Back to Basics

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There have been a few things in my life recently that have made me spend some time evaluating what I really think is important.  And while most of the resulting thought has little to do with the subjects of this blog, at least a bit of it does.

Because fitness–in as much as it gives me the ability to wholly participate in and interact with this fabulous physical world of ours–is important.  And for me, because I’ve enjoyed so much personal growth at the hand of what I’ve termed ‘success enabled by suffering’, the level of fitness I seek is, at least by many people’s standards, relatively high.

The route--3 km lake, 22+ km river, 9 km lake

The route–3 km lake, 22+ km river, 9 km lake

But how high?  When it comes down to it, what level of fitness am I going to need to keep finding that optimum balance of having time and energy to focus on other aspects of my life while maintaining the physical and mental platform from which to keep chasing the benefits of epic challenges (like my latest effort, a swim between cities), and able to keep up with my two boys so that I can share in some of whatever (fingers crossed here) wild missions they come up with as they get older.

I wonder this because in the face of my recent evaluation, many of the motivations that have ordinarily sustained my drive to maintain a high level of fitness have all but disappeared.  I no longer feel very competitive.  The lure of forging this new and novel path–using HIIT to approach ultra endurance, has faded.

If my happiness depends somewhat on a minimum level of fitness, then by defining that minimum level I can simply use the minimum effective dose (MED) to get there and think less of training, and more of just living. And if/when my ambition returns, even if it does so spontaneously as it did last weekend with the swim, I’m well positioned to suffer my way through an epic adventure or two.

Basic Fitness Goals–to always be able:

  • Run a sub 6:00 mile
  • Swiw a sub 6:00 400 meter (open water)
  • Strength: Perform 90 seconds each for continuous tension (CTL) chins and push-ups.

Simple and easy as.

A simple plan (MBF revisited)

house planI’ve got two blog posts waiting to be written, but have put them on the back-burner in favor of trying to plan a house build that needs to happen ASAP, unless we want to start paying rent.  I’ve discovered planning for a house build isn’t my favorite activity, nor is it one that I expect I’m particularly good at.  It’s been a stressful month even though we’ve not even begun the actual process yet (beyond sketching on graph paper and researching stuff online).  When I’m stressed, it’s even more important for me to maintain some consistency in a workout program, which is one of the primary ways I cope with stress.

The upshot of all of this is that the program I’ve been using pretty consistently for the past couple months has been really enjoyable and easy (stress wise) and flexible too and so I thought I’d share.  To begin with, I’ll lay out the aims I had back when I was heading what I knew was going to be a stressful period–winter coming on, no big missions on the horizon, occasional but inconsistent big, physical, days at work, and all the mental stress of the home building project outside of work.  For me, fitness is a double edged sword–if my pursuit of it demands too much time/energy and adds stress to my life, this is a problem.  But if the program I’m using isn’t effective then I suffer because I am grumpy and unhappy in my priorities.  It’s a challenge to find this balance, but this program has found it, remarkably well too.  Specifically, my aim is to keep up my fitness in terms of endurance and speed in cycling, running, swimming, and paddling, as well as strength (bodyweight specific), and my climbing ability.  I’m not in a phase of life where increasing ability is a priority.  But I am (and expect I always will be) in a phase where maintaining ability, is.  I call this principle Maintainable Base Fitness, or MBF.

Some of the ideas presented in the free training guides and UltraMental always seem to apply to my workouts, even when I experiment (as I have been recently) with much less structured programs.  Higher intensity work of course is important, as is the use of Baseline workouts–repeated efforts that allow for good honest data to track progress/maintenance and encourage proper effort.  Both of these elements are part of this current program I’m using.  Days off between workouts, and a ‘regimented consistency’ are not.  Without further ado…

The Plan:  It’s a loose plan really, in which I cycle through the following disciplines–running, biking, swimming (or SUPing), hanging (hangboard workout), and upper body strength.  I will hit each of these disciplines once to complete a cycle.  Within a cycle I don’t have consistency of order, meaning on one cycle the swim day might come at the beginning, and on the next it might come near the end (some days are just better for swimming!). Once in a while, one of  the workouts will be longer efforts, when this fits in my schedule and I’m properly motivated, but often (the last two weeks for example) each effort has been pretty minimal.  I have a pool of workouts for each discipline that I choose from and at least two thirds of the workouts I do will be from this pool. This means 2/3 of the time I’ll have data, and all the benefits it brings with it, heading in to the workout–i.e. a target pace, confidence of hitting that target pace, numbers for comparison after the fact.  Here is a list, by discipline, of the workouts in my pool–

Running:  1 mile time trial (on a consistent course), 2 x hill repeat (about .3 mile) intervals, 4 x 400 intervals leaving every 2:00, pylon run (~1.75 miles, hilly course).

Cycling:  Short loop time trial, MTB (2.5 miles), 3 x hill repeat, MTB (same course as run), Pylon TT, MTB (same course as run), Road Bike time trial, rolling hills course (~4 miles).

13043690_860682407391334_7744007119342576783_nSwim/SUP: Buoy time trial (for either)–out n back (~400 meters),  Buoy loop time trial (for either, ~1 km), 4 x 100 meter intervals (swim) leaving on 2:30, 6 x 100 meter intervals (SUP) leaving on 1:30.

Strength: CTLs (continuous tension lifting) for chins/pulls and pushups.  I’ll always do one set of each (per workout) but will change rep length for variety.  Currently I’ll choose between 20 second reps (10 sec each for positive and negative phases), 8 second reps, and have now added 30/30/30’s to the mix where I’ll start each movement with a controlled 30 second negative followed by a 30 second positive (concentric) and then a 30 second negative, finishing with as many full reps in good form has possible.  Ouch.

Hanging:  Done on a hangboard.  I’ll alternate between 1) a tabata inspired effort where I hang for 8 rounds of 20 seconds separated by 10 seconds rest, measuring intensity/progression by the number of rounds I manage on a smaller edge before going to the large edge, and 2) a 10 minute ‘intermediate’ hang program from the Metolius website.

Plenty of variety. Plenty of flexibility. And a total training time ‘requirement’, depending on my exercise choices, of somewhere between 20 and 45 minutes a week.  Results so far have been awesome…my mile time trial has remained consistent as have my interval paces.  Same for my biking. Swimming has gotten a bit faster, although there is far more variability there in terms of conditions, as has my finger strength (I managed 5 rounds of the tabata on the medium edge last time…three months ago all rounds were on the large edge and it was brutal!).  Strength is staying put, which, after all, is really the point.  So all up I’m pretty happy.

Interestingly enough it has taken me longer to write this than it would have taken to do a weeks worth of training.  Go figure.  Better get back to researching flooring options.

Happy training.

 

Maintaining (humility)

It has been a long time since I’ve added a blog to the site.  I’ve been busy–working, playing, travelling, learning how to take care of hen’s whilst they incubate eggs, and last but not least, experimenting daily with the best way to remove boards from pallets (I haven’t yet found a good way).

I haven’t had a good adventure in a while, nor a big mission. That’s not to say I haven’t suffered thought–I spent a couple of cold and rain-soaked days working in the Clinton Valley for my ‘boss’ Adrian where I found myself pulling out all my mental tricks to keep from giving Adrian the mental middle finger (as my central Governor was telling me to do) and quitting early to retreat to the warmth of the hut where we were spending our nights.  The dialogue ran something like this–“Does it really matter if I get all these tracking tunnels laid out?  Can’t we just make up the data?  I’m freezing and my hands aren’t working anyway…this is getting dangerous!” But in the end I sucked it up a broke the hours into minutes–the dozens of traps and tracking tunnels into one at a time.  I also literally sucked on the the tiny spoon I was using to scoop peanut butter out of a jar to bait the tunnels with, soaking in a few more calories to insulate me against the 10 or so kilos of near freezing H2O that I was carrying against my will as part of my clothing. Instead of Adrian, the middle finger went to the peanut-butter monster that was following me through the bushes.  That night I was rewarded with as much back-country sushi as I could eat.

assushi

Adrian, a mild-mannered and unassuming uber athlete and back-country sushi specialist.

Anyway, I digress.  This general lack of missions had me restless and I’ve realized that there are only two things to do in such a situation–actually go on a mission, or, alternatively, commit to one in the future.  Because I wasn’t particularly inspired to ‘go and do’ I decided on the latter option–and on a more recent work trip with Adrian (with far better weather) we agreed to sign up for GodZone, NZ’s toughest adventure race and one of the most competitive expedition AR’s in the world.  I committed by fronting the 7500 entry fee. Filling out the four person roster will be my brother, Jason and his wife, Chelsey of team Yogaslackers.

Adrian thinks this means I’m going to have to train more.  Maybe it does.  But one thing I’ve realized over the past year is that although building fitness might take a lot of time, maintaining fitness takes very little.  I’ve (thankfully) found that although I’m not quiet as fit as I have been when I’ve put a bit more time into it, I’ve been able to maintain a reasonably high level of fitness on roughly 30 minutes a week of effort.  This is the case strength and speed particularly, but also, to a reasonable extent, for endurance.

Finding time to train is hard.  Training higher volume consistently is really hard. One reason for this is that if you ever drop the habit–get busy and have to choose work or family over training–then recreating training time in your schedule is a hurdle to overcome.  By focusing/prioritizing a regular, non-time intensive, maximally effective (HIT) regimen once you’ve reached your fitness peak, a base level of fitness that is much higher than what is enjoyed by most amateur/recreational athletes can be maintained.  Which means that when the time comes to do your next big mission (like GodZone), your starting fitness platform will be closer to the goal platform, which means fewer weeks of ‘extra’ work will be needed to get into ‘racing’ shape.

Unless that is, you’re racing with Adrian, who joined me for today’s pylon run.  Although I led for the first half (it take’s him a while to ‘get into it’ he claims), he led the second, by greater and greater margins, with enough energy in reserve to shout encouragement over his shoulder as he climbed the finishing hill. Bugger–I thought I was a faster runner than he was too.  But that is just another perk of the minimalist approach I guess, combined with run-ins with the Adrian’s of the world, it allows me to maintain more than just my fitness…

Waypoints

I prefer really big waypoints that I don't have to build as often...

I prefer really big waypoints that I don’t have to build as often…

Every so often I feel the need to build a waypoint.  For me, these are points that serve to let me know where I am fitness wise in the larger ultra-endurance landscape–not necessarily compared to other people, but compared to past iterations of myself.  Waypoints ground me and give me confidence in where I am, and that what I’m doing (my training), is keeping me moving in the right direction (capable of doing anything).

I usually get antsy after a couple months of not doing anything big enough to make me want to lie in bed and not move for a few days, and it has pretty much been since John and I’s mission on the Hollyford back in January.  I’ve been busy, but busy isn’t really and excuse.  My original plan had been an epic swim, trialing a course for a possible swim event in future years, but I kept putting it off and now the water is so cold that it wouldn’t be as much a test of fitness as a ‘how long will it take until my body shuts down and I die’ sort of mission, so I’m going to be forced to put it on the back burner for now.

That leaves me wondering what to do–or rather trying to decide between the available choices.  On the one had I’ve got a list of adventures ranging from long days to multi-days that are all within a few hours drive, but that will likely require a partner.  On the other hand, I’ve just learned of a local 6 hour lap race happening this weekend.  I’m tempted by the latter, both because it’s only 6 hours (and apparently has bouncy castles for the kids) and because it would be an interesting experiment, considering my weekly running mileage has been hovering right under 3 km (less than 2 miles) for the past couple of months.  That twisted part of my brain that I serve when I suffer is definitely keen to see what happens were I to tackle this challenge.

I feel far fitter for wood chopping these days (I spend more time chopping wood than running, biking, and swimming combined), but unfortunately my google search for ‘ultra wood chopping competitions’ returned a null result. Whatever I end up deciding, I’m going to need to get out there soon and get building.

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!