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.