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An Athlete’s Impasse: Building Fitness Without Health

By April 16, 2015October 6th, 2021Exercise, Lifestyle & Stress

Many athletes understand the jargon and function of the equipment they use, whether it’s bike components, shoe design, or sports drinks. But when it comes to the more important tools—the parts of the human body—most are at a loss on how to properly maintain and fix them.

An example is when trying to build fitness to get faster and stronger, all while the body’s immune system, muscles, bones or intestines are breaking down. This imbalance between fitness and health is the most common reason individuals don’t reach their athletic potential.

Here are these important definitions: Fitness is the ability to perform physical activity. You personally define the limits of your overall fitness. Perhaps your goal is train for a marathon or triathlon. Health is the ideal balance of all systems of the body—the nervous, muscular, skeletal, circulatory, digestive, lymphatic, and hormonal.

In addition to reduced athletic function, imbalances between fitness and health can also lead to injury, illness, and disease. And it’s not just physical problems, but metabolic ones too. A common example is the problem faced by many athletes regarding body fat. The bottom line is this: those who are healthy can better control their stored body fat and weight. It’s the answer to the common question, how is it possible to work out so much—burn so many calories—yet still have too much weight and body fat?

It’s all about balance. By training your body to develop more endurance, strength and other fitness features, it’s not uncommon to trash some aspect of your health. When this happens, training becomes overtraining, imbalances lead to injuries, metabolism falters, and performance suffers.

Overtraining isn’t always about too much workout volume or intensity, although this is the most common training problem. Even the ideal training schedule can go bad without adequate recovery. Enter sleep—it’s as important as working out when it comes to improving fitness. In fact, it’s during rest periods that you reap the benefits of training. Recovery begins with eight hours or more of sleep each night.

While more training burns additional calories, the real question is what kind of calories. Each workout burns both fat and sugar calories. The harder you train the more percent sugar—and less fat—you burn. Moreover, each workout programs your body to burn more sugar or fat over the next twenty-four hours. Training your body to burn fat during the workout usually means you’ll continue doing that for many hours, even when sleeping.

While there are many issues that encourage increased fat burning, including dietary, nutritional and stress, the intensity of each workout is a primary factor. Lower intensity increases ones percentage of fat burning, with harder training reducing it. While harder and longer workouts result in higher total amounts of sugar and fat calories being burned, programming the body to use a higher proportion of fat (both during training and while at rest) is a key to slimming down.

The ratio of fat and sugar burning is easily measured in a laboratory or clinic during a treadmill or bike workout. This evaluation can be made by testing the amount of oxygen consumed and carbon dioxide expired (called respiratory quotient). The various changes in fat and sugar burning can be correlated with heart rate. (The MAF 180 formula for heart rate training is a simple yet accurate way to find your ideal training heart rate—one that promotes maximum fat burning while building endurance and aerobic speed.)

Overall, those athletes who burn a higher percentage of fat during workouts and rest are healthier. They have less body fat and weight, and more energy. And, they perform better in competition, and are injured much less.

Injuries are not the norm in running, swimming, cycling, triathlon or other endurance sports. The exception, of course, is an accident, such as a bike crash. For most athletes, an injury usually means something has gone wrong. This might be wearing the improper shoes, training too much, having a bad bike set-up, or not eating well. As with body fat, an injury usually is a reflection of less-than-optimal health.

Most physical injuries are associated with muscle imbalance, with many aspects of health influencing the function and balance of not just muscles, but ligaments, tendons, fascia, and other soft tissues, and bones.

Other factors that influence health and can affect body function includes blood flow (which is influenced by a proper warm up and cool down), vitamins, minerals and other nutrients associated with dietary balance, hormones, and brain function. These and other topics are address in many of the articles on this website, in The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing, and in the new Big Book of Health and Fitness.

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