Wednesday, January 25, 2012

More is NOT Always Better!

NYT pieces on fitness often miss the mark by a wide margin, but this one, published last week, has merit.  The key point is that more isn't always better.  We know this about virtually everything else in life: there's a proper dose of something - less isn't enough to get the advantage, more doesn't help and may even hurt.  The examples are endless:

1. Taking 2 advil gets rid of your headache, taking 20 advil is dangerous, and 200 will kill you
2. Layering on a cold, 15 degree day: wear just a t-shirt and you'll be freezing; wear a t-shirt + sweatshirt + coat and you're nice and warm; wear a t-shirt + long sleeve t-shirt + polo shirt + flannel + fleece + zip-up hoody + winter coat and you'll be way too hot, if you can even get it all on.
3. A nice cold beer at the ballgame - awesome! 3 nice cold beers - better not drive home.  6 nice cold beers - you're a bit sloppy.  12 nice cold beers - hangover city!  12 nice cold beers at the game + 3 more at the bar afterwards + those 8 shots that you couldn't refuse from the hot bartender - alcohol poisoning.

You get the idea.  But just in case you don't... you do.

Unfortunately, the fact that everyone knows this doesn't prevent them from thinking it doesn't apply to fitness.  The following is a very incomplete list of the ways people I have trained have fallen prey to this fallacy:
1. If running 1/4 mile intervals is good, running 1/2 mile intervals must be better
2. If running 3 miles is good, running 10 (or 26.2) miles must be better
3. If doing 3 sets of 5 is good, doing 3 sets of 10 must be better
4. If doing 3 sets of 5 is good, doing 10 sets of 5 must be better
5. If lifting weights 3 days a week is good, lifting weights 5 days a week must be better
6. If doing a hard conditioning workout twice a week is good, doing so 6 days a week must be better
7. If 2 scoops of protein in my shake is good, 4 must be better.
8. If Squatting is good, doing Squats, Front Squats, Overhead Squats, Goblet Squats, and Zercher Squats all in the same workout must be better.
9. If Bench Pressing is good, doing Bench Press, Incline Bench, Decline Bench, Dumbbell Bench, Dips, and Cable Flyes in the same workout must be better.
10. If working my whole body at once is good, separating it into "body parts" and really hammering each one individually must be better

And so on.  The article in the NYT deals specifically with overtraining and recovery, but let's look at the broader point it's making.  Seeing the forest, not just the trees, for those who enjoy such sophisticated metaphorical meandering.

The idea is that to get the maximum benefit from exercise or fitness, there is a proper dosage.  Less than that proper dosage, and your body is not stimulated enough to require an adaptation to a higher level.  Too much dosage, and you're impeding the recovery process, and thus not allowing the adaptation to occur.  It's not a simple matter of "If X is good, X+10 must be better."  Those examples above about Advil, alcohol, and winter clothes are obvious, yet for some reason many people are not able to see things so clearly when it comes to exercise and fitness.

The basic principle of specific adaptation to imposed demand (SAID principle) does not change, no matter how much we might want it to.  I've discussed adaptation principles before (here and here), and those principles need to be what guides programs and progress for any exercise to work beyond "getting you tired" or "feeling the burn."

So once again, let me reiterate: More is NOT always better.
If 2 are good, 3 MUST be better...FAIL!

Now, to speak specifically about some of the fallacy examples above:

Number 2: If running 3 miles is good, running 10 (or 26.2) miles must be better -
-Over the past few years, I've come to believe that unless you're training for a specific endurance event, ALL your training/running should be in intervals.  i.e. if you want to run 3 miles: instead of JOGGING 3 miles at a slower pace, RUN 1/2 a mile then walk a 1/4 mile, and repeat x 4 to cover your 3 miles.  And so on for any distance.  You can mix up your speeds, work:rest ratios etc...but always do intervals of some sort.   I'll do a whole post on this soon.

That said, many people can safely run 3 miles in the interval style without negatively affecting their strength gains or overal health.  But the same cannot be said for 10 miles, and certainly not for 26.2.   How the hell running 26.2 miles became THE symbol of fitness in the Western World is mysterious to me, and probably an interesting historical study, but the fact is that for most people, running a marathon causes more harm than good.  Marathons are, or SHOULD BE, the provence of a special type of athlete - long distance runners - whose bodies are designed for it, who display a natural aptitude for it, and who can do it successfully without wreaking havoc on their bodies (any more than competing at a high level in anything always does - which is a lot, but that's the price of competing at a high level).  I'll do a whole post on this soon, too.

The musculoskeletal stress that your system goes through, both in the training and the actual race, creates a very good chance that you'll get hurt.  Overuse injuries (often "itises") are so commonly caused by endurance training that it's no wonder doctors and physical therapists specialize in it - you're their best customers!  And not only is there a very high chance of injury and physical breakdown, but the effects of such extreme endurance training are negative hormonally and reduce strength and power.

I'm no genius, but I also know that in any other sport or life activity, we very rarely need to do something very slowly and very easily for 4 hours straight.  Much more often, we need to do something very hard, once, i.e. push a broken down car down the road, carry a full load of groceries inside; or do something relatively hard in repeated bouts with short rest, i.e. move furniture, carry boxes from the basement upstairs, play pickup basketball, etc...

So not only are you likely to get hurt, but you lose strength and power, and aren't doing anything that helps/trains/prepares you for any type of life or sport activity.  Sounds pretty useless to me, unless you're actually an ATHLETE whose event is a long distance race.  No, not a casual exerciser who runs to "get in shape."  An actual athlete.  This is a rough estimate that I'm throwing out off the top of my head, but if you're not finishing the marathon in under 3.5 hours, you probably shouldn't be running it.

Number 3: If doing 3 sets of 5 is good, doing 3 sets of 10 must be better -
-This completely ignores the physiology of adaptation.  Sets of 10 must perforce be done with a significantly lighter weight than sets of 5.  Thus, sets of 5 generate a high strength adaptation, that sets of 10 cannot match.  So 10 is not necessarily better.

Number 5: If lifting weights 3 days a week is good, lifting 5 must be better - 
-How do I say this politely?  Nope.  Have you been listening to anything I've written or said?!  You didn't click on and read the links to earlier posts I conveniently put there for you above, did you?  I'm so nice I'll do it twice.  Read this.  And this.  Then come back to me and tell me why this one is NOT better!

I'll spare you the other 7 fallacies I listed above, plus the hundreds more I've heard.  The principle is usually similar, though, and the answer is as well.

I think the article in the Times is worth reading, both for it's own specific information, as well as for the larger philosophical point it makes.  And it gave me fodder for this long post, so that's gotta be good.  Here is the link, one more time:

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