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.