11 February 2010

Jordache vs. Levi's: Some Thoughts on Genes, Pt. II

So where the heck am I going with all this talk about calories, nutrition, and exercise? All of us require much different nutritional needs. What one athlete might require for their caloric intake might be quite different than another. For instance, when I came home last Friday after a particularly grueling swim workout, I scarfed down a pound of penne vodka. No kidding. One pound of pasta—yes, before cooking—with a rich sauce made from cream, vodka, and proscuitto. Now granted, I do not eat penne vodka all the time—although I could very easily subscribe to that diet—my dinner exceeded 2000 calories by the time it was all said and done. Two thousand calories—just for dinner. Perhaps some of you find this scorchingly obscene, or would like to take this opportunity to remind me that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. However, I did not feel like I was overindulging, but rather, refueling after a long day at work and swim workout (I did not get home until nine p.m.) 

I believe a lot of factors contribute to our body composition as adults. After training with literally hundreds of athletes over the years, I have noticed some very interesting commonalities regarding the body composition of so called "leaner" athletes. I am not making any value judgements regarding being lean, much to the contrary. One of the fascinating things about endurance athletes is the age old adage: "You can't judge a book by it's cover." It is impossible to judge someone's cardiovascular fitness just by looking at them. All of us have probably had the experience of being involved in a race where someone passes us that we feel has absolutely no business doing so. How is this old/big/one-legged/short/giant/long-haired hippie passing me? The similarities that I see between leaner body composition athletes is that they have all incorporated a considerable amount of strength training in their routines. Some, from very early on in their lives. I am not sure what percentage of triathletes, half and full marathoners were endurance athletes at a young age, but I think that the growing popularity of both sports suggests that—especially in the case of triathlon—the sport appeals to competitive athletes from any sport, not just from athletes who ran cross-country, or swam competitively at an early age. Heck, even elite triathlete, and two-time Kona World Champion Craig Alexander was a soccer player in his youth, not a competitive runner (until later in life,) or swimmer. Having more muscle allows your body to lose weight in a couple of different ways:

1) Muscle burns more fat: In metabolic studies, extra muscle burns more energy than body fat at rest. The differences are minimal (a few tens of calories per pound of muscle increased with most people,) but over the course of weeks, and months, these calories add, or rather, negate calories that you have taken in.

2) The EPOC Effect—Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption: Studies have shown that another way of increasing your metabolism for several hours after a particularly long exercise is by engaging in exercise with intensities that are greater than 75% of your maximum heart rate. The bonus here is that you will continue to burn fat after your exercise has ceased. 

Of course, intensities are very important. The "fat burning" settings on treadmills and bikes  at gyms are essentially gimmicks. The general notion is that the body burns a greater percentage of fat at a slower pace. True, but you still burn a percentage of fat at higher intensities. Paul Rogers, registered personal trainer with Fitness Australia, member of the Nutrition Society of Australia, an accredited Heart Foundation Heartmoves instructor, an accredited diabetes trainer and qualified workplace trainer explains it this way:

"It all boils down to how much energy you expend in totality. For example, if you compare exercising at a slow rate that burns 60 percent fat and 40 percent glucose and a higher intensity or duration that burns only 30 percent fat and 70 percent glucose, you may still burn more fat at the higher intensity."

A typical example. Exercise (1) is the slower 60/40 mix and exercise (2) is the faster, 30/70 mix of fat and glucose fuel.
1) Walking on a treadmill for 30 minutes -- 180 calories used -- 108 calories of fat burned
2) Running on a treadmill for 30 minutes -- 400 calories used -- 120 calories of fat burned

Fat and glucose are the body’s two main energy sources. Fat you know well, glucose comes mainly from carbohydrate foods like rice and bread, pasta (which I quite possibly eat an inordinate amount of,) and potatoes and protein is supplied mainly by meat and beans and dairy products. The amino acid building blocks of protein foods can be converted to glucose in emergencies. Your body always burns a mix of fat and glucose except at very high intensities, and the ratio of the fat and glucose in 'the burn' varies with intensity and time of exercise. Of course, it is difficult for people who are coming from a completely sedentary lifestyle to jump right into a 30 minute run workout on a treadmill, but they are still expending calories while walking. And walking is a great start. Excuses are not. 
I have witnessed a couple of amazing transformations of so-called "genetically less fortunate" human beings—my cousin included—go from living completely sedentary lifestyles to an active and healthy way of living in a very short time. Just watch one season of The Biggest Loser. The transformations some of these people make is nothing short of miraculous. The people on that show are amazed that after generations of poor eating habits, and sedentary lifestyles, that a leaner, healthier version of themselves was hiding underneath all their fat. Maybe we can not change our genes, but we can sure do everything we can to make the most of what God has given us. For me, that is ALL that matters. If you are doing the most with what you have, excellent, BUT, don't let your understanding of hereditary traits limit what you can do. If that were the case, I never would have became a composer. My parents have about as much musical aptitude as a four year at his first violin lesson. Screeech! 
I think our perception is that if we have a larger frame, we can not be a particularly lean athlete. I do not subscribe to this point of view. To help me prove it, my cousin M. is coming up for part of his summer again to reach his goal weight of 185 pounds. I will post his pre and post-weight loss pictures. If you could have seen him before he took off the weight, you would have thought he was a future candidate for type-II diabetes and heart disease. Now, he has dropped his body fat by more than half, can run 8 miles over an extremely difficult course, and has increased his strength by more than double from where he started two years ago. Can you tell I am proud of him?
Okay, if you've only learned one thing from this post it is that I am big fan of increasing strength because of its many rewards: more muscle and a more athletic body shape, better balance and bone density and improved functionality across all facets of human movement. In my opinion, strength training should always be incorporated into endurance training—especially those of us above the age of thirty-five. 

Here's some very good news: your genes are not your destiny. In the first study of its kind conducted at the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute and the University of California, San Francisco in collaboration with Dr. Peter Carroll, Dr. Mark Magbanua, Dr. Chris Haqq, and others,  research indicated that improved nutrition, stress management techniques, walking, and psychosocial support actually changed the expression of over 500 genes in men with early-stage prostate cancer.

By the way, if any of you need some extra motivation to get your asses in gear to get to the gym, eat better, or train smarter, please do not hesitate to let me know. I will be there to give you a kick in the right direction. After all, we are all in need of a good lil' kick in the pants from time to time. 
More soon. See you out there. Happy Training!


EasternClimber said...

Uncle Mark,
The sheer enormity of you pectorals burns about 5 calories per second, just to sustain their existence. I'd say you endorse tons of heavy bench pressing and protein supplementation to jack up peoples' chests - that way they can eat 2000kcal dinners of pasta. It has nothing to do with Iron Man training.

P.S. - Seriously. Your boobs are huge. I'm scared of them.

RockStarTri said...

A pound of penne? That would have been easy in my youth but now, no can do.

Keep kickin ass.

Mark said...

Nephew Nick—you SO made my morning. I was literally brought to tears by your comment. Oh, we have so much in common, if not our sarcasm gene.


Uncle Mark

Karen said...

thanks for the motivating post.....i SO needed it this morning!!! off to the gym!!!

KC said...

I'm so happy to see that other triathletes embrace the strength training, in the off season and during! no matter how crazy my schedule is, I do my best to get in at least 2-3 days a wk. not only is there a physical difference that you can feel but you can see it too. I can usually pick out a marathoner or a triathlete who doesn't do any strength training very easily. great post!

Krista said...

You should check out "Talent is Overrated" by Geoff Colvin. I have not read it yet but I think it helps in getting past the idea of athletic sucess being genetic.

"Greatness doesn’t come from DNA but from practice and perseverance honed over decades."

Kelly said...

Does this make you the ass-man???

Molly said...

yum, penne.

I could do cardio all day long, but I'm really making an effort to get some strength trainin in...my resistance band and medicine ball are my new BFF's!