Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Year In Review

After a long absence I opened up the blog to see how it was doing.  I had the stomach flu and a long string of migraines, but now that I was feeling better I wanted to get back to writing and see if anyone was still going to the site.  Much to my surprise, "Rebuilt Runner" was still getting decent traffic.  The stats were pretty interesting, so I wanted to share them with you so you can see how other people are getting to this blog and what they are reading.


Total Hits: (since I started the blog in May): 1,914

Top Three Posts:

1. Why People Hate Running*: 56 hits

2. The Once and Future Sarsgaard: 46 hits

3. How Thin Is Too Thin: 41 hits

* Its funny that this is my most popular article, because it makes it sound like the blog is about hating running, even though I totally love it.  Oh well.

And finally, some popular Google searches that lead here:

  • why people hate running
  • crazy ivans exercise
  • drowning

I'd like to give a special award to the Thornock family for being the top evangelizers.   Their blog is the number one referring site, so way to go!

Like most blogs, this is something I do just because it is fun for me to write.  Writing is a way to process information, to figure out exactly what you know, and to come to new conclusions.  So in that sense, this is a personal effort, something I do just for me.  But it is deliberately public, so it is also meant as a way to share things with others, and I'm really happy that people are enjoying what I write and getting something out of it.

For those of you who come here often, if there is something you would like me to write about, or new features you wish "Rebuilt Runner" had, please let me know because I would welcome the feedback.  Just leave it in the comments and I will check it out.

Have a Happy New Year!


Saturday, November 12, 2011

My first foray into barefoot running

The long wait is over.  After three months of physical therapy, I decided I'm ready to start running again.  I wasn't planning on starting up quite yet because a month-long bout with bronchitis got in the way of my plans.  But this Monday when my lungs finally felt normal I decided to get back into the pool, and my ritual pre-swim weigh-in shocked me: 129.6 lbs!  Before getting sick I had been oscillating between 130 and 135, and during the last week of bronchitis I ate more junk than ever.  Combined with a solid month without a single hard, aerobic workout, I was sure that I had put on some weight.  But I guess I lost enough during the serious sick times that whatever I put on afterwards wasn't enough to cover it.

The only workouts I had managed to do while I was sick was my back extensions, and after gradually phasing in more aggressive yoga poses, my back actually felt really strong.  Combine that with my lowest weight in 6 months, now seemed like the perfect time to return to running.

But as a mulled all of this over, I wasn't happy with my shoes.  My last shoe switch was to a pair of construction-orange, 80's era Saucony's that I picked up used at Deseret Industries for 8 dollars.  Not a bad shoe- less cushioned than my previous pair which was a step in the right direction- but they still have a steep heel-drop which makes forefoot striking difficult.  They look totally rad, so I will still wear them around, but for training I feel like I needed something more...or something less?

A new running store opened up just blocks from my apartment, so I considered stopping in and getting something new, something perfect- lightweight, zero-heal drop, but with a rugged, grippy out-sole.  But how would it effect my form?  The best shoes are the ones that won't change your stride from how you would normally run barefoot...but what does barefoot running really feel like?  I've never done more than a few strides on the grass in the park without something on my feet.

So I decided to try running barefoot.  Not as an overall running-lifestyle change, but as an experiment.  If running barefoot is the most natural and the most natural way is the best, wouldn't that give me an idea for what running should be?  I've tried and failed enough at running lately that trying something new seemed worth it.

It's cold enough here in Utah that running unshod outdoors would just be too cold, so I headed to the BYU Indoor Track for phase one of this experiment.  I always feel the best after doing my back workouts, so I started with those to get me primed for the track.  (Normally I do them in my underwear in the privacy of my bedroom, because I like the feeling of being unconstrained during the twistiest of the yoga poses.  But I'm sure they'd frown on that in the Fieldhouse, so for fear of the Honor Code Police, I stuck with running shorts and a t-shirt.)  But I did ditch the shoes, because the child pose is hard on the ankles with shoes on.

After working through my usual circuit, I gingerly started trotting around the track.  It felt a little weird at first, like I was missing something.  It's also eerily quiet- your feet don't make much of a sound when your soft flesh is hitting the ground instead of a hard plastic outer-sole.  But I kind of liked it.  McDougall says over and over in "Born to Run" that without shoes your foot-strike naturally changes to the ideal way.  I don't know if what I was doing was the ideal, but my feet definitely wanted to do it a certain way.  When I've run in the past with shoes, I've felt like there was a myriad of ways to hit the ground, and I had to consciously pick which one to do.  But this felt like I didn't have to choose, like my feet were choosing for me and I was just going along for the ride.

After a little more than half a mile my ankles started to hurt a little, so I called it quits the day.  I must be flexing more in the ankles with my shoes off, which is why they felt a little over-worked.  I also might not be bending enough at the knees; when I broke my left knee-cap 5 years ago I started walking with straighter legs to avoid using that damaged tissue.  My knee has long since healed, but I still catch myself moving that way, especially on my left side, so maybe that is something that I still need to work on.  But wherever the stresses are on my body, as long as they are off of my L4-L5 disk I'm fine with that.  And this shoe-less running definitely feels softer, feels lower impact than any of the other way's I've moved before.  So I give it a tentative thumbs up.

Tentative because only time will tell how my body (and specifically my back) will react to this new motion.  That feedback will let me know if I am moving forward or backward, so I will listen carefully to see what it has to say.  I will keep doing short runs on the track every other day, and gradually increase the distance as my ankles permit.  If this works well I will definitely get new shoes soon so I can take my miles out of the stuffy confines of the indoor track, but I feel like this time without shoes will be informative, instructive, foundational.  With everything in my life I like to start from the base and work up.  And I don't think I can get any lower than the soles of my feet.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Once and Future Sarsgaard

A few months ago I read an article about a film adaptation of "Born to Run."  It was exciting news, because I had just finished reading the book and thought more than once, "wow, this would make a GREAT movie!"  The lowdown was actor Peter Sarsgaard was a huge fan of the book and was planning on directing a small-budget film of Christopher McDougall's running odyssey.

But then I didn't hear anything else about it.  I read way too much about movies AND running, so news about a running movie wasn't likely to slip by me.  Movie's die in pre-production all of the time, so I tacitly assumed that this one met a similar fate.  Until today.

McDougall wrote an article in The New York Times called "The Once and Future Way to Run" that summarizes the main ideas from his book, and then he told how he found an early 20th century pamphlet that describes a workout meant to teach the perfect running form (how he finds these things I'll never know).  The exercise is diabolically simple, but it has some early endorsements from some serious bio-mechanics experts.

I read the article on the New York Times website, and it had a link attached with a short video of McDougall jogging through the streets of Manhattan and teaching this exercise to several writers at the paper.  And in the video he is running with none other than "actor, director, and super-fast trail runner" Peter Sarsgaard!  The funny thing is that Sarsgaard doesn't really do anything in the video, he is just hanging out with McDougall.  I realized that if this journalist and movie star are just bro-ing out in the Big Apple, this movie has to be still in the works.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Sick Time and The World's Greatest Single Exercise

Question: Why hasn't the Rebuilt Runner written anything in the last two weeks?

A: Because he had acute bronchitis!

I thought lots of time in bed would mean lots of blogging, but when walking up a single flight of stairs caused a coughing fit, I didn't feel like even reading about exercise, let along writing about it.  My body gave up on me, so I decided to temporarily give up on it.  I did exactly one workout during my sick days and it didn't end well, so the rest was definitely for the best.

I'm still only at about 50 percent so I'll ease into things this week, but I finally had an idea for the blog.  I thought, "what is the single best exercise I could recommend to someone?"  Obviously to be in your best shape requires variety, but what one thing does the most in the shortest time?

The walking lunge!  Here's a video:

Lots of muscle guys only work the upper body, which seems ridiculous because your legs are what actually move your body around, your arms usually just move other things.  And the walking lunge is a great overall lower body exercise because it works your glutes, quads, hamstrings, calf muscles, hips, and abdominals.  Another reason I like it so much is that it works each leg individually; most of us have one leg stronger than the other, so we rely on the strong one to do most of the work which just further intensifies the muscle imbalance.  But single leg lifts like these force you to focus on one at a time, which does wonders for evening everything out.

The key to getting the most out of this is focusing on your form:

1. Keep good posture.

2. Keep your hips pointing forward.

3. Keep your feet straight.

And because it's pretty low intensity (you are only lifting your own body weight) most people can do a lot of them, so several long sets become a cardiovascular workout.  Other good overall exercises include squats and push-ups, but if your short on time and you can only pick one, I'd go with the walking lunge.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Running Shoe Giveaway!

Hey everybody.  One of my favorite bloggers, Hungry Runner Girl, is having a shoe giveaway on her blog.  It's for the Altra Intution (for women) and Altra Instinct (for men) running shoes.  I had never heard of the company so I did some research and it sounds like they have some smart ideas.  The first thing that stood out is that they make different shoes for men and women; apparently men and women have different feet shapes (makes sense) so they built unique designs for each.

The other main feature is that the shoes have zero heel-drop, which means that the sole is the same thickness front to back.  For decades they've been making shoes with thicker heels, which causes you to land on the heel instead of the forefoot.  But most experts now think this isn't the right way to run, so shoes have been changing back to a simpler design to make running more natural.

Simple is exactly what these shoes look like, down to the design.  So many new shoes have crazy patterns which I think is really off-putting, so it's refreshing to see something with just one color.  I've seen Hungry Runner Girl do give-aways before, so I know this is for real.  If you want to enter, just follow this link:


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Being better at anything makes everything else easier

I've been determined to increase my CTL lately so I had planned to do six workouts this week.  But when Friday night came and I had a hard strength training session planned, I really wasn't in the mood.  I've been doing the same schedule for about three weeks, so I think I was just getting tired of the routine.  So instead of giving up I changed my plans instead and went for a bike ride.

I used to ride a lot in the summer, but when my back pain cropped up biking started to hurt, so I stopped and hadn't done it since.  But physical therapy had been going well and my back pain was all but gone, so I figured it was worth trying.

The sun had just gone down but it wasn't completely dark yet, and the weather was cool.  The whole town was at the BYU football game, so outside of Lavell Edwards Stadium Provo was pretty quiet.  I jumped on the Provo River Trail and did 30 minutes of solid Zone 3 riding, and had a blast.  It felt amazing to go fast and to really be able to see and feel it; most of my aerobic work has been in the pool, where there is a degree of sensory deprivation.

Biking is not my strong suit, probably because it requires big leg muscles and I'm naturally so skinny.  But this ride was a lot easier than my last one two months ago.  Climbing felt easier, and kind of fun; getting up out of the saddle and powering up a hill felt exhilarating instead of tortuous.  What did it was the Nike Training Club workouts from the last 3 weeks: they involve a lot of lunges and squats, and that has built up the exact muscles I need to be better at cycling.

In an earlier post I mentioned how swimming had made my NTC workouts easier.  Now I can feel how NTC has improved my bike.  This put in stark relief how being better at anything makes everything else easier; every exercise uses multiple systems, and those systems are all connected.  So as you make an adaptation in one sport, some of that adaptation will transfer over into others.

There is a limit to how much transfers.   Specificity of training says that to get better at your sport you need to do that sport as much as possible.  This is totally true, but cross-training has it's benefits.  When you are fighting through a painful weight-lifting session or a killer run, it's motivating to know that it will do more for you than just making weight-lifting and running easier.  It almost seems like alchemy, because you are transforming a finite amount of work into an infinite number of benefits; and I think that's a pretty great deal.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

You make me want to be a better man

Much to the chagrin of distance runners everywhere, the I.A.A.F. recently changed the definition of a world record marathon for women.  You might think the definition would just be the fastest time, but according to them it's not so simple.  They basically disqualified all times that came in races with both men and women.  Their reasoning is that elite females can run faster if they have men pacing them, so it makes the field uneven if some women are being paced by men and others are not.

For Paula Radcliffe, the reigning female champion, her 2:15:25 in London 2003 is now out and her 2:17:42 in London 2005 is in as the official women's world record.

The questionable logic of redefining something as simple as a fastest time aside, I think the I.A.A.F. has another potential problem with their new policy; it doesn't also take a look at the men's records.  Their reasoning for changing the female records is that women perform better with men around, but couldn't the opposite also be true?

I'm a man, and when I was racing consistently, I couldn't stand it when women passed me out on the course.  When I saw any runner coming up behind me, I would try to step it up and hold them off.  But if the challenger was a member of the fairer sex, I definitely dug a little deeper.  My brother Parker told a funny anecdote back in high school that illustrates this all too well.  When he was working out in the weight room, he noticed that whenever a girls team came in, all of the guys added one more set of weights to their machine.  The effect may be subconscious, but it's real.

Call it vanity, call it Darwinian reproductive instinct, but this has to make guys run a little harder when there are women around sizing them up.  So in the interest of fairness, maybe the men's records need a second glance as well.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I enjoy long walks

I live about a mile a way from BYU, so I have two long walks a day going to and from school.  I've come to really love those walks, because they give me a chance to mull over whatever is going on in my life.  It's so easy to have every second of the day be new information coming into your mind, but I really need time to process what has already happened to come to any meaningful conclusions.

Sometimes those realizations are big, like what I've accomplished in my life and where I need to be going next.  But other times they are small, like a solution to a simple fitness problem that's been plaguing me.  Recently the problem was how to find a way to stretch my hamstrings.  Since my back started hurting again I haven't been able to bend forward at the waist (apparently that aggravates my bad disk).  My physical therapy is all back extensions rather than contractions, so for the most part this hasn't been a big deal.  But I've also been doing a lot of weight lifting with my legs, and as those muscles are building up my hamstrings are getting wicked tight.  And all of the ways I know to stretch my hamstrings involve some forward bend.

My legs were really sore on Friday, so I tried a couple of stretches with my heels propped up on a chair.  And even though I was only bending my back the tiniest bit, it hurt big-time the next day.  So clearly forward bends are still out of the equation.  So here is where my walks come in; on my way home from school on Saturday (yes, I'm a huge nerd) I remembered the one stretch that I can do!  The way it works is you lie on your back and prop your leg up vertically against a wall, like this:

You're back stays totally straight but you still stretch those hammies!  I've never actually done it before, but I must have seen it in a magazine or on a blog, and it was buried deep in my subconscious-it just took some time to dig it out.  This is great news, because if I kept lifting the way I've been doing without stretching, I would start to develop muscle imbalances which can lead to injuries of their own.  I think I have enough injuries for now, so I'm gonna pass on that.

Six months ago I was really into yoga, and I was doing mad forward bends.  The fact that I can't do even the slightest like stretch now really bummed me out at first, because it shows how far I've regressed.  But the more I thought about it, it was amazing that I was doing as much as I was in the spring, given the surgery the previous year.  I was doing serious yoga, lifting, and running, which is everything that I want to be doing.  For all intents and purposes, I was healed.  That's good news, because it means I'm not broken forever.  I came back from it once, and I can do it again if I just follow my physical therapy, learn from my mistakes, and be patient.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

sleep deprived

I love sleep.  And because of my migraines I have to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, so I almost always get a full nights sleep every night.  Except last night.  I don't know what happened, because I had a full day at school followed by a 1-mile swim, so I should have been collapsing into my pillow.  But I kept waking up feeling completely wired, and I couldn't figure out what to do to relax.  I ended up sleeping in until 11, but I still feel groggy.  Today will not be a banner day.

So I'm scaling back my expectations for this rotation of the earth, because if I try to go full-bore on such little sleep I'm sure I'll be disappointed.  I've already decided what homework I will do (just the reading for my french literature class and a few pages in my quantum mechanics book) but I'm not sure about my workout.  I've tried doing long, hard workouts on days when I'm sleep deprived, and it's usually a letdown: everything is three times harder than it should be, and usually I can't hit my target intensities no matter how much I try.

As you may remember, I had decided to workout every day this week, so I hate to renege on a commitment.  But if the workout isn't going to do what it was supposed to do, then is it really a loss if you skip it?  What I'm probably going to do is just my back stretches and extensions and call it a day, but I'd like to do more if I'm feeling up to it.  What do you guys think?  Cut intensity, cut volume, cut everything, or just push through the full workout?  Feel free to leave something in the comments, I'll definitely read it.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

What a difference a week makes

I didn't get to my workout until it was dark, but the weather was nice and cool and the moon was out...

...which really reminded me of when I would do night runs back in high school.  On Monday I started off the week with a Nike Training Club workout, and tonight I ended the week with another one; but it's amazing how much can change in six days.

Tonight just felt...easy.  I was barely breathing hard, and when the breaks came in the workout, I was surprised rather than relieved.  Maybe this workout was actually easier, but I think it was what happened between Monday and today that did it.  I did two long swims, one a half-mile and the other 3/4, and although neither was high intensity, they were long enough to make some serious aerobic gains.  What has been one of the hardest things about these NTC workouts is how strong your lungs need to be, because you go hard almost non-stop for a half an hour or more.  But these swims have opened up my lung capacity and now that's no longer what is holding me back.

That's great news, because NTC is really for building muscle, so now that my heart is up to scratch I can do some more intense workouts without getting burned out halfway through.  I'm still trying to figure out where to fit in my back-extensions, maybe I will just do them every morning when I wake up so I don't forget.  Or I'll fold them into these NTC sessions by replacing a couple of the exercises with my supermans and cobra poses.

P.S.  Tonight the workout started with a two minute jog which I usually skip, but I was feeling good so I decided to test the waters and do it- I still felt a little heavy (I've been stuck at 130 lbs the past week or two) but I also felt strong, like I was more in control of my form.  It's still too soon to hit the roads, but it's a good indicator.


Something that's been on my mind a lot lately is the idea of chronic training load.  CTL is just how much exercise you do on average (both the volume, and intensity).  If you jog for twenty minutes every morning, your CTL is 2.3 hours of low intensity exercise per week.  Joe Friel has a way of quantifying it even more precisely, but I just think of it as a total time spent exercising times the average intensity.

This has been on my mind because as my back problems cropped up mid-summer, the amount of exercise that I could do changed drastically week to week.  This made it tough to gauge how good of shape I was in, which made setting goals tricky.  You have to know where you are before you figure out where you are going, and the chronic training load is a good measure of your overall fitness.

I was reading "The Hungry Runner Girl" (great blog by the way- a fellow Utah Valley inhabitant), and in one of her posts she mentioned the following workout: 30 minutes of spin class, 20 minutes of weight lifting, and 70 minutes of swimming.  I stopped and read it over again to make sure I had those numbers right, because that is 2 hours of continuous exercise!  Looking at her other training posts, it looks like she regularly does 1.5-2 hour workouts at a pretty solid intensity, so that is her CTL.  I was impressed (and a little embarrassed, looking back at my own week.)

What does it take to be able to do that?  Can you go from total sloth to two hours of hard cardiovascular work a day?  I don't think so.  If you were really tough you might be able to do that for a few days, but eventually you'd burn out.  And the reason is because if you want to make sustainable progress, you should change your CTL gradually.  Your body can adjust to almost anything, you just need to change slowly enough.  Pro marathon runners will do 120 miles a week at a blistering pace, but they can do that because they've been running for ten years.  They did 50 miles a week in high school, 70 in college, 100 during the beginning of their professional career and now they've finally gotten to that peak mileage.

Being really healthy is an investment, and it takes a long time to get there.  I feel pretty good about where I'm at: given the adverse circumstances of my last few years, I feel like I've done the best that I could.  These days I've been doing about 2 hours of medium-hard exercise per week, which would be my CTL.  This week that was four solid workouts, but I want to bump that up to six days a week.  There are still things I can't do yet (running!), so that is what I'm pushing toward.  And keeping track of my chronic training load can help me know that I'm making progress.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Back to the pool

My old nemesis is back.  The warm, wet air, the smell of chlorine, way too many swimmers per lane: yes, it's the BYU pool.

It's actually not bad, the water temperature is perfect for doing serious workouts.  I've been swimming in lakes all summer, so it was quite a switch to go back to the pool.  The first difference I noticed is how much easier it is!  There are no big waves, no currents, no speedboats.  And you can tell exactly how far you are swimming.  Out in Utah Lake, I would just say to myself, "well, I guess I'll swim until I reach the end of this outcropping of rocks, and then I'll come back."  Fun, in a free-form, adventurous sort of way.  But not as scientific.  And I'm all about science.

Seriously, though, the open water work has really helped me.  Out in the drink I couldn't really focus on my form very well, because there were so many other things to worry about.  But in the calm waters of the pool I could really tell I had a stronger, smoother stride than I used to, and my kick has gotten more even.  Today's workout was a slow half-mile, averaging 77 seconds per lap- just a good basic zone 2 workout to get my sea-legs back after taking a week off from swimming.  That's another thing that seems different about being back in the pool, long distances seem shorter.  A half-mile used to seem pretty far before, but today it felt like a warm-up.  I bet by Saturday I could swim a mile, no problem.  It's great to realize your in better shape then you thought (especially because it almost always goes the other way!)

Only 74 more years to go...

I had my follow-up appointment with my surgeon today, and this was an actual excerpt from the conversation:

Me: (referring to my physical therapy) So how long should I keep doing these workouts...forever?

Dr. Bacon: No, just until your 100.

Me: Oh, so then I can take it easy?

Dr. Bacon: Yeah.

It sounded pretty funny coming from my doc.  Bacon is this big, lumbering guy who probably looks older than he is because of a pot belly and a bad comb-over.  But he has this weird energy where he walks and talks really fast, like a kid.  The combination is a little bizarre, but I like him because he's really smart and he tells it like it is.

Overall the appointment was good.  Physical therapy has done wonders this last month, because I've been almost pain free the entire time.  The only hiccup was a little sciatica that cropped up yesterday when I woke up, but the doctor thought it would probably go away as soon as it came.

Ironically my back injury is one of the things that has committed me so completely to exercise.  With my condition I have two options.  One, I could do just enough exercise to keep my back from falling apart, which would be the same boring workouts every day from now until 2085.  Or two, I could try to move past that, try to push forward into new exercises and new sports.  I'd gotten hooked on endurance sports long before the injury, so option two seems way better.  Those who know me know I'm a pretty all or nothing kind of guy-so I'm gonna go all in and see what happens.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Great morning workout

Happy Labor Day everyone!  I still don't know what this holiday is really about, but I'll take it.  And the way I started it off was by doing a nice long workout after breakfast.  I never workout in the morning-except today.  Last week was my rest week, so I was itching to get back out and hit it hard and I couldn't wait until tonight.  I did some quick back extensions, a fast 20 minute walk, then "Sweat + Shape" in the Nike Training Club iPhone app.  It was 30 minutes of body-weight resistance training, and it was tough.

But not as tough as I was expecting.  I used to do these workouts a couple times a week at the beginning of the summer, but as my back deteriorated I stopped doing them.  I'd been doing physical therapy for the last month, and those exercises were getting pretty easy so I felt like I was ready to move up to something more difficult.  But when I started doing NTC in the spring they killed me at first, so I was expecting the same thing this time around.  However, today wasn't so bad-it was hard, but not pushing me clear to the edge.  I give the credit to PT: it was all lower back and abdominal work, so after a month of that my core seems to have really tightened up.  I used to start shaking during the burpee's late in this workout, but now they were easy.  This whole thing has really made me a believer in the importance of strengthening the core; if having that part strong makes other workouts feel this good, then sign me up!

You CAN have it all!*

School started last week, and in those first couple of days I was seeing everything differently.  One change I decided to make was to only do school work at school; I don't even take my textbooks home, I leave them stashed away in the physics department computer lab.  I'm really wandering from the herd on this one, because physics majors are notorious for never stopping.  But I realized I study so much better at school than I do at home, and in order for me to be able to focus I need to have some time away from physics every day.  Classical and Quantum Mechanics are serious classes, so I've been getting up early and working long days every day to get it all done.  But when I come home for the night or come home for the weekend, work is over.

I can hardly believe the difference it's made.  When I get to school in the morning, I feel like I've been away from it all for an eternity, and my mind is fresh and focused.  I understand things quickly, I see the connections, and I move through my assignments quickly and fluidly.  And when I leave campus at night I feel satisfied with what I've accomplished and I look forward to other pursuits.  Basically when I work, I work hard, and when I rest, I rest hard.  That separation has made everything clearer, and I have less anxiety and more satisfaction with everything that I do.

This has everything to do with exercise; you should focus on whatever system you are trying to work, and let the other ones rest as much as possible.  A hundred years ago marathon runners would train by just going out and running as many miles as hard as they could every day.  The problem with that is that you are pushing all of the systems simultaneously, and so you end up barely pushing each of them.  Better to do a hard interval workout to push your lactic acid threshold one day, and another day do a long slow run to improve your aerobic efficiency.

As I've mulled this over on my long walks to and from campus, I've realized that this applies to every possible pursuit; the more exclusive your focus, the more complete and efficient will be your accomplishment.  When you are talking with someone, really listen to them, tune out all of your other concerns and try to connect with them.  If you are reading a book, do so in a quiet room with no distractions so you can really think about what is on the page.  While watching TV, leave the computer off so you aren't tempted to simultaneously check your email and accidentally start working.  It's about truly living in the moment.

I once saw the exact opposite of this; a girl sitting in a hot tub reading a textbook (in the history of higher education, I bet this has only happened at BYU.)  When I saw that I thought, "Wow, she's missing the point of BOTH studying AND sitting in a hot tub."  I totally get where she was coming from, she was busy and she wanted to do it all.  You can have it all, but not simultaneously; you can have it all, in turn.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

rest weeks

The only part of periodization that I regularly miss is rest weeks.  I always remember to relax after a hard workout, and I never forget to take it easy on the weekend after a hard Mon-Fri.  But after several tough weeks, you need to take a rest week too.  This is the one that I sometimes space, and once I go past it by a few weeks it catches up to me: I'm tired, overworked, and lackadaisical.

I think I forget it because with my back as up and down as it's been, my exercises have been constantly changing, so I'm never doing one thing for too long.  Cross-training is a good way to avoid exhaustion, because your body uses different muscles for different things.  But even so fatigue builds, and you need a rest week to shed it.

This week is my rest week, and it's been a great break.  For the last month I've been doing a heavy rotation of physical therapy, extra weight training, and swimming, so it feels good to simplify.  I'm not taking the whole week off, just cutting the length and the intensity of every workout.  Specifically I'm only doing my physical therapy, which has some decent exercises, but nothing that leaves me completely exhausted afterward.

The last couple days have reminded me of one side-effect of rest weeks-the blues.  Exercise gives you endorphins, and the more you exercise, the more endorphins flood your system.  When you workout every day, you eventually get used to that high.  But when you cut back, you are suddenly getting way less endorphins than usual, and some people get really depressed.  The thing to remember is that eventually your body will respond to the needed break, and when you bounce back you will feel the exact opposite: a sense of energy, lightness, and enthusiasm.  I've been getting that on Monday's when I come back after a day or two of rest, but I'm looking forward to that bigger payoff that follows a whole week of taking it easy.

Friday, August 26, 2011

low-intensity cardio or high-intensity strength training?

I love it when I figure something out on my own, and then I read that same thing later from a professional; I guess it makes me feel smart.  Also it validates my belief that logical reasoning is a legitimate way to discover new truths.  There's a debate in exercise science over the best way to lose weight.  The conventional theory was that long, low-intensity cardiovascular exercise like running or cycling would be most effective, because when you run slower, your body gets a higher proportion of that energy from fat than from carbohydrates.  Recently people have challenged that by saying that high-intensity strength training like P90x actually works better, because when you workout at high intensity you burn more total calories.

I thought about this a lot, because both sides have a good argument.  I have been especially troubled by hearing more and more anecdotal evidence of people saying that they tried jogging and it didn't help, but then they tried weight lifting and they lost big-time.  But one day it just clicked!  Per calorie of work done, lower intensity is more effective at burning fat; however if the high-intensity workout uses way more total calories, that lower ratio of fat/carbs burned will not make enough of a difference to tip the scales.  This might be more clear with some numbers: 30 minutes of jogging at 80 calories per ten minutes is 240 calories.  But if you do 20 minutes of max-interval cardio where you are burning 150 calories per ten minutes, you will go through 300 calories.  But the ratio of calories of fat to calories of carbs might be 70/30 in the first case, and 50/50 in the second.  And 70 percent of 200 is 140 calories, but 50 percent of 300 calories is 150 calories!  You worked out a third less time doing the high-intensity stuff, and the ratio of fat burned was lower, but the intensity was so much higher that you still burned more fat lifting weights.

I think what is really happening is that people are doing long, high intensity workouts, compared to short low-intensity workouts.  In this case, clearly they are going to drop more weight in the first case.  So what does this say about the debate?  Who was right?  Both sides are-they were just making different claims.  Per calorie, lower intensity is more efficient at burning fat.  But high-intensity has a greater capacity to burn more total energy, so in some instances, it is better at helping you trim down.

My theory was confirmed the other day when I was reading Trailrunner Magazine (motto, "one dirty magazine.")  They had an article about whether or not running was an effective method for weight loss, and remarkably, their overall conclusion was no.  They mentioned this ratio/intensity issue that I outlined above, which is where I got my vindication.  An interesting observation they made was that even though running is the highest calorie burner of any aerobic exercise, you only burn a lot of total calories if you can run a long distance and a high-intensity.  The problem is that people who are overweight or otherwise in poor health can't do that.  Elite runners can, but they are already so thin that weight-loss isn't an issue.  Running fast makes you thin, but you have to be thin to run fast; it's a bizarre catch-22.

The Trailrunner article got it's main conclusion from a study where one group changed their diet, and another group changed their diet and added running to their exercise; the second group lost only slightly more weight on average.  I read about another study on Joe Friel's blog where they had one group lose weight by eating less, and another group lose weight by exercising more.  The group that ate less lost more weight then the group that exercised more, but the second group lost more weight from muscle then did the first group.  So all of this tells us two things; if you want to drop a lot of weight fast, change your diet.  But if you are an athlete that wants to maintain muscle mass, exercising more is slower, but might be better for your overall fitness in the long run.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Summer swimmin'

Weather in Utah in the summer is perfect.  For about that last two months, it's been 90 degrees and sunny almost every day.  Hot, but perfect for swimming.  And because I have to spend some time in the water as part of my physical therapy for my back, I decided to do some exploring and find some good places to swim outdoors.  Let me show you my two favorite places.

First is the Spanish Oaks Reservoir:

This is a man-made lake in the hills above Spanish Fork.  The scenery is amazing, because you are basically surrounded by mountains.  They've even filled one side of it with sand, so it feels like you're at the beach!  The water is cold, but on a hot day it feels so refreshing to jump in and cool off.

The other place I like to go is Utah Lake.  The water is a lot warmer, barely cool, but it is closer to my apartment so it's easier to get there.  I took a video to show you all what it's like:


The only other people out there are old hispanic men fishing, so I get some funny looks with my jammers, Nike Triax watch, and goggles.  But I've always liked to do my own thing, so it's all good.

I've been doing this for a while, so I have a ritual down.  First, I jump in and do my workout.  Second, I sit on the rocks and soak up the sun while I drink my Arctic Shatter Powerade (that's the best flavor).  It's so peaceful out there, all of the sounds seem distant and muted and the light from the setting sun is soft and warm.  That setting combined with the intense relaxation that follows a long workout makes the whole experience intensely meditative, tranquil.  I feel like I get my best thinking done out there.  School starts in a week, and I'm excited for that, but I am going to miss these moments of clarity.  

That's what summer's about though, slowing down, taking a step back from things, and just enjoying life.  Things haven't worked out exactly the way I had planned this summer (they never do, right?), but life has been good, and I am going to miss these experiences.

Friday, August 19, 2011

In Defense of Fast Food!

Fast food has gotten a really bad rap, and I'm here to defend it.  The New York Times talks about McDonalds like it's the anti-christ, giving the well-read the impression that if one single cheeseburger passes across your lips, your heart will stop on the spot.  America has gotten way too reliant on fast food, so, predictably, there has been a swing in the other direction.  But now we're starting to swing too far over, thinking that fast food is poison and needs to be avoided at all costs.  This is wrong, as wrong as thinking that we should be eating it for every meal.

What is in fast food?  It is mostly sugar, fat, salt, protein, starches, and carbohydrates.  These are not poison, these are nutrients.  What makes fast food problematic is what it is missing.  Most meals don't include any fresh fruits or vegetables, which should be about half of every meal.  So as long as you are getting plenty of vitamins and minerals from the rest of the food you eat, the occasional run to Wendy's isn't going to hurt you.  Infact, sometimes it is exactly what you need.  Some weeks I'll only cook food that is low in fat, but after a long, slow cardio workout like swimming, I need something heavy to eat afterwards.  In that case, a Single with cheese is exactly the right thing.

I love fast food.  We all like it because it tastes good and it is filling.  My friends invented a ridiculous and amazing food called the Kremeburger, which is a Wendy's Junior Bacon Cheeseburger with a single Krispy Kreme glazed donut in the middle:

It sounds disgusting, but you really can't knock it until you try it, because the combo of salty and sweet is AMAZING!  These are the inspired creators, Brent and Patrick...

and Patrick and Court:

They came up with this crazy combination back in high school, and a while back we decided to resurrect it so that I could get a taste.  That reminds me, it's been a while since my last one...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Keep it easy at the beginning

With all of these recent interruptions to my training, I've had to start over a lot with different exercises.  The other night I did some upper-body weight-lifting, which I hadn't done in a while.  So I went very conservatively, just doing two kinds of push-ups, lat pulls, and pull-ups (on top of my normal physical therapy).   As I was walking out of the gym, I didn't feel worn out, so I was unsure if I had even gotten enough of a workout in.  But the next day, my pecs and lats said otherwise.  They weren't catastrophically sore, but enough to feel it.

At the beginning, I think this is the best way to go.  If I had gone all out that night and lifted until I couldn't lift any more, I would have been hurting for a week afterwards, which would have majorly delayed my next hard workout.  Once a certain muscle group gets used to the effort, I think it is good to max out when you lift, then take a couple of days off from working those same muscles.  But at the start, the recovery from that kind of intense effort is so long that it keeps you from working out again soon.

Some people probably recommend hitting it hard at that start, because you would make more progress in each workout.  But I think the needed extra days off will end up costing you more in potential growth then what you would gain.  The nice thing about strength training is that it has a steep learning curve, so after just one or two workouts those muscles are probably ready to go full-bore.

For some motivation, here is a pic of the master of muscles, Mr. Universe himself:

Friday, August 12, 2011

So very sore...

I had my first real day of physical therapy on Monday, and I learned two things: one, there are plenty of ab workouts you can do without contractions, and two, my abs need a LOT of work.  I woke up on Tuesday feeling like someone had pounded my torso with a wiffle bat.  I was sore in some of the strangest places, it was really astonishing.  Most of the workouts were focused on the lower back, but those weren't as challenging as the front exercises.

The first ab exercise the therapist had me do was planks; I've done these before, and thought they'd be pretty easy.  But he had me do six planks at one minute each, which is way more than I normally do.  They weren't excruciating, but I was shaking by sets five and six.  The next ab exercise we did was this thing where you lie on your back with your legs sticking up, and you slowly lower them while pushing your lower back into the floor.  Again, I've done these before, but apparently I was doing them wrong, because I used to just let my back naturally curve as the legs went down.  Apparently as soon as the lower back bends, you switch to the hip flexors to support the legs and the abs don't engage.  This workout was really what did me in, because the two things that were sore the next day were my abs and my hip flexors.

I was so sore that I really couldn't do those exercises for a couple of days afterwards, so I went swimming instead.  The BYU pool is closed for the entire month, so I've had to get creative to find places to swim.  But the weather has been perfect here in Utah (90 degrees every day with no clouds in sight) so swimming outside has actually been great.  I'm going to do another post on that soon, with maybe some pics and videos, so stay tuned.

Now it's time to report on my progress.  I can't do the back strength test until I go back to the physical therapist because that machine isn't in the school weight room, but I've got good news on my weight.  As of yesterday I was 130 lbs, which means I've dropped 5 lbs in the last two weeks!  This is even faster than I was expecting, so I'm really excited about it.  Those of you who are trying to lose weight should be happy to know that I didn't do any crash diet.  What I have done is simple and not that hard.  First, I cut the carbohydrate and protein part of my meals in half, and second, I replaced that missing food with more fruits and vegetables.  You get some sugar from the fruit that helps to fill you up, and vegetables take up so much space in your stomach that they give you a feeling of fulness.  This method does two things; it decreases the amount of calories you eat, and it floods your system with fiber, vitamins, and minerals which help keep you running more efficiently.  In terms of weight, I'm already halfway to where I was in the beginning of the summer, and I'm a third of the way to where I want to be.  More updates to follow!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Runner rebuilt?

It's confession time.  I haven't been writing very much in the last couple of months because my back has been getting progressively worse, and I didn't know what to make of it.  And I get ideas for the blog from my own workouts, so as those became less frequent, so did my writing.

This week I talked to my doctors, and after meeting with my GP, surgeon, and physical therapist, we finally pieced together what probably happened.  We did a back strength test, and the results weren't terrible, but they weren't great either.  Add to that an increasing level of higher impact training, and my already compromised back just got overwhelmed.

I was surprised and more than a little disappointed by all of this, because I was really diligent with my exercises, and I thought my back was in great shape.  But as I talked with the physical therapist about some back strengthening workouts, I could see what I had been missing.  When my back was in bad shape, I was doing these types of exercises constantly; but as my back improved, I gradually replaced those exercises with other things like running and biking.  And as my back fitness went down but the stress went up, I eventually passed a critical point where that disk started to hurt.  What I should have been doing all along was keeping some of those back exercises in my routine to maintain that fitness; if I had, maybe this wouldn't have happened.

But that's all in the past.  It's time to learn from it, and look forward.  The first step was my surgeon giving me a steroid shot in my back.  For those of you lucky enough never to have had this done to you, let me explain; they take a huge needle (something that looks like it would be used to tranquilize a horse), and the stick it into your spine.  Dr. Bacon insists they aren't supposed to be very painful, but I'm an endurance sports guy with a real high pain tolerance, and this stuff is killer.  Maybe I'm just not built right for it.  On the bright side, my back felt a little better the next day, so maybe it was worth it.  Maybe.

The next step is physical therapy.  I basically have to do a lot of back extensions, because this strengthens the muscles along the spinal column.  A back extension is like the opposite of crunches; rather then bending your head forward, you bend your head back.  We did a few exercises last week, and I think this stretch of physical therapy is going to be fast.  One, my back is already decently strong.  And two, the rest of me is in good shape, so I should be able to do all of these exercises pretty easily.  Back strength can seem kind of nebulous, but the physical therapist showed me an easy test to see where I am at.  You get onto one of these back workout machines like this:

Then you hold this position for as long as you can.  Less than two minutes means your back is weak, and four minutes or more means you are strong enough that you shouldn't have back problems.  I could do this for about two and a half minutes, which wasn't bad, but a little on the low side.  So this is my goal, get to four minutes. (Insert Madonna- Justin Timberlake collaboration here.)

Something else that will help is if I lose some weight.  Those who know me know I'm no fatty, but as I've been able to workout less and less over the last couple of months, I've gained about ten pounds.  For most people that wouldn't be a big deal, but as weak as my L4-L5 disk is, every extra pound that I have only puts more strain on it.  I have some empirical evidence to back this up: I've attempted running at 145 lbs, 135 lbs, and 125 lbs, and each attempt was more successful then the last.  My last attempt had me running for more than two months before things went haywire, so I think I'm real close.  I'm around 135 right now, so I'm going to drop down to 120 and see how that feels.  That was my weight when I ran the marathon, so I know that isn't too thin for me.

On top of the back-specific PT I'm going to throw in some simple body-weight strength training to build up my other systems, like lunges and push-ups.  The therapist said I should avoid movements that involve forward bends, so that is going to make most ab workouts difficult; I will ask him about that specifically and see what he recommends.  And I'll go swimming a few times a week to get in a solid cardio workout and help me lose weight.

So this is my game plan.  Lately I've been in the dark about my condition and what to do about it, and even though I'm not where I wanted to be at the end of the summer, it feels good to have a clear vision about how to move forward.  I have a follow up with my surgeon in a month, so we will see how far I can get by then.  Wish me luck!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Running cadence

The other day I realized that even though it has the title "Rebuilt Runner", my blog has precious little on it about running.  I tend to write about what is on my mind, and because I've been doing a lot of other types of exercise lately, that's what I've been writing about.  But that's all gonna change today!

When I started running again a few months ago, I decided to completely retool my form.  I had learned a lot about running mechanics during my many months of injury, and I knew that now was as good a time as ever to start from scratch.  I kept reading about the importance of striking on the midfoot, but as hard as I tried I could not figure out how to actually do it.  I could either land on my heel as I had been doing for years, or I could run entirely on the balls of my fight.

After a couple of weeks of awkward experimentation, I decided to try working on something else-cadence.  Cadence is how often you take a step, the rhythm of your running.  Everything I had read suggested that 180 steps per minute was the best, so I got on on the track and tried this new, faster pace.  Amazingly, as soon as I made that change, I naturally started landing on the midfoot!

Everything in running is connected, so when you improve one element, it will improve others.  Taking that many steps felt clumsy at first, because I been taking long, loping strides for so long.  But when you take many small steps, you feel lighter, smoother.  It's like a ballerina up on pointe gliding across the stage; she takes so many small steps that it looks like one fluid movement.  This feeling is what you are going for.

This cadence was so different from how I used to run, that it took a long time to get the new rhythm etched into my muscle memory.  I even went so far as to get a metronome app for my iPhone and run with the program clicking away three times a second in my ear.  If you don't have a smartphone, you can just look at the seconds ticking away on your watch, and count "DA-da-da-DA-da-da-DA-da-da..." for several seconds before each run.

The difference it makes is tremendous.  With a slower cadence, you go up really high and come crashing down hard with each step.  With a fast cadence, you rise and fall less, and the force of the landing gets spread out over more steps.  This makes running easier on your body and can help to avoid injury.  You also run faster...too fast, sometimes.  To run slowly with a high cadence, you need to have a shorter stride, and learning to vary your stride length with your pace is a skill that takes time to develop.

180 bpm isn't a hard and fast rule; like everything in running, it depends to a degree on your own body shape.  Some may find slightly faster feels more comfortable, while others might find that slightly slower works better.  But the variability should be small.  I saw a slow motion breakdown of the top five finishers in the latest Boston Marathon, and everyone was within about 5 bpm of 180.  So if it works for them, that's good enough for me.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Born to Run

This book got a lot of attention a few years back, mainly for having brought the minimalist running movement into the mainstream.  I got the book because I heard it had some good info about running form, but I found it had so much more than that.

It is the true story of Christopher McDougall's odyssey into the world of an ancient Mexican people called the Tarahumara who live in a remote canyon, speak their own distinct language and have a culture built around running.  In the Tarahumara tongue, their name for themselves actually means "the running people."  They will go on 120 mile treks through blazing hot canyons while covering their feet with only sandals.  And these aren't just the few star athletes; most Tarahumara people can do this.

What happened to McDougall was an incredible personal journey, and he tells it with the prowess of the best novelists.  The book contains stories within stories, and the many eccentric people he meets along the way are painted with vivid detail.  For example, the story of Ann Trason battling two Tarahumara men in a grueling 100-mile race through the mountains of Colorado is as thrilling a sports story as I have ever experienced.  It's quite possibly the most exciting book I've ever read, and what's amazing is that it is absolutely true.  Maybe that's why it is so exciting, because you know these are real people having amazing experiences in a bizarre and inspiring sport.

Every runner should read this book, but I think everyone else should read it too, because it is just a great story.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Overcoming oxygen debt in swimming

I recently got back into swimming, and I was reminded of how hard it is at first.  I was pretty fit, but I couldn't go for more than five minutes without needing a break.  The problem was I wasn't getting enough air and felt like I was drowning.

This feeling is called going into oxygen debt, which means you are using more air than you are taking in.  It is incredibly uncomfortable, and in my case causes a sense of panic.  In order to keep swimming, I needed to find a way to either take in more air, use less air, or both.

Breathing while swimming is different then breathing while running or cycling (or really any other sport) because you can only breathe at discrete times.  For the freestyle stroke, you can breathe at most every time an arm pulls through the water.  So if you are already breathing that frequently, you can't breathe any faster.  Another obstacle is speed; some speeds are more efficient than others, so swimming more slowly might actually require MORE oxygen then swimming quickly.  I'm very dense, so the slower I swim the futher my legs sink into the water.  This shape is much less hydrodynamic, which makes swimming harder.

So what can you do?  The key for me is taking longer, deeper breaths, and focusing on my form.  First, lets talk about breath.  You can only breathe in when your head is turned all the way to one side, but you can breathe out any time.  So breathe out slowly while you are turning your head, then once you get your face our of the water you can use that entire time for breathing in.  Try to hold your head above water as long as your stroke will allow, and breathe in deeply and slowly.

Next, there is form.  Of all of the endurance sports, swimming is the one where form matters the most.  This is because the shape you make determines how easily you can move through the water.  If your form starts to slacken, you will change your drag coefficient, which will make swimming harder.  So actively thinking about your form will help you to stay in that nice hydrodynamic shape.  Also, keep the tempo up; slowing down may seem easier, but because your breathing rate is tied to your cadence, you wont actually be improving your air/work ratio.

The next time I swam, I found that as I worked on these two things, then I was able to swim farther.  Oxygen debt still eventually overtook me, but that is because my swimming fitness is down.  As my cardiovascular system improves, I will be able to take in more oxygen with each breath.  And as my swimming muscles get stronger, they will be able to do their work more efficiently, requiring less oxygen.  The key is to gradually swim farther and farther each time, and eventually supply will catch up with demand and swimming will get easy.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Straight Feet, Colin, Straight Feet!

Two weeks before my freshman year of high school, I went out to join the cross country team.  In retrospect, I don't know exactly why I did- unlike most kids, I had never been on a little league team or played indoor soccer.  I was a bookworm, and most days the hardest workout I got was maneuvering the computer mouse playing "Warcraft II".  The best idea I can come up with is that my older brother ran XC and I heard about the team through him.  But that decision ended up making a huge impact on my young life, because I not only fell in love with running, but I ended up meeting some of my closest friends there.

Our very first workout had us running down the street to a local church that let us use their field to practice.  It was only a half a mile away, but I was so non-athletic that I couldn't even make it TO the workout without having to stop and walk.  The coach came up behind me and asked simply, "Are you ok?" "Yeah, I'm fine, I just have a bad side-ache."  He looked over his shoulder, where the high school was still actually in sight.  I can only imagine that he was thinking "what am I gonna do with this kid?"

Over the next few weeks, I got better, at least enough so I could finish the workouts and get through a 5k race in hot September weather.  It was my first time being on a sports team, and I loved the camaraderie.  Even the older guys teasing the freshman seemed strangely affectionate. Our coach, Jim Smith (who, despite his intensely anglo name, would often tout his Native American heritage and lament the raping and pillaging of his people at the hands of the "white man") would shout advice to us as we came around a turn during practices.  And his advice for me was always the same: "STRAIGHT FEET, COLIN, STRAIGHT FEET!!!"  My feet turned out quite a bit, which is a really inefficient way to run.  And if you saw 14 year old Colin, you would understand why his form was bad: I was 5 foot 6, and I only weighed 105 lbs.  I looked like a baby dear six weeks into a crash diet.  I just wasn't strong enough to run with good form, and no amount of feet-straightening effort would pull those toes in.

A few weeks ago I was jogging into the Field House to workout in the weight room, and I could see my reflection in the glass door.  To my amazement, my feet were straight!  Really straight.  I wondered how, but the answer was as clear as the reflection staring back at me.  I'm not the same gawky kid I was all those years ago; heavy strength training has brought me up to a brawny 124, with enough muscle spread out over my thin frame to keep my shoulders back, my chest up, my knees high, and my feet as straight as the two rails of a train track.  If only coach Smith could see me now!

My first post on this blog was "Why I Love Exercise", and in there I explained that the magic of exercise is that it changes you, shapes you, reforms you.  As a teenager I saw my feet naturally turn out as I walked and I thought that was just how my feet were, and nothing I could do would change that.  But I was wrong, I could change, all I needed to do was to get stronger.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Favorite Recipe- Ultimate Oatmeal

Health crazes are often centered around a specific food, with zealous believers claiming that ________ (fill in the blank with goji juice, chocolate, etc)  is the one secret to perfect health.  Sadly, there is no magic elixir.  True dietary health is a complex balance of many different nutrients that support your overall fitness goals.  But one often-touted food, oatmeal, does have unique health benefits that warrant it being a part of your regular diet.

Oatmeal's soluble fiber helps lower cholesterol and stabilizes blood-glucose levels by encouraging slow digestion.  It also has a lot of complex carbohydrates and B vitamins, which are especially important for athletes.  But for all of it's value, it can be terribly boring.  I avoided eating it for a long time because it always had such a bland, dull taste.  But if you do it right, it can be mouthwatering; this is my recipe:

1. Bring 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup milk, and a pinch of salt to a boil.
2. Stir in 1/2 cup minute oats, cook for (you guessed it) one minute.
3. Remove from heat, add a small handful of raisins, one teaspoon of brown sugar, one teaspoon of honey, a pinch of cinnamon, and a dash of nutmeg.  Finish with one teaspoon of butter.
4. Top with chopped apples, strawberries, and pecans.  Serve.

The fresh fruit brings a lightness to the dish, which offsets the heaviness of the oatmeal.  And the combination of the brown sugar, honey, cinnamon, and nutmeg is the perfect seasoning.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Working Out To Work Out?

Exercising makes you strong, but every exercise requires a certain amount of strength in order to actually do it.  This leads to a bizarre catch-22, because you may not be able to do the kind of exercise you want because you are not strong enough, but were you to do the workout, it would make you strong enough.

This problem shows that a lot of physical training is getting your body to the point where you can do the workouts you want.  It is sort of an intermediate step in achieving your ultimate fitness goal, but one that can be critical.  Here is an example: to push your lactic acid threshold, you need to run long intervals at high intensity with short rests in between.  This workout could be repeat miles slightly faster than race pace, with four or five minutes of recovery where you run considerably slower than race pace.  This is a very demanding workout, but one that pays huge dividends in fitness.  But actually running that hard that long requires speed, strength, flexibility, and endurance.  Ironically, these are all things that you would gain from doing the workout.

The solution is to build from one workout to the next, until you are ready for the big stuff that you really want to do.  Before you do intense speed-work, you need to first have endurance.  This means doing long, steady runs until your cardiovascular system can handle that level of intensity.  Strides would also be a good idea, because you wont be able to run fast for long until you can at least run fast short.  Start on a track where the ground is smooth and work on your form until you feel that you can run fast well.  You also need strength, so make sure to do some kind of weight lifting and keep those new muscles limber by stretching regularly.

This path may sound lengthy, but you have to move carefully to avoid getting injured.  I recently heard an interview with a professional runner who was doing 110 miles a week, and he said that it took him years to get to that much mileage.  He would increase his mileage slowly, allowing his body to adjust and grow into the higher volume.  I could tell that he was looking at his running career as a whole, and making decisions that would pay off months and years down the road.  This "big picture" view is important, because it shows that the preliminary steps are just as important as the final steps.  And this can motivate you when you want to be running a marathon, but right now you should be doing your stretches.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Nike Training Club

For the iPhone users out there, I wanted to talk about the Nike Training Club App.  This is a fantastic free program that has an enormous selection of strength training workouts.  And the workouts it has are exactly what I think work best for most people-stability exercises that use mostly your own body weight (some of the exercises use free-weights, but all you need are two 10-15 lb dumbbells and a medicine ball.)  What these types of workouts do is they work multiple muscles groups at once, with a heavy emphasis on your core.  This type of strength training builds very practical strength, as well as improving balance and coordination.

The program is easy and fun to use; first you pick a goal (one of several on a scale of leaner to bulkier), then you pick a difficulty level, then you choose a workout in that catagory.  The workouts are 30-60 minutes long, and it moves you quickly from one activity to the next, switching as often as every thirty seconds.  No one rep is extremely difficult, but you come to quickly realize that a minute of pushups is an aweful lot.  There are breaks, but they are few and far between (like, 2 one-minute rests in half an hour).  This pace keeps you breathing hard the entire time, so not only are you building muscle, but you are getting a solid cardiovascular workout as well.

I've had trouble in the past learning new workouts from digital sources, because often what you will find is a written description with maybe a picture or two.  This can leave you unsure if you are really doing the exercise right.  But the Nike Training Club solves that by giving you high quality video of every exercise, several repetitions shot from multiple angles.  This is really what makes the app work, because it is crystal clear how how to do each exercise.

It also has some terrific interactive features: in the middle of your crazy ivans, a voice will chime in giving you a tip on how to improve your form.  Or when you are almost done with a set of around-the-world lunges, you will hear, "15 seconds left, almost done!"  It feels like you have a personal trainer moving you through the workouts.  And after you finish each workout, you get points, and as your point total increases, you get special titles like, "Challenger" and "Fighter".  This may sound a little corny, but when you are worn out after a killer set, it is a great boost.  Nike recently added a feature that unlocks special workouts once you get to certain levels.  The whole thing is designed to give you the feeling that you are moving forward and setting goals, which is exactly what you want from an exercise program.

Because of all of the video, the App is something like 700 megabytes, so don't be surprised if it takes you an hour to download.  It is totally worth the weight.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Ice Baths

There are no cure-all's in sports medicine-except for ice baths.  When I first heard about them I tried it out dubiously, thinking that the benefit, if any, would be minor.  Boy was I wrong.

You use an ice bath when you have done a really intense workout, when the muscles have been severely broken down.  It's easy to know when you reach this threshold, because your muscles will be sore immediately after the workout, instead of kicking in the next day.  I had one of those workouts today; after a couple of weeks of rest I did a fairly intense strength training session, and as I was reaching down to unlace my shoes afterwards, my legs were shaking.  I knew an ice bath was what I needed.

The name "ice bath" is a little misleading, because the water doesn't have to be 33 degrees, it just has to be cold, significantly colder than your body temperature.  I try to shoot for around 55-60 degrees.  You fill the bath tub up with just enough water to cover your legs, then you sit down in it for 10 minutes.  At this point you might be saying to yourself, "I don't care how good this is for you, there is no way I'm getting in that bath!"  But it really isn't that bad; it's a shock right as you slide in, but after a few seconds the escaping heat from your body warms the water immediately around you and it just feels cool.

I'm a runner, so I've only worked my lower body hard enough to require the cold water.  But you could ice your upper body if you would just be a little trickier.  For one, when your heart and lungs are submerged, that is when you really feel the chill.  But if you kept the temperature moderate it shouldn't be too bad, and you could slide your whole body into the water and get the benefits all over.

So now we know the cost.  What is the reward?  First, the cold helps reduce swelling-whenever a muscle is injured (any strenuous exercise is a series of many small injuries) it swells, and getting past that swelling phase is necessary for recovery.  Second, it helps your muscles get rid of lactic acid.  The processes by which your muscles produce energy are complicated, but one of the by-products of high-intensity workouts is lactic acid.  That leaden feeling you get in your legs near the end of a hard race is caused in part by the muscles being flooded with this substance.  What the cold water does is it forces blood to rush to the legs, speeding up the removal of the lactic acid and other toxins.  I follow up the ice bath with a hot shower, but not really for any therapeutic reasons, it just feels good.

The real benefit comes the day after.  When you wake up, instead of feeling heavy and sluggish, your legs will feel lighter than air.  You may still be a little sore, but it will be much less than if you hadn't iced.  In my experience, it cuts recovery time in half, which means you can feel good quickly and get on to your next workout!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How thin is too thin?

These days, being thin sure seems important: we associate thin with "sexy", "beautiful", "successful".  And in sports, there is a practical reason to be lean; to be a good athlete, you need to be able to move yourself quickly and powerfully, and muscle is what enables that.  But what good is fat?  It seems like dead weight, it seems like something that would only hold you back.  So the thinner the better, right?

Not exactly.  It's true that fat doesn't have a lot of practical purposes for athletes (some notable exceptions are to improve buoyancy for swimmers and to help insulate cross-country skiers from the cold).  So it is tempting to try to cut out as much fat as you can in the name of a faster time in the next race.  But you can only safely do that up to a point.

We still need some fat for all of our systems to run smoothly.  For example, many vitamins are fat-soluble, which means they can only be digested with the help of fats.  The body also uses fat to trap diseases and toxins while it fights them off.  And fat plays a vital role in the skin, hair, nervous system, and cell function.  So we need some of it around, but how much?

It depends drastically on gender.  Men need to be at least 2 percent body fat, and women need to be at least 10 percent.  The variation comes from the disparate needs of the male and female reproductive systems.  If you want to get a feel for where that line is, someone at these lower limits would be incredibly skinny.  At 2 percent you would be able to see every muscle in stark relief as well as most bones (see the picture below).  10 percent looks a little softer, but still very angular and lean.

It would be near impossible to get below 2 percent voluntarily, so men don't have much to worry about in this department.  We can get basically as thin as we want to be for whatever our particular goals are.  But women need to be more careful, because their lower limit is much more attainable.  Elite female runners will bump up against that line, and the first thing they notice is problems with their menstrual cycle.  But as with everything in fitness, there are variations from person to person.  There are probably some women who, naturally and without any special diet or exercise, would be below 10 percent body fat.  If that is you, I wouldn't worry that you are too thin, because if your body is settling into that composition on it's own, then it is doing it for a reason and it is probably fine.

To find out your exact composition, the best way is with a Tanita bathroom scale.  This is a simple but sophisticated machine that uses electrical conductivity and tells you your complete composition-fat percentage, muscle mass, bone density, and water content.  Maybe this is more than you wanted to know about yourself, but if you are a serious athlete, this information can help you to fine-tune your training.  I don't have one, but I've read about them and seen them, and they are really amazing.

As difficult as losing weight is for most, you would think that there wouldn't be much risk of being underweight.  But last year when I was getting ready for a race, I made a concerted effort to trim down to get closer to my original race weight.  And what I found was that losing weight can be very addictive.  It comes from this positive feedback loop; you set a goal, you achieve it, and you feel great about your accomplishment, so you want to set another goal.  And once you get in this mode, it can be hard to realize where to stop.

The phrase, "I need to be thinner..." is incomplete; it needs a purpose, it needs a reason: "I need to be thinner in order to..."  There are lots of good reasons to lose weight (and some poor reasons), so as you move forward make sure you keep that target in mind so you will know when you've done enough.

Bonus pic:  This is a famous photo of the duel between Mark Allen and Dave Scott during the 1989 Ironman Traithlon.  Look at Dave Scott's legs!