The Un-Program

Routine got you humming along? Shake it up.

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Get up, run five miles, whip up a fresh fruit smoothie, and brush your teeth. Repeat the next morning. And the next morning. And the next. And so on, until exercise becomes one long healthy habit. Sounds wholesome enough. Nevertheless, while that regimen you’re so devoted to provides solace, there’s more to well-rounded fitness than simply logging the hours. The admirable discipline that has you doing the same thing over again — day to day or week to week — can be badly deceiving. For what may seem like a nice groove might really be a bad rut.

The symptoms are subtle, but without variety in your regimen, training benefits will slowly diminish as your body adapts to its current level of stress. Once your lungs and leg muscles have grown accustomed to those five miles at seven-minute-mile pace, say, you won’t get any faster or stronger until a new stimulus enters the mix. Not that there’s anything wrong with simply maintaining your fitness, but face it: There’s a reason they call them routines.

Predictably, every coach and exercise physiologist worth her sweat will suggest busting up your schedule: Include a legitimately hard day, make easy days substantially easier, and allow for at least one rest day each week. But don’t get overly ambitious; it’s better to spice up your routine than to start completely overhauling it in the midst of summer. Following are cardiovascular workouts for swimming, running, and cycling that are designed to plug right into your existing routine, as well as a different approach to weight training that’s probably more effective than what you’re currently doing; it may even get you out of the gym more quickly. Of course, we don’t want to seem too rigid about all this.

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Vertical Kicking: A leg-intensive workout provides a natural rut-buster for thick-shouldered swimmers. Warm up with a 400-yard freestyle swim, finishing by kicking hard to loosen your legs, recommends George Block, president of the American Swimming Coaches’ Association. Hit the deep end and try to keep your head above water relying on nothing more than a fast flutter kick. Without using your arms, sweep your legs back and forth from your hips, keeping your knees straight. For something harder, raise your hands overhead-you’ll earn a whole new respect for water polo players. Start with a 15-minute set, alternating 40 seconds of kicking with 20 seconds “off,” treading water.

Block Sprints: Cranking out lap after lap just doesn’t seem as fun without that rush of adrenaline. So try invigorating your pool time with block sprints. Warm up with an 800-yard swim. Then hop out on the deck, bribe the lifeguard if need be, and snug down those goggles for a set of 15 50-yard sprints, alternating one hard with two easy efforts. Take a deep breath, launch yourself off the blocks, and make like Amy Van Dyken. Assuming that you’re in a 25-yard pool, do your best flip turn at the end and sprint back. “Don’t turn into a windmill,” Block says. “Keep your stroke long and strong.” Rest ten seconds after each salvo, and swim the easy laps at 50 percent and 70 percent effort, respectively. Cool down with a 400-yard swim.


Water Work: One alternative for runners is simply running in place-in a pool. Water offers considerably more resistance than air yet eliminates the bang-bang-bangs of repeated pounding, important for those nursing nagging injuries. Put on a life vest, slip into the deep end, and start striding. Be sure to maintain an upright posture, mirroring your dry-land form, lest you start motoring across the pool. “Cup your hands as you pump your arms, and you’ll get an intense upper-body workout too,” says Steve Plasencia, former Olympic runner and now the men’s cross-country coach at the University of Minnesota. Incidentally, don’t pay much attention to your heart rate, since water pressure can reduce it by 10 percent. “Run” for 30 minutes, treading water every ten minutes for a brief rest.

The Plod: A slow run of twice your normal distance will force you to abandon your standard pace and push back your “wall.” Consider it a Saturday-morning project; get an early start. Begin at a seemingly embarrassing pace: three minutes per mile slower than normal, walking one minute after every half-mile. “That way, fatigue doesn’t have a chance to build up,” says Jeff Galloway, author of the best-selling Galloway’s Book on Running. “At first it seems pitifully slow, but then it’s great.” Obviously, you’ll want to hydrate throughout the run; Galloway recommends downing carbohydrates after the halfway point.


Noodling: To break the monotony of spinning along at 80 rpm every ride, Dr. Arnie Baker, coach of San Diego’s gritty Cyclo Vets, suggests alternating between high-gear and low-gear repetitions using one leg at a time. Sounds silly, but just be sure to keep your resting leg off its pedal-and out of your spokes. After a 15-minute warm-up, find a flat stretch of pavement and pedal for three minutes at 50 rpm with your right leg. You’ll have to experiment to find the right gear. Ride easy with both legs for three minutes, and repeat with your left leg. After another easy interlude, do a speed set: Pedal for three minutes at 100 rpm with your right leg, do three minutes of spinning, and repeat with the left. Do three sets for a complete workout.

Stand and Deliver: Give those bulky quads a break by climbing a long hill out of the saddle, says 12-time U.S. National Champion road racer Kent Bostick. It’ll reintroduce such overlooked muscles as glutes, hamstrings, biceps, and deltoids. If you live in Iowa, sorry, but perhaps you can improvise on a freeway overpass. Ride 20 minutes to warm up and then, at the base of a long, steady hill, shift into a gear that’s two cogs harder than if you were sitting. Stand upright with your back straight and your hips in front of your saddle, and rock the bike back and forth, opposite each downstroke. Stay up as long as you’re able, sitting down to climb for three minutes at a stretch if you need the rest. “Cool down with ten minutes of spinning,” says Bostick, “but coasting doesn’t count.”

Breaking Down the Boredom


We’re creatures of habit, which is why we tend to languish in programs that have us grunting away at the same 12 lifts for the requisite three sets of ten repetitions, season after season. As it turns out, advice from on high suggests that such an approach is too much time spent doing too many exercises anyway. The alternative? Something called breakdown training, says Wayne Westcott, strength training consultant for the National YMCA and author of the recently published Building Strength and Stamina.

With breakdown training, you employ no more than five lifts that cover the major muscle groups and heft the weight in a completely different manner. “It makes you dig deeper, push harder, and stimulates muscle tissue,” Westcott says. Here’s how it works: Lift the usual ten to 12 reps on your first set, but then quickly reduce the weight by 10 to 20 percent and crank out another set. You’re striving for the same number of reps, but you’ll probably never get there, because you haven’t rested. No matter-your muscles will be plenty sore, foreshadowing improved strength. Rest one minute after each lift.

Machines are more convenient than free weights, because reducing the weight typically means simply moving a pin. Give your muscles a wake-up call with the following five exercises, but regardless of how enthralling this method seems, don’t get too carried away: You shouldn’t lift more than every other day.

Lat Pull-Downs
Sit beneath the lat bar with your back straight. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip, your arms spread in a V (a narrow grip works your biceps more, while a wider grip focuses on your latissimus dorsi muscles). Pull the bar down in front of you until your hands draw even with your collarbones. Slowly let the bar return to its starting position, stopping when your arms are straight.

Ab Press
Strap yourself into an ab press machine, anchor your feet, and push your chest into the pads in front of you. Fold your arms across your stomach and crunch the weight all the way to your knees, being careful not to jerk the machine into motion. Let the weight up slowly-you’ll feel it burn-and return to the upright position.

Leg Press
Position yourself in a hip sled machine with your feet on the weight platform. Keeping your back straight and your neck relaxed, let the weight down, but don’t let your knees touch your chest. Now, press the weight until your legs are fully extended. Let the weight down slowly for the next rep. This is the one machine on which you’ll need a partner to swap the weights for your next set.

Back Extension
Climb into the machine just as you would with the ab press, the only difference being that the weight pads are behind your shoulders. Lift the weight smoothly by leaning back into the pads, and go as far as the machine will allow you to go. Lower the weight by slowly folding your torso back toward your thighs, but don’t let the weights touch down.

Chest Press
Settle into the seat of a chest press machine and strap yourself in if there’s a belt. Grip the weight levers with your hands and, you guessed it, press until your arms are fully extended. Let the weight back toward you slowly, until your hands are again even with your shoulders, which should be just before the weights touch back down.

Jim Harmon, who’s been following the same running program for 17 years, wrote “Be a Thigh Master” in the May issue of Outside.

Breathing 101


Just because you do it all the time doesn’t mean you can’t improve your breathing. Indeed, fine-tuning this basic instinct can make you a better athlete: Deep, rhythmic breathing slows your heart rate and thus improves performance. So if you’re looking to hone your aerobic abilities, try practicing these breathing methods:

Belly Breathing
Breathing from deep within your belly, not your chest, most effectively utilizes the diaphragm, drawing more oxygen into your lungs and thus allowing you to push your pace harder. Before hitting a hill that typically leaves you gasping, take five deep breaths-watch to see that your stomach expands on each inhalation-and you’ll feel the difference.

Rhythmic Breathing
The harder we work, the more we want to pant, which increases blood pressure and muscular tension. Fight the urge to hyperventilate by establishing a breathing rhythm. Many runners find this by exhaling on every other stride.

Pressure Breathing
The thinner air at high altitude saps your energy when you exercise. Those who train above sea level would do well to follow this strategy: Inhale deeply through your nose, and then forcefully exhale all your breath. The result is a vacuum-like effect that helps your next breath be bigger.

Avoiding a Bitter—and Costly—Pill


A wad of cotton and several dozen stinky, big-enough-for-a-horse pills. These are the contents of most vitamin-and-mineral jars, and they’re almost always identical. But the labels-and the prices-can be as different as Ch‚teau Lafite and Night Train. For instance, the Master Nutritional System from haute supplement-maker Rainbow Light, which boasts that its nutrients are lovingly grown in a liquid medium, will set you back $40 a month, versus two bucks a month for Kmart’s. You’re worth every penny, of course, but ever wonder whether the cheap stuff is just as good?

According to Jeanne Goldberg, director of Tufts University’s nutrition center, it is. “There’s no justification to pay more for a so-called natural vitamin,” she says. “Vitamins are chemical compounds, so getting it from rose hips is no better than getting it from a lab.” The synthetic-versus-natural debate-a skirmish in a multimillion-dollar battle to perk up aging boomers-promises to rage, but in the meantime, a few label-reading points will help you separate marketing from medicine.

Look for 100 percent of the U.S. Daily Values in supplements you take. Despite the implied claims of megadosages, twice as much isn’t twice as healthy, and 30 times as much is useless.

The letters “USP” (U.S. Pharmacopeia) indicate the brand has voluntarily met rigid standards for potency, quality, and purity. Given the nonprofit advocacy group’s more than 175 years of experience, “USP” is worth seeking. In a recent study at Tufts, some supposedly top-shelf calcium supplements without the seal didn’t so much as dissolve.

Time release
Forget highly touted time-release coatings said to keep certain nutrients-such as water-soluble vitamins B and C-from going to waste by being absorbed all at once. Just take your vitamins and minerals with meals, and you won’t have to fuss with various coatings. A National Institutes of Health study, for example, suggests that tissues can’t use more than 200 milligrams of vitamin C a day, rendering a time-released pill overkill.

For minerals in particular, provenance matters. Calcium supplements from oyster shells, for example, may also give you a dose of lead. Look for calcium citrate or purified calcium carbonate instead.

Taking one multivitamin a day may be sensible, but some high-potency brands suggest up to nine pills a day — questionable advice, at best.

The True Thrust of Basic Training


Squat-thrusts may seem like a handy bit of torture employed only by demented Hollywood drill sergeants, but military outfits such as the Navy SEALs really do use the exercise. “They work the arms, shoulders, chest, and thigh muscles,” confirms Mark De Lisle, a SEAL reserve who recently revised his self-published book, Navy SEAL Exercises.

To execute the exercise with true SEAL zeal, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, hands on your hips. In one fluid motion, squat until you can place your palms flat on the floor alongside your feet. Keeping your weight planted over your arms, kick your feet straight back so that you end up in a straight-armed push-up position. Do one push-up, hop your feet back to the starting squat, and stand up. Add squat-thrusts to an existing thrice-weekly strength routine by starting with 20 reps and working up to 60. Ten reps in quick succession also make a good warm-up.

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