Protein Packs a Punch - Getting Enough Protein to Get Fitter and Faster

When it comes to what we eat there are no shortage of myths, fad diets, 'secret super foods', or stereotypes. One is that all runners need to eat are carbs; carbo-loading for that big race, the next long run, subsisting solely off of pasta and bagels, right? Well, don't get me wrong of course runners, and anyone who is active, will need an influx of carbohydrates (the more complex the better) in their diets but what can sometimes get overlooked is the amount of protein in an athlete's diet. Amidst those bowls of spaghetti and rice there need to be adequate protein sources, such as lean meats or eggs, in order to help build muscle and improve both recovery and performance.

Personally I am a carbo-lover (and don't get me started on all those crazy people who say you should avoid eating carbs at all costs...umm, where do you expect to get that energy you need to workout and replenish those glycogen stores?!) and could eat pizza crusts, bagels, and breads all day long...the doughier the better. I used to never really give much thought as to the amount of protein I was getting and while I did probably eat enough for the average person, it wasn't enough for someone who wanted to be an athlete or who was as active as I was. When I started to consciously up my protein levels I noticed I was able to build more muscle and leaned out; and that translated into better workouts and faster recovery.

A good rule of thumb is to try to get in at least 1 to 1.5 grams of protein daily for every pound of body weight. So if you weight 150 pounds try to get in at least 150 grams of protein; that amount should be more if you are doing more anaerobic or weight training work. You also want to think about the timing of your protein; try to get in a good mixture of protein and carbs within 30 minutes after finishing your run or workouts. This is key to recovery and muscle growth. People often think the only place to get protein is with meats, and lean meats are a great way to go, but there are other sources and if you are a vegetarian you need to be particularly conscious of finding adequate protein.

Some good protein sources:

*Lean meats: I say lean meats such as chicken and turkey because they are lower in fat and calories typically than beef. Surprisingly if you are able to get it bison also falls into the category of a lean meat. A few other tips is to go skinless and with chicken and turkey aim for the lighter cuts.

*Seafood: My absolute favorite is shrimp and it packs in about 17 grams of protein and merely 90 calories in a 3 ounce serving. Lots of other fish are great, think tuna and cod, and while salmon will have more fat it is the heart healthy Omega-3 kinds which you actually want to seek out and include in your diet.

There are some who avoid eggs because of the cholesterol but honestly eggs are a great source of protein with 6 grams and only about 70 calories each; and more research is proving the positives far outweigh the negatives. Though you can always go for a liquid substitute that can be both fat free and cholesterol free.

*Low Fat Cottage Cheese: I actually love cottage cheese, and it may be an acquired taste for some, but if you like it dig in. Just 1/2 cup has about 12 grams of protein. Other dairy products such as low fat milk and yogurt are good alternatives but don't have as much protein as the cottage cheese.

*Tofu and Soy Options: If you are a vegetarian, or even a gulp vegan, you may have to work a bit harder to find protein. Tofu is a good choice and there are other soy meats that can do the trick. Next in line would be beans, but these don't have as much protein per serving as other outlets with usually only single digit stats per 1/2 cup.

*Protein Supplements: If all else fails you can look for protein powders and bars that will boost your protein for the day. In fact there are sports recovery drinks that are including more protein and these can be great for sipping on right after a workout; replenish not only your electrolytes but protein reserves as you rehydrate. If you go for a sports bar try to pick one with at least 10 grams of protein.

Another great thing about protein is it will fill you up and keep you satiated longer so you aren't left with a grumbling stomach an hour later. So it's still okay to be a carby lover (and us active people should be!) but just make sure you add in some chicken, shrimp, or other protein along with all those rice and pasta bowls!

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Kick Up Your Workout With Plyometrics - Gain Strength and Power

Plyometrics are exercises that are explosive movements that will not only build muscle mass but torch calories. They specifically target fast twitch muscle fibers and improve your power and agility. They are great for athletes looking to improve their times and performance, but can be an excellent addition to any fitness regime. For athletes they will increase your raw speed, make you more responsive, and that power will mean a better finishing kick at the end or your races; and for sprinters it also means more explosiveness out of the blocks. Plyometrics are hardly limited to runners and virtually all sports incorporate some version of them; think anything that requires jumping, a quick reaction, and raw speed.

Because they are anaerobic in nature and usually involve maximum efforts, they will boost your metabolism not only when doing the moves, but also in what is known as the after-burn effect, when your resting metabolic rate will be elevated for hours even after you've stopped exercising. The subsequent muscle mass that you build will further enhance the number of calories your body burns throughout the day because a pound of muscle consumes vastly more calories than a pound of fat. For these reasons these moves are appealing to anyone looking to get leaner and more fit.

Adding plyometrics to any regime needs to be done gradually and you need to be extra aware of your form through each movement. Because they are powerful, almost all-out efforts, as you tire your body will be more apt to 'cheat' or not do the activity correctly and you could be more prone to an injury if you aren't conscious. Just be certain to take your time and also know that while you may not feel sore during the workout, you will definitely feel the effort later on, so start out with only one set and then work your way up to three sets that you can do three times a week with at least a day of rest between them.

* Box Jumps:
Find a box or raised stationary bench or step. Facing the box, load yourself by getting into a low squat and prepare yourself for a leap onto the box. Return to the ground and do this 10 times. As you advance, increase the height of the box.
* Single Leg Hops: Balance on one leg and jump forward as far as you can with each hop. Do 10 on each leg.
* Squat Jumps For Distance: Standing with feet just about shoulder width apart, lower into a deep squat and thrust yourself forward as far as you can. Think about a standing long-jumper. Do this 10 times.
* Star Jumps: Stand with your feet together and arms at your sides. Jump high off the ground and as you do so kick your legs out to the sides and lift your arms over your head. This moves looks something like a jumping-jack from your old PE days.
* Bounds: For a distance of 30 meters aim to make each bound as long as possible; think of exploding off of each toe-off and then eating up as much air. Immediately as you land push off with the next leg to keep one fluid movement. Do two lengths of 30 meters alternating which leg you lead with.
* High skips:
Again for 30 meters skip up and off the ground to try to gain as much height as you can with each lift off. Do two lengths starting alternating which leg you lead off with.

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The constant push for improvement - Allowing yourself to soak up those victories

For many goal driven or competitive people, and athletes especially, it seems that the majority of the focus is placed in the future. Attaining that next title, hitting that faster PR, improving...bettering on where you are today at this very moment. That certainly has to be the case for if you don't set your sights any higher you're not all that likely to improve; but at the same time there has to be some kind of balance in that we need to appreciate what we've been able to achieve thus far and acknowledge hard work paid off. Once you finally reach that goal you set it sometimes feels that there is a short period of feeling victorious, yet that is fleeting because of the ever constant drive to improve more and get faster.

That is the nature of the sport and part of the fun; to see just how far you can go, pushing it to the edge of your physical capabilities. Athletes need to continue to refuse to put a ceiling on what they can do and that breaks down time barriers. Still, there is a fine line between striving to reach your personal best and then never being satisfied. I say that in there seems to be a little time line after a monumental race or when one achieves a PR they have been working towards for so long...there is the actual race itself which can range the gamut from 'one of those days' where it feels the stars align and you are actually surprising yourself with each lap eclipsed to the race being the most painful and excruciating experience to date...though once you cross that finish line there is no sweeter kind of pain. After crossing the line there is usually a short time of shock where the reality sets in; you look to the scoreboard (or your watch) to see that the time actually was what you heard...then the elation starts to wash over you, quickly followed by all that lactic acid.

The legs may feel wobbly but generally the elation of it all or satisfaction over-rides the tiredness (for now) and you stay on your feet, congratulate other finishers or teammates and then head off on a cool-down. Usually at this point you are thinking back on the race, going over it in your mind, and yes, you may even allow yourself a sheepishly smug smile...but you can't help it you're excited and deserve to be. That excitement may last the rest of the day, or through the next but at some point it dulls and turns into "where do I go from here?" and you set the bar higher. There are always faster times to achieve, someone you want to beat, titles to be often there is a very short life expectancy on those feelings of satisfaction in your achievement. Hitting those goals inevitably comes with a time stamp.

What can also happen is even in hitting the initial goal you set out to achieve, say a PR, depending on how the race plays out you could wind up crossing that line and actually never feel fulfilled. Maybe you got that PR but got out-kicked in the end; conversely maybe you won the race but you aren't happy with the time. In cases like this it is all too easy to get sucked into a negative frame of mind where you are only left berating yourself, torturously replaying the race through your mind seeing where you could have done something differently, and the fact that you still did reach your goal becomes lost in the shuffle completely. Sure it is warranted to be disappointed, but if you constantly finish a race like that or even after reaching all of your set out goals you never give yourself that pat on the back you are apt to never be happy.

At a certain point it is inevitable that every competitive athlete's career will come to an end; whether that be with a world record or at least an end to any more PR's. Do you want to reach that day having never actually felt genuinely excited or pleased with your efforts? It is only natural, and a part of the sport, to always be on the quest to get faster and improve but never acknowledging a job well done isn't all that healthy either. So bask in those achievements, soak it up for the time being...relish those sweet victories because when they are over you want some positive memories. Of course set your aims higher for the next time around, but also allow yourself the pleasure of living in the moment as well...lactic acid and all.

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Be proud to be a strong, fit, and fast woman

I read a good article today written by a female weightlifter from Gubernatrix training for a strongwoman competition in which she addresses the discontinuity between women being feminine and having muscles. She nailed the points down to a tee: why is it that some people (both men and women) find that femininity and strength or musculature can't coexist? In my own experience I've heard plenty of women say as an excuse to stay out of the weight room, "Oh, no I'd never lift weights because I don't want to look like a man" or "I don't want my muscles too big" or I've even heard, "I need to stay soft, you know, womanly." The last one really gets me...stay soft? I think there are plenty of inactive people already taking care of that one! haha...But it does show that it is not only men who are averse to a strong looking woman.

Okay, I'm not saying that there isn't a point in which some of the strongwomen or other athletes start to look, well, a little scary with their tendons ripping through their necks like chords and their abs capable of grating cheese. BUT there are men who take it to the extreme too, and I'm going to go out on a limb and venture to say that there is most likely a little extra 'boost' they are taking in addition to hitting the gym and working out. For not only general fitness but also athletes building muscle is not only going to make you healthier, fitter, leaner, and better at your sport, but in my opinion it will make you look better too. In the article sprinter standout Allyson Felix is quoted, “Girls deserve to have strong muscles and bones and ligaments and tendons, etc. AND look good in their undies too!” I couldn't agree more and while I believe an Olympic medal is far more fulfilling than rocking a bikini body it doesn't hurt to have both; further would you not prefer to see a toned and strong bikini body than one jiggly and loose?

You don't have to be necessarily overweight either to just be soft; take for example many of those startlingly thin girls strutting down the runways. I've read that agents actually forbid the girls to run, but instead walk, because running will build up too much calf muscle? So while the ladies are by no means fat, or even of normal weight, you can still see they don't have muscle tone and are just soft...why is that supposed to be more attractive or feminine?

Finally there is also that same kind of mentality taken to females excelling in their sport or athleticism in general to a certain degree, and I'd say that it's mostly of men or older guys who are not at a highly competitive level but more the type that feel intimidated by a girl who can kick their butts. Runnerchicks, how many times have you been on an easy run and pass a guy only to find he suddenly 'picks it up' and refuses to let you pass? He starts to pant and moan, obviously killing himself just to prove a point that a lady isn't going to pass him; I've had some jerks swerve or try to cut me off in a mixed road race for the same reason. Finally, the classic is if you happen to be on a treadmill and the guy next to you has to increase his own pace, you then get sucked into some kind of unstated treadmill war. Again, I think this is more the men who aren't secure in their own abilities because at the highest level I've seen guys be more than happy for a girl to tag along on a warm-up, an easy run, or even help pace her through a workout; and I think that is because they know yea, they could her butt in a 'real' workout, but they also appreciate the hard work that the girl is doing and has done to get into the shape she has and race the times she has.

I guess the point is that no matter if you are an Olympian or just a generally fit lady being toned, or even ripped, is something to be proud of. So is being able to kick the butts of other guys and similarly that can also be beautiful and attractive (I think Sports Illustrated proves that every time they do a spread of high class athletic women, the mag's sell.) Still, we don't necessarily do it for only looking good in a bikini, but we do it because it is a great feeling to be strong, and yea, being able to win any treadmill 'face off' does have it's own sort of petty pride too. ;)

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Sweltering temps and what that means for your training

Summer is turning out to be a scorcher! Well at least here, and other parts of the US there are some intense heat waves hitting and while this may not be exactly out of the ordinary for some of the areas (It's not like one pictures Texas in July to be particularly chilly!) it still means that if you are running our exercising outside you do need to take some extra measures to make sure you are safe. There are always more cases of deaths due to heat exposure during this time of the year and while it may seem only the young and elderly are at risk that's not the truth. Even if you are fit as can be and an avid exerciser you can make a mistake or use poor judgment which may not end up in death but could result in health concerns or side effects lasting for days.

This may seem like common sense but sometimes in the heat of the moment (haha...yes, lame pun there sorry!) we are all guilty of acting foolishly. So here are some quick tips for scorching summer training:

1) Stay hydrated: This is probably the most important thing but commonly gets overlooked; the thing is some people just plum forget to drink and then later when then wind up feeling faint, dizzy, or tired they don't know why. Dehydration is never a good thing, particularly for runners and other regular exercisers, but it something many fall victim to if even in a milder state. By the time you actually feel thirsty you're already mildly dehydrated; so stay ahead of the game and sip often and regularly. You also need to drink more than just water because you need electrolytes which come from sports drinks.

2) Plan your timing: If you are going to be running outside don't go during the hottest time of the day. That may mean getting up earlier but it is worth it; even if you run after the sun goes down in many places the temperature then is still much higher than in the early morning hours. Bite the bullet and get out the door before the sun has a chance to make the mercury rise.

3) Think about hitting the treadmill:
Treadmill running is not for 'wimps' and if the weather conditions outside are just too severe take it indoors. In the end you will not only be safer but you will probably get in a better workout too. Exercising and running in intense heat makes the body work harder and your times will reflect that; if you hit the treadmill you will probably end up going faster and feel better at the end.

4) Make a splash: If you are cross training or want to mix it up you can always hit the pool for an aqua-jogging session. The summer is a great time to do this as the pool is much more appealing now than in the dead of winter and aqua-jogging is also a lot easier on the joints.

Finally one last things to keep in mind is that different surfaces will react differently to the heat; for example if you are running on the hot black pavement or grass there will be even more heat radiated and humidity. If possible stay on lighter surfaces and opt for a trail over a grassy field; just things to keep in mind. What may seem like obvious measures to keep cool can make a big difference and I myself am guilty of making a stupid mistake thinking it's not that 'big' of a deal if I go out in the hottest part of the day. But even if you aren't in serious risk, like death, you can be left with the lingering effects for days'll be more tired and zapped of strength which isn't fun nor conducive to training. So stay cool out there and be smart in those summer runs. :)

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The notoriously tight runner - Give some love to that IT Band

Runners are notoriously tight; combine the fact that running in itself tightens the muscles and that many of us are cramped for time and neglect to stretch it is no wonder that plenty of injuries creep up due to lack of flexibility. I am as guilty as any for skimping on the post run stretching routine and genetics dealt me a particularly inflexible fate (thank you Mommy...haha!)but not taking the time to improve your range of motion and flexibility will catch up with you not only in the short term but years down the road.

You also lose flexibly as you age (call it another gift from Father Time as he also saps your speed!) and if you neglect stretching now, when you are younger, that is only going to make things exponentially worse off down the road. The window to stave off that ever creeping up tightness in the muscles, and the ability to avoid certain injuries and tears, will have closed. That is why carving out the time to include dynamic and static stretching into your running and fitness routine is so important. I'll step off the little soap box now, but one spot in particular that is prone to being especially tight in runners is the IT Band.

The IT Band runs along the outside of the thigh; starting from the top of the hip and all the way to the knee. This little bugger is responsible for a myriad of knee problems, but like plenty of other injuries it effects many other areas and can be the root cause of other seemingly unrelated injuries. The constant, repetitive motion of running sets the IT Band up to become inflamed and tight and to counteract that it is important to pay some extra attention to this area. The old motto that the best medicine for an injury is prevention is key here; by keeping this band loose and knot free you will be able to save yourself time off and pain later on.

A great stretch for the IT Band is to sit on your tail bone and prop your knees up with the heels of your feet about a foot from your bum. Taking your left leg you will then bend it and place the outside of your foot on the top of your right knee; your left leg will be in a similar sort of position as the butterfly stretch and rolled outward. To make the stretch deeper move the knee of your right leg closer to your torso thus moving the foot of your left leg closer to you; hold here and then repeat on the opposite leg.

If that stretch is difficult for you or uncomfortable you can also do a similar version but this will have you bending the left leg in a half-butterfly stretch position on the floor and you will extend your right leg behind you. You should feel the stretch, both of them, in the upper hip area and along the outer thigh. Sink deeper into this stretch by getting your thigh as close to the ground as possible and then lean forward.

In addition to stretching you can work out the knots that invariably form along the IT I warn you this is not going to be pleasant especially if you haven't ever worked on your IT Band before! Using a foam roller, lie on your side and place the outside of your thigh on the roller and glide across it through the entire length of the band; from the top of your hip to your knee. In the spots that are particularly tender hold it there and apply a bit more of your bodyweight; that is where a knot is. After holding the foam roller on the spot with pressure for about 20 seconds continue to roll around and over the knot. You won't be able to break up all of the knots in one sitting but continue to do this and you'll notice that after a couple of weeks it will be less painful and smoother as you glide across the roller. Of course when you are just starting to do this go easy and gently work on breaking up those knots because you'll feel sore later; also be sure to drink plenty of extra water to flush out those toxins you will be breaking up and releasing.

Ideally you want to be able to roll across that IT Band niggle free and that will be a good sign that the entire length is loose and flexible. By keeping it in this state you'll be staving off a potential injury and won't be stuck having to take time off later!

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Getting outkicked sucks...But you can train to fix that

In the world of distance running it seems there are two kinds of runners: the kickers and the pace-pushers. The former are the ones that are often times thought to be just blessed with the ability to hold on tight for the ride (the race) and then breeze by the poor sap who had led up until about 200 meters to go and then gets to watch as the win goes to someone else. Still, they get the runner-up title, oh and equal amounts of pain from all that lactic acid! Hehe...kidding aside though, having a fast finishing kick is a major benefit to any runner or racer; think of it like a secret weapon to be unleashed when you need that extra gear.

True, some runners are just naturally blessed with more raw speed than others (when I was running I most definitely fell into the category of NOT having it :P) but that doesn't mean that you are a lost cause if up until now you've tended to be the one being passed down the home stretch. If you look at the harriers charging home they usually look like they are running much more 'comfortably' than the others; that doesn't mean they aren't working just as hard but they are holding their form together to be the most efficient. When we tire, our form breaks down, and this only slows us down. At the end of a race you want to stand up tall, relax your face, drop your shoulders so they aren't up to your neck, and let the legs roll...though MUCH easier said than done.

Before you even get to the line though you want to have worked on your finishing kick and that will be doing those shorter intervals and sprints. Don't neglect those 200 meter repeats if you are running a 10k or even a marathon; then you can also do power moves like plyometrics to build strength, explosiveness, and that will translate into speed. Another thing that can improve your finishing kick, and your overall race, are drills; doing quick feet drills that work on a faster turn-over will make you more efficient on the track and you will be able to relax and sprint home. Finally core work and lifting weights will also make you stronger and able to maintain proper form; if your core is weak you'll naturally hunch over as you tire.

Just because you tend to be one of the racers who feel they have to take the pace out from the gun and tire out your opponent, that doesn't necessarily have to always be the case. It was once said that the more confident runners are able to sit back, be patient, and let others do the work because in their mind they know they can out duel them in the end. Now, I'm not saying it's always best to just sit and kick because if you are aiming to hit a certain time you may need to be the one to nudge the pace along; but there are always races for times and races for titles or places. That is another topic all together; but the point is you can be a runner hybrid and possess both the ability to take the lead but still charge home with a fast finishing kick. That is of course an ideal all are working towards but the fastest runners work on all aspects of their sport. So if you want to get a faster finishing kick that means increasing your raw speed and working on you form so that when you are tired you are still able to relax, and dig, then tap into that 'extra' gear.

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