I get to say this because I’m one of them. Coaches are huge freaking nerds. Just about all of them. And while each coach may have a slightly different take on why they’re immersed in a time-consuming profession (it’s never the income), you may find that coaches truly geek out over something very specific. The football coach who reads playbooks in his downtime or the swimming coach who reads workouts before falling asleep (I can’t believe my wife is still with me) are just two ultra-nerdy examples.
When you’re a young coach who has all of the answers, you spend most of your energy focusing on the what in your sport – workouts, situational plays, technique, strength and conditioning, etc. But if you’re fortunate enough to have access to more experienced minds, a grey-haired coach or two with a few decades of struggle and success under his or her belt, you quickly discover that longevity isn’t the product of studying the what. Successful coaches are well-versed in a much deeper approach; they’re all students of the how.
In his best-selling book, The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle describes how this simple shift in perspective can yield meaningful change.
If there’s no joy, ease, or lightness in what you’re doing, it does not necessarily mean that you need to change what you’re doing; it may be sufficient to change the how. How is always more important than what. See if you can give much more attention to the doing than to the result that you want to achieve through it. –Eckhart Tolle
The what always looks pretty spelled out on a colorful spreadsheet, on a big screen, in front of you and all of your colleagues at clinics. It’s what strikes the nerd chord in most of us. The how is much messier, often challenges the status quo, and can feel a bit dangerous. In an athletic context, the examples are plentiful. When an inexperienced coach attempts to implement the regimens of world-class athletes – having your age group swimmers tackle Katie Ledecky’s workouts, for example – he or she quickly discovers what it means to try and fit a square peg in a round hole (Ledecky is kind of fast).
Athletes can’t get around it; they need to train and they need to be challenged. But a coach’s job is to design a program based on his or her resources, current athletes, and up-to-date research. The artistic side of the job is twofold: 1) Get your athletes to buy into the philosophy of your program and 2) bridge the gap between the actual and the potential. The best way to bridge the gap is to address the gap – how is your downtime impacting your training and performance?
Let’s move away from the athletic realm for a moment. Not all of us are fortunate to have a “safe” place to discuss the how. When we struggle with weight management, we may first be inclined to sit down in front of a computer. With the words “how to lose weight” in the search engine, you’ll find yourself with the most-obvious hows, nutrition and exercise, and a mess of conflicting whats.
How #1: Nutrition
The Whats: Eat fewer calories, eat more calories, eat fewer carbs, eat more whole grains, eat more animal protein, eat more plant protein, build greater muscle mass with the complete amino acid profiles of animal flesh, stop worrying about amino acids, recover quickly with fewer acid-forming foods, eggs are the perfect protein, eggs are so unhealthy they’re forbidden to be advertised as nutritious, Mediterranean means healthy, Mediterranean diets are a multi-billion dollar marketing tool and can mean just about anything, prepare foods with coconut oil, coconut oil is an unhealthy saturated fat, butter is back and good for your heart, that last one is just stupid, fish oils are good, all breads are evil, the best way to burn fat is to teach your body to rely on fat as its primary source of energy, fruits are high in sugar and therefore fattening, the Neanderthals ate meat and so should we, children cannot be raised without dairy, milk promotes bone density and prevents osteoporosis, chicken is a lean source of protein, Atkins, Paleo, Slow Carb, South Beach, Vegan, Vegetarian, Plant-Based, and grass-fed cows are quite happy to be raped, wait…what (research dairy production)?
This is all way too complicated. The Paleo people are yelling at the plant-based people, the vegans are attacking the lacto-ovo vegetarians, and I feel like I need to choose a team, not a diet. If I were to change how I look at food, I wouldn’t know where to begin. It doesn’t feel like there’s a safe place to workshop this stuff. But I did see that ad for discounted gym memberships. Yes, that’s the answer! Instead of changing what I do three times a day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), I’ll change what I do (or what I don’t do) once a day. I’ll exercise!
How #2: Exercise
The Whats: Run long and easy, run short and fast, heavy weights/low reps, light weights/high reps, join a team sport, focus on spiritual development through yoga, go slow on the treadmill and attack the inclines, go intervals on the treadmill and go home sooner, ThighMaster, Shake Weight, Tae Bo, Bowflex, 8-Minute Abs, Insanity, P90X, CrossFit, plyometrics, elliptical, swimming, biking, triathlons, ultramarathons, bodybuilding, and mountain climbing.
No THAT’S a nice list of whats to choose from! If I simply add one of these things to my daily regimen, I probably won’t have to address breakfast, lunch, or dinner. In fact, because I plan on training for a 10K and I bought the Shake Weight, I could probably add a fourth meal. It’s a toss-up between brunch and dessert. Ah, #ShakeWeightProblems.
Okay, both lists have some absurd suggestions. But take a look at the list of things we’re willing to do just to avoid putting different foods on our plates.
This was my avenue. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, so I ran. And I ran some more. But until I examined my relationship with food, I committed most of my energy to the what. I was a lacto-ovo vegetarian swim coach immersed in the science of endurance training. Because I had already eliminated many toxins from my diet (alcohol, meats, and most processed foods) and had adopted a consistent stretching regimen, I was able to get away with averaging 70 miles per week for a couple of years with no overtraining injuries. I had dropped about 50 pounds and was feeling better about the way I looked, but I had some lingering issues. I was still grappling with depression, although to a much lesser extent. I’d experience dramatic energy surges and crashes throughout the day. I thought my schedule justified an insane amount caffeine, a stimulant with a Western stamp of approval. I still had stomach issues. I still had a touch of insomnia. I remained in deep conflict about the eggs and diary still in my diet, unsure how to teach my child about compassion knowing the violent truths behind the production of such foods. Did the ends of egg and diary consumption really justify the means? Did this how justify the what? When I finally eliminated these toxins from my diet, everything changed for the better; all suffering had subsided.
How #3: Recovery – Allow Healing to Outpace Injury
What if we approached all of our goals from the other end of the spectrum? For example, there’s a mountain of evidence (large population studies out of the United States, Europe, and China) suggesting that the optimal sleep range for the average person is somewhere between 7-8 hours per night. Not to be ignored, the quality of sleep may be more important than the quantity. We don’t make our strength gains during the whats of the day – the long run, the sprint swim set, the Olympic lifts, or the plyometrics. Growth hormones are released during our deepest phases of sleep. If the foods we’re eating aren’t causing more harm than good (and that’s a BIG if), a deep sleep will reduce appetite, reduce stress, and facilitate the body’s ability to recover from intense training stimuli. Perhaps sleep should be the first component in every training plan, followed by the elimination of the toxins that inhibit sleep quality.
Have you ever known someone who works really hard at just about everything, doesn’t sleep a whole lot, and struggles with weight? Leptin is a hormone released by your fat cells signifying satiety to your brain. When you’re not getting enough sleep, leptin release is inhibited, as is your brain’s ability to judge satiety. In other words, you’ll slide into a pattern of overeating which causes more stress on your body, triggers weight gain, and prevents you from entering that deep phase of sleep. You become a sluggish and frustrated dog chasing his tail with no end in sight, all hopped up on caffeine, saying stupid things like, “I hate Mondays.”
In his book, Thrive Fitness, Brendan Brazier discusses deep sleep and recovery in greater depth, citing efficient sleep as one of his four cornerstones to vitality.
The result of exercise – broken-down cells – combined with the building blocks provided by high net-gain nutrition – to grow back stronger cells – go to work in this (deep) phase of sleep. To sleep deeply is to sleep efficiently. Better-rested people have more energy and aren’t reliant upon stimulants such as sugar or caffeine to get it. –Brendan Brazier, former professional Ironman and nutritional consultant for several NHL, MLB, NFL, and Olympic athletes.
As an average athlete in high school who worked extremely hard, Brazier figured out that the only way he’d be able to compete at a higher level would be to step back away from the trees and to focus on the forest. Very mindful of his caloric intake and his macronutrient breakdown, he was fueling sufficiently (consuming enough calories) and getting enough protein (like most of us, he was actually getting too much protein), but he just wasn’t able to compete at the next level. So he did some research and changed his diet.
That’s how he would improve and go on to become one of the world’s top endurance athletes. He adopted a toxin-free lifestyle, one in which his athletic performance would be able to flourish under ideal recovery conditions. He would become a super-athlete by consuming simple foods.
Whether you’re a runner logging 120 miles per week, a swimmer putting in 16,000 yards a day, an average Joe trying to achieve a higher level of fitness, or you’re just trying to shed some weight, you will not realize your potential unless you maximize your recovery. Every mile, every lift, and every plyometric movement creates an injury to your body. If you allow your body to recover in between intense stimuli, chances are pretty good that you’ll return with greater efficiency. In other words, you’ll be able to handle a greater volume, you’ll be able to do it faster, and/or you’ll be able to do it with less of an energy expenditure. When how you’re doing it (sufficient recovery in a toxin-free environment) allows healing to outpace the what (the training stimulus), you’ll be in the best position to improve.
Recovery is a simple way of saying super-compensation, the very concept at the heart of Jan Olbrecht’s The Science of Winning. In phase two of super-compensation, the recovery phase, the following occur:
-Wastes are removed and pH-values are normalized.
-The neuromuscular stimulation processes recover.
-Enzyme and hormonal concentration and activity are restored.
-Energy sources are replenished.
As long as the body meets its recovery needs, an individual can move into phase three, the super-compensation phase, where the physical performance surpasses the initial level.
Our nutritional choices absolutely impact our body’s ability to recover and enter the super-compensation phase. When we consume toxins, our bodies work hard to eliminate them. Too much protein (who ever heard of such a concept?), for example, is toxic. Once the body has met its protein requirements, it seeks to eliminate the excess through the liver and kidney. A person eating a diet rich in animal foods (the standard American diet) stands to lose 25% of his or her kidney function over the course of a 70-year lifetime. Excess protein promotes organ failure in previously damaged livers and kidneys (beware, heavy drinkers), and harms the bones by excreting calcium which increases the risk for kidney stones and osteoporosis (The Starch Solution, Dr. John McDougall).
Additionally, if we want to give this whole recovery thing a shot, Olbrecht’s super-compensation prerequisites include waste removal and pH-value normalization. If that’s the case, wouldn’t we want to consume alkaline-forming foods and avoid highly acid-forming foods? It’s not possible to be healthy, let alone recover from a training stimulus, if the body is in a constant state of acidosis (in fact, cancer development is far less-likely in an alkaline environment). A body’s acidic environment facilitates fatigue, weight gain, disease, and stress.
So what are the acid-forming foods of the Western diet? Highly acid-forming foods include fish, milk, beef, poultry, cheese, refined flours, candy, synthetic multivitamins, soft drinks, whey protein, energy bars, prescription drugs, and coffee. A diet rich in these foods will not maximize recovery and in some cases, will lead to chronic disease.
But I hesitate to focus too much on dietary acid. It’s the reductionist boxing match that Paleo and Atkins advocates rely upon. The epidemiology and scientific research suggests that the more animal protein in a diet, the greater the risk of death, disease, and disability. I haven’t even addressed the fact that this very same argument works in an environmental context as well. Corporate agriculture wreaks havoc on our environment, so much so that Americans will have no choice but to look at food differently in the years to come. Our demands on the land and sea are outpacing its ability to heal creating a toxic environment for all living things. Corporate agriculture emissions contribute more to climate change than all forms of transportation, and to what end? It would be one thing if the end justified the means – if the chickens we ate and the fish we pulled from the sea were exactly what we needed to survive – but it does not. Here we are, taxing the land, decimating the sea, and allowing our injuries to outpace healing, a toxic recipe with no end in sight absent a renewed relationship with food and willingness to recover.
When an alcoholic enters a recovery program, the first step is to eliminate the toxin that brought him to the door. They don’t ask him to switch from whiskey to beer; they ask him to stop injuring himself and to begin healing. When we consume the highly acidic, fattening, disease-promoting foods of the Western diet, we create injuries to the body and mind, inhibiting recovery and super-compensation. As a coach, I’ve observed way too many student-athletes struggle with training and performance, rarely for lack of effort, but rather lack of recovery. Is it the acid? Is it the saturated fat? Is it the cholesterol?
The answer is – WHO CARES? It’s not working.
We know that every large, healthy population throughout human history has thrived on starches, vegetables, and fruits. If we know these populations do not suffer from obesity, diabetes, cancer, auto-immune diseases, cognitive decline, heart disease, and depression at the rates Westerners suffer, why not keep it simple, affordable, and less taxing on our bodies, minds, and environments? We need to eat and exercise. We’ve got the whats covered and we can make adaptations accordingly. But by focusing too much on training and dieting brands, we end up missing the forest for the trees; we end up missing the how for the what.
How do we all become super athletes? The how is messy – evaluate your relationship with food. The what is simple – oatmeal. If you’re willing to change one thing right now, my suggestion is to start with breakfast. Immediately eliminate all toxins – no eggs, bacon, ham, cheese, sausage, butter, milk, cream, or oils. Choose a combination of starches as your base. Steel cut oats are the traditional route, but you could also include amaranth, brown rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, or barley. Next, decide on the fruits, veggies, and/or legumes you’d like to include in the base (apples, pears, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, kale, spinach, etc.). Yes, beans and veggies for breakfast. If your doctor is telling you to eat more protein or fat for breakfast, freaking run (only 25% of doctors have had at least one nutrition course in medical school).
Since a porridge is pretty much a blank slate, meaning you can do whatever you’d like with it, breakfast becomes the perfect opportunity to include some of the nutritious foods you might otherwise be lacking. You’ll crave tomorrow what you eat today. Don’t believe me? Our son, Jackson, picks the kale out of his porridge and eats it before anything else. Remember, your body wants to heal. If you’re accustomed to a fried egg sandwich in the morning, your body will thank you for the starches, veggies, and fruits, and your taste buds will soon follow.
Give Jackson’s Apple Pie or Jackson’s Winter Porridge a shot if you have access to a slow cooker. Just throw in all of the base ingredients, set it to low, and let it sit over night between 7-9 hours. You’ll end up with a jam-packed nutritional base, enough to serve three people for five days. No slow cooker, no problem. Stick to organic, quick-cook steel cut oats on a stovetop. Once the oats are cooked (5-8 minutes), throw in some chopped kale, baked sweet potatoes, chia seeds, chopped dates, apples, canned pumpkin, etc. If you have a sweet tooth, fruit, no-oil granola, or a sprinkling of brown sugar should do the trick (if your add the sugar right before serving, you won’t feel the need to assault your meal with copious amounts). Walnuts, pecans, and sesame seeds are perfect for added texture and nutrition. If you’re concerned about iron absorption, avoid consuming coffee with your meal.
Just because you start each day in the dark doesn’t mean you need to begin in a cesspool. Feeling better all of the time begins with giving yourself an honest shot. The good news is that it’s as easy as oatmeal. No need to add the traditional toxins of the Western diet; you’ve got quite enough on your plate already.
Jackson’s Apple Pie Porridge
Serves a family of three for five days
2 c. Organic Steel Cut Oats (you could also use other grains and pseudograins)
2/3 c. Organic Red Quinoa, rinsed
2 Organic Fuji Apples, sliced or cubed, not peeled
1-2 cans Organic Butter Beans, rinsed
2/3 c. Chia Seeds
9-10 c. Filtered Water
1-2 c. Unsweetened Plant-Based Milk (optional)
Sea Salt If you like it salty, it may be best to add it before each serving
3-4 Tbsp. Ceylon Cinnamon
2-3 Tbsp. Ginger
2 Tbsp. Nutmeg
*1 c. Chopped Kale and/or Spinach, steamed
*Do not throw kale in the slow cooker. Eat raw or steamed, seasoned with turmeric, ginger, and sea salt (if desired). We add two cups of chopped, steamed, and seasoned kale to the base before refrigerating. We’ll also serve the heated porridge on a bed of raw spinach and dinosaur kale.
Roasted and crushed walnuts, crushed pecans, natural apple sauce, roasted almonds, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, bananas, raisins, granola, flax seeds, and sesame seeds.
Combine all ingredients in a slow cooker (do not include kale, spinach, or toppings). The more liquid, the creamier. I find it may be best to stay on the lower side when it comes to liquid. You can always add almond milk, soy milk, or water before reheating each day. Cook on low for 8.75 hours overnight. Open, stir, and season to taste. Pour today’s servings on to a bed of washed kale or spinach. Allow the remainder to cool, package, and refrigerate.
Served daily on a bed of kale or spinach. You can reheat in the microwave or on the stove top.
Variation: Jackson’s Winter Porridge
Instead of apples, go with a cubed winter squash or sweet potato. You could even use a can of pumpkin puree and pumpkin pie spices.