Bro, do you even research?

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Or, What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do.

This post has been written for my good friend and coaching colleague Dan Reis whom, among other endeavours, runs his online personal training business DNA Fitness Online.

Dan kindly invited me to write for him and asked if I could pen something that other personal coaches and fitness trainers would find useful. I had a number of ideas on what I wanted to write about, but one kept resurfacing: Research.

In creating this piece I decided I wanted to achieve two key things. The first is to provide some actionable tools and resources for you to use. You’ll find links to these throughout the text. The second is to throw the subject matter open a bit further. Whilst this post is primarily for personal coaches and fitness trainers (and is framed in that context), the principles, resources and tools within could be applied in almost any learning environment, field of study or workplace.

What Do You Know? 

As a coach you might be comfortable reading up on research articles, but for many of us the prospect of doing so can be daunting. Programming for clients with a lean body mass goal? No problem. Providing general nutritional recommendations? Easy. Then a client comes in and mentions that they’ve seen something online (they can’t remember where) which says if they do 30 repetitions of an exercise with a lighter weight for a short period of time then they’ll see larger longer-term gains. Would this help them? Or you have a client that has replaced sugar in their drinks with artificial sweeteners. They want to know if it’s a good thing to do as part of a weight loss goal? Suddenly the answers may not be so straightforward and clear-cut. You’re thinking you might need to dust off the textbooks or consult your online course notes to find out how best to respond. Or you might even have to do some research.

How Do You Know What You Know?

This is quite a deceptive question, so let it sink in. Take anything you know, anything you hold to be true. How do you know what you know? Let’s say you consider the deadlift to be the best exercise around for strengthening hamstrings. Or that you believe that a kettlebell is a great tool for performing a shoulder press. How do you know what you know? Perhaps you consider High Intensity Training (HIT) the best form of training. That it’s important to keep hydrated. How do you know what you know? 

Therefore it’s important to have awareness of two things:

  1. WHAT and HOW you think, and
  2. WHY you think that way.

The awareness these questions bring allows you to challenge your own thoughts and become curious about knowledge. How has my knowledge been produced? How do I know what I know? These questions may then lead you to think this: how is any knowledge produced? Here’s where research comes in.

Dunning Krueger Effect

Where To Start The (Re)Search

Before you start the research let’s take a step back. You’ve a client who has brought up a question for which you don’t have an immediate answer. Will you give them an immediate answer anyway? After all, the ‘fake it til you make it’ approach hasn’t turned into ‘fake it til you screw it up spectacularly’ …yet (see graph above for a somewhat more academic explanation of this phenomenon). Will you attempt to deftly side-step the query, get back to the round of press-ups that have been rudely interrupted by the question and hope the matter never ever comes up again? Or will you provide a ‘well, it depends’ answer and shut down the conversation faster than you can neck a protein shake on leg day? Maybe you would choose one of those options. However, if you’re faced with a situation where you genuinely don’t know what the answer to your client’s question is then I would recommend you start with this:

“I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you on this.  Would that be reasonable with you?” 

This response, whether it’s been in my fitness or financial career, has served me well on countless occasions. Here’s a few reasons why:

  • You’re admitting you don’t know. This may be counter-intuitive, especially as the client is paying you some of their hard-earned money to receive your advice and you’re conscious of coming across as the gym-floor idiot. But I strongly believe it’s doing the opposite; – that it’s building, maintaining and/or strengthening rapport between you and your client. You’re showing that you’re human too.
  • You’re taking responsibility. If there’s only one thing you take away from this post I would ask that it’s this: take responsibility. From an organisational perspective I’d never experienced upward delegation until I worked in a gym. It was frustrating and fascinating in equal measure. It never ceases to amaze me that a lot of coaches/instructors/trainers claim to be doing the work in order to help others yet at times cannot or do not address client or member concerns. That they need to pass the matter to someone else. Whenever this happens a great opportunity to show you care has been missed. From experience the opposite tends to happen. The magical, mystical ‘someone else’ might get the message. They might – if time and existing demands allow – look into the matter. They might even be able to reply. Here’s the fact: If you don’t actively take personal ownership and responsibility you might as well say, “I don’t care.” Whether you think it or not, irrespective of whether you like it or not, that’s how your lack of action is perceived. Trust me. I’ve had enough conversations with upset members and colleagues to know this. I’ve even taken on clients this way, not through my hard work but through someone else’s willingness to drop the ball. I could probably write a book, never mind an article, on this subject alone. I don’t want to, so please, take responsibility.
  • You’re setting expectations.You’re making it clear you’ll take action and that there will be an outcome. It may be that ultimately you come back to an ‘it depends’ response. But at least now you know why ‘it depends’ and perhaps the conversation evolves.
  • You’re seeking permission, creating accountability and creating deeper rapport. By asking if your planned course of action is reasonable you’re creating buy-in to what you propose. Whilst you’ll look into the matter further, your client feels that (i) you’ve listened to them, and (ii) knows what you’re going to be doing to some extent. They feel they’re part of the matter and will appreciate the efforts you go to. It’s rare that when you ask someone if what you plan to do for them is reasonable for them to object. You’ll almost always encounter approval for what you’re proposing to do.
  • You’re not only addressing the question, you’re also addressing the client and their needs.  And just for the sake of clarity, it’s vital you do the latter.

Back To The Research

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You have the unfathomable question from your client. You’ve made it clear that you’re going to have to look up the matter. Now what? Well if you’re wanting to delve deeper than your existing sources of knowledge then there are a few online options worth looking into. I’ve provided four such options below:

Google Scholar

Google Scholar works in much the same way as Google itself, with its’ searches focusing on academic publications and materials. To test it out I typed ‘tennis elbow’ into the search terms and the site produced a staggering 54,700 results. To narrow it down, the menu on the left hand side provides options to sort articles by date and whether you want to include patents or citations (Tip: for the best part you won’t want these so they can be unchecked). In my example doing so reduced the number of articles by over 10,000.

Examine.com

If you’re looking to do some specific research in regards to nutrition and supplementation then you might want to check out Examine.com. Go to their home page and type in your search terms. The website is extremely well organised and will give you key summarised information on your search term (I used ‘Coenzyme Q10’ as an example) as well as the number of references to the term in scientific papers (over 300 in this instance).

Public Library of Science

Taking a much wider approach is the Public Library of Science, with a myriad of scientific research. To give you some idea, I typed ‘fascia’ into the search field and the website produced 3,550 results. Out of interest I typed ‘foot fascia’ – even with such specifics the website contained 176 results.

PubMed

As with the other references, when you go to the PubMed home page, you simply put your search terms into the search field to obtain a list of results. A quick search for ‘Vitamin K side-effects’ brought up 4,268 results which can then be further sorted by date, type, whether you wish to review (i) an abstract, (ii) free full text, or (iii) full text, and species. In my example, simply selecting ‘humans’ removed over 600 results from the initial search.

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

Even when you find a research article or two you then need to make sense of them. It doesn’t need to be as harrowing an experience as you might be thinking it will be, especially if you choose to follow or use some of the information below.

When reviewing scientific research papers and articles I’ve used some of the techniques I discovered in ‘Brilliant Speed Reading‘ by Phil Chambers. Whilst the book can help you read faster, what I took from it was how to read smarter. In the book the author outlines where to focus your attention when it comes to scientific papers. Included in this are some of the following areas:

  • Title – What’s the paper about, is it appropriate for what you’re wanting to learn?
  • Abstract – The summary of the paper, its’ purpose, aims, methods, findings, etc
  • Key Definitions – These might be included. If not, or if there’s another term you don’t know then you can use a search engine such as Google to help you. Tip: A quick way to do this  – type ‘define:‘ in front of the particular word and then search the results. (Make sure you include the colon punctuation mark : if you do try this.)
  • Methods – For example, how did the researchers go about determining their population, how did they perform their research?
  • Results – What did the researchers observe? Were their observations expected or unexpected?
  • Conclusion – What have the researchers concluded? Do they recommend further research?
  • Citations – Details on any studies cited within the paper.

In addition to this it may be useful to look at any tables, graphs and/or diagrams that may be included in a research article as these tend to get to the core of the matter quicker than the written word. If there are shaded areas in the paper again this may be information that is summarised and therefore easier to grasp than wading through all the technical details.

When faced with a long section of information I will usually read the section heading and then the first and last paragraphs. Why? Chances are the key information; the introduction, summary and conclusion are in those two paragraphs. If I do then decide that I want to read the whole section then I have some context before I wade in.

Linked to this technique is something I refer to as ‘swim to the other side‘. If you wade into a section and feel like you’re getting out of your depth,  keep going. Don’t get hung up on the exact meaning and nuance of every single word. Instead try and gain an understanding of the key concepts and information. Try and absorb the main ideas. By the time you’ve reached the other side you may well understand more than if you’re treading water in the midst of the section.

Let’s Talk About Statistics

If digging into the technical details and statistical analysis of a research paper is something you want to do then I’d recommend reading the section on ‘Let’s Talk About Statistics‘ featured in this superb post by Tim Ferriss as a very good place to start learning about the concepts of p-value and null hypothesis.

Organising Your Research

Something that I’ve found helpful in reviewing research has been to use a matrix to write out my understanding and findings. I created such a matrix off the back of and in conjunction with my current studies and mentoring from Precision Nutrition. (That’s also the source of the disarmingly deceptive question.)  You can access and download a copy of it here.  Please feel free to do so.

I’ve created this matrix to be able to compare and contrast up to 4 research articles at any one time, to help me gather and organise my thoughts.  It’s essentially looking at research papers and articles from 5 perspectives.

  1. Comprehend – What are the main points in each study? What are the general findings? How would you summarise the studies in your own words?
  2. Analyse – Compare this (new) information to your existing understanding of the topic. What is new, different, contrary, etc to your previous understanding?
  3. Synthesise – When considered together, how do these studies add to your understanding of the topic?
  4. Evaluate – What conclusion(s) do you come to based on the (new) information?
  5. Apply – What key findings from these studies would you share with your audience?

Again, please feel free to use this resource, following the instructions at the top of the spreadsheet for creating and saving your own copy.

Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants

There’s one other precious source of information we might have a tendency to overlook, yet it may be one of the most beneficial to employ in our quest for knowledge – our peers and colleagues. How do they know what they know? There’s a good chance that they have reliable sources of information and can help you in your quest for knowledge. What’s more, they can make your learning come to life, discuss and challenge your thought processes. Don’t rely on them to do the work for you though, and ask more than once for their help if needs be. For they’re most likely very busy too and if you can demonstrate that you’ve taken some steps, no matter how small, to get to grips with the matter in question then the chances of receiving their input will increase greatly.

Over To You

Take anything you wish, from a long-held belief to the benefits of a certain exercise or training modality, and apply some of the options and resources above to it. How do you know what you know? How and why do you know that? What if there’s more to know? How can you find out more?  What if – heaven forbid – you have to reconsider your point of view altogether?

There’s only one way to find out…and you never know, you might even enjoy the learning process!

rest, recovery and ranieri

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‘My idea is that first of all the players need to recover and then to train’ – Claudio Ranieri.

At the time of writing this post, Leicester City FC are leading the English Premier League. In footballing terms, their rise from the bottom position of the table a year ago, avoiding relegation and now to be top of the league, is the stuff of fairy tales. Commentators, journalists and pundits have discussed, debated and argued over their rise and the means by which they have done it.  At the heart of the team’s success is their manager, Claudio Ranieri, a true gentleman of the game.

Last weekend I was listening on the radio to the build-up of a match and the subject of Leicester’s miraculous season was brought up again. Only this time I heard something new in the conversation. The panel were discussing what they, for the best part, regarded as something novel in Ranieri’s coaching methods- that he placed a greater emphasis on recovery than he did on training.

This got me thinking, not simply because I happen to agree with Ranieri’s approach, but because our default mind-set tends to be that in order to achieve something we need to work harder or work smarter. Yet how often do we rest harder, how often do we recover smarter?

The case for (more) rest and recovery

Exercise and movement exert stress on the body, and the extent to which they do is down to a number of factors, including the following:

  • existing level of fitness;
  • current volume of training;
  • current nutrition and hydration levels;
  • one’s mental and emotional state;
  • the intensity of the session; and
  • the amount and quality of rest and recovery beforehand and afterwards.

For the best part exercise related stress, the physical stress our body is placed under is very beneficial to us. It can help regulate energy balance, minimise or offset the potential adverse effects of lifestyle related illnesses and conditions, and elevate mood and metabolic processes to name but a few advantages.

However too much exercise, combined with inadequate rest and recovery, can lead to a host of problems in it’s own right. If you’re already feeling the effects of another stress on your body (eg: from illness) then, depending on the choice, duration and intensity of exercise, the stress effect of exercise could cause suppression of not only the exercise recovery process but the illness recovery process as well. The overall recovery time is increased despite best intentions to create the opposite outcome. Fatigue, susceptibility to illness, sleep, posture, diet – essentially your entire well-being – could all become compromised through this approach. To help make a further distinction on the matter it may be useful to think of your exercise sessions with respect to whether one is at the risk of ‘over-reaching’ or ‘over-training’.

Over-reaching versus Over-training

Over-reaching is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s more likely the result of one or two sessions for which the intensity was not best aligned with ability at that precise time. Over-reaching tends to be acute in duration. Over-training though is something you probably want to avoid. This occurs when there is a constant pushing of limits, when one may be ignoring the body’s warning signs.  Over-training is chronic in nature and duration and this can have adverse health implications, especially when it comes to our immune system.

The graph below, taken from an excellent article “Working Out When Sick” by Precision Nutrition, shows the relationship between infection (in this case upper respiratory tract infections) and exercise volume.

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Essentially some exercise is better than none or too much when considering the effects on the immune system. This isn’t to say that you can’t have an intense exercise session. Rather it’s important to ensure you have a strong rest and recovery protocol in place to compliment it.

My exercise rest and recovery strategy

With my own training I presently exercise on two consecutive days and then have a day off. At first glance I have a 2:1 work:recovery ratio, hardly in keeping with the content of this post. However, in terms of days, I actually have a 1:2 work:recovery ratio. How so? I do this by training between, for example, 8am and 9am on Day 1, and then between 7am and 8am on Day 2. With Day 3 as a rest day, and knowing that I will train again at 8am on Day 4, I’ve given myself a 48-hour period of recovery. In my two training sessions there is only one exercise that I incorporate into my plan for both days, so even within my sessions I vary my routine to assist with recovery. Why? The reasons are that I want to be able to train injury-free, for my training to be effective, and in line with my current goals. Right now this strategy works for me. At the end of this month I will take a week away from my physical training to allow my body to have time for further repair and growth. I also monitor my Heart Rate Variability (I’ll be posting on this in the near future) on a daily basis so that I can address any unexpected variances that may otherwise impair my rest and recovery.

Within each session I’ve one eye on my goals for that session and one eye on rest and recovery. Here’s some of the strategies I use:

  1. I always turn up with a pre-written plan of the session. For me, I’ve started training the moment I’ve committed the plan to paper as I try to internalise the plan.
  2. I run through a series of fascial mobilisers at the outset of the session to check in and see how my body wants to move in the here and now. With this feedback I can decide whether my plan is line with my body. If not, I adjust where necessary.
  3. Within the session if I feel I need a longer rest between sets then I take it. I don’t compromise quality or technique over time.
  4. I always perform a cool down, either stretches, use of a vibration plate/platform and/or a walk afterwards.
  5. I eat as soon as is practical after my training. (I personally find it difficult to take on nutrients when training and so prefer to simply have water.)

Summary 

The emphasis of this post has been more on the physical aspect of performance yet the principles can be applied to most endeavours. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve solved a matter that was challenging me when I’ve not been consciously working on it, when I’ve stepped away from it. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences. I take regular breaks when I study. In writing this post I’ve taken a break from it several times. I’ve gone from the physical (note taking) to the digital (computer) and back again throughout the process of creating it, allowing the rest from one medium to inspire the work on the other.

Do plan appropriate rest and recovery into your work and I’m sure you’ll be more energised, productive and happier with your subsequent achievements. So far at least, it’s working for Claudio and his team too!

when’s best to make a change?

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Changing habits for the better and making resolutions to improve your life is something we’ve all done. Some seem harder to begin (let alone achieve) than others, and part of this may be down to when we start. I’m a firm believer in simply deciding to make the change and taking some immediate, positive action. However that’s not for everyone; it’s not always possible and sometimes change takes a bit of planning. Subsequently – in the western world at least – we tend to use Monday as the start of a fresh week, Monday’s the day to quit the bad habit and start the good one.

My suggestion is to make that day a Friday instead of Monday.

Why?

I suggest Friday as most of us tend to have a weekend free of our working obligations, we tend to have more time for ourselves. It suddenly becomes a lot easier to maintain and reinforce the positive change when our usual daily demands are lessened. Then, when Monday rolls around, we’re already into the fourth day of the new habit we’re establishing. As a result there’s not the same feeling of trying to get through the week that exists with a change that is instigated on a Monday.

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Over To You

What is one thing you would like to change to improve the quality of your life? Could you make a start, take the first step, however small, today? I look forward to your comments and have a fun and healthy weekend.

how you like them apples? 10 practical ideas to help kickstart your nutritional choices.

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If there’s one thing we all have an opinion on then it’s nutrition. I see that as a good thing; it indicates that we do take, to a greater or lesser degree, an interest in the food we eat.

This post was born out of a question a co-worker asked me a few years ago when I worked in finance, and studied health and fitness in the hours in between all of life’s other requests. Essentially, my colleague wanted to reduce weight and burn more calories. He had the gym-work down, but the food-plan was a minefield. It is for a lot of us. It seems you only have to turn on the TV or read an article to discover that last week’s superfood is this week’s one-way express ticket to the hereafter.

So to help my colleague I wrote down ten tips on nutrition and sent them on to him. Then a cool thing happened. Not only was he really grateful for the suggestions but he wondered if he could share them with the rest of his team? He’d told them what I’d written and they were curious. I was more than happy for this to happen. Before I knew it the email was around the company and staff were as likely to come over and ask me questions on diet as they were about cashflow statements.

Here are the 10 tips. (By the time I still have them you’ll know I didn’t put them together on company time. In hindsight perhaps I could have and claimed I was helping with corporate wellness!) I’ve kept them as close to the original email as possible.

(Note: Whilst I hold a Precision Nutrition certification I do not claim to be a nutritionist. Therefore you may wish to consult your doctor or primary health care provider before making any dietary changes.)

  1. keep it simple –  I believe it’s more realistic to take the view to change 100 things 1% than one thing 100%. Take your time with making any changes. Experiment. If something works for you keep it. If it doesn’t, simply ditch it and move on.

  2. portion control – This goes for food and drink. It’s about cutting down calorific intake gradually (e.g. 6 coffees a day to 5, 3 bags of crisps a day to 2, pizza only one night a week instead of twice). If this is something you feel you need to do then you may be surprised to see how suddenly something you thought you couldn’t do without becomes manageable (e.g. 6 coffees a day eventually becomes 1, if not zero). Does all the food on the plate/serving need to be eaten? Many people do this, whether through a sense of obligation/manners/guilt, etc. Listen to your body.

  3. hungry or thirsty? – Often what we think of as hunger could be thirst. Take something healthy to drink. If you still feel hungry 30 minutes later then do have something to eat. Either way, as before, listen to your body. In the same way that one shouldn’t overeat, one shouldn’t over hydrate. Linked to this, one of the reasons people may be prone to overeating is because despite the fact that they have eaten, the body has not been able to begin to absorb nutrients from the food. so the body is still in ‘hungry’ mode. By the time the body has been able to begin to break down the foods an excess has most likely already been consumed. A potential solution to this is to have soup (as a starter); the nutrients are more quickly absorbed by the body and therefore the feelings of hunger dissipate faster meaning that the chances of overeating are reduced.

  4. choices and options – This is where it becomes interesting. And, possibly, confusing. Processed and ready-made, or buying the ingredients and cooking? Organic or not? White bread or brown bread? Full fat or reduced fat? The list of questions goes on and on. The answers however are usually common sense. Quite literally, go with your gut! An area worth paying specific attention to is the products which advertise themselves as being low in fat. To compensate there is a likelihood that such products are probably higher in sugars, which leads me on to my next point.

  5. read the ingredients labels – Know what you’re putting into your body.

  6. eat colourful – Have a variety of colours on your plate. (The flip side of this: if you happen to watch any of the weight loss programmes on TV then, more often than not, when the person’s diet is literally laid before them on a table the overriding colour of the food is brown.)

  7. cooking methods – Avoid frying if possible, but if you have to use only a tiny amount of oil. Steaming is best, followed by grilled and oven baked. Obviously it depends on what it is you are cooking as to the best method for that item.

  8. eat properly – This is not about ‘what’ to eat, rather ‘how‘ to eat. To help one’s body absorb the nutrients of food faster always ensure it is properly ingested. (i.e. take time to chew food properly). Sounds easy, yet how often do we rush our meals? This goes back to the over-eating point above.

  9. discover new foods – This is a personal favourite. Go to a different food shop or supermarket. Or take a walk down differing aisles in your current food store. Find something new and work out what the hell to do with it.

  10. enjoy your food and drink – In many ways the most important tip. After all, if you feel that what you are choosing to eat is in some way a form of deprivation then it won’t be good for your emotional and mental states. Have fun when trying new, and hopefully healthy, food.

If  you find any of the above useful or actionable I’d love to hear how you get on, and if there’s anyone you think might benefit from this tips then please do pass them on.