Here’s what we know. Every now and again, someone will write an article indicting long distance cardio–particularly running–as a major source of inflammatory and oxidative stress. Collateral damage: tons of folks who run a couple of miles once or twice a week start to worry about the worst case scenario for the higher-order distance folks.
Here’s what we hear. Woman tells her friend she’s joining our gym. “Oh, THE WEIGHTLIFTING GYM…you’re going to get bulky.” Collateral damage: a woman who will likely spend her first two or three months in here moving very light loads for moderate volume starts to worry about looking like a professional bodybuilder on contest prep and some things you cannot get over the counter.
In the fitness industry, we suffer from top-down disease: because most of us, myself certainly included, get the bulk of our information online or in print, we enter into dialogue with this or that program through the door of its lede. We conceptualize what we’re doing and describe it, to ourselves and others, in very basic, bold language oriented around results or identity instead of process, or else we use the program name as a catch-all. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, by the way, when we’re clear on what we’re getting into: by this point in time, we all know the Atkins diet is low-carb to no-carb and works to shed some quick scale weight; or that Insanity is a home-based interval and plyometric program aimed at ramping up your anaerobic conditioning in a hurry.
Unfortunately, this serves us poorly in situations where we’d be much better off looking at the nuts and bolts of what we’re actually doing. Let me give you a hypothetical example here. Say we’ve got a new member who joins the gym, cleans up his diet a bit over the first month by removing the low-hanging fruit like late night Fritos, then talks with Diana about transitioning to a Paleo approach and having most of his carbs at night to improve sleep, and he tries that out for a few weeks and feels awesome. Having some small protein and fat meals during the day and the bulk of his carbs at night works wonders for his mood, performance, and lifestyle design.
And then he reads an article online and discovers he may be doing something called “Carb Backloading.” And people don’t have such nice things to say about the gentleman who advanced that concept ahead a few yards by mentioning giant junk-carb binges after dinner. And then our member, feeling a bit chastened, plugs ‘Paleo’ plus ‘backloading’ into the Google machine and goes down the rabbit hole to read a few posts by folks who don’t have issues with gluten but do have issues with overzealous dietary ideologues. Just like that, a guy who was eating small meals comprised of real foods and some extra rice and potatoes with his dinner now conceptualizes himself as engaging in a system run by out-of-touch lunatics for most of the day, only to give way to some dude yelling at him about eating five cherry turnovers before bed for a rapid insulin spike. And just like that, our member’s lost the plot: what was a wonderful middle path for him has now been recast as borderline behavior, and whether he convinces himself he needs to seek those borderlines out further because he is that 5% in search of professional results (which will likely not come, but that’s another article), or whether he runs screaming from this sensible middle path because he now believes he’s been doing something outrageous, he will lose. And that’s a shame.
We could go on, but really it’s simple. The things that work for the great majority of what the great majority wants to do are built upon the basics, and it would behoove us all to take a step back to look at how closely what we’re doing hews to this middle path:
1. Some kind of resistance training. Get stronger using barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, your own bodyweight. Resist labels. If you squat, bench, and pull in a CrossFit gym a few times a week, this does not accidentally make you a competitive weightlifter; neither do kettlebell squats and swings turn you Russian. You are using tools to get stronger, tools that do not define you. Use weights and schemes you can handle for the great majority of the time. Challenge yourself at appropriate moments. 2-3 times a week works for most everyone. Whatever you are doing, do it well. Half-measures get half results and whole injuries. This doesn’t make you a bodybuilder or a bulk poacher.
2. Some kind of aerobic conditioning. Walk, jog, ride a bike for 20-30 minutes a few times a week. Listen to your joints. Great big dudes would be better served walking than running. Get out and move. Take advantage of your climate: here in New England, late spring, early summer, and particularly the fall–wonderful fall–are perfect times to get outside and get it done under the sun. This doesn’t make you a long-distance athlete eroding your entire lifespan.
3. Stretch a few times a week. If your resistance training is really on-point, you can certainly improve your flexibility and joint mobility by leaps and bounds by simply doing these movements well over time, titrating the resistance up as form allows. Yoga is an awesome option once or twice a week. Tai chi. Stretching a few mornings before the first cup of coffee. This does not mean you are Nureyev.
4. Eat mostly real foods, like an adult. (That sounds like sarcasm, but it’s actually a nice way to think about diet: you don’t need nutri-bars, fruit on a stick, breakfast cereals, etc. etc.) Have a few meals a day, eat until you’re full or just shy of it. Don’t restrict macronutrients unnecessarily: have good proteins to support your muscles and bones, have good carbs to give you some energy for the harder stuff you do in your life, and have good fats for recovery and nutrient absorption. Eat your fruits and vegetables. This does not mean you are a joyless diet freak.
This is the middle path. There aren’t any sexy labels for it because it’s centered around process and habit. This is all most of us will ever really need in the way of fitness and nutrition, and we need to get better at seeking it out in what we’re doing so that we can better apprehend the signal amidst the noise. Don’t be afraid of lifting, running, eating real foods, stretching, sleeping in a dark room…none of these things are outlandish, none of them mitigate against each other, and you don’t need to do them perfectly every single moment of your day to reap the overwhelming majority of the benefits.