Sunday, 24 February 2013

Should You Stretch?

Can You Touch Your Toes?

Should you stretch?
For as long as I have been exercising, there has been a debate about whether you should stretch. 

The debate looks at stretching before exercise, stretching after exercise, and different types of stretching such as static and dynamic.

Those against it argue that stretching before exercise does not appear to increase performance and can even lead to damage. Stretching after exercise is also shown not to improve recovery. These are focused mainly on static stretching, leaning into the stretch and then holding it for a certain amount of time. 

Yoga and pilates enthusiasts will be crying out at this point. Flexibility is so much more than better immediate performance! They focus on the increased and extended mobility which makes life a whole lot easier when you get older. 

So what should you do? Well, I'm with Winnie The Pooh on this. Everyone needs to do some stretching, if only to be able to maintain the range of motion you already have. 

However, the non-stretches have made some valid points.

When Not To Stretch:

If you stretch incorrectly, push too far or do it at the wrong times then you will cause damage and get none of the benefit. Anyone that has overstretched their hamstring and been unable to walk properly the next day will tell you that. It can take weeks to slowly get yourself back to where you were.

The answer (beyond the: don't be an idiot, stop if it hurts) lies in matching your timing to your type.

Before Exercise:
A lot of people like to stretch as part of their warm up before exercise. This can often be the time when people do the most damage.

You should never try to stretch your muscles while they are cold.

Before exercise, what you are trying to achieve is to warm up the muscle and work it up to the range of movement it will be using during the session. Therefore, doing static stretching is not the most beneficial method as it cools you down and isn't focused on the type of movements made during the workout.

The baby you want is 'dynamic stretching'. This is basically stretching by moving the muscles through their range of motion (dynamic in that you keep them moving).

For example, in rowing it is necessary to have good hamstring flexibility in order to get the proper body positioning. However, instead of sitting down and stretching out the hamstring before sessions, which cools you down etc., dynamic stretching involve swinging the leg forward and up, letting it swing back down, before trying to swing it just a little bit further. Sort of like you were doing the cancan (just don't go too far!) This warms up the muscle, and gently stretches it at the same time.

Before exercising, use body movement to slowly stretch out the muscles you are going to be using.

After Exercise: 

After working out is a great time to work on your flexibility as your muscles will already be warm. Further, if you have been doing any strength work (weights, sprinting, whatever) that has been making the muscles contract, you should take the time to lengthen them back out. This might not affect your performance tomorrow, or the day after, but it will prevent injuries later on down the track (and stop you feeling like one of the body builders that can't even turn enough to wipe their own butt, you know what I mean.)

This is the time that you can use static stretching. However, remember: gaining flexibility is a long term project, not something to be done in a single session. If you stretch too far, you are only going to cause damage. A slight stretch is all you need.

The secret to increasing flexibility is frequency not duration.

This was one of the key things I learnt at my health retreat, that taking 10 minutes twice a day to stretch instead of doing an hour long session once a week has a lot more benefits.

An easy way to remember how much to stretch is the Rule of 3: 3 times for 30 seconds is what you want to aim for, as often as you can.

So in conclusion: yes you do want to stretch, your 90 year old self will thank you for it. Just be appropriate and don't push too hard.

Want to learn more about stretching? Check out my next post on a Beginner's Guide To The Seven Types of Stretching.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Barefoot Running Part 3: Choosing Shoes.

In the first post on Barefoot running I covered the basics of what it is and why people do it. Then I went onto look at the best technique. In this third and final part I'm going to be rounding up all the info on the various different barefoot running shoes, because for most of us actually running barefoot is not an option unless we want lacerated, infected feet. 

My Experience: 
First I'll just let you know my own experience with barefoot shoes, and give you my honest opinion. 

In 2010 while I was in America on holiday, and first really finding out about barefoot running, I bought myself a pair of Vibrams Five Fingered running shoes. They have become affectionately known as my froggie feet:

To be honest, I wasn't all that impressed. The very second time I wore them, they started coming away from the sole, and just did not seem to be that well made. Dirt got into sections that it shouldn't have got into. So I retired them to be my house building/painting shoes. They are amazingly good when on a ladder. Having the added feedback makes me feel more stable, without the fear of a nail going through my foot. 

I have to admit I don't really like things in-between my toes, so that does quite a bit of getting used to, and they are not as simple to just slip on. But after wearing them for a while you do tend to stop noticing these things. 

However, that was three years ago now, and a lot has changed. While I was at the Golden Door, one of the PT instructors there had a pair which he wore ALL the time. It turns out that he even wears them out to dinner (lucky they were black... though his girlfriend still wasn't that impressed). He's a huge fan, and his appeared to be a much better construction. 

After watching the video by Terra Plana I am interested in trying them, as they look more like a normal shoes. Will let you know if I do.

What is a minimalist shoe and what should you look for?

Peter Larson over at Runblogger, who is an anatomy professor and minimalist shoe fan, lists the following qualities for minimalist shoes: 

a. Require a runner to rely more on their own feet and legs to take care cushioning and stability. How much cushioning is necessary will vary with individual preferences and the purpose for which the shoe is to be used.

b. Provide less sensory interference between the sole of the foot and the ground. Ground feel generally increases with reduced cushion and/or a firmer sole.

c. Have a lower height differential between the heel and forefoot (i.e., a lower heel-forefoot drop). Heel-toe drop is the difference in the height of the sole at the heel as compared to the forefoot. Most modern training shoes have a drop of 12-13 mm or more, whereas a minimalist shoe should have a drop that is considerably less. There is variability, and different runners have different comfort zones (ranging all the way down to zero-drop, or flat soled shoes). Most of the shoes I run in these days have a drop of less than 6 mm, and many have a drop of 4 mm or less.

d. Be lightweight. I prefer shoes less than 10 oz in my size 10, though these days I tend to run mostly in shoes that are 8 oz or less.

e. Be wide in the forefoot to allow splay on contact.

f. Be more flexible.

There are other factors that could be included here, but for me these are the most important.

(Read more at Runblogger's Guide To Minimalist Shoes.)

So, onto the general reviews. I've done a round up of the best bits of advice about three major minimalist shoes out there.

1. Vibrams KSO

Okay, like all the minimalist running brands, there are now multiple different types of Vibram five fingered shoes. However, the KSO is the standard.
What Vibram Say:
"Voted “Most Popular” for its versatility. Over the last two years, the KSO has become our most popular model for men for its unbeatable comfort and versatility. It features a thin, abrasion-resistant stretch polyamide and breathable mesh upper that wraps your entire forefoot to “Keep Stuff Out.” A single hook-and-loop closure helps secure the fit. The non-marking 3.5mm Vibram® TC1 performance rubber outsole is razor-siped for enhanced flexibility and a sure grip on wet or dry surfaces."

Things to note:
- Make sure you don't mind things between your toes.
- Great in most conditions, but not super hot in muddy or icy terrain. 
- Some notice that you can feel the seams on the inside which could cause chafing.
- Girlfriends/wives might ridicule you, but other guys tend to think you are cool.

General opinion appears to be: yeah, it's great (except for you Ben, you would be much better off with a more normal looking pair of shoes (Happy Suse?))

2. Merrel Trail Glove:

Official Description from their website:
'Less is definitely more exploring with our Vibram®-soled Trail Glove natural adventure shoe. All the protection your feet need from rocks and roots, and an ultra-lightweight upper with a synthetic leather foot sling for stability fits like a glove.'
(Note Women's equivalent is: Merrel Pace Glove. Merrell also do a 'Road Glove'). 

Runblogger appears to be in favour of them. However, comments on Runner's World forum suggest that while it has zero-drop and no cushioning, it is too narrow and doesn't allow the foot to spread. 

It should be noted that it is specifically designed for trail running, so does have features to protect against rocks, such as increased stiffness around the arch, which does affect the feel of them as minimalist shoes.  

The general consensus appears to be that they area really good off-road, but not great for wearing as an everyday shoe or at the gym. 

3. Inov-8 Bare-X 180

Description from Inov-8:
'Designed for pure minimalist runners with a 0mm differential keeping the foot as close to the ground as possible. A 3mm sticky rubber outsole and no midsole offers a stable platform for performance when running on tarmac.'
The company started off making trail and hiking shoes. The Bare X line was their first in barefoot shoes. 

General recommendations appear to be that it is great if you really want to have no cushioning, and can be used for trails, gyming, and as an everyday shoe. Suggested to be the best minimal cushioning shoe if you don't want to go five fingered. (not sure why, but appears to be huge in the CrossFit world.)

Will update with further brands when I get more time. Until then, for a rather scary list of all the different types of barefoot, minimalist, and transitional shoes, check out the reviews on Natural Running Centre

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Barefoot Running Part 3 v.2 - Make Your Own Barefoot Shoes

So, for about four days now I have been trying to load a post on barefoot running shoes.
For some reason, blogger just does not want you to have it. It has been refusing to save or publish, and also happens to crash my computer.

Yes, it is really, really annoying. Really annoying.

So while I continue to work out these minor issues, I thought I would share with the more diehard barefoot running fans among you (or those who just like making stuff) a video on how you can make your own barefoot running shoes.

They are based on Huaraches, the sandals worn by the Tarahumara, a tribe of ultra runners in Mexico, made famous to current culture through the book Born To Run.

This video is in three parts, so enjoy. (Also, I think looking at the guy presenting gives you some insight into the type of people that like barefoot running and making their own shoes... obviously haircuts is not part of their style.)

Part 1:
Part 2:

Part 3:

Cool, huh?

And you thought it was hardcore to buy Vibram FiveFingered shoes.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Review of the Golden Door Health Retreat - Elysia

Hello all!
I'm back from a 7 day retreat at The Golden Door, arguable one of Australia's finest health retreats.
The Golden Door has two retreats, one in Queensland and one in New South Wales. I was staying at the New South Wales one - Elysia, in the Hunter Valley which is famous for its wineries.

Interesting fact for the day: it is Australia's only purpose built health retreat. So there you go.

So, what do you actually do on a health retreat?

This is the question that most people have been asking me, so let me spell it out in envy inducing details.

We were woken up at 6am every morning (keep in mind that absolutely everything was optional, so you didn't have to be woken up) and at 6.30 we did half an hour of Tai-Chi on top of a hill. Check out these views:

At 7.00 am we had a choice of Deep Water Running (will do a review of that later) or a 4.5km walk around the lake. 

8.00 am was a gourmet breakfast with a buffet of fresh fruits, toasted and otherwise muesli, and always a different hot food: omelet, barley porridge, poached egg with smoked salmon. All the food was super healthy with no caffeine, alcohol, reduced sugar and salt. The first few days they also cut down on the complex carbs, dairy and meat to help you detox, but brought more of this back in later in the week. 

9.00am was half an hour of stretching, enlivened one day by the male instructor (a 12 year old stuck in a 30 something year old's body) subtly using a whoopie cushion while we were in a compromising pose and blaming it on one of the guys. 

9.30am every day there was a seminar on something interesting such as setting goals, detoxing, nutrition etc. At the same time another activity would be run that you could choose from such as gym circuits, cardio box, etc. 

From then on there were usually two activities running that you could choose to go to, or you could just relax reading a book by the pool (which I did on a few days). 

Morning tea was served at 10.30 and lunch was at 1pm with always a hot dish and salads. Afternoon tea was at 3.30 and dinner was at 6pm. The portion sizes were small (though you could eat as much salad as you wanted), so you never felt full, but you always knew that you would be eating again soon so it wasn't really a problem.

As well as all the activities, there were a range of treatments to be had in the spa or wellness centre. I had a one-on-one guided meditation session as well as two Swedish massages and a facial. 

After dinner there would usually be another talk. Then at 8pm, when you returned to your room, you would find the bed turned down and the oil lamp in your bathroom lit waiting for you to draw a hot bubble bath. 

A nice hot bath, a bit of time catching up on the Foxtel movie that night, and you were ready for a good nights sleep.

Now repeat 6 more times. 

Is It Really That Good?

The next big question is: is it really worth it? There are no two ways to look at it, it's expensive.

I was looking at going on a cruise which would have been 11 days, started in Sydney and went up around the Whitsundays. Food, accommodation and most entertainment would have been included and it would have come to roughly $1,500 for a room with a balcony (less if I wanted an inside room). 

The Golden Door was 7 days with all this, though it did include drinks as well (but since they only let you drink herbal tea, this isn't much of an addition) and the treatments I had as part of my package probably would have cost an extra $300 roughly. I also had a larger room, but it wasn't on a ship that took me to tropical islands. It was $3100. 

So the question from my mother is: is it really twice as good? (My Mum is a HUGE cruising fan. She took me on my first cruise two years ago, and I've been wanting to go again since.)

For just a holiday, probably not. If you just want to relax beside a pool go on the cruise twice.

If, however, you want to come back from your holiday looking and feeling better than you left, go to the health retreat. 

There is a huge advantage not having to choose to eat well or to exercise. On cruise ships they offer you fruit etc., but they also offer you crepes with ice-cream and chocolate sauce for breakfast. How is a girl meant to fight that? 

And they don't give you nearly as much information or attention. The staff at the Golden Door were great, always happy to have a chat or give you a hug when the caffeine detoxing was driving you insane. They wanted to help you work through your issues, and give you information so you could have a better life.

The reduced temptation and self-development aspects really appealed to me. I definitely liked the health retreat, as I felt I was relaxing but also achieving something for my holidays, and wouldn't come back heavier than when I left. 

Is The Golden Door The Best Health Retreat To Go To?

This is the first proper health retreat I've been on so I don't have a lot to compare it too. 

One thing in its favour is the huge number of returning guests. Out of our group of 40 (which appears to have been quite large by general standards) I would say about 1/3 were returning guests. Some of them come every year for a number of years. They all love it and are very loyal to this particular retreat. 

While I was there people did mention other retreats they had been on, some more strict, some less strict, but most seemed to love Elysia. 

Personally, I loved the set up and the people, but the architecture and aethetic really did not work for me. It was a purpose-built health retreat, opened 9 years ago. The trees and inside the main builds were beautiful, but...

Couldn't someone have told them that corrugated iron and concrete was a passing architectural fad and not really all that relaxing? 

Out of pretty much all the common architectural styles, it is one of my least favourite, so found that just stopped me fully appreciating the experience. 

The other point I will make, as a lot of my friends (and thus my readership) are strong Christians: they did try to focus mainly on nutrition, exercise and relaxation, but did introduce other forms of spirituality which I did not find ... helpful. I felt awkward trying to explain why I didn't want to do certain things, and made uncomfortable because I was trying to be faithful to my religion. They just did not consider for a moment that what they were doing might create difficulties for some people. 

Therefore, I have a brilliant plan: in a few years, once I'm a world famous author, I'm going to start my own health retreat! 

The best part of this plan (whether it happens or not) is that for the next few years I can use it as an excuse to do 'research' by visiting other health retreats around the world! Brilliant, no?

Anyway, in future posts I'll go through some of the individual classes I did and great things I learnt about fitness as their instructors were all really knowledgeable.

Anyone else been to a health retreat? Any good recommendations that I can start researching at?