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.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Pain, pain go away

I thought I would get used to the pain associated with high intensity workouts but this doesn't seem to be happening.  It makes me wonder if I'm doing something wrong - am I dehydrated?  Am I not eating enough? Is there something missing from my diet?

The 10 minutes or so following my last few sessions have been particularly difficult.  It seems silly to even be able to say this when a look back in my training journal finds the notation 'brutal' after almost every effort.   But it sure feels true, although i'll admit it is a challenge to rank the relative difficulty of workouts that are so frequent and where the aftermath is so severe but short lived.

On Sunday, for example--in the wake of my stepmill workout-- that aftermath included walking a lap around the indoor track.  The lap, about 1/12 of a mile, took nearly 10 minutes.  I spent that 10 minutes consumed by the pain lungs and legs. My mind could not escape the sensation or become distracted from it and was left whirling around in frantic circles trying to reason out a solution - something action or thought that would help dull it.  I tried lying down and putting my legs up the wall which made it worse (maybe the blood needs to circulate more quickly to restore some sort of PH balance in the tissues surrounding my muscle cells?  That is my most recent theory anyway). And despite the fact that I know from experience that there is no escaping the intense discomfort that results from these 7 minute bouts with exercise, the discomfort is so all encompassing that I am as of yet unable to keep from trying.

With further reflection I've realized that it is a rather unusual experience to be completely taken over by physical suffering at one moment and then a mere 15 minutes later feel absolutely no trace of it.  I can't think of any other routine painful circumstances in which this might is the case - any injury or trauma will cause 'lingering' pain or such for well beyond this time-frame, and/or yield to manual attempts to mitigate it to some degree (pressure, massage, position, etc).

It is like Mike Mentzer says (regarding the effects of true high intensity training) -
"Until you either experience it for yourself or watch someone else do it, you can’t possibly appreciate.”
In writing this I've realized that maybe I'm not missing anything at all - calories, nutrition, or hydration - but that, unfortunately perhaps, I'm just doing it right.  In which case, that forecast isn't looking too promising...

[Although i've posted it before, the only video that does justice to what 'a good' workout usually feels like to me is this video, which shows an ice climber getting something called the hot aches.]

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Too Much Information

This 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?

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.