lactic acid system.
The harder you work the lactic acid system, without taking the time to completely recover (meaning take some time where you're using up energy slower than the aerobic system can replace it), the worse you're going to feel and the more your performance will suffer (your body starts to say, "whoa, you're using energy way faster than I can replace it, I'd better make those muscles slow down"). It's the lactic system that really causes fatigue.

Is this meaningful for your whole body or also for individual muscles?
Imagine a workout where you're only working one small muscle (or a couple of small muscles). Something like seated cable curls - your biceps and maybe forearms are working very hard, but the rest of you isn't.
In that sort of case the muscle fibers in your biceps are going to use ATP at a high rate, but your body as a whole isn't. The muscle cells in your biceps will start pulling in oxygen so they can replenish that ATP, but your heart and lungs won't register this demand, because your biceps are pretty small, and even if they're pulling oxygen out of your blood as fast as they can, it won't impact your blood oxygen levels nearly as much as if, say, you were sprinting, and two thirds of the muscles in your body were pulling out oxygen.
So in that case you can have a workout that heavily involves the lactic system in one part of your body (the biceps) but NOT in your body overall.

How does training help?
With training, your aerobic and lactic acid systems can become much, much better. You can develop a much higher tolerance for lactate, get much better at quickly removing lactate, and greatly increase how much energy you can get every minute from your aerobic system. Your alactic anaerobic system can be increased a little bit but probably not much.
As to what kinds of training improve which system, that gets more complicated.
I'm going to address training the energy systems at some point in the future, it's too much for this post. But here's the important principle:
Developing the aerobic system competes with developing the lactic acid system, and vice versa.
In other words, if a workout really develops the lactic acid system, it does NOT develop the aerobic system and may impair it a bit. And workouts that develop the aerobic system do NOT develop the lactic acid system.

What's the take home message for martial arts training?
Ideally, you would have a maximally developed lactic system AND aerobic system. But that's not really possible - training for one is different from training the other. So you have to find the right balance. And the types of training that are good for the aerobic system are not the same as the kinds that are good for the lactic system.
The good news is that, if you are kind of stuck in your training, or if you feel that you're working really hard but not making much progress, understanding these systems might help you break through and make progress again.
I will talk more about training the different systems in future posts.

If you want a more in depth understanding of these issues, read Joel Jamieson's work - here or in his book (now out of print, unfortunately).

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Protein consumption and you: How much, what kind, and when

I was listening to an episode of the always excellent Sigma nutrition radio, this one an interview with Dr. Donald Layman, who is one of the top researchers in the world studying dietary influences on protein synthesis.

I'm not new to the science on protein synthesis, but if this research is new to you, listen to the podcast, because it's a great overview of the science as we know it today, given by a guy who isn't selling anything (Dr. Layman is an academic, not a supplement salesman), interviewed by a very, very good podcaster in Danny Lennon.

In case you're less of a geek for this stuff than I am, I thought I'd review the key points on what we know regarding protein synthesis.

What is protein synthesis?
Protein synthesis is the process of building new protein in your body. Your tissues in general are not static - your muscles aren't made of the same stuff they were 10 years ago; instead, your body is constantly breaking down and building new tissues. So if not for protein synthesis you would slowly lose muscle mass, or at the very least be unable to gain new muscle.

Why is it important for performance?
If you're any kind of athlete, martial artist or otherwise, you need your muscle. That's what moves you. As you age it gets harder and harder to gain muscle, and to keep the muscle you have, so strategies to grow muscle become more and more important. Almost nobody has too much muscle, and almost everybody who does only gets that way by taking a LOT of drugs that have harmful side effects.

Why is it important for health and longevity?
1. Muscle improves your metabolism, by burning calories and by storing glucose. So having very little muscle will make you prone to accumulating bodyfat. Also, if you have very little muscle and eat a high carbohydrate meal, those carbs have nowhere to 'go' for short term storage, so your blood sugar gets and stays high, and those carbs are turned to fat. If you have lots of excess muscle those carbs can be stored as glycogen to be used in your next workout.
2. Muscle exerts force on your bones. Whenever you move, the bigger and stronger (those are very closely connected) your muscles the more force gets put on your bones, which increases your bone health and strength. Strong dense bones are better at resisting breaks, and broken bones are a huge health risk when you're older.
3. Muscle is key to mobility and independence. If you're not strong enough to get up out of a chair, or carry your luggage around, you lose your ability to be independent. Stay strong, stay out of the nursing home.

What kind of protein is best for increasing protein synthesis?
Protein (all protein) is made up of amino acids. There are different ones (20), and different proteins have different proportions of those amino acids, so the protein in quinoa has a different relative amount of each amino acid as the protein in dairy or beef or eggs or rice.
To get an increase in protein synthesis you need 2 very specific things: 1) 2.2 - 2.5 grams of leucine, a particular amino acid which is relatively high in animal proteins like whey or beef and relatively low in vegetable proteins - this amount acts as a sort of spark to the protein synthesis pathway; and 2) enough of all the essential amino acids so the synthesis can occur. Think of leucine as the guy yelling at the workers to get to work - less than 2.2 or so grams in a meal and the workers don't hear the guy - and the other amino acids as the bricks, without which the workers are trying to work but can't build anything.
Overall, Dr. Layman recommends a meal with at least that much leucine (2.5 g) and somewhere around 50 g total protein. That will kick off a session (my word, not his) of protein synthesis that will last 2-3 hours. He recommends repeating that 3 times per day (more often if you REALLY need to build a lot of muscle, like if you're a competitive bodybuilder). Yes, that's a lot of protein.
As you get older, you get resistant to these cues, so you might need more leucine and/or more protein to get the same response. I imagine the same is true if you have any kind of digestive impairment.
Generally speaking, whey, beef, and eggs are your best bang for the buck for protein that has lots of leucine. Sorry, but vegetable and grain proteins are low in leucine. Getting enough quinoa to spark protein synthesis requires eating just a ridiculous amount of quinoa (think 1000 kCal worth of quinoa in a meal, each meal).

Is muscle protein synthesis really all that matters?
Researchers study muscle protein synthesis because it's relatively easy to study. Give someone a meal, see what happens. But in a way, it's a proxy for what we really care about - long term protein balance. That is, we REALLY care about whether some eating/workout strategy helps us gain (build) net muscle, not whether it results in some short term chemical process.
What exactly do we really care about?
We really care about long term muscle gain or loss. But that's very hard to study - you'd have to control people's meals for weeks or months at a time, and deal with dozens or hundreds of confounding variables. The fact is, if some eating strategy is increasing synthesis but is increasing catabolism (muscle breakdown) even more, you're going to lose.
So there is definitely more to know. I suspect that short fasts decrease catabolism, meaning that you wouldn't necessarily see the best overall muscle mass increase by eating a huge meal every 4 hours, 6 times a day, but that you'd see less synthesis but also less breakdown by eating less often. But I can't prove that, it's just an hypothesis.

What do I REALLY need to know about this research?
1. To gain muscle, you really need to get 40-50 grams of high quality protein in a single meal, and you need to do it probably at least twice a day. Eating 10-15 grams of total protein in each meal, but spreading it out over many meals, is NOT going to get you equivalent results. You can do this by supplementing a normal meal (eat a little, drink a protein shake for dessert) or by eating an animal product heavy meal (this is NOT a huge amount of protein - we're not talking about a pound of steak). If you're not sure whether a particular protein is 'good,' remember to look for the amount of leucine. That's the only amino acid you really need to worry about.
2. DO NOT eat your 50 grams of protein close before your workout. If you spark a session of protein synthesis, that takes a lot of energy. Your muscle cells will be depleted, and you'll be relatively weaker. Try to eat your main meals long before or right after your hard workouts!