Obstacle Races: Get Down and Get Dirty

By Anne Rex, DO, FAOASM

From the Warrior Dash to the Tough Mudder, these are fun individual and team-building events — but they take special preparation.

Whether you want to break the monotony of your workout routine or you're searching for a new challenge, look no further than an obstacle race. Increasing in popularity these days, mixing up trail, mud and terrain running with a series of mentally and physically challenging obstacles creates the perfect change of pace for recreational athletes. There are a variety of races from which to choose, including Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash and Spartan Race. They vary in number and difficulty of obstacles as well as distance, but all emphasize teamwork, camaraderie and fun. They share a common goal of creating that memorable "check off the bucket list" type of experience with less emphasis on winning.

Working with other teammates and competitors, each obstacle provides a challenge (think mud pits, fire, barbed wire, water or heights), which often get more difficult as you proceed. While you are able to skip obstacles or drop out at any time, as the race goes on, each participant becomes more vested in finishing. Signing up for one of these races is easy. Finishing is another story! Celebrating the completion of the race covered in mud, sweat and tears is a major accomplishment, with most events providing a post-race party at the finish line.

What You Need to Know

It can be extremely motivating to have a goal and reach it. However, preparation is key. Keep in mind that these are physically exhausting races with course design modeled after the U.S. military and/or British Special Forces. You don't have to train for them like a marathon, but at a minimum, you should be acclimated to running the distance you sign up for.

To get ready to tackle these fitness challenges, you should ideally combine running with strength training, core strength and balance to optimize performance. Many obstacles require strength to climb, pull, crawl, jump or reach. Besides physical challenges, other obstacles can also be mentally challenging, like jumping from a height or running or crawling while trying to avoid low-current electrical wires.

Understand that you assume all risk (and will sign an extensive waiver prior to participation), so you need to know your limitations. Whether you have a known underlying medical condition, current injury or fear (of heights, water), using common sense to skip obstacles or drop out (no penalty) will ensure your safety. Accept all offers for assistance from fellow competitors along the way. And seek medical attention if needed. Sustaining an injury would certainly ruin the fun and could seriously sideline your regular exercise routine.

If you go online, you can find these races in many U.S. cities and international locations. Part of the fun might be signing up for one in a place you've never been. And some of the adventure races also offer scaled-down obstacles for the kids (ages 14 and up).

All in all, these races are a challenging form of exercise, combining teamwork, mental toughness and fun. Sign up with friends, coworkers or family and proceed together as a force to be reckoned with. Look out for one another, help each other through the obstacles and make sure everyone is safe. Get a picture at the end, and don't forget to get your swag helmet or headband once the race is over — you've earned it.

Anne Rex, DO, FAOASM, is a Cleveland Clinic Sports Medicine and Exercise physician. She specializes in sports-related musculoskeletal injuries, medical management of orthopaedic issues and adolescent back pain. She sees patients at the Willoughby Hills Family Health Center and the Mentor Medical Office Building.

The Right Diet Can Make You a Stronger Athlete: Help Keep Inflammation at Bay and Fight Ailments

By Katherine Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD

The health benefits of choosing whole foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains over processed foods are nearly endless. One of the primary benefits of these nutrient-rich foods is that they can reduce inflammation in the body.

Exercise can cause acute or short-term inflammation, which is normal. A proper diet helps keep this inflammation under control. What is most concerning is the potential for chronic inflammation as a result of poor diet, stress and/or improper or overtraining. This combination puts you at higher risk for injury and illness.

Reducing inflammation in your body can help you train more consistently, recover faster from injuries, perform at your highest level and ultimately prevent chronic disease. Let's take a closer look at how food combats inflammation.

Carbohydrates, protein and fat are your sources of energy (carbs), the building blocks of cells (protein) and the means to absorb vitamins (fat). Both vitamins and minerals play a crucial role in muscle contraction, blood flow, tissue repair and healing. Some are more important than others.

About Carbohydrates

Choose whole-grain starches, fresh whole fruits and vegetables. These are more nutrient-dense and contain a plethora of vitamins and minerals necessary to maintain and improve health.

Consume a variety of colorful fruits, vegetables and grains from week to week to obtain the most nutritional bang for your buck.

Limit refined starches (white versions) and added sugars (white or brown sugar, soda, energy drinks). These less nutrient-dense foods promote inflammatory symptoms such as weight gain and elevated blood glucose and lipid levels.

About Protein

Choose skinless poultry, fish, eggs, legumes and fat-free Greek yogurt. These are quality sources of protein, as well as additional sources of calcium, vitamin D, probiotics and unsaturated fat.

Limit high-fat red meat such as prime rib, bacon and sausage, as well as processed meats like bologna, salami and hot dogs. These are higher in saturated fat, which if consumed in excess will increase inflammation.

About Fat

Choose monounsaturated and omega-3 fats, which are thought to neutralize inflammation. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil, avocados and nuts. Research shows consumption of these fats is associated with decreased risk of heart disease and cancer, which are associated with inflammation.

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in wild salmon and tuna, walnuts, and ground flaxseed. Omega-3 is an essential fat that our bodies cannot make. We must obtain it from dietary sources or supplements. Research shows that this form of fat can decrease inflammation associated with exercise.

Limit saturated fat. This includes butter, whole milk, cheese, high-fat red meat and skin on poultry. Our bodies only require a small amount; therefore, daily excess intake will exacerbate the inflammatory response.

Avoid trans fat altogether. This includes prepackaged baked goods, flavored coffee creams (liquid and powder), some brands of shelf-stable peanut butter, and chocolate- or yogurt-coated snacks.

There is no safe level of trans fat. It decreases good cholesterol and not only raises bad cholesterol (considered pro-inflammatory) but recycles and reuses it.

Katherine Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD, is a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics for Cleveland Clinic Sports Health. To schedule an appointment, call 216.444.3046.

Supplement Recommendations

Vitamin A: 10,000 IU daily for one to two weeks post-injury may enhance healing

Vitamin C: 1-2 g daily temporarily during intense training or if recovering from minor injury

Copper: 2-4 mg daily during the first few weeks of injury recovery (adequate amount found in average multivitamin)

Zinc: 15-30 mg daily during the first few weeks of injury recovery (adequate amount found in average multivitamin)

Turmeric: an ingredient found in curry powder. Curcumin is an antioxidant compound in turmeric, which gives curry and mustard their yellow color and offers anti-inflammatory benefits. Consider adding turmeric to your spice rack, or for a more aggressive approach, you can take 400 mg daily in supplement form.

Garlic: Research shows it can reduce production of two inflammatory enzymes and may be helpful in keeping arteries flexible and clear, allowing for oxygen-rich blood to get to working muscles. Cooking with two to four garlic cloves daily will add plenty of flavor, plus fight inflammation. If you rarely cook, consider taking 600-1,200 mg of aged garlic extract.

Bromelain: an enzyme found in pineapple juice. Research shows it is an anti-inflammatory. Grab a glass of pineapple juice post-workout or add it to your recovery smoothie for plenty of immune-enhancing vitamin C and inflammation-fighting benefits.

Vitamins to Choose

Vitamin A helps maintain immune function and assists in collagen formation

  • In carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach

Vitamin C helps maintain immune function, assists in collagen formation and is a strong antioxidant

  • In citrus fruits, kiwi, strawberries, bell peppers

Minerals to Choose

Copper helps form red blood cells and is needed to form connective tissue

  • In sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, cashews, soybeans, garbanzo beans

Zinc is required for countless enzymes to support tissue regeneration and repair

  • In lean beef, shellfish, sesame seeds, lentils, garbanzo beans, turkey, quinoa

Hammer Down! A Training Guide for the Long-Distance Ride; Preparation is Key

By Michael Schaefer, MD

It was August 1986 and 95 degrees (in the shade). We pedaled slowly into a modern-day ghost town, our water bottles long-since empty, and so thirsty we could barely keep riding. This little town was our last chance to get water for 15 miles. This was just the beginning of my first long-distance cycling event — at age 13! My dad had planned the route, but he had terribly underestimated our water requirements and the weather. Needless to say, this was NOT the proper way to do my first long ride.

If you're about to undertake your first long-distance cycling event, there are a few tips that can greatly improve your odds for success and safety, and more important, your enjoyment. This is supposed to be fun, right? Things like weather and terrain can make a significant difference in your planning. I suggest that you choose a large, organized bike tour like VeloSano, in which your route maps, food stops and mechanical support will be fully provided. If not, plan your route carefully, carry all of the supplies you may need and be ready to perform your own bike repairs (at least have the ability to change a tire). To properly prepare, you should plan to put a lot of mileage in during training.

Besides riding to get in shape, consider a core strengthening and flexibility program, and take at least one day per week for complete rest and recovery. During times of illness or stress, reduce riding mileage by 30 to 50 percent and take at least two days of complete rest per week, but continue your core strengthening and flexibility plan. Practice meditation, yoga or deep breathing frequently, and get plenty of sleep.

The following training plan was adapted from one I wrote for VeloSano (velosano.org), a benefit ride for Cleveland Clinic cancer care programs. This annual event takes place this year on July 17-18, 2015, but the plan can easily be adapted to any other long-mileage event. Access more training tips and training calendars at velosano.org.

Early-Season Preparation (Getting started, month 1)

Ideally you've been riding already to build endurance. If not, start slowly with about three moderate rides per week. If your goal is a full "century" ride of 100 miles, you should be up to 30 to 40 miles for your longest rides by the end of the first month. Also start a cross-training program with core strengthening, stretching, yoga, martial arts and/or Pilates. Emphasize strengthening your abdominals, spine extensors (lower back muscles), scapular stabilizers (shoulder area) and gluteal muscles. Perform flexibility and strengthening exercises at least twice weekly.

During all of your training, take a "recovery week" about once a month with about half of your usual riding mileage. Join a group early in the year (check your local bike shop) or create your own group if necessary — bicycling is better (and safer) with friends.

Mid-Season Preparation (months 2 and 3)

Gradually increase the distance on long rides from 40 to 50 miles once or twice a week in your second month, to 60 to 70 miles by your third month. Do shorter rides once a week that include faster-tempo "intervals" to build strength and power. You DO NOT need to ride a full 100-mile training ride to be able to go this far on your "big day." (You can count on adrenaline and "game day" motivation to carry you over your longest effort.) Add in some hilly riding to build strength, especially if your planned event includes hills. Practice shifting while climbing and changing positions frequently from sitting to standing throughout the ride.

Late-Season Taper (2-3 weeks before event)

Gradually taper the distance of your longest training rides, but don't skip your flexibility and core strengthening exercises, and continue doing your faster (high-intensity) rides. Pay particular attention to resting well, including getting a good night's sleep and avoiding other strenuous activities.

Two or three weeks before the big event, plan a "dry run." Even try to preview the actual course, or replicate its terrain as much as possible. This should be your last "long" ride before the event.

During the final week of training, take at least two days completely off from riding. Eat well and heartily, but don't overdo it. Snack frequently between meals and drink an extra glass or two of water for two days before the ride.

Finally, when the big ride comes, the most important thing is to relax and ride smoothly. Remember to start with a slower pace than you think you need. Avoid rapid acceleration and use small gears when going up hills. Your muscles work much less efficiently during such hard efforts.

Most important, enjoy yourself. Make new friends, take in the scenery and appreciate what a joy it is to travel under your own power! Eat solid foods early in the ride (before you feel hungry), and drink frequently (before you feel thirsty)!

And, speaking of thirsty, this brings me back to my first long ride so long ago. It turns out that a nearby cemetery had an old well with a hand-pump for watering flowers. It was nasty-tasting water, but it was a lifesaver! We went on to finish 130 long miles that day, but it could have been a lot more enjoyable with a little more preparation!

Michael Schaefer, MD, is Director of Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation at Cleveland Clinic. He is board-certified in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine, and is a competitive bicyclist, triathlete and cross-country skier. To make an appointment with Dr. Schaefer or another musculoskeletal specialist, call 877.440.TEAM (8326).

The Power of Dynamic Stretching

By Carol Ferkovic Mack, DPT, SCS, CSCS

Over the past 10 years, dynamic stretching has gained in popularity as the way to warm up prior to many sports activities. It is most popular with sprinters and soccer players but is ideal for all sports that utilize explosive moments, such as basketball, volleyball and tennis.

What is Dynamic Stretching?

Dynamic stretching is a type of stretching that's based on movement. It focuses on actively moving your joints and muscles (usually 10 to 12 repetitions for any given dynamic stretch) to accomplish the desired effect. This is different from traditional, static stretching, which involves moving a joint as far as it can go and holding it for a length of time (typically 30 to 60 seconds).

The careful, controlled movements in dynamic stretching more effectively warm up your muscles and prepare them for the activity ahead (improving performance and reducing risk of injury).

Dynamic Stretching vs. Static Stretching

Studies have shown the following:

  • Dynamic warm-ups may enhance power and strength performance. Static stretching has no effect on power.
  • Basketball players who combined dynamic stretching with plyometric (or jump) training showed improved vertical jump height and agility. Static stretching may have a negative effect on balance and agility.
  • The sport-specific nature of dynamic stretching may help athletes be more prepared for a practice or competition.
  • Dynamic stretching achieves only the flexibility for the specific sport. It doesn't provide for excessive flexibility, and this may be a good thing. In runners, a study showed that an increase in hamstring flexibility (beyond what was necessary) is associated with a decrease in running economy — or how much fuel you need to run a certain distance.

Do's and Don'ts of Dynamic Stretching

  • Do perform dynamic stretching movements in a controlled manner.
  • Do start slowly and allow your joints to gradually improve in range of motion.
  • Do perform 3 to 5 minutes of light aerobic activity prior to stretching, such as jogging or cycling.
  • Do perform dynamic stretching routines for up to 6 to 12 minutes. Studies have shown that longer durations may impair performance.
  • Don't allow more than 5 minutes between the dynamic stretching routine and sports activities.
  • Don't overstretch or bounce at the end of the motion.

Carol Ferkovic Mack, DPT, SCS, CSCS, is a doctor of physical therapy at the Cleveland Clinic Sports Health Center. She is board-certified in Sports Physical Therapy and a certified strength and conditioning specialist. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 216.518.3444.