Jürg Widmera- fitness

The mental techniques you need to improve physical performance

We often hear professional athletes, from world champion boxers to marathon runners, talking about the ‘mental side’ of sport and competition.

But what is it, and how can normal, everyday athletes like us use it to improve their own performance? Here are my thoughts.

Positive visualisation

This is a technique that actually works in almost any situation. We might be waiting to go into a difficult interview for a job. Or we might be about to run 1500m. But by thinking clearly and consciously about successfully doing the activity before we do it we are actually preparing our minds and our bodies for that success.

Here’s how it works in practice. Whatever the activity, when we visualise a positive outcome in our minds we actually create new neural pathways in our minds. This is just as we would do for a real life action. And it means that when we actually do the thing in real life, our brains are ready to succeed.

Mindfulness

One of the other key mental strategies that can benefit athletes is mindfulness training. There are lots of different meditation techniques out there, as well as apps like Headspace and Calm which help to improve our mindful attention.

The key here is that this isn’t just about increased focus (which is also a benefit of mindfulness techniques). It is also about enjoyment of the experience of an activity. When we are fully engaged and in the moment with our bodies, our minds and our environment, we are also enjoying all the benefits of that activity too.

Improving resilience and confidence

The ability to bounce back and get back to winning ways after a defeat is a key skill for athletes. It’s what sets the best apart and helps them to be consistently successful.

And it is one of the most important areas of focus when it comes to the mental side of sports. So how do we improve resilience and self confidence?

Well, techniques like positive visualisation and mindfulness can help us to be more successful on one level. But resilience and confidence also don’t just come from winning.

They are also a product of how we react to defeat. These qualities grow when we see setbacks as learning opportunities and as a way of contributing to, rather than diminishing, our sense of our own abilities.

So, go easy on yourself. Push yourself physically, but when you come up short sometimes, learn to cope with that mentally too. Learn from your mistakes and bring these lessons into your next session.

Jurg Widmer Probst

How to avoid injury

We’ve all been there. We take up a new sport or exercise, or set ourselves a challenging goal, like running a marathon. We throw ourselves into our new passion 110% and give it everything we’ve got. We feel good the first few times we do it, we start to improve and we try and do more, doing it harder and doing it for longer. And then: it all goes wrong. That little twinge in our hamstring that we felt on our last run has blown up into something far more serious, or the strain in our shoulders when we lift weights has suddenly got a whole lot worse. The end result is we have to take time off to recover properly to prevent the injury becoming chronic.

It’s a common enough experience, but one that really doesn’t have to happen. So, how do we go about avoiding injury? Here are a few tips.

1. Take your rest days

Those blocked out days in your training plan with a big letter ‘R’ next to them are there for a reason – so don’t ignore them. Rest days work in the same way that a good night’s sleep does – they are an opportunity for the body to recover itself in between the days when you are stretching your muscles and ligaments as you exercise. When we exercise hard – for example lifting weights repetitively – we are actually causing lots of tiny micro tears in our muscles. The rest days are when your body takes the chance to repair these tears, by adding more muscle on top. So, when we rest, we’re not just taking a break – we’re actually giving our bodies the time to build up the added muscle we want.

2. Build it up slowly.

Of course, this much easier said than done, especially when you are just starting out, full of enthusiasm for a new sport. But it really does pay to build up slowly – it’s one reason why having  an end goal like a specific race or a target weight in mind is great. Why? Because it forces you to follow a plan – whether it is specific weights, exercises, running distances or a certain pace, you will approach your new passion in a far more gradual and methodical way. Too much, too soon, and you will almost certainly injure yourself. Taking a gradual approach is therefore also a great way to stay motivated – you’ll see yourself making steady progress over a much more sustained period.

3. Get the right gear, and learn how to use it.

This is actually an incredibly important point, because it goes to the heart of what many people find most enjoyable about exercise. Browsing for and buying the right gear (whether it a new pair of trail shoes or gym equipment to use at home) is fun – there’s no getting away from it. But is also important to remember why you are buying it – your end goal always has to be because it improves your performance.

So, don’t just buy the running shoes that look the coolest or that have the most five star reviews – go to a proper running shop, try a few different pairs on, and talk to the experts there about what you need your shoes for. Or if you are heading to the gym, desperate to use the latest piece of equipment, just take the time to talk to the trainers about exactly the right way to use it before you do.

4. Warm up, and cool down.

When you’re desperate to just get out there and get on with it, it can be very easy to skip the warm up. You might jump up and down on the spot and do a few half hearted stretches, but that’s not warming up. Equally, when you’ve been outside in the freezing cold for an hour, or working out hard on a gym machine, the last thing you want to do is spend another ten minutes cooling down. But it really is essential. There are plenty of quick warm up and cool down routines out there, but if you can’t face anything too elaborate, our advice is simply this – if you are going to go for a run, just walk or lightly jog for five minutes before you start in earnest – and do the same at end. The same goes for the gym – instead of driving there and back, just walk to warm up and cool down.

5. Don’t exercise when you’re injured.

The best way to avoid a serious injury is not to compound any minor ones you might already have. No one knows your body like you do, so trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right – if you are pushing yourself to run a kilometre too far on that aching ankle, or you think your sore shoulder might just hold out for one more bench press – just stop.

All of the tips above will go some way towards preventing you from injuring yourself, but if you do start to feel a problem, then always take a break and make sure it doesn’t become a chronic one.

[ENDS]

Jurg Widmer Probst

Best bits of winter running kit

Getting out for a run over the long winter months can be incredibly tough. Those short, dark days and the bitter cold offer plenty of excuses for putting off your regular run until the days warm up a little. But in our experience, running in the winter can actually be just as fun (if not better) than your summer runs. The key to enjoying it – as with so many outdoor activities – is about making sure that you have got the right gear for the conditions. So, with that it in mind, here is our pick of just some of the best bits of winter running kit out there.

  1. Trail shoes

Running shoes are yet another area of outdoor equipment where Gore-Tex and breathable, water resistant materials have made all the difference. In the old days, running in the snow, ice and mud could quickly become a matter of worrying about the growing pain from the cold you felt in your toes – followed swiftly by the even greater worry of not being able to feel anything at all after a while. The winter is a great time to hit the trail and get muddy, and with a pair of running shoes like the Salomon Sense Ride GTX® Invisible Fit your feet will stay warm and dry in even the toughest conditions.

  1. Running tights

A good pair of running tights can make all the difference, keeping your legs warm and your muscles flexible. The best ones won’t restrict your movement in any way and should actually help to keep your muscles in good shape by compressing them slightly. Get yourself a pair of windproof and water repellent ones like the R3 Partial Windstoppers from Gore and you won’t look back – they are super comfortable, they move with you, they’re breathable and they even have a little zip pocket for your keys. Just don’t try and put anything too bulky in there.

  1. Base layer

What on earth did we do before we had base layers? An extra vest or a t-shirt probably just about did the job, but thermal layer technology has taken things to a whole new layer. These layers keep you warm of course but because they are breathable you also don’t start to feel uncomfortably sweaty. Most base layers will also ‘wick’ any moisture away from your skin too, and they are flexible and fitted so that they don’t rub uncomfortably. As with all of these things we recommend shopping around a little to find the one that suits you, but we are big fans of the old mountain runner’s favourite – the classic Helly Hansen striped base layer.

  1. Gloves

Forgetting your gloves on a winter run can be a horrible experience – we’ve probably all done it, where you reach that point of no return, decide to forge on and eventually get home with two blocks of ice for hands. Of course, a standard pair of warm gloves will do the job (providing they’re nice and light), but we really like this pair from Pearl Izumi. They’ve got a nice little pouch to put your front door key in, they’re wind proof and there is an additional mit that fits over the fingers if things get really chilly. The fingers and thumbs also have a special conductive coating so that you can fiddle with your Strava app or choose your next song while you’re running without having to expose your fingers.

  1. A Buff ®

Seriously – if you haven’t got one of these handy neck-scarf-sweatband-bandana hybrids, we urge you to get one. They are ingeniously constructed so that there is no seam (which can rub your neck and cause soreness) and they stretch without getting baggy. They are easy to rinse out and wash, and dry almost instantly. We’ve also found that we wear ours all year around: in the winter months a Buff will do a great job of keeping your neck warm while you run, and for those really bitter days you can pull it up over your face to protect you from the wind. At the other extreme, the material is light and breathable enough that it also keeps you cool in the summer, but wicks any moisture away from your skin so that you don’t feel uncomfortable while you run. Ingenious.

 

Jurg Widmer - yoga and Pilates

How yoga and Pilates can complement your fitness routine

Many of us, a one time or another, have probably signed up to a yoga or a Pilates class. How many of us are still doing them? It can often come as a surprise to people just how tough these disciplines are – many people will take them up, expecting them to be just a straightforward way of ‘chilling out’ after exercise, and quickly realise that if you do them properly, both can actually be very strenuous and testing in their own way. Sadly, this is the point where a lot of people drop out or decide that yoga and Pilates aren’t for them – which we think is a real shame. Here’s why.

The perfect partners

Both practices can really complement the other exercise routines you are doing, improving your performance and helping you to stay fit and, crucially, injury free. Take the combination of yoga and lifting weights. So much of exercising in the right way comes down to getting the best balance between the hard work you do in the gym and the other exercise you do beyond lifting weights. Finding the right yoga routine can be the perfect way to give your body a different challenge when you’re between lifting sessions, working on flexibility and core strength that you can then carry into your weight training. But why is yoga specifically a great complement to working with weights?

Well, in part it’s all about mixing things up – making sure that rather than just focusing on one set of muscles, and working them repeatedly, we build strength in more areas. This is crucial, because having stronger muscles around the areas we specifically want to focus on in our weight training can help to support the areas we’re putting under stress, and so help to reduce the chances of picking up and injury.

This idea of using yoga to introduce a bit of variety into our regular weight training routines also has powerful psychological benefits. On a basic level, taking up complementary practices such as yoga can simply keep us motivated and interested in exercising. But yoga in particular can also help us to increase our focus (especially in areas like controlling how we breath) that can also help us when we head back into the gym.

A flexible approach to running

How about Pilates? Well, we’re also big fans of using Pilates as a complementary exercise alongside running. Quite apart from the injection of some much needed variety that we’ve already mentioned with yoga, finding time for Pilates is also a great way to prevent some of the most common issues that runners face. For example, Pilates exercises can be the perfect way to ease a tight IT band – a common and crippling injury that can play havoc with your running routine. Pilates exercises can also be used to strengthen your ankles and the muscles around your knees – two areas that any runner will know are prone to damage and injury.

There is an important final point to make about both Pilates and yoga as complementary practices to go alongside your running or your weight training – and that is about the benefits you’ll see in your core strength. Having a strong core is absolutely crucial to both lifting weights and running, because it helps you with everything from posture and balance to technique.

Runners in particular can really benefit from both yoga and Pilates exercises that strengthen their core – the work you do on the mat can actually protect your body as you run. A strong core will hold your spine firm as you run and support the movement of your arms and legs, improving your technique and making you more efficient in your movements. Pilates also builds a strong core, and increases the strength and flexibility of your muscles – a crucial part of making sure that as you lift weights you are not putting undue strain on parts of your body that are unable to handle it.

So, if you have tried yoga or Pilates before, but gave them up, then we’d certainly recommend you give them another go – both disciplines can really complement the other fitness routines you do.

Jurg Widmer Probst - fitness holiday

Is it possible to stay in shape over the holiday season?

We’ll address the big thing that everyone is probably thinking first: never mind if it is possible – is it actually even worth trying to stay in shape over Christmas and the New Year? It is a time when we all rest, relax and no doubt over-indulge a little too much – and so why should we even bother trying to keep fit and healthy over the holidays?

Well, it is a fair point, and in terms of exercise, even a couple of weeks off shouldn’t affect your fitness levels too much. In fact, in many ways the well earned rest could even do you some good, allowing you the chance to rest and repair those tired and damaged muscles. Get it right and a week or two’s break could actually leave you in as good a shape as you were before (if not slightly better).

Of course, all this is assuming that you look after yourself a little over the festive period. So what can we do to do this, at a time when it is so easy and tempting to over do it? Late nights, rich food and maybe even a bit too much alcohol can all take their toll. So, here are just a few tips for looking after yourself a little this holiday.

 

Don’t avoid meals

This might seem counter-intuitive, especially given the big meals that many people enjoy over Christmas. But actually it makes sense – trying to skip meals (particularly breakfast) because you are worried about your weight is rarely a good idea, at any time of year. Instead, doing this usually results in one of two things happening (or often both). You will either binge on your next meal, or you will pick at food in between meals to compensate. Unfortunately Christmas is ideally set up to make indulging these two bad habits very easy – so sit down and have regular meals with everyone else to keep yourself in a regular routine.

Get out of the house

Whether it is a family Boxing Day walk or even just a few turns around the block, getting outdoors is a really important part of staying in shape over the festive period. The combination of cold weather, supplies of food close to hand and lots to keep you entertained on the TV can make it all too easy to go into hibernation mode, but this is really not good for your body – or your mind for that matter. Even the closest families will find tempers starting to fray after a few days shut indoors, so heading out together is a great way to get the blood pumping and start feeling alive again. As with most things over Christmas, it is all about personal traditions – everyone develops their own, so make a fun outdoor activity one of yours.

Keep on lifting those weights

If you are in the middle of a weightlifting programme, don’t skip it during the festive break. It is actually a great way to burn calories, and rather than giving it a break and doing a bit of cardio, make sure you maintain your weight work. And even if you’re not a weightlifter, it’s still important to try and keep your regular fitness routines going over the holidays. So, get to the gym if you can – but if you really can’t then try and fit some other activity in to compensate.

Plan ahead and be realistic about your goals

It is a fact of life that you are likely to be enjoying some big meals and evenings out over Christmas and the new year. So, a important part of making sure you stay fit and healthy is to plan ahead. If you are likely to be eating a big Christmas meal one evening, try and go easier on the meals during the day – be kind to your body and just prepare sensibly so that you can enjoy those special treats fully.

 

Finally, just be kind to yourself, and be realistic with the fitness goals you set yourself over Christmas. It is going to be tough to avoid breaking a few healthy eating and drinking rules, so if you do, just enjoy it and don’t be too hard on yourself. There’s always the New Year for those healthy resolutions!

Jurg Widmer Probst

How a healthy mind leads to a healthy body

The link between the health of the mind and of the body is a fascinating one, and of course it is a relationship that goes both ways. The mental world we inhabit on a daily basis is essentially one that’s the product of billions of chemical and electrical processes – as neurons fire off in all directions and varying levels of important chemicals in our brain have a profound effect on everything from our mood to our energy levels.

And underpinning all of these myriad mental processes are the physical things that we take in – the food and drink we consume – as well as the way that we look after and maintain our physical bodies in terms of exercise. In this sense, we have a huge choice to make. We can create a vicious circle for ourselves, in which the food we eat and the exercise we do (or not) makes us feel down and low on energy – or we can eat well, exercise often and feel mentally alert enough to want to make these good habits regular ones.

So how do we go about creating a virtuous, rather than a vicious, circle of good mental and physical health, so that one maintains and sustains the other? We think there are many different ways to do it, and of course much of this is about trying to find the activities that work for you. This sense of personal engagement is absolutely essential – if you are forcing yourself to do things that ultimately have no personal meaning for you, then it unlikely that you will be able to do them for long enough to form them into regular good habits.

That said, we do think that there are actually at least a couple of general principles around maintaining both a healthy mind and body that most people will find beneficial.

Finding space and perspective in your life

We all lead busy lives – going to work, exercising, looking after family and friends and meeting daily commitments and demands of every kind. Because of this, it can be incredibly easy to get completely swamped and overwhelmed. We can feel as if life is something that happens to us, rather than something that we have an active role in managing. We might be doing all the right things – maybe even managing to squeeze some exercise in here and there – but what we lack is space and the perspective that room can offer.

There are lots of ways to do this – whether it is meditation or yoga or just sitting a reading a good book for half an hour – but whatever it is, it is essential that we find a way to build more space into our lives. When we step back for a moment, we can then see that there are plenty of ways that we can be more actively and positively engaged in our lives, rather than being thrown about by events like a boat in a storm. Having this sense of control and active engagement is great for our mental health – and also has a direct impact on our levels of physical wellbeing too. When we feel in control, we feel motivated and able to act in a positive way.

Develop an outlet for creativity and innovation in your life.

We firmly believe that one of the keys to staying mentally healthy – and so giving yourself that solid foundation of a positive, energised approach to life – is to try to find some opportunity for being creative in your life. It may be that you think that you get this in your job, but really the key here is that this is something that you do for yourself, and not necessarily for others.

In a very practical sense, creativity is the driving force behind humanity’s evolution – it is what has driven us to develop new tools and to solve problems over the millennia. And so because it is such a fundamental part of who we are, it is absolutely essential that it is a part of our lives that we don’t neglect. Building creativity into our lives in some way energises and excites us, and gives us the motivation to keep actively engaged in life.

Finding a way to build more space into our lives and introducing an outlet for our creativity are absolutely essential to not just our mental wellbeing, but our physical health too. When our minds feel fit and rested, our bodies do too – just as when our bodies feel well, we feel in a better place mentally as well. We, ultimately, have a lot control over what kind of relationship body and mind will have – so, make it a positive one.

Jurg Widmer - Keto Diet

What is the keto diet – and is right for me?

Whether it is down at the gym or at your local running club, the chances are that you will have heard a little bit of the buzz around keto diets, and their potentially beneficial effects not just for athletes but for everyone. So, we thought we would take a quick look at just a few of the biggest questions around keto diets, and give you our thoughts on whether taking this approach to nutrition can be beneficial to us as athletes.

But first, it is probably worth taking a quick look at exactly what keto diets are, and the effect they are supposed to have on the body. So what are they and how do they work?

Time to cut the carbs

Ketogenic diets are essentially ones in which levels of carbohydrate intake are kept low, in order to encourage your body to enter a state known as ‘ketosis’. Usually, we prefer to get our energy from consuming carbohydrates – think of that big pasta dinner you have the night before a marathon.

But with a keto diet, that high level of carbohydrate intake is cut right back, forcing the body to look for alternative sources of energy. The most likely place it will find this energy is in your body’s fat reserves and in the increased levels of fat that you are consuming as a part of the diet. Your body will then turn this fat into a compound called ketones which, in turn, give us the energy we need.

While our bodies are more used to getting energy from carbs (which produce glucose and insulin, and so provide us with something we can convert into energy) keto diets use high intakes of fat (and our own fat reserves) to generate the energy we need.

It does this simply as a kind of survival mechanism. So, if we are in an environment in which we are unable to access the levels of carbs that we are used to, being able to go into a state of ketosis allows us to replace energy from glucose with energy from ketones that our body has produced by breaking down fats in the liver.

Keto for athletes

The big question for us then, as athletes, is whether a ketogenic diet is right for us. It is easy to see the advantages of a keto diet for someone who is looking, for example, to lose weight. Burning off fat is clearly a positive outcome for someone with this particular goal, but the benefits for athletes looking to improve performance is less clear.

While it is hard to say for sure, Keto diets seem, at the very least, to have a positive effect on body composition – something that can certainly be of benefit to athletes of all kinds.

But research on the matter is still on a relatively small scale, and a lot more work needs to be done to provide a more definitive answer to the question of how beneficial these kinds of diets are to athletes. According to a study of New Zealand athletes cited on RunnersWorld.com, research “showed that a 10-week keto diet improved the athletes’ body composition and well-being but not their performance. In fact, the athletes initially experienced reduced energy levels and an inability to undertake high-intensity bouts of exercise.”

The key to muscle building?

So what about for those of us who are doing our workouts in the gym? Well, this time the picture is a bit clearer when it comes to keto diets. The bottom line for us is that carbohydrates and the insulin they produce in our bodies perform a fundamental role in promoting muscle growth – so cutting the carbs will have a direct impact on your body’s ability to produce the muscles you’re after. Carbohydrates also help our bodies to recover more quickly, by reducing the impact of an intense workout on our immune system. So, once again, carbs have a big role to play in helping us to workout hard, build muscles and recover quickly. In the light of this, reducing the amount of carbs you consume, and forcing your body to burn fat instead, will clearly not help with muscle growth.

Ultimately, our take on keto diets is this. If you are looking to burn off a bit of extra fat and perhaps change your body composition for the better, then it is probably well worth giving these kinds of diet a try. But, if you are a body builder looking to grow muscle or a runner trying to improve your performance, then the jury is still very much out. The research that has been done on keto diets and the impact on performance just isn’t there yet – and what there is suggests that the benefits are mixed.

So, if you’re an ultra runner who wants to get better at being able to use your stores of fat to keep you going through to mile 50, then a keto diet might be a great way to prepare your body for this. But, if you’re a body builder or just some one who wants to feel energised and healthy when they run then you might be best sticking to the carbs for now.