Tuesday, January 27, 2015


I want to talk about BS.

I think one of the biggest challenges for Regular Guys is sifting through all of the fitness and health and diet information out there to find the goods. It's hard enough to figure out a plan that works in your life and helps you achieve your goals -- even when you're looking at reputable resources that base their info on science. But that's not what I'm getting at here.

I'm talking about all the complete, utter garbage that sometimes confuses even smart, educated, reasonable people.

So what are some of the things that, at least in my view, constitute BS?

Miracle Pills
So-called experts have been peddling snake oil for centuries. But in the last couple of generations, the idea of losing weight with the help of a pill has become commonplace. Amphetamines were used in the '70s. In the '90s, it was Fen-Phen -- anyone remember that? And in 2004, the FDA banned ephedra.

Today, we keep hearing -- courtesy of Dr. Oz, among others -- about things like green coffee extract as metabolism boosters. It's the same old story, just with prettier wrapping paper. None of this stuff works.

You know what works? A reasonable diet and a solid dose of exercise. You're not going to burn hundreds of extra calories with a pill -- think about how ridiculous that sounds! You want to boost your metabolism? Get moving!

Specialized Diets
If you've been reading Fitness for the Regular Guy for a while, you know that I see very little value in specialized diets. When you have one camp telling you that eating primarily meat is the key to fitness, and another saying that cutting out meat entirely is the key, you know at least one of them has to be wrong.

I don't think there's anything wrong with adopting any diet IF:

  • It's sustainable. In other words, you'll stick with it.
  • You get your macros and micros.
  • It doesn't cause other health problems.
  • The calories in/calories out ratio works for your goals.
But I have a HUGE problem with anyone who tries to convince you of the superiority of any diet. None of them will help you achieve your goals if your calorie intake is greater than your output. It's that simple, it's always been that simple, and it will always be that simple.

Eating "Clean"
This is kind of an offshoot of the specialized-diet mantra. One school of thought suggests that the big problem with the modern diet is the prevalence of processed foods. We eat too many foods with tons of chemicals in them, rather than foods nature intended for us. Thus, the way to fitness is to "eat clean."

Now don't get me wrong: I'm not advocating the Twinkies Diet. Yeah, you're better off eating an apple than a bag of Doritos. But it has nothing to do with one being processed and the other being natural. You can make a completely clean, totally fattening milk-chocolate bar with three ingredients: milk, cocoa and sugar. You can also get 25 to 30 grams of protein in a low-calorie whey protein shake that has a couple dozen ingredients. One is clean, one is healthy. 

That's an extreme example, but this kind of thinking is pervasive -- and often wrong.

And the fact is, everything is made of chemicals.  

Exotic Superfoods
All the rage these days are so-called "superfoods" such as acai, goji berries, chia seeds, quinoa and even pomegranate. They're supposedly so wonderful for you that you have to wonder where grocery stores have been hiding them all these years.

Before I go pooh-poohing all these things, let me admit: I add chia seeds to my yogurt, and I made a fairly tasty quinoa dish last week. I like chia because it adds a little extra protein and a lot of fiber, which helps me feel full. But it's very calorie-dense, and the nutritional value beyond that is questionable. Same goes for quinoa. From a calorie standpoint, you're not doing yourself any huge favors. But you are getting a little bit of extra nutrition that you wouldn't by using semolina pasta instead.

But I want to compare a pomegranate to an orange, because pomegranates are touted as superior for their vitamin punch. Well, a half cup of pomegranate seeds has 14 percent of your RDA of vitamin C, 5 percent of B-6, and pretty much nothing else. An orange has 85 percent of your vitamin C and the same 5 percent of B-6. The pomegranate has slightly more fiber -- about a gram. But it also has 25-30 more calories. And guess which one costs a lot more, is a pain to eat and stains everything it gets near!

If you have a specific dietary need that one of these foods can help with, go for it. For the most part, there's nothing wrong with them. But don't be fooled into thinking that remotely rural Peruvians somehow have a vastly better diet than you do. If you're eating nutrient-dense food in reasonable portions, you're going to hit your calorie goals, you're going to get your macros and micros, and you're going to be healthier, regardless of where that food came from.

Weights Are Better Than Cardio
I've actually discussed this at some length in an earlier blog post. It depends on a lot of variables, including your starting point, your goals and your interests -- but a good fitness plan includes both strength training and cardio.

To summarize:
  • Cardio helps with the endurance and fitness to improve your lifting.
  • You can't burn fat efficiently without raising your heart rate.
  • The scientific theory that cardio decreases muscle mass has largely been debunked.
As an endurance runner, I've always acknowledged the role of strength training -- and even heavy lifting -- in my regimen. Almost any good running coach will advocate strength training, and many will agree with me on the value of lifting heavy at least once in a while. But you'll still see a lot of muscleheads totally blow off the value of cardio. I've argued it many of times before: Anytime someone tries to convince you there's only one way to do something, they're probably wrong.

There's Plenty More Where That Came From
This stuff barely scratches the surface of BS in the fitness/health/diet industries. You probably know someone who swears by something that is total crap. Odds are, you're not going to change their minds. But it's good to separate the wheat from the chaff whenever possible, before you find yourself spending a lot of money, injuring yourself, gaining weight unnecessarily, or worse.

That's not what being a Regular Guy is all about. Not at all.

So let's hear from you. Have you ever bought into something that seemed perfect but turned out to be fitness BS? Do you have a friend, family member, neighbor or co-worker who insists on doing something you know is ridiculous? What BS drives you nuts? Comment below, on Facebook or on Twitter!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Do What Works for You

You may have seen on Facebook this week that I posted about my friend Patrick, who's committed himself to repairing his weight and overall health.

That got me thinking. I've already talked about where we Regular Guys find our motivation, and how I really hate the same kind of pressure Patrick is talking about. In my article, I did touch on the idea of doing what works for you -- which is exactly what he's doing. But now I want to talk about that a little more in depth.

There are a lot of aspects to this. It's more than just finding the kind of exercise you like. And depending on your current fitness level, that's probably not even really part of the conversation, to be honest.

First, you have to figure out what you're capable of. 
Patrick's weight precludes him from running yet, so he's walking. If you're just starting a fitness program, it's very easy to bite off more than you can chew. That's why Resolutionaries get ridiculed so much at the gym: They go gung-ho for two weeks, wind up hurt, sick or fatigued, and give up. I'm not applauding judgmental gym rats -- far from it. I believe the pressure to do too much too fast is the biggest factor in why people quit. One study I found says that six months after joining, 44 percent of people go to the gym less than once a week.

Any good fitness coach will tell you the same thing: The best exercise program is the one you'll keep doing. Have a little patience. You're not going to see results overnight, but they'll come quicker than you realize, and what seems impossible now will come to you eventually.

Let's talk about what kind of exercise you want to do.
Every Regular Guy is going to find his own niche. I'm a runner, so I enjoy various types of runs: longs, speedwork, hills, trails, etc. And my strength training is pointed toward improvement in my running -- in other words, heavy on core strength.

But that may not be your thing. I know plenty of people who like to "pick things up and put them down," and as long as you're getting your heart rate up some of the time, that's great. You might prefer the elliptical to running for your cardio -- a perfectly reasonable swap. Maybe you love to swim -- great exercise and impact free! And you also have to factor in any past injuries that would keep you from doing something. But again, if you absolutely hate it, it's not that you don't like exercise, it's that you don't like that exercise. Try something else!

What's your exercise style?
You know that guy who's shares all his workouts on Facebook, belongs to a running club, posts regularly on message boards and is seemingly always talking about fitness? (Yeah, OK, that's me.) It's just the way he keeps things moving. He learns by talking to other people, he finds support in like-minded people, and he keeps himself accountable by taking things into the public realm. If that's you in other aspects of your life, embrace it here, too. Don't be embarrassed -- everyone has to start somewhere!

Some Regular Guys rely on regimented scheduling. For runners, that might mean long runs on Sunday, interval training on Tuesday, base runs on Wednesday, tempo on Thursday and hill work on Saturday. For lifters, perhaps Monday is arms and chest, Tuesday is core, Thursday is legs, Friday is back... Again, if this is you in life, it's probably you when it comes to fitness. Experts say sticking to a schedule is a great way to keep up with your regimen. But one caveat: As a Regular Guy, you can't be completely rigid. Sometimes life, injury or fatigue gets in the way of the best of us. Don't push when you know you shouldn't.

Some Regular Guys need a trainer to get the most out of their gym memberships. Some would rather keep private. Both are reasonable, if that's who you are. Some of us are early birds, and others are night owls -- don't fight a losing battle there. If you're not the social type, you're not going to ask for a spot, and free weights probably aren't for you. Some people wear headphones to keep pumped up, others like to hear what's going on around them.

Bottom line: Who you are the other 160 or so hours a week is who you'll be in your fitness routines. Don't fight it; work with it to get your best results.

But don't look at things in absolutes.
As I mentioned above, don't be a slave to your schedule. If you keep to yourself at the gym, sometimes you may need a bit of advice or help -- don't hurt yourself instead of asking. And most important: Don't be a one-trick pony. You need both cardio and strength training if you're going to reach your goals, so find a way -- and find the resolve -- to mix it in.

So do what works for you.
As I wrote above, the best exercise plan is the one you're going to stick with. So regardless of what your goals are, you have to figure out a plan that will fit your life. You have to be realistic about what you can do now, and about how much time and energy you have to devote to exercise. You need to figure out what you enjoy, because you'll never get moving if you dread it. And you need to adopt a plan that fits your personality, because you're not going to become a different person simply by walking through the gym door.

So, Regular Guys, let's hear it. What have you learned about yourself through your commitment to fitness? How have you made it work for you? And what totally didn't work for you? How did you figure it all out -- or haven't you yet? Comment here, on Facebook or on Twitter!

Monday, January 19, 2015

I'm Going to Try a 30-Day Challenge!

Maybe you've seen my posts on Facebook -- I thought it would be a learning experience for this Regular Guy to try a 30-day challenge.

There are all sorts of 30-day challenges related to health and fitness. There's even a website out there called 30DayFitnessChallenges.com. Maybe you've tried one like these:

Streakers: Come the winter months, many runners become streakers. Get your mind out of the gutter! They're not running naked through the snow -- they're trying to keep a daily streak going. It's usually 30 days or a month, where you run at least one mile a day.

Plank challenges: A popular fitness challenge is the plank challenge. The idea is simple: You do a plank every day for 30 days and chart your progress. If you're starting from the bottom, you're probably going to do 30 or 40 seconds to start, but by the end of a month, you should be measuring in minutes.

Here's Sue's Ab Challenge!
Rep-focused challenges: Similar to the plank challenge, these focus on improving every day over the course of a month. Push-ups are a big one -- just keep going every day and see how many more you can do after 30 days.

Ab challenges: My friend Sue is a Beachbody coach, and one of her programs is a 30-day ab challenge. There's nothing there you haven't done, but the idea is to follow a specific program each day to strengthen your core. Check her out on Facebook!

Diet challenges: There are all sorts of these out there -- everything from simply eating a healthier breakfast for a month to a total "cleanse." (Please don't do a cleanse, and if you do, don't tell me about it.) Most fall into the "small changes" realm -- which is why they're so appealing.

I think there are pros and cons to these kinds of challenges. They can put a lot of pressure on you to work through an injury, fatigue or illness. And they can also be the cause of injury -- working out every day without a break is asking for an overuse injury. Plus, if you're a Regular Guy reader, you know how much I value the rest day in helping build muscle. 

But that doesn't mean they're all bad. They force discipline and accountability on you, which is a good thing if you're the type to let things slide. And obviously, increasing your overall activity or cutting calories from your daily intake will help your fitness -- which is pretty much inevitable if you keep up with your chosen challenge. And it can be fun to track your gains in something like a plank challenge.

I've decided to go in a different direction altogether. Inspired by my friend Charlie at Run Jersey, I'm going to try a 30-day no-alcohol challenge.  If you followed my marathon training last year, you probably know the name of my blog was Beer or Gatorade? Like pretty much any Regular Guy, I like a nice cold beer -- or even a few. 

I'm really not sure what to expect. I've actually cut back my alcohol consumption a fair amount in the past few years -- particularly in the past six months. But going completely dry for a whole month? Will I have more energy? More focus? Will it improve my fitness? Will I drop any weight, or will I compensate with other food?

I've decided to start on February 1st. Yeah, I know that's Super Bowl Sunday. And yeah, I know February has 28 days. I'll be honest -- I have a few social engagements on the books between now and then, and I still have some beer in the fridge that's going to tempt me. I don't think you get extra points for degree of difficulty here, so let me take the next two weeks to get ready, and I'll tack on two days in March.

If you want to take the challenge with me, that'd be awesome! A social-support system, with people who are having similar experiences, is a great way to keep yourself on track. And if you don't, all I ask is just don't taunt me -- at least not too much.

February 1st is right around the corner!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Taking a Break Isn't Much Fun

Have you ever really had to shut it down for a while?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about when it's OK not to exercise. Not long after that, I found myself taking my own advice. It started with a substandard Sunday morning run, where I ran out of gas at about 5 miles -- and more than a mile from my car. The previous week at work had been really grueling, and I overestimated my energy stores. The next day, I started feeling some discomfort in my hip, and I began to suspect an IT band problem. So I decided to take some days off from exercise.

If you've taken that blog post to heart, I hope you're saying to yourself, "That's the smart move." It takes more than a week to lose significant fitness, but trying to work through an injury can put you out of commission for a lot longer. So the wise course of action is to rest up, enjoy the break, see a doctor if you need to, and then get back at it when you're ready.

If only it were that simple.

Day one of my break was nice. I slept in. My body was really worn out from that last week of work plus trying to jam in workouts. Day two wasn't bad, either -- despite sleeping an extra 20 minutes, I got to work earlier than usual. But by day three, I was starting to wonder when I could get back at it. On day four I was chomping at the bit. And by day five, Friday, I was flat-out cranky.

I'd bet any Regular Guy committed to his fitness would feel that way.

I can speak only for myself, but here are some of the mental issues I ran into:
  • I felt fat. I think it's in my head, but by the end of the week, I really didn't like what I saw in the mirror. 
  • I began to worry I was giving up on my fit-minded lifestyle. Moreover, I began to feel like a fraud. Here I am writing about fitness and not practicing it myself.
  • I was careless about my diet. I won't say it was a significant departure from my norm, but there were certainly a number of instances of "screw it, who cares," followed by candy or cheese and crackers. 
  • I had less patience with the people around me. I find that exercise, particularly running, helps reset my crank-o-meter. I was very snippy and curt to my wife, my boss, my daughter and pretty much everyone else.
  • I was less focused. You'd think the extra time in my day would help, but I got no more done than I would in any other week. Many organization experts will tell you that a regimented routine and full schedule actually help you get things done.
So on Saturday, I decided to give a bodyweight workout a shot. I stayed away from any exercises that put a lot of strain on my hips, such as mountain climbers, lunges and squats. And I self-monitored closely in case I felt anything unusual. Fortunately, I was able to do a pretty decent routine, I felt fine right afterward, and once I'd totally cooled down, it was no worse than before.

But that may not be the case for every Regular Guy who has to take some time off from exercise. You may wind up losing weeks or even months to an injury, to a serious illness, or simply to the demands of real life. I can't say I have a lot of answers, but here are a few pointers:

Figure out what you can do. 
If your hurt, maybe you can change up your routine like I did. If you're ill, try to make sure you move around, even walk a little bit, until you improve. If you are pressed for time because of work or a family obligation, figure out where you can find a few minutes in your day -- anything is better than nothing. Perhaps you can swap out the gym for 10 minutes of crunches and push-ups. Or maybe just work some walking into your routine.

Try to focus on your diet.
If you're burning 500 calories four times a week by working out, you have to be cognizant of that when you put things on hold. It's hard. Your appetite will stay high for a while. Your eating habits are hard to alter on a dime. And it's easy to fall into the depression trap, where you figure you're just giving up, so why bother. One spot where you can catch a break: no recovery drinks. There's 100 or 150 calories right there!

Force yourself to be productive. 
I failed at this. Somehow, despite not having run a single mile or done a single pushup in a week, I hadn't written a single word for FftRG. There was plenty of TV watched, many games of video Boggle played. And that lack of productivity snowballs quickly. 

Remind yourself why you're resting.
One thing I was able to do was to tell myself, "You're doing the smart thing, even if you don't like it." It does make you feel a bit better. It helps you keep in mind that this is a temporary situation, and you'll get back to it soon enough. That's why, though my diet hasn't been great this past week, it hasn't gone off the cliff. It's why I've pushed myself to walk from the PATH to my office, despite some brutally cold temperatures. I know that I'll be in a better position to pick things back up fully if I remember that I'm actually doing myself some good.

The mental toll that you take from sitting out is sometimes worse than the physical. And it's hard to overcome. There's plenty of advice out there for what to do to take care of your body, but not much for your brain. So, Regular Guys, let's hear from you. How do you cope when you can't exercise? 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Why Can't I Get Over the Hump? Common Diet and Nutrition Pitfalls

It happens to the best of us: You make a point of eating well -- nutrient-dense food, reasonable portions, not too much junk -- but somehow you still can't create a calorie deficit. So what's the problem?

I think this is where a lot of people start turning to fad diets for help. If you just cut out carbs, you'll get over the hump. Or meat. Or processed foods. Or if you eat your foods in a certain order, that'll do it. Or on certain days. Or you should fast on certain days, or binge on certain days, or both. Or eat like a caveman -- because cavemen totally ate this.

Except none of it really works. At least not long term.

I believe that what really trips up Regular Guys are those calories we don't account for in our normal diets. So let's have a conversation about some common diet pitfalls.

Getting Too Hungry
I get 25-30 grams of protein five times a day, and I fill in the blanks with grains and fruit. It's a solid diet. But it's not perfect, and there are many days where I'm not at a deficit. My pitfall: I don't get home from work until after 8:00, and by the time I get to have dinner, I'm starving. On top of that, I'm usually pretty tired at that point, which hurts my discipline. And so the next thing I know, I've scarfed three bowls of chili or an entire steak.

When you allow yourself to get really, really hungry, two bad things happen: You eat too quickly, and you eat too much. If you eat too quickly, your brain may not register satisfaction when your stomach is full -- it takes a few minutes. And when you're famished, even if you eat slowly, you simply load up on too much food.

What can you do?
I'll be honest -- I'm still working on this one. I'm trying to eat some filling protein -- Greek yogurt -- toward the end of my work day. I load my dinner plate with salad whenever I can -- and I always eat that first to give the fiber a chance to fill me up. I've cut back my portions some of the time as a result, but not all. And honestly, I'm not having salad on Mexican night. I'm also trying to slow down when I eat, but again, when I'm famished, that's easier said than done. 

Late-Night Snacking
If you stay up long after dinner, you're bound to get hungry -- especially if you eat a sensible meal. I don't believe in the notion that calories consumed late at night turn to fat, and I have science on my side there. A calorie is a calorie is a calorie. But there is a danger in late-night eating: You make poorer decisions when you're tired.
When you're tired, your defenses get weaker. That cupcake you were perfectly happy to leave alone at 3:00 in the afternoon all of a sudden looks a lot more inviting. And it's also harder to limit your portions. Whereas when you're usually able to eat one cookie and leave it at that, all of a sudden you realize you've eaten six. When it's late, you're also less likely to prepare something and more likely to grab what's easy -- and let's face it, that's often a bag of chips.

What can you do? 
  • Get to bed earlier. Doctors say that a healthy adult needs around 7 hours of sleep a night. And I'll bet your Regular Guy schedule means that you're waking up by 6:00, anyway -- at least if your job is during normal business hours. If you eat dinner at 7:00 p.m. and you're still awake at 1:00 a.m., you're going to be starving, and you're going to make bad decisions.
  • Try not to keep too much junk food around the house, and put it away in places where you won't stumble onto it frequently. I'm not saying not to have a cookie here and there -- remember the 80/20 rule. But don't leave a plate of cookies out in plain sight. Force yourself to open a drawer or cabinet -- preferably one that you don't open 20 times a day -- take out the package and take a cookie.
  • Make some reasonable swaps. I am the Hummus Monster. Nom nom nom nom nom! But just this week, I tried a swap that really worked -- baby carrots in place of pretzel chips. Even in equal quantities, that's a winner, but the fiber in the carrots filled me up more quickly, so I wound up eating less hummus, too.
  • Take a portion back to the TV or computer. I'm horrible at this, but instead of grabbing the entire can of nuts to nosh on, pour yourself a reasonable amount. If you're having cheese, cut off a piece and put it on a plate, rather than taking the whole hunk with you. If you're genuinely still hungry later, you can always get more. But this is the best way to reduce mindless noshing.

Hidden Calories
How do you take your coffee? This is 8 ounces of coffee with 1 tablespoon of half-and-half. That's about how light I like mine. The coffee has 1 or 2 calories, so that's statistically insignificant. A tablespoon of half-and-half has 20 calories. 

No big deal, right? Wrong. This is where hidden calories can add up -- quick. 

First of all, what Regular Guy do you know who drinks a single 8-ounce cup of coffee in a day? Dunkin Donuts offers 10-, 14- and 20-ounce sizes. Let's say you get the large and make it as light as this photo. That's 2.5 tablespoons of half-and-half -- 50 calories. Do you take sugar? 16 calories per teaspoon. Most people will want at least 3 teaspoons -- 48 calories. Now your no-calorie drink actually has about 100 calories! And I don't know about you, but when I go to Dunkin, I have to say "just a splash" to get this. If you say "regular,"you'll get a lot more half-and-half -- and a lot more calories!

What else do you unwittingly add calories to? Are you careful about your salad dressing? Even if you use an average vinaigrette, a tablespoon is roughly 45 calories. And those ladles they use at salad bars are way bigger than a tablespoon. You can easily add 150 calories to your "healthy" lunch without even realizing it.

How about pasta? You take a reasonable portion and an average amount of red sauce -- great! If you're like me, you add a bunch of Parmesan cheese. A tablespoon of grated Parmesan will cost you 22 calories, and I know I have a hard time stopping with 1 tablespoon.

So there you go. You've eaten the right foods in reasonable portions all day, you haven't had a single item of junk food, and you've added 250-300 hidden calories to your intake. Do that every day and you're talking about 25-30 pounds in a year!

What can you do? 
Easier said than done, but you need to be cognizant of all those little extras throughout your day. It's not reasonable to cut out half-and-half, salad dressing or Parmesan (or whatever else) entirely, but you can cut those calories down. They're just examples, but let's work on the coffee, salad dressing and Parmesan. Without really changing anything about your diet, we can cut 135 calories a day -- 13-14 pounds a year!
  • This cuts against trendy diet thinking, but embrace artificial sweeteners for your coffee. I use Truvia. Despite what you may have read, there is scant actual scientific research backing the idea that it revs up insulin production and leads to sugar cravings. Cut out 3 tablespoons of sugar in your coffee and you've saved 48 calories. And if you can cut a tablespoonful of half-and-half, you'll save another 20.
  • You'll be shocked how little dressing you really need if your salad is properly tossed. If you're at one of those salad places, ask for very little, because they toss the salad well. If you're at home, make it in a big bowl and do the tossing yourself. If you can cut even one tablespoon, there's another 45 calories.
  • Spread your grated cheese around your pasta before heaping on more. It is, more or less, a seasoning to make your meal taste a little better. Get a little bit in each bite before you pile on more. If you can eliminate a tablespoonful, you've cut 22 calories.
Some other suggestions: 
  • Buy plain yogurt and add your own fruit, rather than eating the fruit syrup at the bottom of the cup. 
  • Same goes for instant oatmeal. Plain has about 60 calories fewer than flavored. Even if you put back 30 of those with fruit, you're saving 30.
  • Buy a cereal you like instead of dumping sugar on top of something you don't. The calorie counts of most cereals are pretty close. For example, 3/4 of a cup of Honey Nut Cheerios has 110 calories. 3/4 of a cup of Cheerios has 100. 3/4 of a cup of Cheerios with 2 teaspoonfuls of sugar has 132. 
  • Try not to pick when you're clearing the dinner table. That crust of bread from your daughter's plate counts.
  • Just drink water. Again, there's little evidence saying artificial sweeteners are bad, so if you like Diet Coke, go for it. But if you have even one can of regular Coke a day, you're adding 140 calories to your daily intake.

Eating Out
One of life's great -- and easily accessible -- pleasures is going out to dinner. You don't have to cook, you don't have to clean up, and you have lots of choices. Unfortunately, going out to dinner usually packs a mighty caloric punch.

To me, there are three basic issues:
  • Portion sizes. Restaurant portion sizes are often 3 times the RDA allowance.
  • Calorie-laden food. There are a few exceptions, but a chef sees his or her job as making delicious food, not healthy food.
  • Social eating. It's human nature to eat more and to indulge in high-calorie foods when you're out with family or friends.
What can you do?
I've said it before: You don't want to be that guy who's noshing on the celery while your friends chow on the wings. It's no fun to sip on water or seltzer while your buddies are knocking back beers. And what's the point of going out to dinner if you're going to eat plain grilled chicken and steamed veggies?

When my wife and I go out to dinner, we rarely order an appetizer. Again, restaurant portion sizes are way too big to start with. But the temptation to finish everything is huge. First of all... It. Just. Tastes. So. Good. Add in that you're paying good money, and it's hard to let it go to waste. So don't order twice as much food as you realistically need.

Remember when you were a kid and your parents used to warn you, "Don't fill up on bread"? It's good advice. You know I'm not a low-carb zealot, but white bread is nutrient poor and quickly digested. Even if your entree is fried or doused with cheese, it's surely going to do way better on both macros and micros.

I learned this trick from my wife, and it's my favorite: If you order a burger or sandwich, the first thing you should do is cut it in half. Set one half aside, and enjoy the other half. Don't worry if it's a bacon cheeseburger with fried onions. Savor it. Most restaurants are going to give you 8, 10 or even 12 ounces of burger. Half of that is still plenty of food. And if you're still hungry, take the other half and halve it again. You'll be far less likely to overeat if it's not in your hands.

The Bottom Line
Nobody's perfect. Your diet is never going to be perfect. That's the point of being a Regular Guy. And I'm not going to sit here and claim that if you just follow these tips, you'll cut out hundreds of calories a day and lose 20, 30, 40 pounds. But even a minor deficit can bring about nice results if you're consistent. Remember, for every 100 calories you cut each day, you'll lose 10 pounds over the course of a year. 

And the best calories to cut are the ones you really don't want or need in the first place.

Do you have some other diet pitfalls? Have you come up with creative ways to avoid them? I'd love to hear some Regular Guy success stories, so bring 'em on!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

I've Made Every Mistake There Is

Wearing two different shoes? Mistake!
I think I've been pretty honest with you since I started FftRG: I'm no expert.

I try to write based on my experiences with nutrition and exercise. And a lot of my experience comes in the form of mistakes. I'm pretty sure I've made 'em all. So let's talk about a few of the biggies.

Trying to work through injury. 
I think this is probably the biggest mistake you can make. As I've said a few times, no workout regimen will survive without a few bumps and dings. But there's a ding and then there's an injury.

When I was first getting serious as a runner, I tweaked my ankle. I was able to walk and go about life, and so I figured I could work around it. So I went to the gym, did some weight training, and then got on the elliptical -- you know, to save myself some impact. But my towel fell off the machine, and somehow the timer got reset. I got so frustrated with it I moved to the treadmill. Big mistake. What was a minor tweak turned into a really bad ankle sprain. I could barely walk, and it took more than a week before I saw any progress.

If it doesn't start healing on its own within a few days, it hurts more with exercise or it hurts more right after exercise, don't push your luck. And if a few days' rest doesn't help, it's time to see a doctor.

Starting your workout like your hair's on fire.
No matter what you're doing -- running, biking, lifting, doing bodyweight moves, whatever -- you have only so much energy for it. And once the tank is empty, it's empty.

Earlier this week, I wrote that I went out too fast on a run and wound up having to cut it short. On a short run in my neighborhood, that's no big deal -- it's just a trudge home. But on my last long training run before my marathon this spring, I made the same mistake. I was going for 21 or 22 miles. By mile 12, I had an inkling that I was in trouble. By mile 16, I was hurting. And somewhere around 19, I was on the verge of collapse. The worst part: I was almost 2 miles away from my car. I actually had to take a break from walking I was so tired.

When you're planning your exercise, keep your goal in mind. You get a lot more benefit from completing a full workout than from going "beast mode" and falling apart midway through.

Trying to go from 0-100 immediately.
I've talked about this before: Some years ago, I thought it'd be a good idea to get in shape by running. So I slapped on some old sneakers and took off at the pace I used to do in high school -- and made it about three blocks. I was talking to a friend recently, and he told me a similar story -- except instead of just running out of gas, he actually injured himself.

If it's been a while since you've paid attention to your fitness, you can't just dive in at the deep end. It's not just running -- overdoing any exercise when you're just starting out is asking for trouble. You can't run an eight-minute mile, and you can't bench your bodyweight.

But be patient -- gains won't come immediately, but they will come quicker than you realize. Give yourself two weeks, and I'll bet dollars to donuts that you'll have made significant progress. And by the time a month has passed, other people will start noticing, too.

Doing just one thing.
OK, so I've admonished you to find the thing that works for you and do that. But if you do just one thing, the same way, over and over again, you're doing yourself a disservice.

Don't get chicken legs!
Yes, any exercise is better than none. But if you run the same 2 miles at the same pace for a few weeks, it's going to start feeling easy. And if you're lifting, you need to work all of your major muscle groups. For one thing, you'll look silly with bulging biceps and toothpick legs. And I would argue that if you don't change things up, you'll create imbalances that could make things more difficult down the road.

And it should go without saying at this point that you need to do both cardio and strength training.

Not warming up.
Asking cold muscles to perform at mid-workout intensity is a recipe for disaster. I can't tell you how many pulls, strains and the such I've caused myself with impatience. I've been fortunate -- I've never suffered a major injury due to lack of warmup. But it's playing with fire.

The more experience I get as a runner, the more I've added to my warmup routine. I start with a minute of just basic walking. Then a minute of monster strides -- that's when you pick your knees up high like you're stomping. Then full kicks forward, and then backward. I'll also do a minute of these side kicks where I'll flex my hip and knee, and slap the outside of my shoe. And usually a dozen bodyweight squats or lunges.

Note that all my warmup moves are dynamic stretches, not static stretches. There's tons of research out there suggesting that static stretching of cold muscles and tendons can inhibit performance or even lead to injury.

Skimping on sleep.
There are all sorts of reasons why you should strive for a solid night's sleep. You don't need me to tell you about them. But it's especially important when you have a big workout coming up.

Get your beauty rest!
Runners will often tell you that your sleep two nights before a race is what matters, and that's been true in my experience. I ran a half-marathon in November, and woke up in the middle of the night because the heat had conked out. I still finished in a time I was pleased with, and I had a great kick in the last mile. I would posit that this is the case for any big event or workout.

Extrapolating, your overall sleep -- not just on one particular night -- is going to be the real factor here. Rest is what allows your muscles to recover, and there's a cumulative benefit, just like there's cumulative fatigue if you don't recover enough.

The next time a Nike or Under Armour ad comes on, do yourself a favor and turn it off. When someone tells you they're in "beast mode," ignore them. When you see crazy workouts on the Internet, click elsewhere.

Nothing like a little guilt to get you to overtrain!
There's a reason professional athletes have the bodies they do -- it's what they're paid for. Their office is the gym, the practice field, the track. They are most certainly not Regular Guys.

For Regular Guys, it's all about keeping fit and living your life. But when you overdo the exercise, everything suffers. You'll find yourself unable to focus on work, family and friends. It becomes harder to sleep. You may hurt your immune system. And worst of all, you may not even improve your fitness.

We all have a bad workout here and there -- that's normal. But if you have three or four in a row, and you can rule out other factors, take a look at your training log. Have you ramped up all of a sudden? There's a good chance you have, and there's a good chance it's making everything worse.

Not seeking advice.
If you've gotten this far, you're probably pretty open to having conversations with other Regular Guys about fitness. But don't be afraid to ask for guidance elsewhere. There are many Facebook groups and Reddit topics devoted to all sorts of fitness endeavors. And most experienced gym rats -- even the guys who look big and scary -- are actually more than happy to offer a tip or two. But you have to ask!

Forgetting a towel.
This one sounds kind of silly, but it's really a big deal. If you're working up a sweat, you need a towel. If you're at the gym, it's proper etiquette to wipe down a machine when you're done with it. And regardless of where you're exercising, you should be working hard enough that you perspire so much that it gets annoying.

Nothing you do at the gym will say "noob" more than not having a towel.

There are plenty of mistakes you can make -- this just scratches the surface. And as I wrote at the top, I'm pretty sure I've made them all. But the Regular Guy chalks that up to experience and is better for it. And maybe sometime down the road, you'll see someone doing something dopey, and be able to help them out with some friendly advice.

What exercise mistakes have you made? What was the takeaway lesson? Don't worry -- nobody's going to make fun of you. We've all been there! So let's hear it!

Monday, January 5, 2015

When Is It OK Not to Exercise?

Today I want to talk about something you don't hear much about from fitness gurus: When is it OK not to exercise?

After all, we are Regular Guys, and this is a conversation about keeping fit and living your life.

So let's talk nuts and bolts here. When is it OK not to exercise?

When you're injured.
Last month, we discussed obstacles that are out of your control. One of those is injuries. As I wrote then, if you're working out regularly, you're going to suffer a few dings and bumps -- it's just inevitable. And you're going to feel some soreness sometimes. The key is to recognize when it's something you can work through and when it's time to take a break.

Running coach and author Hal Higdon offers what I think is the wisest advice on the subject: If it starts to feel better on its own -- or at least doesn't worsen during training -- you can probably work through it. If it gets worse, or if it doesn't start healing within a few days, it's time to take a few days off. And if it still doesn't get better, it may be time to call your doctor.

If you can work around an injury, great. But I think you'll be shocked at how interrelated your various muscle groups are, and how much two seemingly unconnected parts of your body work together to help you perform any exercise.

When you're sick.

A lot of people have offered me the advice that you can train through a head cold but not a chest infection. To that I say, "Bah!" Don't make a bad situation worse. You're not going to lose fitness gains in a couple of days. A few salient points:
  • When you're sick, you're going to be more fatigued, which will affect the quality of your workouts. And if your form suffers as a result -- lifting, running, whatever -- you could be setting yourself up for an injury.
  • Your body's energy reserves are limited, and it uses them both for workout recovery and to fend off illness. If you're putting your energy into working out, you could be holding back your immune system.
  • You need more rest when you're sick, even if it's just a head cold. That tired, fatigued feeling isn't just psychological. And Regular Guys already have lives full of work, family and other obligations. Let yourself have that hour of sleep.

When you have real obligations.
If you're wracked with guilt because you skipped your workout in favor of your child's awards ceremony at school, I'm going to level with you: Your priorities are out of whack. 

When I was in marathon training last year, a few people asked me about the biggest challenge or obstacle to achieving my goal. I think I surprised them when I said it didn't have anything at all to do with my workouts. We've all seen those Nike commercials that romanticize the athlete getting out of bed at 5:30 instead of hitting snooze and trekking out into the rain or snow or whatever. You know what? That's the easy part. It's really easy to let the 5-10 hours a week you spend exercising bleed into the other 158-163 hours of your week and affect everything you do and think about.

As a runner, my mantra is, "Run to live, don't live to run." Don't let your fitness regimen define you, and don't let it get in the way of your actual life.

When you're really fatigued.
One of the hardest things to recognize is the difference between just sleepy/tired/cranky and fatigued. You don't want to start making excuses for why you didn't exercise today. But you also don't want to overdo it. Pushing yourself when you're truly fatigued opens you up to illness and injury, and it can also push you to the point where you begin to hate exercising. Here are a few signs of true fatigue that I know about:
  • Cold symptoms for no good reason. If you're overtraining, sometimes your body compensates, and it allows things it normally fends off. Can't figure out that drippy nose, headache or sneezing? You might need some rest days.
  • Diminished performance. If you have a few substandard workouts in a row, you may have overloaded your systems. Your muscles may need some more time to recover and rebuild, or your heart and lungs might just need a break.
  • Serious issues waking up. It's one thing to be cranky and tired early in the morning. That makes you normal. But if you really just can't pick your head up off the pillow, or you find yourself hitting snooze multiple times, it's more than that. 

When you're really sore.
Soreness comes with the territory when you exercise. And if you were to wait to feel perfect before every workout, you'd get out there about twice a month. So yes, you have to work through some soreness.

But if the soreness you're feeling doesn't correlate with the amount of work you did in a given day, it's a sign that your muscles are feeling cumulative fatigue. Today, for example, I ran about 2.3 miles at a bit faster than 5k pace. (I actually went out too fast and had to cut it short.) But I'm feeling like I ran a 10k. Why? Yesterday, I ran about 1.8 miles and then did a 20-minute HIIT routine, and two days before that, I ran a very challenging trail 10k.

It adds up. When that happens, take a day off.

When it's a rest day.
Building muscle -- even your heart muscle -- is a process of tearing micro-tissues in order for them to re-build stronger. If you never give your body a chance to repair the damage from exercise, you'll never actually see results.

You need to schedule 2-3 rest days per week. Another good approach: 2 days on, 1 day off, rinse, repeat.

And when it's a rest day, it's a rest day. No, not a stay-in-bed-all-day rest day, but no "light workouts" or "a couple of easy miles." Let your body do the work it has evolved to do.

But while I have you, here are a few excuses you shouldn't make for skipping your workout:
  • The weather sucks. That's why man invented roofs and indoor heat. There's no reason why you can't do 20 minutes of bodyweight moves at home or join an inexpensive local gym.
  • I have to get to work. Sure, there are some days when you have to be in really early or stay really late. But you can find 20-30 minutes on a normally busy day.
  • I hate exercise. There has to be something active that you enjoy doing. Ride your bike if you hate running. Play basketball if CrossFit isn't for you. Figure out what you like, and find a way to do it. 
  • I don't know what I'm doing. It's OK -- neither do 70 percent of the people at your gym. And the other 30 percent are almost always happy to offer a bit of advice. Oh, and there are 8 gazillion online sources of information. I counted.
  • It's too expensive. Do you have a T-shirt, a pair of shorts and a decent pair of sneakers? That's all the equipment you need for pushups, squats, lunges, mountain climbers and countless other bodyweight moves.
  • I'll never be able to do that, so why bother? Everyone has to start somewhere. Gains won't be immediate, but they'll come faster than you think. I started by walking on a treadmill, then added some running intervals, and did a 5k within 3 months.

Can you add to the list? Tell us about the time you skipped a workout or four, and felt zero guilt over it. Comment below, or on Facebook or Twitter!