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!