Thursday, March 3, 2016

Relaax @ Flims Laax Falera

Flims Laax Falera is in the Graubunden region in southeastern Switzerland, about 12 miles away from the small city of Chur and 84 from Zurich.

It's actually three villages in a row–F-L-F–and on March 2, 2016 I left on the gondola from the first one, Flims Village, which sits at about 3200 ft. or 1100 meters above sea level. The vast and breathtaking Laax terrain goes all the way to the Vorab Glacier at 9900 ft. or 3018 meters.

Skiing down the "moonscape" or terrain below the glacier
From a flat forested area named Plaun (nearby a cool nordic track, btw), I took another chair to Crap Sogn Gion, a station at 2228 meters (7309 ft.). A bit of background on the word "Crap" on the trail map, which I heard some Brits chuckling about. Crap is a Romansch word for stone or rock, so these are "holy rocks" or sites named centuries ago when the Romans had strongholds (or strangleholds, more like) in the Alps, as in St. John's Rock. At least according to a Swiss friend with roots in Graubunden. Cool, huh?

The weather was better than expected, so I wanted to make sure I took a "marquee run" from the area's high point, before I left. That took a powder run down to Alp Dado, and then another chair to Crest la Siala at 7600 ft. From here is a nice run down to Fuorcia, where a small cable car called a bergbahnen hauls the skiers to the bottom of the Vorab glacier.

Take the t-bar up and ski the glacier from 9900 feet
The bergbahnen takes you over what I'd describe as a snow-covered lava field or moonscape; enigmatic terrain that was downright spooky when it was enveloped in mist the day before.

Not today. The sun was fairly strong on the slopes, through wispy clouds.

From Vorab, a t-bar takes you to the top of the glacier at about 10000 feet. The ski down is easy, a kind of blue piste that kids can do safely. Yet off to the side I found plenty of powder to augment the desire to ski an alpine glacier.

But I wouldn't venture too far, because glaciers have crevasses, even "civilized" glaciers like this one. In fact, a glacier doesn't know whether it has a t-bar and a groomed piste on it; it just does what glaciers do. Just including this so skiers and riders don't go too far in their glee.

The skiing was even better going over that "lava field," a kind of rolling, high plateau covered in untracked powder. It felt nice to silently swoop over that unusual, low-angled terrain. The off-piste near Crap Masegn (2477 meters or about 8130 ft.) was also very good. Then I ended the day by skiing all the way back to Plaun (pronounced like "brown"), a leg banger which made the stange (the beer), outdoors in the sun at Plaun, taste all the more savory.

Flims is a busy cluster of chalets and hotels but quiet, when I was there
For someone who'd never skied at any of the uber euro resorts like Verbier or Ishgl, I'd say for the American skier, Laax is definitely a skier's mountain. Get a clear day and you can cruise wide open alpine slopes surrounded by miraculous views. The place has to be seen to be believed, if you catch it in the sun.

There are thousands of acres of fresh tracks and bowls and mountain flanks to challenge any skier or rider. You can ski all the way back to Flims dorf, or the villages of Laax or Falera, if that's the way you want to cap off your day.

About half a meter of snow was forecast for the week I was there; snow is likely to be plentiful, even though it might appear as rain in the towns.

One more thing. For the overnight I made a last-minute rez on booking.com and got a pretty good deal at the Hotel Adula, with a great included Swiss breakfast and "sauna garden." These are different sauna variations followed by a cold room with a spray; it's a great combination for the banged up athlete. Talk about "chilled" and uber relaxed!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Global Warming, Skiing, And Water Resources

Climate change causes a long-term erosion of the snowpack, particularly at low-elevations, such as 5K feet above sea level (ASL) and below.

The recent science bears it out. This post discusses the findings by perhaps the leading snow researchers in the world, the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF). In Switzerland, up to 90 percent of the local economies in alpine villages depend on ski tourism. I have skied at Laax and Flumserberg, which are thriving, yet both of these vast areas have high alpine slopes (8K ASL up to 10K ASL) that receive generous snowfalls, while the valleys have rain.

The first photo shows the snow line in Feb. 2016 in eastern Switzerland. When you look around the Alps, the low-altitude ski areas in winter look like glaciers that are melting back. There are rocks and grass that used to be reliably covered in snow.

Obviously, there are still big winters happening and in the offing (that's true in Colorado, Montana, and Vermont, USA, too), but neither is it all that difficult to spot the climate-warming trend line over time.

The SLF, ever cautious scientists, do not say that "global warming is causing it," but they do attribute the huge decline in snow days in the Alps to "rising temperatures" as opposed to less precipitation.

One SLF report compared snow days in the 40 years between 1948 and 1987, with the 20 years from 1988 and 2007. The findings were stark; a 54% drop in snow days in the northern Alps in the lower altitudes between 201 and 800 meters above sea level (up to 2600 feet), and a 42 percent decline in snow days in alpine areas up to 4265 feet or 1300 meters.

They found a lesser decline, but still statistical, in the higher elevations.

You can check out the scientific report yourself:  (http://www.slf.ch/ueber/mitarbeiter/homepages/marty/publications/Marty2008_RegimeShift.pdf).

The second photo shows my view through a fence at 8K above sea level, in February 2016 in the Alps. Even at 8,000 feet, large regions of green, alpine mountainside are visible. Of course, this is literally only a snapshot of the Alps in winter, but it is an example or emblematic of the nature of a warmer trend that has emerged of late.


2015 was the warmest year on record worldwide, 2016 is on track to break that record, and roughly a dozen of the hottest years have taken place since 2000, according to researchers.

As a layman, I've noticed the change in my home ground of northern New England, where most of the mountains are well below 5K feet, and in Switzerland, where I've been coming for 25 years.

In the Alps, the climate situation has created an amazingly diverse array of activities, where you can ride your mountainbike pleasantly on a February morning by the green-bordered lake, followed by a great powder ski at 8K feet ASL.

But that's a double-edged sword, because some village economies are highly dependent on visitors to low-altitude ski resorts, which are becoming like an endangered species.

The only solution for ski resorts is to diversify the activities they offer way beyond the snow-related ones (which many do anyways), because consistent, snowy winters may already be a thing of the past.

Lift-served skiing, of course, isn't the most important thing in the world. Snow is a critical stored water source for millions of people throughout the world. Civilizations need water from rivers, and have built their living systems such as agriculture around the dependable spring run-off.

When snow falls as rain in February, or the snowpack melts away partially or completely, these food and hydrology related systems are disrupted or destroyed.

The Himalayan glaciers, for example, which provide water for giant rivers that help feed hundreds of millions of people, are melting back in the rising heat. "In the Ganges, the Yellow, and the Yangtze river basins, where irrigated agriculture depends heavily on rivers, this loss of dry-season flow will shrink harvests." (http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/08/asia/brown.htm)

Obviously, the happiness  and expectations of skiers, and their associated small villages, pales in importance next to the depletion of major water sources for heavily populated regions of India and China.

We humans need to alter our frame of mind to think long-term, as snow at several different elevations becomes an "endangered species."

More articles:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/nov/07/snow-climate-change-effect-on-skiing
http://www.grida.no/news/press/1616.aspx
http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/08/asia/brown.htm
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/17/2016-set-to-be-hottest-year-on-record-globally

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Are You Fit? As An F.B.I. Special Agent? Part 1


As "fitness standards" go, only a few of them are first-class citizens. Some are too easy to reach, or have been diluted to pass as many people as possible. Others pose a legitimate challenge, such as the standards for an F.B.I. Special Agent, which are freely available for your perusal. I found them recently during a random search, and took an interest.

Why do I like these? Because they are an adequate reflection of speed, power, and endurance. All three. You're required to complete a certain number of pushups, as well as sprint (after those perps down a dark alley in Amsterdam…) 300 meters, up to certain parameters. The situps, meh…but the rest of the standard is legit; a 1.5 mile run within a certain time. That's six times around a track.

I've seen "fitness standards" that involved touching your toes, walking a mile, and other things that humans should be able to do by default. Others put too much weight on being able to run a great 5k, say, at the sacrifice of strength, power, and solid lean mass.

The F.B.I. standards are actually somewhat difficult to achieve, and once you get close, you can make the legitimate claim that you have fairly bonafide, comprehensive fitness.

Another tough element is that you have to score at least one point in each of the four categories, and total 12 points, to pass. You can't knock the pushups out of the park, but fudge the others. You have to be kind of good in all of the categories, and thus reach an all-around level of fitness.

I'm well aware that in the real world, the agents probably think of these standards as a pain, and as far less meaningful attributes next to street savvy and pistol training.

But someone who can run fast in a sprint, not just jog along slow forever; as well as move over the landscape with strength, power, and flexibility (climbing, upper-body strength) is able to cope better with the physical demands of life, rather than shrink from them and sit all day. They may even be able to better extricate themselves from a tough situation. You never know…

The protocols for situps, pushups, 300-meter run, and mile-and-a-half run, are here. So have at it–I am!  Aren't these the goals we are supposed to be setting on New Year's?

Part 2 of this article will show you how to work up to meet this kind of a standard.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Is Vitamin D An X-Factor Nutrient for Health and Fitness? Yes…

A recent study found that vitamin D levels correlated strongly with physical strength and power among soccer players. What made this finding of particular note is that a nutrient that is typically associated with bone strength and immune-system support, is found to greatly benefit elite levels of muscle strength.

The study focused on pro soccer players in Greece. It specifically found that the players who had higher vitamin D levels during the season (from the sun, not supplements) had faster ten- and twenty-meter sprint times, better leaping ability, and higher VO2 max, which is a measure of endurance strength. They specifically measured squat jumps and counter-measure jumps for the leaping piece of the study.

The study indicated a "linear relationship" between tested D levels, and the speed and power measurements, meaning that the higher D test results were invariably associated with better sprinting and jumping ability. These are results that any Everyman in training can hang her hat on. Get your vitamin D levels up, preferably with moderate doses of full-body UVB rays, and supplements when that's not possible, such as living in the northeastern US during the winter.

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that has the effect of a seco-steroid hormone, similar to testosterone or cortisol. Vitamin D receptors (VDRs) are found in cells all throughout the body, including in muscles. The study authors stated that major muscle groups in the legs specifically benefit from better vitamin D profiles (thus providing the results they found for sprinting and jumping). In other words, vitamin D seems to have a greater benefit on leg power than upper-body strength.

Working out hard seems to lower vitamin D levels, due to "training stress," according to the study. Natural vitamin D levels went up during the off-season, when the players rested, but their power and strength dropped. This indicated that training is still the primary factor in strength and power, but an improved vitamin-D profile will give an athlete the edge, not to mention the injury-prevention factor.

Reference and link to study: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0101659

Monday, October 6, 2014

It Makes Little Sense To Run A 10-12 Year Old Soccer Player Through High-Intensity Intervals

I do a little Fall soccer coaching, and once in awhile another coach will tell me about the sprints they did in practice, or I'll hear a rueful tale from one of the young players.  Beyond 20-yard warm-ups or a single "suicide drill" to get the attention of an unruly bunch, I see repetitive sprinting as virtually useless as a training technique for boys.

Athletically, young boys are designed for random play, as in run after each other and the ball, leap, climb, and sometimes fall comically on to the ground, not be systematically exposed to high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

A young athlete's heart rate is very different than an adult's. For example, a 10-12 year-old boy or girl has a resting heart rate  (RHR) of 85-95 beats per minute (bpm) (it can vary, some may go lower, for others it could be 100).  An older, male competitive soccer player's heart-rate, on the other hand, will go at about 36-62 bpm. When I was a young soccer player my RHR was below 40.

To use a hyperbolic metaphor, imagine taking a hummingbird (cooking along at about 1,000 bpm) and trying to blast its heart rate further over and over again, to "improve its cardiovascular condition."

When a 10 to 12 year old boy is sleeping, their heart is beating as fast as a well-trained adult's when they are walking uphill. They don't have the heart rate reserve (maximum heart rate - resting heart rate) of an adult, to accomodate sustained periods of anaerobic sprinting at or very close to their maximim heart rate.

An adult male soccer player's heart rate reserve could exceed 160 beats (200 - 40), while a little kid's may be no more than 100 beats. So using hard sprinting drills for young soccer players is not only useless from a fitness standpoint, it actually goes against the design of their hearts and bodies.

As long as they are not overweight or obese when the season begins, kids will get very fit for soccer simply by taking part in the scrimmages and drills during practice. I've noticed kids make fitness gains much faster than out-of-shape adults getting back into exercise–the soccer conditioning blossoms in a couple of weeks or less.

The scrimmages are also obviously using the specific muscles and movements of the game, which is more useful training than static sprinting, which may tell you more about the coach's ego than work well as a training strategy.

If you feel the need to augment soccer training at the young ages, you'd be better off introducing light weighttraining (like taking a couple of 2 to 5 pound hand weights and doing push presses, or some light weight cable pulls), as it's another modern myth that all weight training is inappropriate for young boys.  And get them out of vitamin D deficiency!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

What Factors Promote Peak Days For Weightlifting And Other Athletics?

I had a peak day today.  I felt surprisingly strong, like I could lift more and more…and more, and just about reached my PR with a bench press, which for me is the nirvana of pressing 1.5 times my body weight. Ever have days like that? It's been almost a month since I've had one of those days (is it "my time of the month?"), and I try to ponder the factors that promote these peak performances for the everyday athlete.

Here's what I've come up with for starters:

Vitamin D. Each morning before the peak day I took a 4000-IU vitamin D. My vitamin-D level right now is about 45 ng/ml, and I typically take 2000-4000 IU/day, or just enjoy some sun exposure (but at 57 I don't make Vitamin D naturally as well as I used to).

Vitamin D is an athletic-booster in terms of strength, reaction time, and endurance, and this notion can be found in the scientific literature. The fat-soluble vitamin is essentially a legal, seco-steroid hormone for athletes. This has been known since the East German trainers of the 1970s (and they admittedly did some really weird, illegal things to their athletes, but exposing them to UVB light to boost their vitamin D levels was not one).

I think the D supplements have contributed to my peak days. The only other supplement I take is vitamin K, but I would consider more, including magnesium. Fitness For Geeks will really inform you about vitamins and minerals!

Sleep. This is a no-brainer; I had very deep sleeps before each peak day. Possibly, the brain, where all health and athleticism begins, was more rested and focused for promoting the neurological events that must take place for a high rate of muscle contractions. Or, among other things, the adequate sleep promoted better growth hormone secretions?

Ironically, the day before was a "low" day for me. I had a poor sleep, due to stress and things happening in my life, and felt somewhat agitated with a less than perfect sense of well-being. Could the bounce-back from a low day, psychically and physiologically, help promote a peak day? It's an interesting concept, at any rate, and perhaps when you're feeling lowly, you can give yourself a kick in the pants by realizing, "tomorrow might be peak!"

Rest. Another no-brainer; I did not have heavy training days prior to the peak day. There's no way you can train day after day and expect a lot of peak performances in return. In fact, the "less is more" approach to training is one of the smart, beneficial fitness concepts that has come to the fore. I lift weights about four times per week, which for me is necessary for muscling up, but I often feel stronger when scheduling conflicts have forced me away from weightlifting for a week or more.

Fasted workout. Both peak days came during a fasted workout with coffee and vitamin D only. Caffeine is also a performance enhancer. However, virtually all my workouts are fasted this way, so I might have to discount this factor.

Night before meal. I had a healthy, home-cooked Paleo-ish kind of dinner with roasted chicken and lots of veggies, and one large glass of wine. This is the way I almost always eat, so I'll almost have to discount that factor, in terms of promoting a peak day. However, sometimes I put myself back to sleep with a glass of milk when I find myself waking up in the dark (ahh…aging…), and I didn't do that the night before, so perhaps I had very low fasting insulin and higher growth hormone at lifting time (milk, I drink whole milk, will probably elevate your fasting insulin).

Peak days are definitely not solely due to luck or coincidence; it's what you do in the 48 hours or so leading up to them that matters.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Few Useful Lyme Tips, Based On Experience

I'm experienced at something I *don't* want to be a veteran in, and that is getting deer ticks stuck on me, including the nymphal variety that might be carrying Lyme Disease. It happened to me again a week ago, and it was my third time dealing with that, and as they say "Three Strikes You're Out!" right?

One time I ran in a 5k road race with, unbenownst to me, a tick stuck on my rib cage. Afterward, I called it "reverse doping," because I was actually having red blood cells removed from me during a race, not adding them to me beforehand.

Since I appear to be every tick's favorite date, I've had a lot of experience in "response." I'm like anyone else; I read up on things like CDC web pages when it happens to me, and forthwith are some of the things I learned:

* Remove the tick with tweezers when you discover them, and follow-up right away by cleansing the wound with propylene glycol (or rubbing alcohol). Apparently, the tick has the microorganism in their saliva and when removed they kind of panic and "spit in the wound" as it were. The alcohol can kill the contaminant before it has a chance to enter the bloodstream.

One time my wife was sitting in an airport and we found a tick stuck on her ankle (thank you, infested Massachusetts…). Believe it or not, I went into one of those Hudson News stores that have stuff like compact travel kits and found some propylene glycol (duty free vodka would have worked, I guess). The Hudson News usually carries the Financial Times, not emergency medical kits. Anyways, it worked (thank you, Hudson News).

* Get a protective, or prophylactic dose of doxycycline or Doxy, right away. If it's the right kind of tick in a high-risk area, the doctor will prescribe this, a one-time 200 mg dose of Doxy for an adult (the prescription might be, probably is, different for kids). One time I ran off to an emergency room just to get it, and they were kind enough to provide me one right away. I must have made a convincing "expert victim."

When you take the Doxy, don't take any calcium, iron, or magnesium-containing foods or supplements, because these minerals will apparently bind to the antibiotic and make it less effective. So don't have a steak and a glass of milk right around when you take the Doxy. Even 100% cacao chocolate has a lot of magnesium, iron, and calcium; so much for my feel-good chocolate as I reel from a tick bite!

* Eat anti-microbial foods, like garlic, tumeric, and lemons. I really believe in holistic, commonsense health practices to defeat a microbial attack. Get a lot of sleep. I almost never get sick (knock on wood) anymore anyways. You can bet I've been powdering my eggs with tumeric, eating lemons (yeah, I actually do that anyways), and cooking garlic of late. I haven't gotten Lyme, and this may have nothing to do with it, but you never know…

The gestation period is about 3 to 30 days, so I'm not sitting on my laurels yet. Actually getting the infection entails the now infamous bull's-eye shaped rash, usually around the bite, but it doesn't have to be there, or actually appear with the infection.

I don't have any experience with other tick-borne diseases (yet…), but the CDC site has fairly comprehensive information: http://www.cdc.gov/lyme/

Epilogue: I did not get Lyme from this latest episode (I passed the 30-day dormancy date), but you can bet I still get paranoid when I see those little black flecks of something on me!