Too much information

Too-much-informationThis is just my opinion (as if anything on this site is anything else?!), but I feel that, at least for the average Johnny or Sheila hoping to get fit and/or pursue athletic ambitions, the athletic/health science industry is doing more harm than good.  The fact that at our fingertips rests such an immense wealth of information isn’t always a good thing.  It makes us believe that there is a right answer.  And when we believe there is a right answer, we often feel compelled to find it and follow it.

The problem is though, that the right answers aren’t always clear, aren’t always easy to follow, and in the absence of our ability to follow this ‘correct’ course of action in it’s entirety, we often opt to do nothing.

Look, I’m a scientist by training and I recognize the tremendous benefit the field provides.  But science, at least to the non-scientist, can be misleading.  It produces claims about benefits of one course of action over another that while perhaps technically true, can (and maybe should) pretty much be ignored.

Supplement X performs better than Supplement Y, and both are shown to provide benefits as compared to a control group that didn’t take either.  Better go get supplement X, right?  Training regimen A produces a greater increase in VO2 max than regimen B, so looks like I need to go and change the way I’m training now too!  Well, not so fast.  In truth it is likely that while supplements X and Y do produce statistically significant differences in some measurable characteristic of health over the control group, it is very small difference. It might also be that you are not similar to the control group at all!  And if you don’t actually know what statistical significance is in the first place, then maybe you should research that before you google any more Brand X’s or Program B’s.

It comes down, again in my opinion, to a bit of a need for external validation.  Sure, it’s good to do research and learn about whatever you are interested in, but it is FAR more important to develop an intuition about your own body and mind–what works and what doesn’t.  A genuine internal confidence in whatever you decide to do will pay the kind of dividends that can’t be paid for, no matter how slick the sales marketing might be.

Eat good food and move regularly.  Spend time with people you care about and care about what you do with your time.  Now that’s not too much information, is it?

How much is too much?

exhausted-cyclistI had a tough workout yesterday that left me asking this question.  I mean, all my workouts are tough, but this one was exceptional. I hadn’t eaten well all day (two cookies and two cups of coffee prior to my 4:00 pm effort) but was determined to squeeze the workout in.  Going in I suspected that my performance wouldn’t be stellar but was hell bent on at least matching my performance from the previous week where I’d done the same workout.  I’d actually commented in my training journal that I thought I’d be able to ‘move up’ the next time I tackled it, so just matching it felt like I was giving myself an ‘easy day’ pass.

I fought tooth and nail to keep my RPM’s above 80 during the final interval.  It was as close as I think I’ve come to truly finding the ‘gun to your head’ level of determination.  And as that last interval ended and I struggled to keep the cadence during the 20 second ‘warm down’ I knew I was in trouble.  When the pain I knew was coming started I tried to spin through it.  It got worse and worse until I had to try another tactic. Hobbling straight legged to the corner I collapsed and put my legs up the wall, hoping the pain would drain from my legs with the blood. My heart rate, which had come down a bit from its peak of somewhere above 205 (the machine’s sensors stop reading above this number) was still in the neighborhood of 130 or so, ensuring both the pain and blood remained where they were.

Eventually, of course, the pain subsided and my ability to walk normally returned.  But it had me wondering how much is too much.

So today I spent a few minutes trying to answer the question.  In particular I was concerned with the condition called exertional rhabdomyolysis, which is essentially a degeneration of your muscles’ cell membranes, leading to release of cell contents into surrounding tissues.  Blood potassium levels skyrocket (not a good thing apparently) and if the condition is pervasive enough the kidneys become unable to restore the balance (they get clogged with myoglobin, another content of the muscle cells) and bad things happen.

Although Rhabdo (as it is called for short) is widely known about in CrossFit and similar extreme training circles, I’d been worried that my own brand of ‘extreme’ training might also be flirting it.  I’m not sure I’ve found any definitive answers, but I did find a pretty soothing article from Women’s Health Magazine, which is probably about as close as one can come to definitive without actually arriving there.

It mentions five signs that you might be going too hard–cheating on form (hard to do with cardio – bad form usually means less efficiency); sore joints (I’m never sore, muscularly or joint-wise, from short high intensity efforts–races of course are a whole other ball of wax); increasing intensity too fast (no danger there, it’s been high intensity for years!); training every day (even at only seven minutes I couldn’t imagine doing this, not with adequate intensity); and pushing past pain.  This last point gave me pause.  I routinely push past pain–in my legs and arms and lungs–in fact a workout without some facet of pain seems a foreign concept. And sometimes, like yesterday, it is temporarily debilitating. But even that effort only left me crippled for ten minutes and left no other lasting effects, either later in the day or in days following.  So this leaves me hopeful that my radical attention to intensity over very brief intervals is safe given my history with it and the absence of other warning signs.

In thinking further, I believe that there is a level of protection against something like rhabdo in my systematic, machine driven approach.  My intervals and intensity is very calculated–prescribed as part of a computer program–and are the same (or nearly so) every time I repeat a workout.  Although the intensity is very high, the duration is short and the movements are such that bad form lessens my ability to make the intervals.  Typically I stop right after my ‘peak’ interval–the goal of stimulating growth and causing supercompensation having been accomplished. I seek to approach maximum effort during this last interval, carry it out briefly, and then am done.

So my fingers are crossed that my system of training, despite the pain it creates, isn’t too much at all.  In fact, for me anyway, it seems to be just right.

Stairway to heaven–Stepmill to hell

Add stepmill to the list of cardio equipment that can incapacitate me in seven minutes.

Tuesday marked the first day I decided to ‘go back to normal’ on my workouts.  My new plan involves a bigger variety of equipment including the stepmill.  I’d tried it out last week but was a bit skeptical that it would be able to provide the required difficulty, but though i’d give it a shot.

Based on that previous trial  (where i did 1:1 intervals, each interval being a minute long) I decided to try 1:2 intervals which meant only 2 work intervals for 2 minutes each.  The work intervals were at the max level (level 20) and the rest intervals at level 11.  I was on a Matrix brand machine.

I made the intervals, but barely.  The resulting experience was a combination of what i’ve felt on my best bike workouts and my running through jello workouts.  The final 30 seconds i felt as though everything was in slow motion – my legs heavy like i was trying to lift my feet out of molasses.  I was sure i was going to clip one of the stairs and be sent sprawling as i counted down the final 20 steps.  After i was done, the molasses went away but still my legs screamed at me and refused to let me walk with anything resembling a normal gait for at least 10 minutes.

And no back pain the day after which is the best part–I’m happy to hobble around, it just needs to be for the right reasons, like my thrice weekly trips to the Inferno.

Doing more with less (part 4)

Pic12The longer the race, the more the required elements for success shifts towards the mental side of the mental-physical continuum. In the case of a 4 hour event there might still be a pretty even balance. By the time you reach the 24 hour level though, the truth of the matter is that even a super fit athlete is going to go through at least one period where physically they feel absolutely awful. What this means is that no matter how fit you might be going in, if you don’t have the mental toughness to push through this low point you won’t finish.

The good news is that if you’re an enduro-phile who’s got this mental toughness then you can probably get away with a low-volume, high intensity workout program and enjoy a reasonable level of success in some events that are considered to be monstrous efforts. The bad news, or maybe the fine print rather, is that this comes with a few caveats:

  1. Experience helps. Although I have met a few people (and thereby believe in their existence) that haven’t really done anything endurance oriented but do seem to have somehow developed – or were just born with – the required mental toughness, most people without experience simply don’t have it. It might be a good thing, however, because while HIIT might provide one with a physical platform for ultra endurance muscularly and cardiovascularly speaking, research suggests that connective tissues (tendons, ligaments, etc) take a bit longer to develop the ability to deal with the high repetitions demanded of such events. In my opinion, if one is planning to use low volume, HIIT to attack ultra endurance racing, putting in a years worth of progressively longer events during the start of one’s budding endurance ‘career’ will help prevent injury to these connective tissues.
  2. 90% Mental still means 10% Physical. Even when the balance places heavy burdens on the mental, the physical still plays a pretty important role. For instance, the fitter you are, the further you will tend to get before coming face to face with the wall of doubt and discomfort that is the inevitable result of a long enough race. This matters because – to keep it simple – the difficulty associated with overcoming this doubt is pretty much proportional to the ratio of race distance/time remaining to race distance/time completed. When you’re at your lowest point and considering a DNF (for whatever reason), if part of your internal dialogue includes a glimpse of how far you’ve come – and that distance is significant compared to how far you have yet to go – you’re much more likely to continue. For this reason, getting as fit as you can (with whatever training time to decide to use), is beneficial.
  3. Sorry, not for sale. For those that don’t have it, mental toughness is hard to come by – irrespective of training volume. While true HIIT requires extraordinary focus and determination in the short term, it offers no exposure to the mental grit needed for real endurance success. Conventional (ie high volume) training, on the other hand, often attempts to provide some version of mental toughness by requiring big efforts as part of the program. In doing so, it fosters a bit of what I call ‘conventional confidence’ – a belief in one’s abilities and chance of success based on external validation measured against the prescribed training regimen. In other words – we feel ready because we have done X, Y, and Z as we were told (and in some cases we even paid to be told) and are now deemed ready according to an external source of conventional wisdom. This works sometimes, particularly at the lower end (shorter duration) of endurance racing. But my experience has been that as one pursues more daunting goals, ‘conventional confidence’ both fails and can even lower chances of success. Why? Because you can’t train to make a 24 hour race feel easy. Even 20 hour a week training programs won’t reproduce the mental and physical challenges that need to be overcome in such events and if (or rather when) that low point is hit, a crumbled sense of external confidence can create more doubt and reasons to quit for an athlete that initially had higher expectations of success. Ultimately, ‘internal confidence’ is critical for such efforts and unfortunately isn’t readily developed in budding enduro-philes by either HIIT or conventional higher volume training.

The last caveat begs the question of how to develop mental toughness. The good news is that, at least in my opinion, it is possible for most people. The bad news is that if you’re starting from near scratch it can take a pretty consistent commitment, will entail a fair bit of misery, and probably a little bit of (at least perceived) risk. So what’s the prescription? Trial by fire. But we’ll cover that, and provide a basic nuts and bolts guide to ultra endurance training “three hours a week style”, in the last installment of the series.

The upside of injury

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My lovely elliptical trainer. She’s meaner than she looks.

I like to think there is always an upside.  In this case, the limitation of my back have led me to explore other training options and I’ve found a good one in the last place I thought i would: the elliptical machine.

I have always thought that elliptical machines were incapable of generating enough intensity for the likes of my workouts.  Yeah, you could set the resistance really hard but the nature of having your feet just resting on the platforms limited the amount of work you could really do, and I imagined the amount of work I was looking to do vastly outstripped this potential. Turns out I was wrong (my wife won’t be surprised!).

I finished last week out with two elliptical workouts (after realizing I couldn’t row or run) on two different machines–for some reason my YMCA has three different brands of ellipticals!  Both were awesome.  The second one was a bit too awesome and I failed miserably on the fourth of five intervals.  The program was a 30:30 interval (30 seconds hard, 30 seconds easy) and I’d set the level to 20 (out of 30 possible).  After a 3 minute progressive warm-up, the intervals started–30 seconds at level 20 where you’re instructed to keep the cadence above 60, followed by 30 seconds at some lower level (11?) where you’re told to ‘walk’ at a cadence under 45.

For the first interval i was jazzed and 45 felt ridiculously slow and easy and so i kept the cadence above 60 on the rest portion.  By the last interval i was struggling to keep the pace above 40 and had lowered the work interval portion down to level 16.  Ouch.

I was pleasantly surprised by these workouts.  They were HARD.  yeah, maybe i’m still not quite back to where i was before Belize, and sure, they are ‘new’ which might make them seem harder, but i’m not even coming close to tapping the potential of these machines.  Cardiovascularly I felt like i was doing a tabata–my heart rate was through the roof on the work intervals and I was desperate for the rest intervals to last longer. I also felt like both my legs and arms were getting pushed hard–there was definitely a full body feel to the session, similar to what I feel when doing intervals on the rowing machine but with activation of some of my ‘pushing’ muscles as well.

So needless to say, I’m psyched.  I’ll probably alternate cycling workout and elliptical workouts until I can run again, and then maybe alternate all four (biking, rowing, running, elliptical) once I’m back to full health.

But for now, well the Chiropractor is waiting.

Doing more with less (part 3)

Pic2There is a growing body of evidence that short duration high intensity training provides physiological adaptations similar to longer duration moderate intensity training. The first studies examining the potential of what is often referred to as HIIT (high intensity interval training) are decades old – but until recently the methods did not receive much attention. In the last few years, however – partly due to the surge in popularity of programs that incorporate HIIT principals like CrossFit, perhaps – the benefits of HIIT have been more widely reported.

For someone with limited time and high ambition, HIIT is good news. By training harder for shorter periods of time, one can potentially reach the same fitness level (and thus maintain the same competitive ability) as someone training many more hours but following traditional programs aimed at endurance athletes.

Consider for example someone training for a marathons – most beginner/intermediate programs will have them running between 25 and 50 miles per week. Many programs focus exclusively on number of miles (take a look here at the results of a quick google search of marathon training programs) and don’t prescribe intensity at all. Athletes taking up these programs typically spend all of their time at moderate to low intensities and depending on their typical per mile pace would be committing 3-7+ hours a week to training. Using mostly HIIT training an athlete might expect to be in as good of shape and perform as well during races and only train a 1/4 to a 1/3 of that.

It seems hard to believe, right? If the claims of HIIT were true, you might ask – why don’t we see more recreational athletes using them regularly and doing more/better on fewer training hours? And why are true low-volume training programs so damn near impossible to find?

The answer: HIIT is hard.
True HIIT – the kind of concerted near maximal effort that make up my three 10 minute work-week training sessions – isn’t something most people want to do. So while some training programs might flirt with the edges of ‘high intensity’ on occasion, many are targeted towards more recreational athletes never approach it. If you’re aiming to achieve any sort of serious fitness with total weekly training times measured in minutes not hours, however, you will need to become intimate with the pain of high intensity work. And it HURTS. A lot.

But if you can do it, it works. And it can lead to a level of fitness that is sufficient, at least in my experience, to attempt even really big events. Of course it won’t make those events easy, and the lack of traditional ‘big volume days’ might leave an athlete a little low on confidence heading into them – a fact that might make even those capable of regular HIIT efforts favor conventional programs. For those that already possess that confidence – or are willing to embrace the trial by fire mentality and risk failure to get it – the a HIIT low volume approach could be attractive.

Doing more with less (part 2)

Note – I’m writing this for ambitious recreatPic13ional athletes – guys and girls like me who love racing and pushing themselves. I’m not advocating that anyone changes what they are doing or adopts my ideas. I’m simply articulating my beliefs – based on personal experience and research – that there is an alternative strategy to approaching this sort of fitness that may be of interest to some people.

There is a tremendous power in consistency – both in training and in life. Cumulative and continuous gains reward those who are able to stick with things. In terms of training for a longer race such as an iron distance triathlon, however, the importance of consistency is typically emphasized in the short term, ending with the event itself. This is understandable – we are inculturated to be goal oriented people.

This traditional approach of rearranging ones schedule for a limited period of time to really pound out the hours in preparation for a major effort can indeed work. The down side is that most of the time the demands during this period are usually so great that they can’t (and shouldn’t) be maintained indefinitely. This usually leads to an ‘off season’, variable fitness over time, and supports the idea (which perpetuating the endless cycle) that we need to ‘train’ for things. I call this way of approaching events and fitness the ‘peaks and valleys’ approach, or PV for short.

My approach to fitness and endurance events favors a more long term, patient, and sustainable approach. It requires figuring out the amount of time that you can commit on a continuous basis exclusively to fitness – without overtraining, sacrificing time with family, causing marital disharmony, or losing motivation. After lots of trial and error, for me this is somewhere around 1 hour a week.

This is the amount of time that I dedicate to focused training – week in and week out – no matter what. I’ve kept it up for years (rather than weeks or months) and used my time with maximum efficiently (the subject of the next post). The long term consistency that this approach allows without the need for built in recovery periods (that off season I mentioned) enables slow but steady cumulative gains that add up to what I call ‘maintainable base fitness’, or MBF. In the MBF approach, one aims to achieve the highest level of fitness that can be maintained indefinitely given the sum of physical, mental, and environmental factors unique to them.

The nature of MBF usually requires sufficiently low weekly training hours that races themselves replace longer training sessions as the crucible where one learns how the body and mind respond to prolonged efforts. Over the long run, however, and in my experience, this history of actual events serves just as well as (or better than) the ‘long runs’ traditionally included in training schedules to mimic them.

Next up: Part 3, Increasing MBF by maximizing training’s Return on Investment!

Doing more with less: An alternative approach to training (for everything) for the ambitions amateur

Pic3There is a bit of a reliance on the ‘trickle down’ wisdom in training programs these days, particularly for those aimed towards people with ambitions of longer events. The routines of top athletes are tweaked, shortened or otherwise modified and then touted in magazines, online training programs, DVD’s, and the like.

A random sample of such programs targeted towards, say, marathon or longer distances, will have the following things in common – LOTS of volume, and an emphasis on the physical training. While these approaches can indeed work for those able to stick to them without getting injured, in my opinion at least, there is another way.

I’ve been personally experimenting with the effects of low-volume, higher-intensity training, as preparation for ultra-distance events for about three years now. During that time my weekly training time has been limited to under three hours for the first two years, two hours for the nine months after that, and is currently at only 70 minutes.

That’s right, I only train, on average 10 minutes a day. What’s remarkable though is that I’ve found that I’m still able to perform ‘well’ (by most people’s standards) at events ranging from multi day adventure races to triathlons to ultra distance runs and bike rides.
My success is based on three things – not any of which are likely ever to come out of the distillation of pro athletes’ workout regimens

  1. Cumulative gains (over years, not weeks and months) from a program where long term consistency is actually possible
  2. Excellent Return on Investment (ROI) from very short duration, high intensity training, and
  3. Proper emphasis being placed on the mental requirements necessary for any ultra distance effort.

Although I’m primarily interested in seeing how to maximize my endurance potential while minimizing my training time, these principles apply equally well for those who have more modest goals of getting fit and doing well at sprint triathlons, half marathons, or even 5/10 Ks.

In the next few posts, I’ll talk about each aspect in more detail and then describe how to put them all together to create your own custom workout plan to do more with less.