Sunday, April 24, 2011

Why People Hate Running

When I tell people that I'm a runner, I usually get the response, "Really?  I hate running..."  I've thought a lot about this, because people who run really love it, and people who don't usually hate it.  There isn't a lot of middle ground, and the lovers are definitely outweighed by the haters.  Why is there such a divide?

I think the biggest reason is that when many people start running, they do it wrong.  Specifically, they go out too hard.  Running is a very aerobically challenging sport; it doesn't require a great deal from your muscles, but it makes a terrific demand on your lungs and heart.  And if you aren't in good shape when you take up running, that is a huge leap to make.  What most people do is they choose a distance or a length of time that seems like a reasonable amount of time to run, and they go out and run at a pretty fast speed.  The problem with that is for most people, this will be too much at the beginning.  Five minutes into the run their lungs are burning and their heart is beating close to the red line, and they think, "this is terrible!"

And the thing is, they are right.  Running that close to your maximum heart rate is painful, it can be torture.  I love to run and even I feel that way when I am running that hard.  But if you slow down the pace then it wont feel like that.  It will be work, no doubt, but it wont be painful.  And the refreshing feeling you get from the exercise, the exhilaration from going fast on your own power, and the rush of endorphins will totally outweigh the mild discomfort.

It took me a long time to learn this lesson.  When I was training for the 2004 Salt Lake City Marathon, I was very disciplined but unwise: every run was a long run, and I ran it as hard as I possibly could.  And because of that, as I was lacing up my shoes I would have this sinking feeling in my stomach: I knew how much pain I was about to go through.  I made a lot of gains very quickly, but I flamed out hard after two months, and it was only after a long break that I was ready for the big race.

So how do you find the right pace?  You can do it from heart rates, but I usually just go by feel.  When you start, go out at a pace that has you breathing heavily, but just barely.  You should feel like you could go much faster if you tried.  At the beginning this might be very slow, and I think that is what throws people off.  They have an arbitrary speed set in their mind, but that speed might be completely unrealistic at the beginning.  Pick a speed that will be easy to do for 15-20 minutes.  You make special aerobic gains after this much time with an elevated heart rate, so this is the best goal to have at the beginning. Gradually increase the length of your runs at this same pace, until you can run as long as you want at that easy, light pace.  Then you can gradually increase the speed, and that easy exertion level will be faster and faster.

If you are a competitive runner, then you will need to have runs that reach that high intensity, where it is very hard and painful.  But even for elite athletes, very few of their miles are at those levels.  Take a look at this chart:

This is from Joe Friel's blog, and this is a breakdown of one of his cyclists training.  It shows how much of his exercise is at different heart rate zones, Zone 1 being the easiest and Zone 6 being the hardest.  Most of this athletes exercises are at a pace that would be considered "easy".  Those really tough workouts definitely come around, but they are for very specific goals, so when it gets tough those athletes know exactly what they are sacrificing for.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"Rest" Days

In an earlier post I talked about rest days, and like most of what I write, I had to oversimplify things in order to keep each post from getting too long.  But I wanted to elaborate on it now, because lately I've been taking some easy days myself and had been thinking about it quite a bit.

Last week my back started hurting, so I decided to take a few days off from running to give my beleaguered disk a break.  But the thing is, the only thing that needed a rest was that disk, the rest of me was far from over-trained.  So rather than just throw in the towel and feel sorry for myself about a minor set-back, I took a look at what I could do instead of running.  I decided to start with push-ups, because your back is stationary when you do them and they are actually a really good upper body exercise.  After a few days of that I switched to swimming, which is also very easy on the back but is a solid aerobic workout.

The moral of the story is that on rest days, you only have to rest what needs resting; anything else is fair game.  These days can actually be a blessing in disguise, because it can allow you a chance to focus on something important that doesn't normally get a lot of attention.  For me, push-ups were a great idea, because I have such a slim build that any extra muscle is a good idea.  Changing your workouts can also be good for you mentally.  Taking a step back from something that you are immersed in can help you see it better, and then you can come back to it with renewed enthusiasm and clarity.

The one exception to this is when you have been doing long, hard work-outs every day for many days in a row.  This can lead to a kind of deep, full body exhaustion, where every system has been stressed.  It is good to be this tired, it means you have been working hard, but after a while you need to do a complete stop for as many days as it takes you to feel refreshed.  Joe Friel, the legendary triathlon coach, doesn't even let his athletes walk up too many flights of stairs on their rest days.  Sleep is also really important in this phase.  Sleep in, get to bed early, AND take a nap during the afternoon.  Your body releases growth hormone each time you sleep, so the more of those you can get in, the more HGH your body will release to rebuild your aching muscles.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

2011 Boston Marathon

I got home late from school last night and sat down on the couch to veg out before bed.  As a flipped through the channels, I found the Boston Marathon playing on Universal Sports.  They were rebroadcasting the race from earlier in the day, and as I hadn't seen the results yet, it was all new to me.

What made it especially interesting was the night before they played the 2010 race, so I was all caught up on the back story.  In that race Ryan Hall hung in with the leaders for much of the race, but was eventually outgunned by a swarm of Kenyans.  No surprise, the Africans have been dominating marathon racing for two decades.  Could this race be different?  I tuned in at the halfway point, and Ryan Hall was leading the race!  Not only that, he had pushed the pace so hard that he ran the first 13 miles in 1:01!  Could an American actually win the race this year?

The women's race was looking equally unlikely: American Desiree Davila was leading two Kenyans of her own, and she looked strong.  As the race continued, everyone kept picking up the pace.  In the men's race, the Kenyans surged, leaving Hall behind.  But then Hall caught back up, taking long, smooth fast strides and looking like he wasn't worried at all.  The crowd was chanting, "USA!  USA!" as the leaders went by, egging Hall and Davila on.

Eventually, the Kenyan's surged and left Hall on his own.  The women's race was even closer; Davila fought to the last 200 meters to keep the lead, and eventually was edged out by a veteran Kenyan runner.  When all was said and done, the men finished in 2:03:02, the fastest marathon ever!  Ryan hall came in 4th, but with an amazing time of 2:04:58.  To put that in perspective, if he ran that time last year, he would have not only won, but broken the course record by a minute!

On paper the race seemed similar to last year: a lone American leading at times, but eventually overtaken by the unbeatable Africans.  But watching the race, it seemed different.  Rather than the USA runners trying to hang on, it seemed like they were really competing, pushing the pace, leading, fighting.  I couldn't help but think (and hope) that this was the beginning of American runners really getting back into the mix.  We all like to root for the underdog, right?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Cool video about a great runner

This is special that CNN did about Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebreselassie.  What fascinated me about it is the place that Haile has in his community- to the Ethiopians, he is like Michael Jordan, Mother Theresa, and George Washington all rolled into one.  This video is on Youtube in three parts and here are the links:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3


Friday, April 15, 2011

Controlling your weight

One of the great ironies of the developed world is that we have trouble keeping our weight down.  For thousands of years the main struggle of society has been getting enough food; now, due to technology, most people have enough to eat, and many of us have too much.  Most of us realize this, and we are trying to find ways to simplify and cut back.

I wanted to point out the title of this post: I called it "controlling your weight" instead of "losing weight" because being thinner shouldn't be our only goal.  Decide what you want your body composition to be, then lose or gain weight until you get there.

First, diet.  Here are some things I learned when I was trying to trim down last year:

1. Try smaller portions.  A lot of us eat certain amounts just out of habit; once the food is on our plate, we feel like we have to eat everything and ignore how full we are.  For example, when I tried making a ham sandwich out of one large piece of bread instead of two, I found that I was full after eating the new amount.  This means the full sandwich was more than I needed, and I could cut back without really "sacrificing" anything.  Easy, right?

2. Have plenty of variety in each meal.  I realized that the more different kinds of things I had in each given meal, the less overall I needed to eat to be full.  For example, if I was eating just steak and potatoes, I had to eat a lot of both to get satisfied.  But if I ate steak, potatoes, fruit, salad, and bread, I could eat just a little of each and be full.  I think this comes from efficiency; when your body is getting all of the nutrients and minerals it needs, it can get by with less total material.

3. Eat more fruits and vegetables.  I don't think a completely vegetarian diet is good for you, but most of us should eat more fresh produce.  Try to fit these into as many meals as possible, and you will definitely start slimming down.

4. If you are hungry, try drinking water first instead of eating.  The sensations of hunger and thirst are very similar, and a lot of people actually have a hard time distinguishing between the two.  If you just ate an hour ago, but you already feel hungry again, try drinking a glass of water.  If you don't feel "hungry" any more, then you were really just "thirsty".  If you feel even hungrier afterward, then it wasn't a false signal and you should eat.

Next, exercise.  Exercise helps you control your weight in two ways.  First, the energy that you burn when you are actually exercising can keep your body from converting excess sugar into fat, or it can metabolize the fat you already have.  Second, when you are working out frequently, your base metabolic rate increases, and you burn more energy when you are doing other things like working or sleeping.  Here are some tips to focus this power into controlling your weight:

1. Do long workouts at lower intensity.  The body can run off of sugar or fat, and you can actually train your body to do more of the latter.  Marathon runners do this not because they want to get thinner, but because they will run out of carbohydrates during the long race if they don't burn some fat a long with it.  Running, swimming, and biking are your best options here.  Go at a level where your heart rate is up, but you don't feel like you are close to red lining.

2. Work out every day.  When you do this, it sends a message to your body that you need energy constantly.   It will shift your metabolism into a higher gear, and you will go through fuel faster.

3. Try building some muscle.  Muscle burns energy, even when dormant.  Throw in some strength training workouts, put on a few pounds of muscle, and those pounds will burn energy even when you aren't doing anything active.

A couple caveats: if you look closely at the numbers, you will realize that this probably wont be a fast process.  One pound of fat has 3500 calories, so if, like me, you gained 30 pounds, then you ate an extra 105,000 calories, or 210 complete meals!  Getting out from underneath this will take a while.  But it is a sure process: if you use more energy then you take in, then you will lose weight, because the law of conservation of energy requires it.

Another caveat: some people think that if they work out a lot, then they can eat any amount.  This is true, but you have to be putting in some serious volume to reach that level.  Again, this comes from the numbers.  If you run 5 miles a day, you are burning about an extra 500 calories.  But eating nothing but fast food can easily give you a diet that is 1000 calories more than what you need, so you are still in the red by 500.  Triathletes routinely do two or three hours of hard exercise a day, and this is about the level you need to be at before your body will burn anything you eat.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Strength Training

There are a lot of different ways to build muscle, the most popular one being weight lifting.  The advantage of lifting weights is that you can target specific muscles and work just that one muscle group.  This is good if you are a body-builder, because they need to have each muscle specifically be as big as possible.  But for most people, I don't think this method is the best, for a couple of reasons.

First, lifting weights means that you will get good at...wait for it...lifting weights!  The problem with this is that most sports don't have you moving anything but yourself.  So for most people, what they want to be good at is moving their own body, and to do that, it is better to do workouts that use your body as the resistance.  It may seem limiting, not using any free-weights or machines, but there are so many different ways to lift and push yourself that you can really work every muscle.

Another advantage of these methods is that it improves your balance.  For example, if you are doing squats on a machine, you can push a lot of weight, but the machine keeps you from tilting side to side, so it doesn't work those stabilizing muscles.  If you do squats without a machine, you will work all of those ancillary muscle groups and as a result your balance and control will improve.

There is also an issue of practicality: if you only know how to work out with machines and weights, and the gym is closed, or you are out of town, or you can't get to that equipment for some other reason, then you have to skip your workout that day.  That can be very frustrating, especially if you have specific fitness goals you are working towards and every workout counts.  If your workouts use only your body, then you will never be missing what you need.  This is very freeing.

So what types of strength training exercises don't use any equipment?  Squats, lunges, planks, push ups, tricep dips, ski jumps, and russian twists are a few.  Cruising Youtube is a actually a good way to find new workouts, there are so many of them out there, you can constantly be looking for new ones.  P90x is a popular system that uses these types of movements, and would work well at getting you strong very fast.  A great resource that I found is the Nike Training Club iPhone app; this is a program that has a huge variety of workouts at different difficulty levels, and it has video clips of each exercise to show you exactly how to do it.  Plyometrics is another method where you do a series of fast jumps and lunges; they builds strength and agility, and is used by a lot of professional athletes.  Yoga is also good: most people think of flexibility when they think of yoga, but the more advanced poses are very strenuous and help develop good muscle tone.

Monday, April 11, 2011

How do you start working out?

"I want to get in shape, but I don't know where to begin.  What should I try?"

Many have wondered this, and part of the confusion comes from the bewildering array of fitness programs: P90X, yoga, pilates, running, body-building, swimming, beer keg lifting (yes, this is a sport).  My answer to this question is, what shape do you want to be?  Looking at professional athletes is a good indication of where a particular discipline will take you.  Runners are extremely thin, with almost no fat and large, muscular legs.  Cycling gives a very similar result, though not quite as skinny.  Swimmers aren't as thin, but they have smooth, muscular bodies with broad shoulders and strong arms.  Yoga will make you very flexible, with even muscle tone all over.  P90X aficionados are bulky but cut, with sharp, clear muscle definition.

The broader question is what are your fitness goals.  If it is just to be healthier overall, then consistently doing any sport is enough.  But you probably have something specific in mind.  Let me address a couple of common goals:

1. I want to be thinner.  The key to this one is volume.  Pick something you enjoy doing and stick with it.  Aerobic sports like running, biking, and swimming are a good idea because they keep your heart rate up for long periods of time.  A trick to this is working out at medium-low intensity (still breathing heavily but not extremely hard), because at lower speeds your body chooses to burn a mix of fat and carbohydrates instead of just carbs.

2. I want to be stronger.  This requires high-intensity work-outs.  The traditional weight-lifting routines have you pushing hard for as little as ten seconds at a time and then taking a short rest.  I've experimented with a lot of different techniques over the last few months, and I am more and more convinced by workouts that simply use your body as the resistance.  P90x and other similar systems work all of your muscles in one workout, which is a lot more compact then lifting upper body one day, legs the next day, etc.  Yoga also does a lot to build muscle, often in places you never even thought about.  The more I explore yoga, the more impressed I am with it.

There are lot's of different goals, so think about what you are shooting for and that can help you figure out how to get there.  A couple of tips:

First, consider starting with something that works primarily your lungs.  They are what moves oxygen to your muscles, so if your cardiovascular system is particularly weak, then that can keep you from being able to do other things.  I think we have all played a pick up game of basketball or ultimate frisbee to find that our lungs are burning after only a few minutes and it is really hard to keep going strong.

Second, start small!  Many people hate working out because they feel it is torture; if it is that painful, you are pushing too hard.  Pick something that you know you can do, like a light jog or 15 minutes on an elliptical machine, do it consistently, and gradually increase the volume.  Your intensity level should stay pretty constant, because as you get in better shape, a hard but doable workout will be longer and faster.

Stress and Recovery

The most basic element of exercise is the combination of stress and recovery.  This is the "fundamental theorem of fitness" if there ever was one.  When the body is pushed, it is broken down.  Afterwards, it adapts, and then you are stronger the next time you try that same thing.  They go together, work and rest, and you really can't have one without the other.

If all you do is rest, then obviously you wont improve.  But all work is also self-defeating; it is during these times of break that our body actually rebuilds itself, it is during these times that you grow.  If you work yourself ragged every day and never let up, you are constantly breaking the machine down, but never allowing it a chance to repair.  It's a shame, because you are skipping the easiest part.  If you worked hard, you earned your rest.  So take the time and enjoy it!  You may not have thought that lying on the couch watching TV could be part of a fitness program, but it could be every bit as necessary as the long run.

But when do you push yourself, and when do you take it easy?  Let's answer the last question first.  You need to rest when you feel tired, sore, worn-out, or when something hurts.  The amount of time will depend on what shape you are in and what your recent workouts were like.  For a beginner, this may be for several days.  I'm in pretty good shape myself, but last week I did a strength training workout that I hadn't done in a while, and I was majorly sore for 4 days following.  After a day or two I wanted to get out on the road again, but I knew that the soreness was a sign that my body was still rebuilding and I needed to keep resting.  So listen to your body and rest as long as you need until you feel "normal" again.  Now the answer to the first question becomes clear: you push yourself any other time.

Many other decisions come down to this distinction between stress and recovery, and the more you listen to your body, the better able you will be to know what you need.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Why I love exercise

I used to think that the reason I loved exercise was because of how it made me feel.  There are a lot of feelings that go with exercising: the endorphin rush when you are out on a long run, the deep relaxation that follows a hard workout, or the pride that comes after hitting your goals in a big race.

I also used to think that maybe I loved working out for the practical benefits.  Again there are many: avoiding injury, releasing stress, looking good, feeling strong.

But when I spent weeks laying in bed after surgery on my L4-L5 disk, my favorite thing to do was listen to podcasts about triathlon training.  I wasn't getting the endorphin rush, hitting my goals, or feeling strong, yet I couldn't stay away from the idea of working out.  Maybe it was how a hungry man can't think of anything but food, but I think it goes beyond that.

Your body is such a complex machine.  It is more complicated than any computer, yet it can change and adapt to meet almost any challenge.  Did you know that as the muscles in your legs get stronger, your knee actually changes how it bends?  The muscles pull your bones into a different configuration, allowing the knee-cap to track more smoothly and changing the angle that the upper and lower leg bones make with respect to each other.

This is why I love exercise.  Because with each action, there is a reaction, a way your body will adapt.  Your body will reshape itself into something completely different, and that blows me away.  These changes used to be pretty mysterious, but now sports medicine and physiology has gotten so sophisticated, that if you want to be able to do a certain thing, there is a specific action to accomplish it.  Do you want to be able to run a marathon?  Gradually run more and more miles until you reach a certain threshold.  Want to increase your VO2 max?  Do long intervals at medium-high intensity.  Studying fitness is basically learning all of those rules, and with each new rule learned comes an increased ability to change.

This blog is going to be a distillation of those rules that I have learned.  Some I've learned from books, scientific journals, blogs, podcasts, but other things I've learned from personal experience.  With every new idea I find, I will try my best to apply it, and let you all know the results.  I hope you can gain something from it and learn to enjoy exercise as much as I do.