For new readers

To get an idea of what I'm trying to do and why I think it's possible, check out the following entries, they'll help get you up to speed.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

How much is too much?

I 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. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Stairway to heaven--Stepmill to hell.

MRI  image from inside a sarcomere in my left
 quadricep after finishing my workout
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.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The upside of injury

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!).

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

Monday, March 3, 2014

Train Wreck

My back is a mess.  I've got bone spurs on my vertebrae, twisting in my upper spine, and compressed disks in my lower spine (and some major misalignment).  

My best guess based on thinking 'back' (and the X-Rays) is that i've been ignoring and compensating for a minor high jumping injury from 2006.  The bummer is that i wasn't even really jumping that high!  But the day after i took that leap was the first day i experienced the spasms and shooting pain up the left side of my lower back in the nerves.  

The problem has come and gone over the years and I've sought treatment (a couple sporadic visits to the chiropractor or a massage) when it has gotten particularly bad.  It's always been worse with stress.

The first week of February was one of the most stressful I've had-I was planning my first race of the year (the iceman triathlon) and two days after the event had to be packed for a four day adventure race--in which i was participating--in Belize.  The Week before the Iceman the pain showed up out of no where.  I mucked through - spending lots of time stretching my back and complaining about it.  I still managed to get my training in. Exercise has always seemed to loosen up the muscles and keep the nerves from being impinged upon.  I even went to a chiropractor twice but it didn't seem to help much.

The Iceman was a success as was packing and the race in Belize.  Four days of physical activity kept me from thinking about my spine at all and I harbored a deep seated optimism that i was once again in the clear.

But then came the aftermath of four days of physical activity.  The pain got progressively worse during the full travel day back to North Dakota.  In the days following it got unbearable.  With a straight, stationary spine i had almost no pain.  But slight and sudden movements that i couldn't really predict or prevent (unless of course i didn't move at all) were debilitating.  Glancing over my shoulder to check my blind spot while driving nearly caused me to pass out.  This was the worst things had ever been.

So i went back to the Chiropractor and this time got X-rays.  My hope that the issue was tight muscles causing a temporary misalignment was, obviously, dashed.  

Today I go for my fourth visit of a 20 visit plan and am gradually starting to get some relief.  When things were at their lowest I became unexpectedly depressed--spending hours thinking about all the simple things I feared I'd never be able to do again:  somersaults, climbing, child's pose.  Hopefully my ruminations about a future I really don't want will help me look at recovery and maintenance more seriously and take the proper steps.  

I'm now confident I'll heal and be able to get back to all my normal activities.  Training wise, I'm still unable to run or row - but haven't really missed much as the week after Belize was 100% recovery and the following week was slated for 'rebuilding' - normal workouts at slightly less than baseline level to gauge my return to full fitness.  I managed the biking one this week but to be honest it was a bit hard to admit that I wasn't going to be able to do the rowing without potentially hindering my spinal healing. 

Apparently it takes a long time to clean up a train wreck. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

5 MPH speed limit

Today many of my good friends are taking on the Arrowhead 135 race, a ski, bike, or run ultramarathon in what is historically the coldest place in the continental US on what is historically the coldest average week of the year.  Most of the 150 odd participants from around the world attempt to tackle the 135 miles of snow-mobile trail through the Minnesota wilderness on bike.  Among these is Matt Burton Kelly, known as 'Beek' (ENDracing's right hand man)--one of a handful of Arrowhead first timers.

It is a bit strange not to be there with them, as I've spent 4 of the last 5 last weeks in January freezing my ass off either attempting the race on foot (failed) or challenging the clock on bike (crossed the finish line all three times, once unofficially). I've changed a flat tire at nearly 20 below, survived ambient trail temperatures as low as -40 degrees F while riding through the long night, and even endured 'the push' last year.

There is something special about races like the arrowhead - races that aren't about speed (even the fastest riders seem to be going at a joggers pace!) - races that are light on competition (everyone seems to know each other) and heavy on adventure.

So this is a shout out for those who are now several hours into this great adventure through the frozen forests and swamps;  those who will pedal and push their way up hills that feel like mountains--over and over again; those who will then careen with wild abandon (and crazy grins on their faces) down the other sides of these hills, as if they were at a local sled hill rather than the inhospitable and unforgiving places they really are. This is a shout out to those who toed and wheeled the start line at this morning, every square inch of skin covered against the bitter cold; those daring and perhaps deranged folks who started walking or pedaling towards a goal 135 miles distant, knowing that for many of them, there is a 5 MPH speed limit.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Why high intensity work matters

Genuine High intensity training is simply too hard and too painful for most recreational endurance athletes and most serious ones are happy to commit lots of time to their physical pursuits.  It is not a surprise, then, that almost all endurance athletes seem to favor traditional training programs that focus on volume at lower to moderate intensities.  Higher intensities are typically only used by elite athletes with superior recovery abilities and even then, used sparingly.  There is good reason for this - adding high intensity training into a program with typical endurance program volumes  creates an extremely demanding program only suitable such athletes. Sure, some non-elites will occasionally use high intensity effort, and many will emulate the programs of the elites by using higher intensity work (not really the same thing).  But my experience has shown me that--assuming i'm somewhat typical of the ambitious amateur athlete--adding genuine high intensity work into an endurance geared training program using traditional volumes is, well, problematic. There are just too many excuses.

However, at least in my opinion--it is clear that we can only reach our actual physical potential in terms of endurance training by including high intensity work. High intensity training is what gets you faster. Increases in speed always have corresponding increases in endurance but it is a one way street--increasing endurance will not always increase speed. High intensity work also develops a capacity for intense but limited duration suffering that is critical for strong and fast finishes. If you want to race long and you want do it as well as you can, you will  need to develop your ability to consistently perform high intensity workouts.

In my experience this is far from easy--even under the best of circumstances.  Those interested in learning how to perform high intensity work and developing their ability to do so consistently might be best served by spending time on a program such as the one i'm doing now (3 x 8 minute sessions a week, one each of biking, rowing, and running).  For an accomplished and eager athlete, elimination of all efforts other than high intensity work might provide the needed incentive to really learn what high intensity work feels like.  For someone used to 5 or 6 hours a week, anything less than a maximum effort during these three weekly workouts would feel like 'selling out'. The athlete would, after even one sub-par performance, feel like they weren't really working out at all - caged and restless.  Such restlessness, combined with the ample time for physical recovery based on such a low volume program, helps create an environment in which many of the mental and physical obstacles to experiencing genuine high intensity work are absent.  This is the ideal environment in which to begin to cultivate the relationship with mental and physical anguish that defines these efforts.

If you are able to learn how to feel  completely empty after an 8 minute workout--drained mentally and physically to near the point of actual physical incapacity (for example i sometimes finish my bike workouts in such a state that i am actually unable to walk down stairs without falling on my face for up to 10 minutes), then you have essentially developed a new fitness tool. This tool can then effectively be used in conjunction with more traditional methods and intensities in pursuit of your true fitness potential, if and when you decide to make this your goal.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Conversations with God

Years ago (when i was a teenager) i read a series of books called 'Conversations With God' by Neal Walsh.  They were quite interesting at the time and perhaps even formative for me in some ways.  For unknown reasons i thought of the books yesterday and read through a few summaries of them, reminding myself of many of the messages they contain. 

The spirituality in the book contains many ideas common in self-help literature and positivism based psychology, as well as many traditional spiritual disciplines such as buddhism.  One thought that i like -that applies well to many aspects of life including high intensity training - is that of the sponsoring thought.  Here are Neal's words:

The Sponsoring Thought – the thought behind the thought – is the controlling thought.  
If therefore, you beg and supplicate, you lower your chances of experiencing what you are choosing because the Sponsoring Thought behind every supplication is that you do not have now what you wish. 
That Sponsoring Thought becomes your reality.The only Sponsoring Thought which could override this thought is the thought held in faith that God will grant whatever is asked, WITHOUT FAIL.

When training or racing if your efforts come from a supplicating desire to succeed - a hope that one can achieve a certain outcome - then your 'sponsoring thought' is that you are not now succeeding.  It is subtle but in reflecting on my own mindset as i approach both difficult intervals and difficult moments in long races i realize that when sponsoring thought is one of wanting to succeed, i often don't.  Most of the time, however, i'm able to pursue my course of action with a determination and confidence - rising to the challenge of success with a sense of certainty in the outcome.  It's not a hope that the outcome will come to be, but rather a firm belief in it.  And in my own regular "Conversations with Gov", that seems to make all the difference.