Athletes: Tips to Stay Fit in the Off-Season

As a runner, I look forward to fall because it’s race season. I train hard throughout spring and summer so I’ll be in peak condition once autumn rolls around. But that doesn’t mean take it easy all winter.

If you’re also a runner - or a cyclist, tennis player or ice hockey player - you may not participate in your sport year-round. But chances are you’ll want to stay fit even when you’re not actively preparing for races or games.

The off season is not a time to exercise too hard, nor to give up fitness all together. Here’s how to stay in shape.

Keep Up Your Fitness

For a competitive athlete, staying fit in the off season is a delicate balance. It’s important to get enough rest so your body can recover from months of grueling workouts. But it’s also key to maintain some level of conditioning so you don’t lose the valuable gains you worked so hard for during the season.

Everyone’s off-season training needs are different. Your workouts will depend on:

-How many weeks you have until the next season starts.

-What physical improvements you want to make before next season.

-Your history of injury, and any advice or recommendations from your doctor, coach or physical therapist.

The Building Blocks of Off-Season Training

While everyone’s specific training will vary, your plan will likely include these essential steps:

Rest up. Before anything else, you need to let your body heal from the demands of a long season. Rest is crucial. Take several days off from exercise. For the next two to four weeks, if you feel like you need to exercise, do short, easy cross-training sessions. If you’re a runner, try walking, cycling on a LIVESTRONG exercise bike or swimming. Then gradually add in short, easy runs. Cross-training and easing back into your sport will keep you fit and injury-free in the long run. If you’re coming back from an injury, don’t return to exercise until your doctor or physical therapist gives you the OK.

Reflect. Think about last season. What were your strengths? What were your weaknesses? Taking some time to figure out what went right and wrong can help you determine what to focus on during the next training cycle.

Enhance endurance. Did you find yourself tiring out half way through tennis matches? Stopping to catch your breath on the soccer field? If so, you need to gain some endurance. Doing interval workouts and gradually increasing the length of your cardio sessions can help you improve.

Gain speed. Speed is a crucial component to almost every sport, and getting faster is possible with hard work. Flexibility training and regular sprint workouts will help make you quicker. It may also be helpful to have a coach look at your form - sometimes even simple changes in your technique can help you get faster.

Get stronger. Many athletes log long hours in the weight room. This is because strength is needed to help you excel in any sport. Talk to a coach or more experienced athlete about what resistance training exercises are best for your sport. Doing lunges, squats, pushups and abdominal work may help you transform into an above average athlete.

Athletes: how do you stay in tip-top shape in the off season?



How to Use Periodization Training in your Cardio Workout

There are many potential stumbling blocks that may pop up as you pursue your fitness goals. Plateaus, overuse injuries and even plain old boredom can all slow your progress and eventually impede your performance in competitive events.

A common piece of wisdom, heard in gyms all around the world, says that variety is the key to avoiding these pitfalls, and periodization training provides an organized way to inject that variety into your workouts. This can appear difficult for endurance athletes, whose chosen activities(such as running or cycling) seemingly leave little room for changes. But periodization can be utilized in even these sports to round out your training and keep you engaged.

What is Periodization Training?

Periodization training is, in the most basic terms, a goal-oriented training program. It works by dividing your athletic season into a series of cycles, the largest of which is the “macrocycle,” which will typically end with your event. For example, a marathon runner will set his race as the end of his macrocycle, and divide the months leading up to the race into smaller training blocks called “mesocycles.” Each of these mesocycles will ideally focus on a different skill needed in your sport, such as speed, strength and endurance. An active rest cycle is generally incorporated as the last phase before the event in order to prevent exhaustion. This use of cycles allows you to focus on several smaller objectives that together will lead you, step by step, to your larger goal.

Periodization for Endurance Athletes

We don’t always think of cardiovascular exercise in its most detailed terms. Many people who decide to train for a race, for example, will simply run. They may focus on increasing speed or distance, but rarely use a standardized approach. Strength training is sometimes totally overlooked. The truth is that all of these components work together to finally carry you across the finish line, and by working on each one individually, you can build a more complete cardiovascular unit.

While the exact construction and length of your mesocycles will vary based on your personal training schedule and sport, we’ll consider a 6-month macrocycle for runners as an example of periodization training.

Example Program

Mesocycle 1 – Active Rest (3-4 weeks)

Because this first cycle is typically either coming after your last race or a period of inactivity, it’s important to start slowly. This active rest period will keep you moving while giving your running muscles a break. Cross-train with light cycling or swimming. Small amounts of jogging are allowed, but try to spread them out, and don’t push yourself. Even household chores like yard work can be used to fill in this cycle. The goal is to build and maintain a healthy cardiovascular base while not exhausting your muscles.

Mesocycle 2 – Endurance (8-12 weeks)

At this stage, your real training begins. Focus on long, steady runs with a focus on volume. Tempo runs or slow intervals can also be used for variety, but be careful not to focus on your time. Your goal in this cycle is to build an endurance base; you’ll improve your speed later.

Mesocycle 3 – Strength (6-8 weeks)

During this cycle, use hill runs to increase the strength in your key muscle groups. Schedule faster intervals and more difficult tempo runs. Your focus should  be on increasing your intensity while maintaining the same mileage.

Mesocycle 4 – Speed (4-6 weeks)

Continue to use more intense tempo and interval runs during this phase, while lowering your total mileage. Adequate rest is vital during speed training so that, even when fully exerting yourself, you maintain good form and allow your muscles time to recover. Your concentration now should be on increasing your speed and decreasing your time.

Mesocycle 5 – Competition

By now, race season has arrived. The length of this period will depend on how many races you plan on running, but it will typically last between four to six weeks. Run early in the week using a high-intensity, low-distance formula so that you can fully recover by race day. At this point, you should be able to give the race your maximum effort.

Periodization training can take some time at first, as you lay out a long-term schedule, but the benefits will be well worth the extra effort.

Have you using periodization in your cardiovascular routine? Do you have any tips to share?

Choosing the Right Pair of Sneakers

Socrates once said “When our feet hurt, we hurt all over.” As usual, he was on to something. Running and working out become that much easier when your feet feel good, and the right pair of sneakers can prevent leg, knee, hip and foot pain now, as well as down the road.

“Sneakers” may be a old-fashioned term, but that’s still how I think of them. These days there are so many choices: running shoes, walking shoes, tennis shoes… but whatever you choose to call them, the right footwear can make a big difference. Whether you’re going to a fitness class, running outside or using treadmills for walking, there are some dos and don’ts to follow when shopping for a new pair of sneakers.

First off, don’t get swayed by advertising and marketing that can lead you to believe that the more expensive the sneaker, the better it is for you. A 2007 Scottish study found that lower-priced running shoes cushioned feet just as well as higher priced ones, and sometimes better. Also, remember to get re-sized after pregnancy and other weight gain or loss, because it may affect your shoe size. I know my feet grew an entire size after having two kids!

Here are some tips given to me by Dr. Robin Ross, past president of the New York State Podiatric Medical Association, on how to go sneaker shopping:

·  Time it well. Shop for walking/running shoes in the afternoon, when feet are larger because they “naturally swell”.

· Go soft. Buy shoes made of materials that are soft, supple and breathable, like leather, canvas or a nylon mesh. Plastic doesn’t allow sweat to evaporate, and it may cut into the skin.

· Coordinate your socks. When trying on sneakers, wear the kind of socks that you will normally be wearing to work out. If the shoes do not make you feel like you are “walking on a cloud” right then and there in the store, try on a different pair or even a different brand. If they don’t feel great right away, then they will probably never feel great. You shouldn’t have to “break in” a pair of exercise shoes - that will cause avoidable blisters and pain, and it’s rarely worth it.

· Size matters. Since shoes are not all made by the same manufacturer, you may be a different size in different brands. Try a half to a full size larger in running shoes if your toes feel the tip of the shoe - as you run, or walk quickly, your foot may slide forward and you may need the extra room. If you are a woman with a very wide foot, proper sizing can be tough; try men’s walking or running shoes, which tend to be wider.

· Err on the side of caution. If you have pain when you run, contact your podiatrist. Foot pain is not normal, and nothing makes you feel better than peace of mind.

Also remember, when buying new sneakers, to take your old ones with you so that the salesperson can assess the wear pattern. Knowing what kind of feet you have (i.e. flat feet, high arch) will help you decide what type of shoe will work best for you. Finally, be sure to find out what the store’s return/exchange policy is in case your new purchase gives you blisters, or simply doesn’t feel right after your first run.

Bottom line: buy for comfort and fit before color and style (in other words, just the opposite of what many women do when buying shoes).

What has worked for you? What hasn’t? Share your tips for choosing the right pair of sneakers in the comments.


Potential Benefits of Beet Juice

An ever-growing number of products on the market claim to enhance athletic performance by manipulating various biological systems and functions. A relatively new group of supplements use certain nitrates to improve muscular endurance, and these nitrates - in addition to several other beneficial compounds - are present in high concentrations in beet juice.

How effective is beet juice at increasing endurance, and how does it work?

Role of Nitrates
The nitrates contained in beet juice are converted by the body into a vital gas called nitric oxide. This should not be confused with nitrous oxide, which is laughing gas. Nitric oxide (NO) is produced by the body and acts as a neurotransmitter, meaning that it carries messages from the brain. These messages involve making sure that increased amounts of blood and oxygen reach the areas of the body that need them most.

The way NO operates makes it particularly well-suited for use as an athletic supplement. Picture it like this, as “The Walking Ecyclopedia” suggests: If you were trying to force a large amount of water through a narrow tube using only your breath, you’d probably struggle to provide enough pressure. But if you switched out the narrow tube for a wider one, your job would be much easier.

This is essentially what nitric oxide does. The gas expands and relaxes the blood vessels to increase the amount of blood - and therefore the amount of oxygen and nutrients - that reach active muscles. In addition,  the nitrates in beet juice actually decrease the amount of oxygen your muscles need, helping them work more efficiently.

Benefits of Beet Juice
Several studies have been published since 2009, when the research on beet juice began in earnest, that illustrate a wide spectrum of potential applications. A recent study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise  tested the effects of beet juice on club-level competitive cyclists during time trials. After drinking the juice, the cyclists had a great power output with the same amount of effort, and were an average of 11 seconds faster. This study strongly supports benefits from beet root juice for endurance athletes.

Beet juice may also have uses for non-athletes who have difficulty carrying out even low-intensity activities like walking. Research published in 2010 in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that beet juice reduced the amount of oxygen test subjects needed to walk, and reduced the amount of effort required by 12 percent. These findings suggest that beet juice could be useful for older adults and other populations with conditions that limit everyday activities, although more research is needed to fully understand the effects.

Using Beet Juice
In the above-mentioned studies, the test subjects were given 16 fluid ounces of beet juice to achieve the documented results. As with many other aspects of personal fitness, it’s important to have realistic expectations. If you do use beet juice, you may get different results than you would from commercially available nitric oxide supplements. People with kidney problems or low calcium should talk to their doctor before drinking large amount of beet juice. Also, a harmless but somewhat startling side effect of drinking the juice in large quantities is red or pink urine, so don’t panic if you experience that.

Research continues to suggest that beet juice may provide the nitrates necessary to improve muscular endurance in both athletes and non-athletes whose activities are limited by various conditions.

Have you tried beet juice in your routine? Tell us about your experience!

Top 10 Donna Summer Workout Songs

We around the office were sad to hear about today’s passing of Donna Summer, the “Queen of Disco.”  The 63-year-old songstress, who rose to fame in the ‘70s, died after a long battle with lung cancer. As a tribute to the true death of disco, we compiled a list of our favorite Donna Summer songs to work out to. So load up your iPod with these upbeat hits and celebrate the life and legacy of the long celebrated singer.

Top 10 Donna Summer workout songs

  1. I Feel Love
  2. Hot Stuff
  3. Back off Boogaloo
  4. She Works Hard for the Money
  5. Do What Mother Do
  6. Stamp Your Feet
  7. Mr. Music
  8. Crayons (Featuring Ziggy Marley)
  9. Last Dance
  10. Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)

What’s your favorite Donna Summer song?

8 Steps to Succeed on Race Day

There’s nothing like the anticipation of race day. The miles you’ve run in preparation for the big event on your LIVESTRONG 10.0t treadmill are behind you. But while your training may have come to an end, you still have work to do if you want to succeed on race day.

Whether you’ll be running, cycling, swimming or all three, the choices you make in the days before a race can make the difference between a positive and negative experience. Following these tips will leave you as prepared as possible, and grinning all the way to the finish line.

1. Trust your training plan. In the last few weeks before a race, a training plan will call for a “taper.” Tapering means you shorten the length and possibly the intensity of your workouts in order to help your legs recover from a demanding training schedule, and make them fresh for race day.

Not doing long, tough workouts in the final weeks before your race can be mentally tough for athletes, but resist the urge to do a few extra miles. Your body will thank you during the race.

2. Don’t try anything new. Don’t break in a new pair of shoes on race day unless you want blisters. Instead, start training in the shoes you’ll wear during the race at least few weeks before the big day. Similarly, don’t race in your event shirt or any other new clothes. New apparel may appear comfortable, but there’s no way to know beforehand if it will cause chafing or other problems. Do a test run or two in your race day outfit to make sure it works.

As with clothing and equipment, a race is no time to experiment with food. Don’t “carbo load” the night before your event unless you’ve been eating carbohydrate-heavy meals throughout your training. If you regularly eat a carbohydrate-rich diet with variety, you’ll likely have enough energy. Try out your pre-event meals in the weeks before race day to see how various foods affect your stomach. This way you’ll avoid digestive problems – and possibly extra bathroom breaks – during the event.

3. Set out your clothes and other race essentials the night before. Make a checklist early in the week and use it to make sure you have everything. Going to a destination race? Pack your bag early and double check your gear. Note that many triathlons will not let you compete without a wet suit or a bike helmet.

4. Rest up. Sleep is essential in the days leading up to a race, and so is conserving your energy. Don’t spend the entire day before your race at the expo; you don’t want to tire your legs out before the start.

5. Be familiar with the course. Studying the course map and elevation (often available on the race’s website) before the race gun goes off can be invaluable. You may reconsider sprinting to the finish if you know the last mile is uphill.

6. Start slowly. Pre-race jitters and excitement may cause you to start out too fast, causing burnout in later miles. Instead, take a few deep breaths and start at an easy, comfortable pace.

7. Stay hydrated. Begin hydrating two days before the race, and drink up during the event too. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends drinking five to 12 ounces of water or sports drink every 15 to 20 minutes during a marathon.

8. Have fun! There are a lot of tips and suggestions and instructions to keep in mind, but don’t forget that race day is a celebration of your hard work and dedication. Soak up the excitement and enjoy the trip to the finish.

What are your best tips for race day success?




How to Feel at Home in a New Gym

Workout GymDid you ever walk into a new gym and feel like a stranger in a strange land?  That’s what happens to me any time I join a new one.  I look around and feel lost. Where are the free weights located? Is there an area for stretching? What is that newfangled machine over there and how do I use it? Help!

That sort of new-gym phobia turns off many a prospective exerciser, especially those who are already hesitant about working out in public or wearing Spandex clothing that shows every bump (does Spanx design exercise wear yet?).

But do not let that initial intimidation stop you from starting an exercise program or joining a new gym. You will soon feel at home in your new surroundings – it just takes a little time, and some help from the staff.

· Take the Tour. Most gyms will give you a free tour or orientation when you join. A staff member will usually be happy to show you how the equipment works, and tell you about the classes and other amenities available. Some, including mine, even give you one free session with a personal trainer.  Of course, they’re hoping you’ll book a package with that trainer – and if you can afford it and enjoy the session, that’s not a bad idea – but you can also use that time to pick the trainer’s brain. Ask them to help you reevaluate your current exercise routine and set some new goals.

· Ask Questions. No gym wants you to use their equipment incorrectly, so they are usually willing to spend some time explaining how things work.  Don’t be afraid to ask. For example, if you’re unsure about your technique on a given machine, you can usually stop a trainer and ask him or her if you’re using it correctly. (If they’re not willing to help, this may not be the right gym for you).

· Pick Your Moment. While you’re getting the lay of the land, and if your schedule allows it, try going when the gym is least crowded. You can ask at the front desk when that is; perhaps in midafternoon, or late evening once the after-work crowd disperses. If there isn’t a line waiting to use a machine, you’ll feel more comfortable getting used to it.

· Safety in Numbers. One reliable way to increase your comfort level is to go with a friend. It’s always easier to check out a new place with a wingman or woman at your side, and as a bonus, a friend can help motivate you to stick to your workout routine.  Research has even shown that people exercising with friends produce more endorphins than those going it alone.

In a matter of weeks, you’ll be comfortable in your new gym and feel like an old pro, ready to give tips to the next newbie who comes through the doors.

Check out this article on common gym mistakes to make sure you are getting the most out of your workout. After all, if you’re going to put in the time, you want it to pay off.

Stay off the Sidelines: Nine Ways to Sidestep Sports Injuries

My biggest fear as a runner isn’t performing poorly on race day. Rather, it’s that one day an injury could stop me from even getting to the start line.

Unfortunately, injuries are part of the game for most athletes. Some are unavoidable, but training hard, combined with not allowing yourself enough recovery time, can be a recipe for overuse injuries in particular. The good news is that there are simple ways to limit your risk.

Injury Basics

Overuse injuries are the most common type of sports injuries. They happen when a repetitive motion – like running, or swinging a tennis racket – harms bones, tendons or joints over time. Athletes are often unable to pinpoint exactly when the injury started.

Overuse injuries are so common that they’re sometimes named after the sport they’re associated with. For instance, patellofemoral pain syndrome (pain behind the kneecap) is called “runner’s knee.” Lateral or medial epicondylitis (swelling or soreness around the elbow) is often referred to as “tennis elbow” or “golfer’s elbow.” Rotator cuff tendonitis (swelling of the tendons in the shoulder) may be called “swimmer’s shoulder” or “pitcher’s shoulder.”

These are different from acute injuries, which occur as the result of a single trauma. When you have an acute injury, you usually know the exact moment it occurred. Fractures, dislocations and sprains tend to fall in this category; if you crash while biking and dislocate your shoulder, for example, that would be an acute injury.

Stay in the Game

Overuse injuries are easier to prevent than to treat. Besides, who wants to get hurt and spend weeks, months or even years on the sidelines, missing out on his or her favorite sport? Here’s how you can steer clear of sports overuse injuries:

1. Train smartly. Overuse injuries are often the result of doing too much too soon. Follow a sound training plan, and don’t add intensity or lengthen your workout sessions too quickly.

2. Mix it up. Doing the same repetitive motion day in and day out can wear on your body. Cross-training gives you the cardiovascular benefits you need to stay in shape without risking overuse injuries. If you’re a runner, for instance, supplement your runs with sessions on the best stationary exercise bike.

3. Hit the weight room. Some athlete injuries are caused by muscle imbalances. Lifting weights can help you strengthen and balance your whole body, keeping overuse injuries at bay.

4. Get loose. Poor flexibility and tight muscles can increase your injury risk. Stay loose by stretching, practicing yoga, getting massages or using a foam roller regularly.

5. Take days off. Rest days are just as important as days spent training. Time off helps muscles recover and rebuild.

6. Wear proper shoes. Athleticshoes that don’t fit well can cause injury. Get fitted for proper shoes at an athletic specialty store – it may seem like a minor inconvenience, but it will be well worth it in the long run.

7. Use good technique. Not using proper form is the leading cause of tennis elbow, for example. Research health techniques for your sport, or work with a trainer or a coach to
get tips on proper form.

8. Back off at the first sign of injury. Training when you’re hurt can cause more harm than good. At the first sign of injury, R.I.C.E.: rest, ice (apply ice for 10-15 minutes at a time, several times per day), compression (wrap the injured area with a bandage), and elevation (raise your injured body part above the level of the heart).

9. See your doctor. If you’re feeling unusual pain, don’t try to push through it on your own. A doctor can tell you whether you simply need to take things easy for a little while, or if your injury is more serious.

Your turn to share: What steps do you take to ward off injuries?



What to Eat before a 5K Race

A five kilometer or 5K race – 3.1 miles – is a great distance for beginning racers, as well as for more experienced runners looking to warm-up for the season. To give yourself every pre-race advantage, it’s important to consider what you put into your body.

As you’ve heard countless times before, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. What you eat before your race, and when you eat it, could have a big impact on your energy level and overall performance. Here are a few common practices used by endurance athletes and how they could affect your race – for better or worse.

Myths to Avoid

Traditional endurance wisdom encourages carbohydrate loading or “carbo-loading,” eating large amounts of carbohydrates the day before and the day of your race. The logic behind this is that carbohydrates are the body’s primary fuel, especially during exercise, when they account for 40 to 50 percent of energy production.

The problem with this theory becomes clear when you understand that the fuel used during exercise is stored in your muscles and liver. If you think of these stored carbohydrates as fuel in a car, then your muscles and liver can be compared to the gas tank. Like a car’s gas tank, there is a limit to how much fuel can be stored. Numerous studies have shown that not only does the carbo-loading myth offer no benefit to  runners – it could actually slow you down.

Another common practice is to eat simple carbohydrates, like honey or sugar, shortly before the race for a quick boost of energy. This, however, can lead to dehydration: your cells need excess water to absorb the sugar. The sugar spike will also lead to an insulin reaction, which will cause your blood sugar to drop sharply later on, leaving you tired and sluggish.

Planning a Proper Breakfast

Experts at the Colorado State University Extension recommend eating a light meal three to four hours before your race so your body has ample time to properly break down the necessary nutrients. This will also give your stomach time to settle. The meal should feature starches from complex carbohydrates, which break down more quickly and easily than proteins and fats. Avoid foods that are high in fat and simple sugars. Good examples of appropriate foods are whole wheat or multigrain bread, cold cereal, pasta, fruits and vegetables. Unlike the carbo-loading approach, these should be eaten in moderation, with the entire meal totaling only around 500 calories.

Small amounts of caffeine may help improve your athletic performance, according to several studies. Be careful, however, since coffee is a diuretic and can increase the risk of stomach cramps and dehydration during the race.

It’s also important to select foods that you enjoy, and that you know your digestive system tolerates well, because your mood and comfort will affect your performance. Don’t use the morning of the race as an opportunity to try something new for breakfast since it could backfire and cause discomfort or digestive troubles. Try a variety of foods throughout your training plan to find what works for you.

In addition to your meal, you should drink at least 64 ounces of water leading up to the event, but stop drinking at least 30 minutes before the race begins. Having excess water in your system will make you feel bloated, slow you down and possibly give you stomach cramps.

Because a 5K is a relatively short race, it’s not necessary to follow a particular diet in the days leading up to the event. Maintaining a generally healthy, balanced diet and eating an appropriate light breakfast will give you the nutrient stores you need to perform your best on race day.

What pre-race meal works for you before a 5K?