We want to believe in miraculous tricks and are always looking for shortcuts to success, but with respect to the basics of training and dietary habits we are badly lost. People easily get the wrong picture from traditional and social media as to what really matters. How often do you come across headlines like “Research-based fundamentals work: Invest in regular sleep, recommended physical activity and well-rounded nutrition”? Too rarely, I would argue. If one study out of ten comes up with a striking finding that deviates from the general recommendations or expert consensus, it instantly attracts attention in the media.

So what are the basics of training and nutrition?

Physical activity

For physical activity, I consider the following things to be essential:

  1. Goal setting is important for success. It is said that if you don’t know where you’re heading, you will probably end up somewhere else. A starting point for all training is that things are done with a safe technique that serves the goals.
  2. Overloading and ascending path. In training to maintain your present condition, the performance capacity and training load should be maintained diversely at least on the same level as before. In developmental training the load to the neuromuscular system should exceed that of the normal daily level.
  3. The body easily gets used to activity that is too repetitive. This means development is not endless even when practising with increasing loads. After a month or two, you need slightly modified new stimulus that enables continued development.
  4. No permanent gains are usually achieved by striving for quick results. Regular training is a prerequisite for development. However, the regularity principle does not mean that there could not be, say, a short break of a few weeks or lighter training periods each year.
  5. The basic principles of training are valid for nearly everyone, but precisely identical ways of training are not applicable to all, from beginners to experienced athletes. Many different goals and life situations have a great impact on training, and this should be taken into account.
  6. Succeeding in developmental training and overcoming various difficulties require mental strength. At times it is necessary to go beyond your comfort zone as well. Mental strength can also be trained.
  7. Pursue those forms of physical activity that you like, because they are more likely to develop into a way of life. One is not always keen on exercising or may lack the energy for it. In such situations a suitable activating boost may come from a coach, friend or spouse, for example.
  8. Even more important than all the individual principles is once again to remember the whole. Even perfect training cannot endlessly compensate for deficient nutrition, insufficient rest and sleep, overloads and stress originating from other spheres of life, or an unhealthy lifestyle. And however important one’s physical characteristics such as strength, endurance and speed may be for performance and functional capacity, they cannot endlessly compensate for the lack of skill, for instance.

Nutrition of a physically active person

As for diets, basic nutrition is more important than excessive tuning or over-sophistication with dietary supplements. People receive amino acids by eating protein, fatty acids by eating fat, and the glucose to fill the energy supplies for muscles by eating carbohydrates.

Here are a few basics:

  1. Awareness of the purpose and meaning of nutrition for the whole. For a physically active person, the aim for basic diet is to provide necessary energy for training and enable recovery as well as a flexible, food-enjoying lifestyle. There is reason for alarm if eating is made so difficult that it starts to undermine training and other life.
  2. Energy supply. The most important individual choice is an appropriate supply of energy in view of the circumstances and goals. An insufficient supply prevents some of the benefits from training and may eventually increase the risk of overloading or other exhaustion. On the other hand, excessive long-term energy intake makes people gain weight, and sometimes athletes have to consciously limit their energy intake, especially if losing some weight is essential for success in their sports.
  3. Carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Carbohydrates provide effective fuel for the human body. Fats or certain fatty acids are important in many bodily structures and functions, and also serve as energy sources in less intense training. However, the functional mechanisms and structures of our bodies consist mainly of proteins. Partly for this reason, a sufficient supply of protein is a cornerstone of adequate nutrition, and proteins are therefore often considered protective nutrients. Nonetheless, in recent years protein supply has been somewhat overemphasised, while hampering the supply of carbohydrates and fats as well as the culinary aspects of diet for some people. The whole is more important than the individual food elements.
  4. Sufficient amounts of protective nutrients, salt and liquids. We need to get a number of different vitamins, minerals and micronutrients from food to keep the body in good shape. Usually plain water is a suitable drink for thirst, but in very long-lasting sport activities in hot conditions with lot of sweating an extra supply of salt may be necessary.
  5. Adequate athletic flexibility. According to some studies, an appropriately flexible attitude to food and diet is a promotive factor in weight management, for example, while it also supports a sufficient supply of the energy needed in sports. However, exaggeration is seldom beneficial even in flexibility. Excessive flexibility with dietary habits may lead to obesity, health risks and ill-being in general.
  6. Well-roundedness. As we do not know precisely the health effects of all food substances, a well-rounded diet is the most reasonable option. This reduces the risk of getting too much or too little of anything.
  7. Suitable timing and rhythms of meals to support sport or other physical activity. The effect of timing and frequency of meals may have been overemphasised. In any case, it is essential that meals and their timing support, as well as possible, physical activity and related recovery and other aspects of life, including work and sleep.

The hints listed above are fairly general. There are surely many other successful ways, but it’s worth asking yourself whether the basics are in order before choosing any extraordinary training gadgets and exotic medicaments from far-away countries, or other ultimate design stuff.

Juha Hulmi’s books Lihastohtori I and Lihastohtori II can be bought from bookstores and online shops.

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