Saturday, November 23, 2013

What's up with the Spuds? Super Food or Fat Magnet...

Thanksgiving is a holiday best known for food. The options are abundant and there is always something at the buffet that can satisfy even the pickiest of eaters.  One of the staples of the Thanksgiving meal is potato.  Mashed potato with gravy, roasted/candied sweet potato and even sweet potato pie, at least one of these options will likely be on your dinner table. And while I would encourage you to eat these options on Thursday if you enjoy them should you shun the humble spud the rest of the year?

Due to fad diets and the media craze with low-carb and Paleo eating the potato has taking a mashing over the years.  The sweet potato is assumed by many to be a super food while the plain old white potato is viewed less favorably. But has it been unfairly targeted?

We have been lead to believe that a potato is akin to a large sugar cube causing a spike in blood sugar and a rush of insulin that often results in fat gain. So the question that is often asked, will eating potatoes make me “fat?” I sincerely doubt that your diet is so clean that eating potatoes would lead to fat gain.

Take a close look at all of the food that you eat. Once you have cut out all the sugary drinks, chips, candy and all the other highly processed treats and meals then we can have a conversation about potatoes but until that time don’t waste your valuable time worrying about it.

That said we rarely eat potatoes in their natural state. Baked potatoes are layered with processed bacon, sour cream and cheese. French fries are cooked in rancid vegetable oils, as are potato chips. So it’s more likely it’s the stuff you eat with the potatoes that are contributing to poor heath outcomes.

I am also not advocating eating plain potatoes because that’s a sure fire way to discourage anyone from eating a food that actually possesses powerful health benefits. If you have a baked potato cover it with guacamole and salsa. Slice up some potato wedges and toss them in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sea salt and thyme and roast in the oven for homemade delicious fries. My personal favorite is to dice up sweet potato and toss them in coconut oil and pumpkin pie spice and roast them. These are just a few examples of how you can use potatoes to compliment a nutritious meal.

Another point to consider is that potatoes may actually help in your weight loss efforts! Have you ever eaten a whole baked potato? If so could you have eaten two? Probably not because a potato does a nice job of satisfying your hunger and filling you up. As a result you’re less prone to over-indulge. So long as you avoid loading that baked spud with processed man-made junk it’s a great option for dieters.

Still not convinced because you just can get over the idea that potatoes have a high glycemic index?
The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly glucose appears in the bloodstream after eating a specific amount of a carbohydrate dense food.
It’s thought that higher GI foods are more likely to lead to blood sugar and insulin management problems.  While lower GI foods are better for sugar and insulin management. White potatoes (and sweet potatoes) score fairly high on the GI scale.  In fact, both foods score higher than table sugar. Because of the relatively high GI of potatoes, some people avoid them for fear of blood sugar swings and insulin problems.  However, the GI is only valid when a food is eaten by itself.  And most foods eaten with potatoes (meat, vegetables, etc) lower the GI of the entire meal significantly, making the meal a low glycemic index one and negating these concerns.

Get beyond “good foods” and “bad foods”. Instead, ask: Does this food add value to my body? Does it nourish me and benefit me? Both potatoes and sweet potatoes can be a valuable part of your healthy diet especially if you’re including lean proteins, healthy fats, other vegetables and fruits, and naturally occurring fiber in your diet. You’re probably also active, which helps your body process carbohydrates better. This means that GI is not the only thing you should consider when judging the “healthiness” of a food. And it also means that most healthy and active people can eat potatoes and sweet potatoes just fine.

When eaten as whole, minimally processed foods, both potatoes and sweet potatoes are nutrient-dense.

Check your sweet potatoes. Is there a piecrust underneath them or marshmallows on top of them?

Can you even see that baked potato underneath the mound of sour cream and cheese?

Hmm… then maybe not such an ideal choice.
But if you see broccoli and perhaps a nice grass-fed steak, or wild-caught salmon, or some beans with those tubers… go for it!
A little bit of healthy fat with sweet potatoes in particular will help you absorb their vitamin A.

Both regular potatoes and sweet potatoes are healthy, awesome, and delicious heritage foods that contain vitamins and minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients.
You can eat and enjoy both, regardless of your goals.

 Potato Facts and Notes:

While some proclaim that potato consumption in North America is excessive, it isn’t.  Americans consume more desserts than potatoes.
On average, adults consume 36 – 93 calories from fresh potatoes per day (depending on gender).  Meanwhile, we eat 138 calories daily, on average, from cookies, cakes and other grain-based desserts.
Fresh potato consumption has decreased over the past 40 years.
1970: 61 lbs.
1996: 50 lbs.
2008: 36 lbs.
Processed potato consumption (e.g., French Fries, potato chips, etc) has increased during this same time period. [1]

To digest both potatoes and sweet potatoes, we have to break down and release the starch stored inside their cells. Because some of that starch is resistant starch, this breakdown takes time and effort, so although both potatoes and sweet potatoes are high in carbs, they don’t act the same way in our body as high-carb processed foods.

GI changes with food preparation. Boiling usually results in a lower GI, since starch can bind with water. The dry heat of baking, on the other hand, lowers moisture and concentrates sugars. Cutting up potatoes and sweet potatoes helps preserve their starchiness, while cooking them whole results in more sugariness.

I recommend both potatoes and sweet potatoes, because including both:
Provides “carb variety”; helps people feel psychologically satisfied and physically satiated; helps give people steady, slow-burn energy; and helps people feel “normal” when changing their dietary habits (because potatoes and sweet potatoes are familiar foods).

I recommend starting with a baseline of 1 (moderately active individuals) to 2 (highly active individuals) cupped handfuls of starchy carbs per meal.

Observe how YOU feel after eating a given food. Do you feel invigorated or immobilized after a potato or sweet potato? Satisfied or starving? Full of long-lasting energy or napping in the corner? Lean and light or heavy and sluggish? Gather data and act accordingly. Potatoes might not be a fit if you answer any of the above questions negatively but don’t jump to conclusions because you have to account for what you are eating with the potatoes.

According to the Environmental Working Group, it’s probably wise to choose organic potatoes. *  Check out this short video and this young lady just may convince you to go with the organic varieties:


In the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday I have added a few fun recipes that are sure to please adults and kids alike.

Related info.

Regular versus Sweet what potatoes are the healthier options?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Most Effective Way to Test the Progress of Young Athletes...

The mere mention of the word TEST is enough to make even the most prepared student a little anxious and nervous. In the world of sports there are plenty of ways to quantify an athletes standing using tests that measure performance qualities like speed (40-yard dash), power (vertical jump), strength (Maximum dead-lift) and endurance (1-mile run). The results can be useful as far as comparing one athlete’s results against those of other competitors within their sport. That said it is extremely important that the test be relevant to the sport in question and even more specifically a certain position within that sport. For example the 1-mile run for a football player really won’t tell you much about their ability to perform well in that sport but measures of speed and strength are definitely relevant.

Testing can also be useful to measure progress for an individual athlete not only to monitor their progress but also to provide coaches with quantifiable data that lets them evaluate the effectiveness of their program. If a coach thinks his team needs to improve their speed and he focuses his training on that quality he should measure periodically to find out if indeed the team is getting faster. If they are getting faster but it hasn’t helped improve on field-performance it’s time to reevaluate team needs. The data has demonstrated that speed was likely not the limiting factor in team performance and rather than beating his head against the wall wondering why the team isn’t improving the coach now has data that tells him he may need to look at other performance qualities.

Testing results can also let athletes know where they stand in relation to the top competitors within their sport. If all of the best running backs in the NFL run a 4.4 40-yard dash, vertical jump 36 inches and bench press 225 pounds 25 times then you have decent idea of where you need to be from a physical standpoint to become on of the top running backs. Here is where things can get interesting though there is no correlation between top testing performances and elite athletes in sports. At the annual NFL scouting combine they test everything and evaluate the athletes with an extremely critical eye while collecting a ton of data on the athletes. And inevitably it doesn’t mean a thing!

The most important ingredient required for becoming a great athlete can’t be quantified with data or even the most seasoned scouting eye.  The most important element of success in sports is intrinsic motivation! The individual’s ability to consistently grind and compete in an all out effort to master the limits imposed by their craft/sport and their physical and mental self.  The will to compete and improve is vital and you have to want what it is that you are working for more than anyone else. Parents, coaches, teammates can push you all they want but without the desire and will to be your best their efforts will only lead to frustration for all involved.

So should we ever test, even academically? Of course, because it can be useful but we can’t put all of our eggs in that basket because what does it really measure? Who designs the test and what are they looking for? I am not going tackle a societal issue here but we always hear that America is falling behind the rest of the globe in-terms of ingenuity and academics. Maybe it’s time for some folks to turn a critical eye toward their tests and find out if what they measure actually means anything.  For a more thorough vetting of this issue I highly recommend this read:

So why not use tests to show off certain qualities rather than using the test to dictate what qualities we should be looking to improve. We should use tests to celebrate kids, an opportunity for them to show their stuff!

In my athletic development programs I have put together a testing and promotion system similar to that of the belts system in Martial Arts. It is based upon chronological age and developmental age.  At 17 years-old kids are able to express skills that remain very elusive for a 12 year-old who is able to demonstrate skills that would be elusive to the still relatively raw 7 year-old.  At each stage of development what would you like to see from the child?

For a 7 year-old I want to see if they posses the basics such as coordination and rhythm, a skip would be a worthwhile exercise. For the 12 year-old I want to see if they use their coordination in a more refined way. I may ask them to stand on their right foot reach for a ball on the ground with their left hand and toss the ball toward a target in front of them. The 17year-old I would like to see them express their coordination with strength and explosiveness. I may have them run backwards toss a ball to them that they must jump high to catch and upon landing sprint with the ball to a cone.

I know when a child is doing well and is ready for the next step in their development and using tests as a “carrot” or as motivational tool to improve is something with merit. When an athlete has consistently demonstrated in their training that they have “owned” certain skills I will come up with 5-6 exercises that will allow them to show-off their recently refined skills. I will then hold a testing and promotion event that includes parents, relatives, friends and other athletes from the program some of whom may be quite a bit younger or quite a bit older. This is excellent for positive role modeling, it provides the older kids with a platform to be a leader and the younger kids look up to them and see what they can become through hard work and dedication.

Now here is the important part, the athlete has already passed test before they even step foot on the gym floor for the demonstration! Why? Because they have already proven over months of training that they can consistently perform the skills. I know they can do it so the test shouldn’t matter. It may add an element of stress and anxiety, all the more reason to test in this way. They eventually discover that being tested is not a big deal.  They tell themselves “I have done this before, I’ve got this” and they are in a supportive environment that is full of enthusiasm and energy. The young athletes grow to love and can’t wait for the next testing day. In a sense you are developing them to be “clutch” performers.

If I test and they don’t do well it doesn’t matter, so they had a bad day. We should focus on the process and celebrate them for being attentive to that. The test is just a moment in time. The real goal of the program is to make them better over the long haul and that comes from consistent practice and progressively challenging their boundaries when developmentally appropriate. Commitment and dedication are the keys to success in any endeavor let’s celebrate and test that!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Top Priority for Young Athletes

I never limit myself when it to comes to developing young athletes but certain restraints exist that I must not ignore to provide the training they need while also preparing them for long-term success.
On average I work with a young athlete once a week for 50 minutes so I must be judicious with the type of training I provide to them. Usually they are playing a sport at the time with a lot of running (endurance work) and sport specific skill practice so I don’t even go there, and in the sport specific skill department I never will because their coaches are better qualified to do so.
So with limited time and keeping the long-term view in mind what do I devote my attention to?
The answer is movement quality and efficiency a.k.a. speed, skill and agility. I want my athletes to posses’ tremendous raw athleticism that can be applied and utilized in any sport/athletic setting. I have interviewed several top college coaches and asked them “what are you looking for in high school athletes?” and inevitably they tell me they want kids that are fast and skilled, “we can always get them bigger and stronger!” [1] They understand that once that window of opportunity for skill acquisition is missed it’s pretty much closed off permanently. Size, strength and endurance are qualities that can be improved upon throughout most of adulthood. But reactive ability, speed, agility and raw athleticism must be developed from a young age in order to be fully optimized.
Need more convincing?
A recently released study by Stodden and Galitski * examined the longitudinal effect of a college strength/conditioning program incorporating speed, strength, and agility drills over a 4-year period. In a longitudinal study subjects are followed over time with continuous or repeated monitoring of certain factors in this case speed, strength, agility, endurance and body mass variables.
The aim of this study was to determine the changes in body type measures and athletic performance over a 4-year eligibility career of American football players. The positions were Offensive Linemen (OL) and Defensive Linemen (DL) and skill players—wide receivers and defensive backs (WR/DB).
Assessment included body type measures of body mass, height, and percent body fat. Strength assessment included bench press, squat, and power clean; muscle endurance involved the number of 225-lb bench press repetitions; power included the vertical jump (JV); and speed assessment used a 40-yd sprint.
In general, strength increased significantly over time for both linemen and skill positions, however, measures of maximum power and speed did not. Percent body fat decreased significantly in linemen but not in skill positions, primarily because first-year linemen tended to report over fat, whereas skill players reported in a very lean condition.
It’s also interesting to note that the most significant changes occurred between years one and two.  These positive changes were largely in the areas of strength, endurance, and body composition. The OL/DL gained mass but also lost fat while the WR/DB also gained mass while remaining lean. This early boost is likely due to the fact that athletes are now exposed to high-level programs with the means to provide sophisticated physical training protocols within multimillion-dollar training facilities under the watch of expert strength and conditioning personnel. In addition to an emphasis on the physical aspects, many universities employ nutritionists and psychologists to develop individuals to their potential.
Below is the conclusion from the authors of the study based upon their findings:
Research suggests that with the exception of reducing fat weight, significant increases in speed are difficult to achieve. These data suggest that speed cannot be significantly improved in elite athletes over 4 years of training. In the present study, speed improvement in linemen was only 2.7% and in WR/DBs was 1.7%. The larger change in linemen was positively correlated with a reduction in fat.
While, maximal voluntary strength output and upper-body muscle endurance can be significantly increased over years of appropriate training, the variables constituting maximum power output and speed do not exhibit similar changes in 4 years of high-level training. It is noteworthy to mention that recruited players should already possess superior power and speed because these variables are particularly difficult to positively alter in 4 years of training at the college level. *
So despite having access to elite strength and conditioning programs in an environment with outstanding training facilities and far superior nutrition than consumed in high school, even with all of these variables in the athletes’ favor speed and explosiveness did not improve much if at all. And while the linemen did improve their speed slightly it was largely due to the loss of body fat. 
Not only do we have anecdotal evidence (the coaches told me what they are looking for), which in my mind is just as important because coaches know better than anyone what it takes to be an elite athlete, we also have hard evidence from the scientists. Taken together the emphasis for developing young athletes should be on speed, agility and movement/sport skill.
There will always be exceptions to the rule such as an extremely fast wide receiver that is easily bumped off his routes because he lacks strength or a pitcher who loses 10 MPH off of his fastball after throwing 50 pitches because he lacks sufficient endurance. But for the most part movement efficiency and skill are commodities that are in high demand and will never go out of style. Do you recall the last time a broadcaster remarked that wow that guy/girl was way to fast and missed the play… Never happens, but athletes that missed making a play by a step because they just weren’t fast or quick enough? You hear and see that all the time!
And I am not talking about having kids do rigid speed and agility drills with a heavy emphasis on technique. In my mind that type of training will actually make them rigid and stifle their instinctive athleticism.  We need to put them in positions and expose them to environments where they are forced to react and do what comes natural. Children have an innate sense of what is right and if forced to react quickly will position their bodies and apply forces that allow them to be fast and agile.
It is very important to understand that when coaching children there are certain stages in their development that must adhere to the “laws of nature” to optimally develop them as young athletes specifically and competent life long movers generally. As a crude example before you can run or leap you must first learn to crawl as it contains all of the fundamental movement patterns that serve as the foundation for these more advanced movements.
As a general rule very young children (in most cases under age 9) should engage in free play to develop fundamental movements skills (running, jumping, throwing, climbing…). Once those skills have been added to their toolbox they can begin to refine those fundamental movement skills. Around the age of 9-14 are the so-called “skill hungry” years. At this stage of development children begin to refine the raw athletic skills of running, throwing and jumping by doing them faster, farther and higher while also demonstrating control (change of direction, accuracy, and touch) over these skills when required.  In the late teen years, around 15+ years of age, the athletic skills refined in the previous stage are now best-applied and used in sport specific settings. For example instead of running as fast as you can and putting the brakes on to change direction you add in the element of reacting to an opponent while attempting to catch a thrown ball. Or as a thrower rather than throwing at predetermined target you know practice fielding a ball while moving to your right, planting and making an accurate throw across your body.
If any of these stages are skipped athletes will lack the foundation to apply the more advanced sport specific skills. It’s like trying to shoot a canon from a canoe! You may be strong and posses plenty of raw power but without the platform to support it that strength and power will land flat.
Phil Loomis
Youth Athletic Development/Nutrition Specialist

Monday, November 4, 2013

What All the Top College Programs are Looking for...

Whenever we decide to take a long journey it is very important to make sure you have an accurate map to get you where you want to go on time and safely.  Many young athletes dream about playing sports in college and even the pro’s.  This dream can be a reality with the right combination of dedication, discipline, hard work, natural talent and some good fortune here and there.  However even if you are able to maximize these elements it may not be enough.  If it were easy to become a college athlete it wouldn’t be much of a dream would it?

According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, only between 3.3% and 6.4% (depending upon sport) of all high school varsity baseball, basketball, football, and soccer athletes will go on to play collegiately.

It doesn’t require a great leap of faith to realize that our youth sports fields should not be viewed as proving grounds for future athletic conquests for most participants.  That said, I think it’s great that kids have lofty goals and strive to become the best at their given sport of choice.  Even though they may come up short the experience and skill they acquire along their journey will benefit them the rest of their lives (leadership, self-efficacy, discipline, goal-setting, teamwork, dealing with adversity, etc.).

Never one to discourage a child, over the next few weeks I will lay out a game plan or a map that will show you the most efficient way in my experience to develop the complete athlete.  The complete athlete is developed gradually from the point of a basic movement education (like elementary school) on to a highly skilled sport specialist (college masters program).  If you decide to skip the elementary education (jumping, running, climbing, kicking, crawling, etc.) and jump right into more advanced classes (sport specialization) your limitations will eventually be exposed in the latter stages of development when the competition is more intense.

Many young athletes will try workout programs that their friends, teammates, or favorite pros endorse.  This is no way to start your journey!  Even if you happen to stumble upon something you think “works,” how can you be sure something isn’t being left out?  Basing exercise selection on whether or not you can feel the burn is not a good strategy.

Most training programs are nothing more than a few “cool” exercises that are thrown together just to see what sticks.  Everybody else is doing it right?  Again, this type of strategy is not a recipe for success.  I will be your guide on this journey and show you how to base exercise selection on what the individual athlete requires most.  Function (how the body moves) rather than form (how the body looks), will be our trusted compass on the journey.

A compass is objective because it shows us the direction we are heading in; it’s a simple tool that is not subject to emotion or opinion.  We may not like where the compass is leading us but it is necessary to address weaknesses before building upon strengths.
Many times young athletes want to get right to the fun stuff during practice like shooting the ball, swinging the bat, or throwing the ball.  But the good coaches almost always emphasize the fundamentals during practice.  This is the coaches’ time to refine the weaknesses in an attempt to make the team more complete.  A team that is complete is less likely to be exposed and will have more opportunities to display their strength.

Before we start our journey I thought it might be fun to find out what college strength and conditioning coaches (SCC) are looking for in young prospects.  Dr. Toby Brooks is an Assistant Professor, Athletic Training at Texas Tech University.  He asked 10 top NCAA Division 1 SCC three simple questions:

1. What are you looking for in an athlete?
2. What is the most common area of deficiency?
3. What are high school and private coaches doing right?  And wrong?

1. These coaches are looking for…
Vertical leap/broad jump
Not strength (they think they can fix this)
Capacity for improvement

2. What is the most common area of deficiency?
Posterior chain (upper back, glutes, muscles you can’t see in the mirror)
Hip flexibility

3. What are high school/private coaches doing right/wrong?
The Good…
More in tune with the college strength and conditioning type methods
Good foundation established within athletes for the SCC to build upon
The not so good…
Importance of combine/showcase numbers and performances
Sport Specificity vs. Athleticism

What does all this mean?

Top college programs want complete athletes not combine or weight room heroes.
Speed and agility is best attained in the developmental years.
Work on the non-mirror muscles, more dead lifts and pull-ups, less squatting and bench pressing.
Stretching is not for just for the ladies.
College recruiters are more interested in how an athlete moves not how they look or how much they can squat or bench!

How can you get all of this done efficiently and effectively?  The quest begins next week.

Dr. Toby Brooks is also Director of Education and Research for the International Youth Conditioning Association.  I am a member of the organization and Dr. Brooks was willing to share his research with me.