Sunday, 19 May 2013

hungry Jack...a guest-post from Bree Schaaf

hungry Jack
At first, this guest-blog sounded like a fun deviation from my family-friendly-ish blog for (just click the link “shameless plug”). With permission to cuss and insult, ideas came pouring into my brain.  Then Stu decided to throw in a nutritional change, and the ideas stopped as abruptly as my carb intake.  Well they didn’t stop. They disappeared.  I believe they are somewhere locked in the same ‘happy place’ where Happy Gilmore’s grandmother is draining a slot machine. 

The goal is to reach ketosis - forcing my body to use fat for fuel.  Problem is, our brains normally run on glucose, as it’s so readily available.  Hold the glucose hostage and eventually the brain turns to beta-hydroxybutyrate, key word - eventually.  So until I reach ketosis, which can take anywhere from 7-21 days, I have turned into a zombie fruit bat. A low functioning hunger machine. I also have a sneaking suspicion this is what it feels like to bobsled for too long. 

So this blog is about hunger.  It couldn’t possibly be about anything else because that’s the dominant thought that pops into my mind every 7 seconds (or however often it is said men think about sex). 

What is hunger really?  

Being human has changed so much over the last 60 years that hunger is not simply a signal that the body needs fuel anymore. It comes in so many psychologically complicated layers now, with unrelated issues manifesting in bizarre ways. 

A great book, “Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You: Retrain Your Brain to Conquer Fear, Make Better Decisions, and Thrive in the 21st Century” by Marc Schoen, PhD. outlines how the advent of fast food has left us unable to deal with the sensation of hunger.  We expect instant gratification upon the onset of the feeling, and agitation rises the longer the feeling goes unsatisfied. Many of us can remember being a child and asking constantly when dinner would be ready - waiting hours to finally sit down to eat.  There is no harm in being hungry, yet now any inclination toward the feeling gives people an excuse to fill an emotional void and pump a little dopamine into their brain.  

After the bobsled season wrapped up this year, I set out to discover true hunger. 

A book I had come across while researching seasonal eating praised the benefits of a springtime cleanse - backing it with western and eastern medicine.  All of my instincts said that only drinking water with lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper for a week was likely a bad idea, so I made sure not to ask anyone about it that would confirm my suspicions.  Instead I went to an expert - an actress friend in LA, who thought it was a great idea. 

A cleanse is supposed to be energizing.  Luckily, I had nothing to do for a week because I became the most worthless piece of meat on the planet, spending over half my days sleeping (9 hours at night with naps totaling 4-5 hours a day). The rest of my energy and waking hours were spent stumbling to the couch to watch two entire seasons of “Game of Thrones.” In a week I lost 10lbs, and felt like I had to be reintegrated into society like Tom Hanks in “Castaway.” 

A mere walk to the post office left me gassed.    

Though my secret fast was clearly a poor decision, I did learn a very important lesson - what real hunger is and how to deal with it. It turns out it is possible to fall asleep with a growling stomach.  And when you start to feel anxiety over life’s stresses? It can be alleviated in ways other than food.  Like sleep!

Luckily I had ample time to regain my strength before meeting up with Stu to start training this spring, where I was immediately put on a nutrition plan that left me…hungry. With a developing ability to distinguish between false hungers like boredom or anxiety, I was able to find power in a healthier hunger - hunger for success.  This allows me to focus on the many difficult challenges Stu presents us…like combining oil and water. 

As society encourages us to speed up, I am focusing on slowing down and being more mindful when I eat - chewing slowly, enjoying every damn calorie. When my roommates aren’t looking I lick the hell out of my plate. To get more nutritional bang for my buck I’ve been trying to incorporate organ meats into my diet.  I thought I was completely indiscriminate when it comes to a calorie, but I lost the battle when it came to liver.  Then I turned it into pate and won the war! 

Bottom line, unless you are reading this from a life raft adrift at sea… HUNGER WILL NOT KILL YOU!  Learn to be logical with it, and you will gain control over not only a vital training/performance tool, but also a larger issue plaguing our instant gratification society. 

If you enjoyed this post, please share it on Facebook or Twitter...thanks


hungry Bree

Bree Schaaf has been involved with sliding sports since 2002, but only recently did she begin the sport of bobsled.  Schaaf followed her brother to a skeleton recruiting camp and spent the next five years competing at the national and international level.  In 2007 she made the switch to bobsled.  Her first place finish at the 2009 National Championships gave her a spot on the World Cup team for the second half of the season.  She finished 5th at the 2010 Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia.
Give Bree a follow on Twitter, or catch her blogging on

Thursday, 16 May 2013

an open letter to the young strength coach...part two

I’ve had a few conversations this week that have fallen along similar lines.  

Most recently, I was talking to British Javelin thrower Goldie Sayers, who has been in Phoenix rehabbing an elbow surgery.  She was discussing how many Strength and Conditioning coaches there seems to be these days. Indeed, our industry has exploded over the last decade.  She also questioned how many of these coaches were actually good?  How many of them understand what it takes to train an athlete?  How many can work in conjunction with the athlete’s technical coaches and support team.  How many of them understand the delicate interplay between training in the gym, on the field, and in their life?  

I have written about this before, so I’m not going to rehash over old news - but it’s on my mind.  So I’m gonna talk about it.  

My short chat with Goldie followed closely on the heels of a discussion with Scottsdale-based coach Ian Danney.  Ian is a stud.  One of the best in this business, he works almost exclusively with NFL players out of his private facility in North Scottsdale.  We were talking about how to walk that fine line between promoting your business and - frankly - selling out.  It’s a tricky one.  NFL players like to come to Ian because no one knows who he is, or where he is (in fact, he will be pissed at me now for just telling the world that he’s in Scottsdale).  The players appreciate the anonymity.  The fact that he is not trying to sell his facility off the back of them. The knowledge that they will be treated professionally, by a professional coach, who understands the unique nature of the game they play and the demands it requires.  In a world of dime-a-dozen S&C Coaches who are doing the exact opposite, Ian is - unfortunately - quite unique.  

Earlier in the week, I had a conversation with University of North Carolina Strength and Conditioning Coach Jonas Sahration.  Jonas is a real good coach.  And an even better dude.  He’s been Roy Williams’ strength guy for over a decade, and is one of those guys who just gets it done.  Nothing fancy - just good solid work.  He understands where the value of a good S&C guy is.  Instead of chasing numbers, in the vain attempt to feed his own ego, he focuses on what is truly important: keeping his guys in the game.  

Tons of coaches can get dudes faster.  Tons can get them stronger.  Tons more can get them bigger.  

This doesn't mean a thing if the athletes are watching from the sidelines when the big day comes.  

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.   It is not about how strong they are.  Or how fast they are.  Or how big they are.  It’s not about the numbers your athletes put up.  

And it’s not about you.

Don't design programs to feed your own ego. 

And that brings me to what Jonas and I were discussing.  I have known Jonas for about 12 or 13 years.  Since right about the time when Mel Siff’s Supertraining Yahoo Group was at its apex.  I loved that site.  Tons of super-smart guys posted on there - including Siff, Verkhoshansky, Loren Chiu, Steven Plisk, as well as S&C guys like Christian Thibaudeau and Charles Staley.  I used to spend hours on Supertraining.  It was the primary source of S&C info for many a coach.

Well to make a long story short, I think I posted on there a total of twice.  And, as usual, both times it was to disagree with someone (I’ve since gotten much better at keeping my mouth least on public forums!).  Jonas reminded me of those posts, and we still chuckle about it today. 

It was about the time when everyone was jumping on Charles Poliquin’s jock.  And I have no problem with guys bigging up other coaches.  I have no problem with coaches bigging up themselves.  I do have a problem when they exaggerate - or lie - about what they have done.  It was said that Charles was instrumental to Donovan Bailey’s success, and was the main reason behind the success of the Canadian bobsleigh team.  I’m not going to go into details here, but one of these is an outright lie, the other a massive exaggeration.  My response was that even though I had a ton of respect for Poliquin’s knowledge (I still do - in fact, a great majority of us in the industry owe our jobs to the man, and the work he put in to justify our positions), exaggerating accomplishments to feed your own ego, or to sell another book is not right.  

I was also under the impression that Poliquin was the ultimate bigger-faster-stronger S&C Coach.  You wanted to get bigger? Go see Charles.  You wanted a bigger squat?  Go see Charles.  

But that is not what makes one a good strength coach.  

That is not the job.  Nobody cares how big your bench is if you're sitting on one.  

In this wildly diluted S&C market - one rife with internet experts and plagiarizing ‘gurus’, we all feel the need to have an impact.  I understand this.  But ‘impact’ is an ambiguous term.  A lot of impact has negative value.  Driving up a guy's power clean simply to justify your position - or your ego - is not what this game is all about.  

Or at least, it shouldn’t be.  

Monday, 13 May 2013

why athletes should do yoga: a guest-post from Ellie Coats...

I’ll be honest...I have absolutely no clue how this post will be received.  

I have been wanting to post some thoughts on the purported benefits of yoga for athletes for a while, and when I read this one from Ellie Coats - a yoga practitioner in Cambridge, in the UK,  it fit the bill perfectly. It also proposes a couple of unique things that I had not thought of before, so I thought I would share it here.

I have personally ‘practiced’ (as that is what we are supposed to say, right?) yoga for 12 years or so.  And I still really suck.  In fact, I think I’m probably worse than when I started.  I got the breathing down pretty good....but the rest of it?  This old body just doesn’t move that way.  A few weeks ago, I figured I’d try it in the heat, so went along to a Bikram session...thought the added humidity, and the 110 degree heat would somehow, magically allow my body to move in ways not seen in a few decades.  

Nope.  Not even close.  

So while my own yoga career has never really lifted off (sort of like my track career), I have always espoused the benefits of it to my athletes, and have at times even included it in my programming.  It remains to this day a part of each training session’s warm-up.  

Folks on the east side of the Atlantic may be scratching their heads right now.  Yoga?  For athletes?  C’mon...

On this side of the Atlantic though, it’s not so uncommon.  I’m sure by now a majority of athletes in the States and Canada have at least tried it (and secretly most of them might even admit to enjoying it).

And if you haven’t?  I encourage you to give it a go.  At the very least, you had a fun hour enjoying exploring your ridiculousness (at least that is how it feels when compared to some of the 100lb yogis that frequent the classes).  Like Ellie said to me in a recent message - we’ve got to get past the pre-existing view of yoga as something that middle-aged women do in church halls to get flexible and breathe....

get stuck in... 


yoga for athletes...a guest-post from Ellie Coats

Yoga as a method of cross-training for athletes brings with it improved range of motion, balance and a quietened mind. Here I will discuss some aspects of yoga practice and what benefits it can bring to an athletic training programme.

Some Yoga Basics
  • The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj” meaning to yoke, bind or simply “union”.
  • Postures or “asanas” are a very small part of a traditional yoga practice. One purpose of asana is to prepare the body so that it is both strong and open enough to sit in meditation.
  • Western practice of yoga predominantly consists of posture work. “Hatha” yoga means any form of yoga which involves physical posture, although the word is often used differently to imply a gentle class style. Ha-tha translates as “sun-moon”.
  • There are many, many brands of hatha yoga. Iyengar and Astanga are two of the more classical Indian forms. Vinyasa flow, the style I primarily teach, has in many respects been taken from the Astanga tradition. Vinyasa can be translated as “flow”, “relationship” or even “transition”.
  • Both meditation and traditional breathing exercises (pranayama) can be used to bring benefits to athletic performance. However, my own yoga practice is almost exclusively based in hatha vinyasa - i.e. a physical practice with postures - and so it is this that I will be discussing.


In a vinyasa flow class, we link poses together into a sequence, moving from one to the next with either an inhalation or an exhalation. To begin each class, we normally do a form of sun salutation (“surya namaskar” in Sanskrit). A standard Astanga-style sun salutation warms the spine up in the sagittal plane with a series of forward and backward movements. This then proceeds to a more advanced style of surya namaskar where a step forwards is taken and the spine must begin to move in both the frontal and transverse planes. Progressing into standing poses, different asanas will improve the range of motion and proprioception at different joints. Standing prepares you for sitting, and when you sit the range of motion required at the hip joints substantially increases, so we ease our way in through lunges of various forms. We also practice backbending, arm balancing, and inversions like headstand and shoulderstand, all of which bring their own benefits to the body. 

Asana/postures are best viewed in terms of the spine and the benefits it enjoys from being moved into these different positions, increasing its range of motion and proprioception. One definition of yoga is a practice which lengthens the spine. If the spine is long, free and functioning well, then the body as a whole is likely to be functioning well.

Benefits for Athletes

As a method of cross-training, I have observed two major benefits of yoga practice. 

1. Yoga can help ensure that an athlete’s base level flexibility does not decrease with the demands of their training programme. Indeed with regular practice it can vastly improve range of joint motion throughout the body. There are a couple of particular advantages to this:

  1. If an athlete can easily create the shapes required to properly perform their sport, they are more likely to efficiently eccentrically load the correct muscles needed for optimum performance. The initial reason most athletes will consider coming to a yoga class is to improve their flexibility. Over the last five seasons I have worked with many rowers and one of the things immediately obvious about the rowing stroke is that it requires considerable hip and spinal mobility to get into the 'catch' position - i.e. the tucked up crouch at the beginning of the stroke. The first push through the legs will be vastly more efficient and powerful if all the relevant muscles have loaded effectively in eccentric contraction, something they will only be able to do if they are pliable enough to allow the joints sufficient mobility to fully express the position. One reason I believe rowers return time and again to yoga is that the change that they notice in the boat is more immediate and palpable compared to that felt by athletes competing in other sports where the demands on flexibility are not as great.
  2. A good level of flexibility decreases the likelihood of injury. The “catch” position of the rowing stroke requires deep hip and ankle rotation and good movement through the lumbar spine, although the specific requirements will depend on the style of stroke the coach is asking of their athletes. As explained by osteopath Ed Paget in his recent article when discussing the sprint starts of Olympic speed skaters: “If their hip doesn’t have the flexibility to get into that position then it is easy to see how ‘something’ would get pulled, pushed strained or tweaked [during the pressures of a sprint start]”. 

2. As a further tool in the injury prevention arsenal. A good yoga practice encourages balance between left and right so that, when at rest, your centre of gravity is as close to the middle of your base of support as possible. This is a particular issue in sweep rowing, an inherently asymmetrical sport where one leg will often load more strongly than the other, in time pushing the perceived centre of gravity well away from true centre. Pain and injury can then manifest further up the fascial trains as a result of uneven tension distribution, rib injuries being one of the most unpleasant consequences. (If injuries to the ribs and their surrounding fascia do occur, a group yoga class is unlikely to be safe for the patient and appropriate one-on-one treatment becomes necessary. Group yoga sessions should be considered as conditioning rather than therapy).

Transition Zones

In a yoga asana practice we move in and out of what is called the “transition zone”, testing the edges of where we and our joints and fascia can safely reach. This is true whether we are working with static held postures or flowing through a vinyasa. “A transition zone can . . . be described as the zone when a muscle/fascial chain has come to the end of its eccentric loading phase and is switching into its concentric contraction.” (again from Ed)

Moving through a series of postures, we ask a joint, or joints, to explore the end range of their motion and with time improve proprioception at the edges of that range, and also test its function whilst working in couples with other joints. Then in time it gradually becomes more and more comfortable for e.g. the hip to deeply externally rotate. First perhaps gently whilst standing with an extended knee, then standing with a flexed knee and a rotated spine, then sitting - maybe initially on blocks, then whilst balancing on your hands with a flexed spine so as to challenge the body’s standard perception of its base of support.


All of this can be taught one pose at a time, allowing for a deeper settling in over the course of several breaths, or you can ‘flow’ from pose to pose, vinyasa style. At the highest level of this practice, as you move towards the edge of your range of motion in one pose, the fascia which has been eccentrically loading will switch to concentric contraction and depending on where you place your gaze (or your breath), the body flows into another shape and towards another edge where other muscles will reach the end of their loading capacity and send you onwards, encouraging the “perpetual movement situation” sought by rowers or the “flow” we often talk about in yoga classes. This requires practice and patience to achieve, but the benefits of retaining and not wasting energy via this method of movement are many.

A nice and reasonably simple example of flowing through a vinyasa from edge to edge can be found in the transition of standing straight-legged with lifted arms (urdhva hastasana) to folding down into a standing forward bend (uttanasana). I am assuming no conscious concentric contraction - i.e. no pulled up thighs, no cinched-in core etc*, just relaxed body weight through both feet - and we will simplify the movements and remove the raised arms. By lifting the sternum upwards (not backwards), the front body will lengthen, specifically the superficial front line and the deep front line. Initially the front body extension will create a smooth curve through the front of the body and down into the thighs, with extended hip flexors. As you reach the end range of your sternum lift (and this will depend on your flexibility and the condition of your fascia), the deep front line will come to the end point of its eccentric contraction - its transition zone or its edge - and will start to concentrically contract, shortening the hip flexors and pulling your front body in on itself until you find yourself in a forward bend. 

Not everyone will feel this automatic transition to start with. It may need some time to open the body and create sufficient sensitivity that the transition zone can be both explored and experienced. Initially in this example you may feel it as a softening or drop downwards behind your navel, but it may not have sufficient power to bring you forward. With time however, a smoothness of flow encourages the switching off of the chatter of the mind, bringing you fully into your body.


In this article, I have discussed the role of yoga as I have experienced it within an athletic training programme; that it can have an impact on whether you can get into the positions your sport requires of you and can decrease the likelihood of injuries experienced by athletes. Looking deeper, we can begin to explore the transition zone of fascia and the proprioception at joints, leading to a greater understanding of our own body’s function and capabilities - and possibilities - taking us to a space where we can move with ease whilst conserving energy.

Finally, and most fundamentally, a yoga practice is at its best when it is fun and enjoyable - a session where you get to turn yourself upside down and balance on your head, or your hands and laugh when you reach that point just a fraction beyond your current edge and you fall over. There is a freedom to this kind of practice which can offer a relief within an intense training programme and a time to wind down and take a breath.

* I was first introduced to the concept of not consciously concentrically contracting muscles by Anatomy in Motion founder Gary Ward. By using an electronic foot scanner which measures your body’s sway in every direction whilst standing on a pressure pad, he was very quickly able to show me that we are much more unstable standing classical Tadasana style with pulled up legs, core etc. than simply standing relaxed on two feet with slightly flexed knees in a Qi Gong or a Tai Chi-style stance.

Ellie Coats is a yoga teacher, shiatsu practitioner and anatomy in motion (AiM) practitioner. She has worked with Cambridge University Lightweight Rowing Club for the past five seasons and taught yoga to Sophie Hosking (Olympic gold, lightweight women’s double sculls, London 2012), Steph Cullen and Imogen Walsh (both World Championship gold, lightweight women’s quad, Bled 2011) and their coach Paul Reedy from 2009. Ellie has had success with both injury prevention and treatment using all three practices she is trained in and, working in collaboration with coach John Thicknes, has developed methods which have helped ensure that there have been no significant injuries at CULRC for at least the past 3 seasons. You can reach Ellie at, and give her a follow on Twitter at @Elliesyoga