Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Tranquil Ski Run where The Snow Piles Up

We're getting a lot of snow up here in Vermont, about 50 inches+ in a week. A record number of visitors have come to ski in the Mad River Valley too, so it was time to get off the beaten track and seek some tranquility. That means going off-piste or off the resort proper for some narrow-road and woods skiing.

In general, it's really cool to be able to record the whole run on Alpine Replay and get 3D Google maps afterward.

I got to the resort early and entered the off-piste area named Slide Brook Basin from the top of the North Lynx chair. The picture shows my run, a screen grab from Google Earth 3D via recording the run on Alpine Replay.

My run is the blue line you can just make out by clicking on the map for a larger version, between the two developed mountains. It's great to do that and look at the map afterward. It was also a perfect escape from the crowds, very quiet and peaceful. It's a 2,000+ foot vertical run, about 3.7 miles in length, and it's all I need for a day.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

How Good Are You At The 'Sitting And Rising Test'?

Muscular strength and flexibility matter, beyond having the best pecs, legs, or beach bod in the neighborhood. (Hey, we just told you about the anti-inflammatory effects of weight-lifting!) A recent study out of Brazil used a simple "sit down and get back up" test and found that scoring highly on that routine is closely related to one's fitness and longevity.

If a middle-aged or older man or woman can sit and rise from the floor using just one hand - or even better without the help of a hand - they are not only in the higher quartile of musculo-skeletal fitness but their survival prognosis is probably better than that of those unable to do so.

The studied followed 2,002 people for about six and a half years. 159 of the people had passed away by the study's end, and all but two of them had scored low on the "SRT" test. (It would have been nice to know how many of the 1,843 survivors had also scored low on the test. A study author pointed out in some comments that almost half of people – and they were 51 to 80 years old – scored well on sitting down and popping back up.)

Here's a link to a video describing and showing the test.

Before starting the test, [each of the subjects] were told: "Without worrying about the speed of movement, try to sit and then to rise from the floor, using the minimum support that you believe is needed."

Each of the two basic movements were assessed and scored out of 5, with one point being subtracted from 5 for each support used (hand or knee, for example). Subjects were thus assessed by a composite score of 0 to 10, which, for the sake of the analysis, was ranked as four categories (C1, 0–3; C2, 3.5–5.5; C3, 6–7.5; and C4, 8–10).


The test was also a very accurate predictor from a fine-grained standpoint. Each one-point increment in the score represented a "21% reduction in mortality."

The study's researchers made the point that physical strength and power to weight ratio are core features of survivability.

It is well known that aerobic fitness is strongly related to survival, but our study also shows that maintaining high levels of body flexibility, muscle strength, power-to-body weight ratio and co-ordination are not only good for performing daily activities but have a favourable influence on life expectancy.

The study was initiated in Brazil and published in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The "Hidden Benefit" of Weight Lifting

People lift weights for lots of different reasons, to add lean mass, get stronger for a specific sport, even to mold a buffer beach bod (that's probably numero uno). If you asked someone why they were hoisting iron or chalking up the reps on a machine, however, they would be unlikely to reply, "Oh I'm reducing inflammatory markers of course." Yet this might be one of the most beneficial longterm effects of weight lifting.

An inflammatory marker is a biological signal inside your body for inflammation, which is at the core of most major diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. For example, inflammation causes cell damage and mutates DNA, which can lead to cancer in the longterm. You want to keep inflammation LOW. And weight lifting does it, in ways that other exercise modes do not. In fact hard-pounding cardio type stuff increases inflammation.

A recent study pointed out this benefit rather graphically. They took a group of overweight older women and had them partake in either a resistance-training regimen (3 sets, 10 exercises, 3× per week, 8–12 repetition maximum (RM)) or a "social interaction" regimen that included knitting and stretching, as a control group so that they could have a basis of comparison.

To get the science-y stuff out of the way, they were looking for reductions in C-reactive protein (CRP), IL-6, TNF-α, and leptin (all inflammatory signs), and for whether anti-inflammatory markers like adiponectin and interleukin-10 were augmented by training. Like leptin, adiponectin is a hormone secreted by fat cells.

The results were significant reductions in those inflammatory biomarkers, as well as increases in the "good" biomarkers.

Twelve weeks of moderate–high-intensity RT (8–12 RM) improved whole-body strength (44%) reduced circulating CRP (−33%), leptin (−18%), and TNF-α (−29%) and increased LPS-stimulated IL-10 production (20%) in the absence of detectable changes in body composition.

The body compositions didn't change (even though strength increased a lot, 44 percent), which indicates that the internal effects of weight lifting take place rather efficiently before any evidence of leanness or bigger muscle groups ever occur.

The anti-inflammatory aspects of weight lifting end if you stop training, so you have to keep at it to enjoy the benefits for a lifetime. I know I've kind of shifted from the "endorphin addiction" of running to the post-training benefits of free weights, machines, and bodyweight workouts.

References:

Resistance Training Reduces Subclinical Inflammation in Obese, Postmenopausal Women; Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise

Does Adiponectin Cause Or Prevent Alzheimer's Dementia?; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/scott-mendelson-md/alzheimers-_b_1187919.html

Thursday, December 13, 2012

How Much Exercise is Too Much?

About two weeks ago the Wall Street Journal published an article that further rocked the world of endurance sports, that is, the one inhabited by millions of people who put in millions of miles running, cycling, rowing, swimming, and otherwise conveying themselves via high mileage across the landscape. The article was called "One Running Shoe in the Grave." It basically expressed the notion that running anything but very low mileage is unhealthy, especially for the heart, and will lower lifespan.

A fast-emerging body of scientific evidence points to a conclusion that's unsettling, to say the least, for a lot of older athletes: Running can take a toll on the heart that essentially eliminates the benefits of exercise.

The article derives its claims partly from a recent British Medical Journal review called "Run for your life…at a comfortable speed and not too far," so I grabbed a copy of that to read and write about.

By the way, although the article refers to running, I think the basic concept of the potential risks posed by long duration, high-heart-rate exercise applies to those other endurance sports as well (e.g., hard cycling).

To put everything into perspective, you may also want to read these two cardiologist's blogs (one a cyclist who races) – here and here – which help you step back from the more inflammatory tone of the WSJ article.

I've looked into this issue about extreme training being bad for you – as in marathons and long triathlons (maybe even as short as two hours, if you do a lot of them) – since at least five years ago when I cut way back on my own mileage and virtually ceased racing.

I'd seen enough evidence, in well-reasoned arguments on the web as well as anecdotely (i.e., really bad things happening to men around my age), to make a change in my own exercise regimen. Because my goal is healthy longevity, not "dying young and leaving a pretty corpse." By the way, that latter approach would be pretty irresponsible considering that I have younger kids.

Although it's only anecdotal, the recent death of the Born To Run ultramarathoner Micah True at age 58 has only raised more eyebrows and added fuel to the fire. I knew a wonderful man here in New England, a coach who was adored by his athletes, who was getting ready to challenge age-60+ long distance running records (he had recently run five miles in 30 minutes) when he dropped dead after a training run at age 63.

This evidence and research for Fitness For Geeks has led me to embrace the conclusion that there is a dose:response relationship to exercise.

This means that if you exercise in the "sweet spot" you're getting healthier (e.g., jogging less than 20 miles per week), but if you push it too much (a heavy dose), you get the heart scarring and calcification of the artieries (essentially, converting your arteries to bone), not to mention the immune suppression (cancer? MS?) that some of these articles and reviews talk about.

But where you do draw the line? What level of running and cycling is healthy? If you look at the comments beneath the WSJ article, you can see how perplexed we all are. Is my routine hurting me? would be the crux of the issue. For example, you can't tell me that a lifelong bicycle commuter (and occasionally racing through that intersection will elevate the heart rate) is putting themselves at risk. Or simply a 5k runner?

I think we can reasonably conclude that years and years of extreme training can shorten your "healthspan" (and probably will). Buit It's impossible to make more fine-grained recommendations than the BMJ article does (see ahead), because all the data and analysis isn't in yet.

Everyone is different and has varying tolerance levels. It also seems reasonable to conclude that nutrition, length of rest periods and patterns, stress management, sleep, and other lifestyle aspects have to play a role in the "survivability" of heavy endurance exercise. For example, are you up to speed on vitamin K, which "takes calcium from where you don't want it" (e.g., your arteries) and puts it where you want it, your bones?

Here's a big quote from the BMJ essay, which seems to conclude that anything more than 40-50 minutes of strenuous exercise in most days has diminishing returns.

Indeed, regular vigorous exercise is probably the single best step a person can take to ensure robust CV health. In a study of 416 000 adults followed for a mean of 8 years, 40–50 min per day of vigorous exercise reduced risk of death by about 40% (figure 1).7

In that study, at about 45 min, a point of diminishing returns is reached whereby longer exercise efforts do not appear to translate into lower death risk. Light to moderate physical activity reduced death rates too, albeit not as strongly, but in this case more physical activity appeared to be better, with no plateau out to 110 min daily.

Indeed, if we had a pill that confers all the benefits of exercise, many physicians might be looking for work. Approximately 30– 45 min of daily vigorous exercise significantly reduces risks for many maladies including early death, Alzheimer’s disease, CHD, diabetes, osteoporosis and depression. 4 5 Yet, as can be expected with any potent drug, an insufficient dose will not confer the optimal benefits, while an excessive dose can cause harm, and even death in extreme overdoses.


In fact, the review claims that there is no health advantage beyond the ability to run eight-minute miles (meaning that if you can go faster, you're doing it for another reason other than health).

There are analogies to make in this area. We think (and my book points out) that one glass of wine at night might confer health, compared with none or multiple glasses. One of the running study directors says, "The relationship appears much like alcohol intakes—mortality is lower in people reporting moderate jogging than in non-joggers or those undertaking extreme levels of exercise."

One reassuring note: although the heart, as an organ, is not particularly great at repairing itself (that would take stem-cell technology) some of the studies show (including with mice) that some of the damage of extreme training is reversible if followed by months of rest and not undertaken anymore.

Another long interesting quote you might ponder (and echoing some of the stuff I wrote about "chair living" and the like in Fitness For Geeks):

Hippocrates, the father of medicine and a contemporary of Phidippides in ancient Greece, taught, ‘The right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too much, not too little, is the safest way to health’.1 If you listen to your body, this is just common sense.

Yet, nothing we have published previously has stirred so much controversy, especially among the general public. Increasingly our culture is one of extremes: during the past 30 years, obesity has tripled in the USA and has increased in much of the Western World, while during the same time the number of people completing a marathon has risen 20-fold.

On one side of the U-curve, the couch loungers/channel surfers embrace this message as justification for continuing their sedentary lifestyle. And, on the far end of the U-curve, the extreme exercise aficionados want to ignore the message and instead kill the messenger. As with many things in life, the safe and comfortable zone at the bottom of the U curve—moderate exercise—is the ‘sweet spot’ for which most should try to aim.

Sitting is the new smoking; a sedentary lifestyle will cause disability and disease, and will shorten life expectancy. We are not so much born to run as born to walk.

Ethnographic research indicates that, in the environment of human evolution, our ancient ancestors walked 4–10 miles a day.

Walking is superior to running for mechanical efficiency and musculoskeletal durability. Indeed, we advise our patients that they can walk or garden hours a day without concern about CV overuse injury. So while it is true that exercise confers powerful health benefits, the common belief that more is better is clearly not true.


The take home message for most is to limit one’s vigorous exercise to 30– 50 min/day. If one really wants to do a marathon or full-distance triathlon etc, it may be best to do just one or a few and then proceed to safer and healthier exercise patterns.

Reference: "Run for your life…at a comfortable speed and not too far," James H O’Keefe, Carl J Lavie; British Medical Journal, http://heart.bmj.com/

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Gal's Guide To Pullups

Even though there's a kazillion articles on how to do pullups, I impulsively decided to hurl another brief one into cyberspace after spying this New York Times blog "Why Women Can't Do Pullups." Two things ticked me off about that headline: one having to do with the "can't do" part of it (if you knew the women I'm close to, suggesting they can't do something is like waving a red flag at a bull: they'll be doing it toute suite).

The other part of it is that I've seen women in my gym doing multiple pullups, and more than once! I have two eyes. I know that isn't scientific enough, but "anecdotal evidence" can be awfully compelling sometimes. If I was 25 and a young technical writer I'd probably be more cautious about non-scientific evidence and reporting "what I've seen," but now that I'm 30 years beyond that point I know better.

Yes I know that a pullup is hard to do (and consistently spell, sometimes you see pull-up) for the first time for both men and women, and we know that they are both a health progenitor and indicator of overall strength, so how can you work up to doing one?

You build up to pullups sequentially and incrementally, just as you accomplish just about anything fitness and health wise. Here's a rundown of the things gals, and guys, can do to prepare themselves for their first pullup.

(1) Start doing weight exercises that strengthen the arm and upper-back muscles. These are going to help you get stronger and avoid injuries anyways, right? For pullups, you need strong forearms, biceps, shoulder muscles, and upper-back muscles or "lats."

Do the cable pulldown for the upper back; hammer curls for the forearms and bicep, as well as bench presses and push-ups for the shoulders, for example.

(2) Hang from the bar first with your palms facing outward (a traditional pullup grip; the one with palms facing toward you is usually a "chin-up"). Just "hang out" then get down. This gets you used to and strong for hanging from the bar before you do a pullup. Just hang for 20 seconds. Then 40 secs. Then a minute. It's a great stretch anyways.

(3) Do negative pullups, a nifty suggestion from Stew Smith at military.com. A negative pullup is basically doing the "let yourself down" part of the exercise, without dong the pulling up part. Grab a bar at shoulder or chin height, palms facing out, with a support beneath you, like a stool. Then slowly let yourself down (after stepping off the stool of course). See, you're breaking a problem into its constituent parts, then tackling each part first.

(4) Do assisted pullups, in which a guy or gal holds on to you by the waste and supports a lot of the weight as you undertake the pullup routine. Let's say you've got another friend who's working on her pullup; well now you can "support" each other through the training process.

(5) Once you can do one or more than one pullup, Smith has another good routine: do a pyramid. Do one pullup, rest, do two pullups, rest, do three...In a pattern like 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1.

Any vigorous climbing activity using the upper body will help pullups. Just like the weights you've been lifting will help you with the vigorous climbing. Like those cargo nets that you have to scramble up during the muddy-run-buddy races.

Any sort of extra south-of-the-border weight on your body is going to make pullups harder, and conversely any weight you add to yourself on purpose as resistance training (like those heavy vests with adjustable weight in the form of little sand bags) will make a "normal" unweighted pullup seem easier later.

For lack of a better concluding phrase I'll just remark (a little tritely, I admit) "go get 'em girl" and let's prove the "experts" wrong.

By the way, geek alert: Runtastic has a pullup training oriented app: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/runtastic-pullups-pro/id570181507?mt=8.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Ski N' Swim In The Same Week Outdoors

It's pretty hard to find a region where you can reliably ski and swim in the same week. Or surf and turf, or "surf and surf" if you're a snowboarder. Southern California comes to mind. You could ski in the Sierra Nevada then end up in Malibu or the like. Or the Cascades near Portland, Oregon. New Zealand perhaps, where the mountains come right down to the ocean (but I have no specific experience).

A friend of mine Peter and I have swum this week in New England. It's an example of how one person can inspire and motivate another. I started swimming in the ocean beginning on April 16 (@ 49 degrees F.), then I swam again in late October, after enjoying my cold river and ocean swims all season. But my friend kept going.

I got an email from him the other day, describing how he ran then dived into the 46 degree waters off South Boston. So I determined that it was my turn. I went over to Plum Island in the early afternoon. The air was 43 degrees F., sunny and breezy, and the sea was well...cold.

I walked for about a mile and was completely alone on the pretty windswept beach. Small waves were rolling in on the purple Atlantic water. The sun glinted off the chop. Properly motivated, I found a sea-battered log, stripped down to my bathing suit, and placed my clothes on it in the order that I woujld put them back on, pants to shirts to coat.

I was about 40 yards from the sea, toward the dunes. Pool thermometer in hand, I sprinted down to the water up to my knees. It didn't hurt, like cold water sometimes does. I was actually surprised that the temperature was quite bearable, given that we have had nights of 20+ degrees. I took a quick reading with the thermometer and it was 47-48 F. A personal record, but only by about a degree. I would not have done any of this if my friend hadn't sent me the email first, and I was having good healthy fun.

I looked around for bundled up walkers, faintly embarrassed, as if someone was going to call 911 ("a person is trying to end it all..."). I was still alone. I dived in. Oddly I didn't gasp (the mammalian diving reflex). I popped up pretty quickly, with the familiar all-body numbness and bathed in beta-endorphins.

I ran back to my clothes, put them on in order, then wandered back down the sand with a kind of runner's high, ruminating over solving the problems of the world. In other words, these cold-water swims are excellent for your state of mind. I had skied in Vermont four days before, a ski/swim first for me, and I think I felt colder skiing than I did swimming.

I couldn't wait to email my friend Peter. Motivation and camaraderie.

A footnote. Walking back along the wooden walkway to my car I heard gun shots. I actually smelled cordite, a whiff of gunpowder. Men were shooting in the estuary towards the Plum Island River. Weird. Driving home, I gliding up to a traffic cop, and he said "they're allowed to bird hunt." But a stray bullet taking out a bird watcher? It didn't seem all that kosher.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Winter's Tale: It's On To Alpine Replay

The time of the year has arrived to snap on the skis and record my runs using the app Alpine Replay. The app is very similar to other sports tracking tools, using the GPS software on your phone to provide all kinds of data for compiling on the web. In terms of Alpine Replay (AR), that includes total vertical feet and miles skied, for each run, day, and total for the season.

You can always check how you're doing by consulting the leaderboard, which shows where you stand in your resort (Sugarbush in VT for me) and of course "the world." The app aggregates numerous other statistics, including average and sustained speed, calories burned, and it even delineates how much time you spent resting, riding the chairlift, and actual ski time.

AR also makes an algorithmic stab at air time, the "totally rad bro" time you spend aloft on your skis or snowboard. For me, this data point is usually substituted by the regrettable phrase "Hmmmm. Doesn't look like you recorded any Air Time on this day."

The speed data has to be tricky for the AR programmers, and for every developer that has to calculate speed from GPS data. The GPS software gives you geographic points (longitude and latitude) for timeframes such as each second.

So I would guess that the software measures the length of the geographic route (the ski run) and the seconds that transpired covering that distance. At any event, you have to take the speed estimates with a grain of salt (or snow, or ice); they appear to be in the right ballpark.

What's also cool about Alpine Replay is the integration with Google Earth 3D, as in the displayed photo. Very nice way of looking at the surrounding mountainous topography from a bird's eye perch, making it worth the time shoving the phone in an empty pocket and sending off your runs to be crunched on the web.

Finally, AR has the usual social-media integration, and internal competitions. It's pretty nifty to try to rack up vertical feet for a new pair of skis!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Randomly Recruited for Boston Med Study on D + Fish Oil – How I Responded

I got an interesting letter in the mail recently, recruiting me for an over-50 medical study in Boston on the effects of vitamin D and fish-oil pills on cancer and other diseases. Here's how I responded (basically, no thanks!).

I had a few comments on the viability of the study itself.

First, I wouldn't participate, because I'd suspect that limiting myself to 800 IU of vitamin D during New England winters for years would end up undermining my health. [The protocol required participants to take either 800 or 2,000 IU, depending on whether they got a placebo or not.] I take on average 2,000 - 4,000 IU per day (and last Summer tried to use UV rays only; it kept my serum D level in the mid 30s ng/ml).

I also get some D amounts from foods like fish and whey protein powder. If I limited myself to 800 IU in the higher latitudes I suspect that my D blood level would drop well below 30 ng/ml.

Second, I don't think the study's 2,000 IU non-placebo amount is enough to make a difference for people over 50. You should be using at least 4,000 IU for it to show some results. Third, fish oil pills are not effective, as indicated by many recent studies. One must get Omega 3 from fish, shellfish, like the the Inuits, or pastured eggs, for example. See this good summation:

http://blogs.courier-journal.com/prime/2012/11/10/fish-oil-supplements-there-is-no-free-lunch/

The goals of the study are obviously very important, but the study protocol needs to be changed. For example, up the IU amount of the D supplement, and (somehow) require the participants to eat salmon, arctic char, and the like in controlled amounts. You could test their Omega 6 : 3 ratio (similar to an A1C test of glycation in red blood cells) to monitor their progress.

Also, it would be nice if the study lasted longer than five years, because it takes so long for many conditions to develop.


I wrote extensively about Omega 3 and 6, and healthy fats in general, as well as tested your ratio for 6 :: 3, in Fitness For Geeks.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Kings and Queens Of The Mountains: Head To Head @ Strava

Strava Cycling, a sports app, has an interesting geeky feature which their users butt heads over called king of the mountain (KOM) or queen (as in QOM for gal riders).

It works like this. You head out on your bicycle and record or track the ride with Strava, which rests on your smartphone.

Each sizeable hill that you surmount is set aside by the application and marked or shaded on the elevation map that Strava draws for your ride (you can ogle these maps on your web dashboard after the ride). The app calls them "segments," essentially a segment of the route you have ridden.

You can also create your own segments after the ride with a nifty widget with which you draw a line over your route, differentiating a segment of it. The second image with this post shows the widget.

Now these segments become a little race course. The time you took to ride the hill, the elevation grade, the elevation difference between beginning and end, etc. are recorded. Other Strava users can then compete over those segments for the fastest time, and the winners (temporarily) are the kings or queens of the mountain (their own 15 minutes of fame).

Many of the segments become pretty popular, such as the access road up to Sugarbush in Vermont, which has about 70 riders on the leaderboard. Or the various rides to the gaps in the mountains, like the App Gap climb nearby in Vermont. It's fun, and hypercompetitive, at about the level of a playground. Sort of an example of how sub-elements of these apps take on a life of their own.

Sometimes too much life. When someone competing to regain a KOM was killed, the family apparently sued Strava. These segments are a natural outgrowth of the technology (GPS + mapping + multiple users), but people shouldn't lose their heads over them.

I found out that little hills, even very steep ones, can't be set aside as segments (there must be a hill-length requirement, like a mile). I "attacked" three short bumps with my little mountainbike on one of my routes, but couldn't use them later as segments. Rats. I wanted to be King of The Mountain for at least 15 minutes.

An Excerpt From A Recent FFG Interview

I gave an interview related to the German edition of Fitness For Geeks. Here are a few excerpts (the randomly included photo is of early snows in Vermont!):

(1) For "Fitness for Geeks" you've done quite a bit of research on nutrition, health, physical strength in general and body monitoring. What are your most important (and most surprising) insights in a nutshell?

One insight was the pure breadth and depth of the health/fitness apps; tens of millions of users on EndoMondo, Strava, FitBit, Runtastic, and the like.

You can engineer your own weight loss and fitness gains, as software people are used to an engineering context, using these apps. Track the calories in your diet and your movement level throughout the day (and calories expended) with the FitBit, and connect these data with a Withings body-composition scale, and there you have it, all the data on the same screen, tracked over time so you can look for patterns.

These apps also have a tail-wagging-the-dog effect; they make people exercise more, when everything is being tracked.

I guess another insight that has evolved over the years is that we have been given a lot of "upside down" public-health advice: fats in the diet are bad; the sun is poison, so run around covering yourself with sunscreen all the time; and the more exercise the better (as if lots of marathoning was good for you).

Wrong on all three counts. It's sugar in the modern diet, as in refined sugar and fructose syrup, that's wreaking havoc metabolically (a little bad news there for dessert lovers :), not fat; the sun is healthy for generating the all-important secosteroid hormone vitamin D and for other reasons (some possibly not discovered yet), and "ultra" or excess exercise can damage the heart, suppress the immune system, and lead to some unhealthy outcomes.

"Mother nature does not make bad fats"; man makes bad fats, as in trans fat and rancid vegetable oils, and the like. Eat healthy fat and get control of your fasting blood sugar by eliminating refined sugar, exercising and moving a lot (particularly after eating), as well as fasting.

(2) When was the last time you worked out?

Yesterday I had an interesting workout. We have a 10 kilometer stretch of open beach here north of Boston (Plum Island). It was low tide and the ocean was flat, not too many waves, so I did 6-7 100-meter dashes on the hard sand barefoot, maybe the last few all-out. Then I dived in the water. It was 9-10 degrees C., which I measured with a pool thermometer. Just a quick swim. Very refreshing (and healthy)! Cold-water swimming is a relatively new thing with me; it's remarkable how the body can adapt to it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

I Am Not A Seal: Breaking Through Your Own Sound Barrier

I swam today in the ocean – 49 degrees Fahrenheit water, 55 degrees air (in the sun), equaling a personal no-wetsuit record of sorts. I went in twice and this time I actually took swim strokes for 15 to 20 seconds. I've been swimming a lot in temperatures of from 57 to 62 F., and the difference between the latter range and 49 degrees is the voice in your head that realizes "I am not a seal." I'm a warm-blooded creature with inadequate blubber layers.

Whether I can claim to be the "fitter" for today's plunge is questionable, given the short duration of immersion. The longterm effects, of which I've accrued, are healthy. I did have to break through a mental barrier, however; the swim was more Felix Baumgartner than Dr. Oz. Put it this way; 17 more degrees in one direction equals 66, and most of the people I encounter won't even swim in waters that are 66. 17 degrees in the other direction is 32, when water freezes.

I'll be back at it tomorrow, and plan to continue in November. I like using these pages as a kind of diary.

The Hazards Of Coach Potato-ism

BTW, two links you might be interested in, both topics of which FFG covered extensively: two more studies indicating that failure to move throughout the day is both a prosaic subject and deadly; and a study that found that multivitamins had a small but significant cancer prevention effect.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Looking At Strava And Its Fun Wattage Stats

I've been looking at Strava Cycling and making a comparison with Endomondo, in terms of cycling/running and crunching all the stats afterwards.

The apps are similar: your ride is automatically uploaded to your own web dashboard, where you have a nice map to look at. Endomondo's is better (but I've only used the free Strava app), in that each of the miles are marked on the map. I like looking at the mile splits. Almost everyone does. Nothing beats the Garmin Connection player feature however, where you get to replay your ride with Flash, and watch the MPH and elevation change on the route (now that's a killer app).

Strava has an interesting feature in which it estimates your watts for the ride. A power meter on your bike does this much more accurately, but I appreciated this theoretical parameter anyways.

Watts are a measure of how much power you apply to the pedals, in terms of energy output. What if your bike was cranking out electricity, and not just chewing up calories? So if I average 93 watts for a ride (pretty pedestrian...) then my pedaling could have lit about one and a half 60-watt bulbs for an hour. It's another stat that you can keep trying to beat on your routes. Gotta light up more bulbs!

How do they calculate watts in the Strava software? I could only guess. They have an algorithm that includes your weight, an estimate of the weight of your bike (which widely varies; I was on a 30ish pound mountainbike, while someone else could be on a 18-pound road bike), the distance you covered, and the elevation you climbed. And of course the time you took to cycle the course.

I ran both apps together on my Android phone, just to see what the different calculations of distance would be. Strava estimated 12.2 miles, 401 feet of elevation (you can tell I'm not in the mountains), and 386 calories. Endomondo came up with 12.12 miles, about 423 feet of climbing, and 675 calories.

Pretty similar, but you can see how setting Endomondo for different modes of cycling alters their calorie estimate.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Friday, September 14, 2012

Why Even Bother Self Tracking Or Quantifying? 5 Good Reasons

Are sports-tracking apps and data gathering really worth your time in the fitness realm? Or are they needless additions to the time you spend in front of screens? Tracking data over time is an important, albeit not absolutely essential, part of your fitness routine, for a number of different reasons.

(1) You need to have a baseline point from which you can start to achieve or reach a goal. You need to know how you are doing over time. I can give you an example from today. I've been cold-water swimming, and working on spending longer periods of time in colder water (a great anti-inflammatory and fat-burning strategy). Today a web site reported the Plum Island, Massachusetts water temperature with an upper range of 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

I brought my trusty pool thermometer to the ocean – my own "tracking tool" – and found out that the temperature was 58 F. on the nose. I spent well over 20 minutes in the water without a wetsuit. This gave me a sense of accomplishment, hard data with which to compare with my past cool-water swim experiences, and it was the accurate tracking that made this possible.

The same concept can be applied to anything, like uphill walking. You don't know whether "walking my hilly course in 45 minutes with ease" is "good," unless you've walked the same distance over the same course before without feeling as strong. And if you track, you know the whole history of your personal records and perceived exertion on that walking route.

(2) Tracking provides you with a system for pursuing a goal, and thus an engine for reward, motivation, and accomplishment. We all know that fitness is a worthy goal; a downright virtue. But how to you get there in the first place? What information do you have that indicates you are getting fitter?

You can use some of the software tools I write about in Fitness For Geeks: the FitBit Tracker, EndoMondo, Garmin Connect, Fitocracy, FitDay, NutritionData, even some of the ones I didn't include such as Nike+, Foodzy, Traineo, Gyminee, and an...ahem...novel tool called Gympact that fines you for not exercising.

(3) Tracking also helps you set practical goals. If you couldn't do 10 pushups five months ago, you could set a goal to increase your pushup by two per month, and track that goal each month in the FitBit dashboard. You might not walk away in frustration after six weeks because "you can't do 10 pushups yet."

(4) Historial data. You know you couldn't run an eight-minute mile five years ago, because you have the data for those years. But you kind of forgot that. Now you look over your fitness data and you get that extra motivational nudge: "Wow I couldn't run a mile faster than 10 minutes in 2007, and now I'm running a 7:45!"

(5) Face it, many of us are helped by sharing our accomplishments, and while hypercompetitiveness isn't important, we all deserve a pat on the back for trying to get healthier and legitimately fitter. This probably satisfies a human drive to achieve physical goals with support from the tribe (a community hunt and gather?).

The self-tracking tools are all hooked into larger communities so you have plenty of people to cheer you on, even if it's just your friends and/or family members. You don't need to "over share" and go overboard with all the social media stuff, for the simple reason that you might counteract your fitness efforts with all the extra sitting time in front of screens.

Remember how fun and rewarding it was when you joined that running or polar plunge club, with a group of like-minded people motivating each other (okay, some of them were also looking for a date)?

Monday, September 3, 2012

10 Tips For Running Your First Mile: Getting Started

So you thought my power :: run ratio idea was worth a look and you want to run your first timed mile. How do you get started?

The obvious proviso is that you must be in reasonably good cardiovascular health first to attempt one mile of running. Here's ten tips on first beginning, then getting to the end of the track on your first best mile:

(1) Find a nice oval to train on, you know, a conventional track. Most towns and cities have a track that's pretty fast and comfortable to run on. This way you'll know what a mile feels like to run, because you will be running almost exactly a mile. Many ovals are 400 meters long, and you want to time yourself for four laps, or 1600 meters. This is just 10 yards short of a mile, the U.S. customary measurement.

(2) Start by walking the four laps, just to get a good idea of how long a mile is. In a way, you're training your brain for the distance. Running a mile has a lot to do with what's going on in your brain, including hypoxia, if you don't train properly! Running a fast mile, at least to me, is a bit intimidating, so walking the mile first is an incremental way of preparing yourself for the run. It's implanting a memory ("oh so this is what a mile feels like...").

(3) Now jog 400 meters or one lap of the oval – training for your best mile is going to take several weeks and we have to begin with baby steps. This includes getting fitted to and buying a nice feather-light pair of running sneakers, because you don't want to be plodding along in Army boots. That will slow you down, guaranteed. When jogging 400 meters feels good:

(4) Start sprinting the straight-aways on the oval, and walking or slow jogging the curves. Or the opposite – sprint the curves and walk the straight-aways. This is actually training for running on an oval. When this starts to get easy, which takes a while, start doing this for 800 meters (two laps), and so on. Remember that this is a good interval, or sprint workout in its own right. Each of these short sprints is about 100 meters.

(5) Run the inside lane to minimize the distance, because the more you swing to the outside lanes, the more time you're losing. It's amazing how running the oval efficiently will earn you many seconds. It goes without saying (don't you hate that expression "it goes without saying..." Then why say it?) that you should be well hydrated and reasonably well trained during this mile-training attempt. If you've recently put on 20 pounds, you're not going to run your best mile possible (ever run carrying a 20-lb. backpack while running)?

(6) To mix things up, run on a beach barefoot. Find a flat part at low tide. Stride 200 times and mark the spot. That's roughly 200 meters. Now do a couple of 200-meter sprints (or 100...whatever). You're learning how to run fast; teaching your brain and skeletal muscles how to dig deep for more speed. Running on sand is hard. When you return to the track or oval, it will seem easy and you'll feel like a gazelle.

(7) When you've been doing this for a few weeks, during one of your track workouts, run your fastest 400 and time it, then go home. Don't try to do this twice in a row, not yet. When that feels good, run your fastest 800. Practice running one 400 fairly fast, then a finishing kick for the final 400, in all your glory. This is how you'll finish your mile.

(8) You should be lifting weights twice a week during this whole process; running fast takes strength and muscle power. These are power lifts with your legs (front squats, power squats, leg presses; jumping up on stools). Have at least one rest day between weightlifting and your single or twice-weekly track workout.

(9) Finally, put it all together and run a mile, but do it in a fast, graceful, non-killer way. Fitness For Geeks describes a concept called "body speeds," or mindful running. It's running fast but conceiving of technique and gracefulness all along, not "eyeballs out." Note the time you ran. it will be in the ballpark of your best mile. You should smash this time by going all-out however, by about 40 seconds or more. You're still preparing for running your PR (or personal best) mile on the track. This is another baby step.

(10) Finally, after several weeks, it's time for your mile time trial. Remember to pace the mile – I favor saving a bit of gas for a nice sprint around the final bend and straight-away. Depending on time of year, run in the evening, when it's cooler. A dark track can be like a furnace under the hot sun. Psych yourself up in whatever way you know how. Run to The Who's "Baba O'Reilly." Think of your least favorite manager at work, and how they're probably betting against your ability to run a decent mile. Get mad. Then get someone to time your run beside the track, or use a watch or app. Go for it! The result is a good baseline for your quickest mile.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Power :: Run Ratio

It's fun to be able to execute your fastest long distance run, or focus on setting your personal record for weightlifting. But how about aiming for a blend of the two specialties as an accurate overall measure of all-around fitness, your best ratio of strength to endurance running. Let's call it a Power-to-Run ratio, for lack of a better term (or EnduroPower(c) if I was branding this technique!).

Ashton Eaton and Trey Hardee were the 2012 gold and silver Olympic medalists in the decathlon, which makes them in my eyes the best athletes in the world. A decathlete has to focus on a lot of different specialities, and as a result, probably never peaks ultimately at one of them, but they aspire to an all-aroundness in physical strength, agility, and endurance that most of us mere mortals can only envy.

They have the strength to hurl javelins Olympic distances, yet both of them finished the final 1500 meters in right around the equivalent of a five-minute flat mile. A 5:00 mile pace for 1500 meters is 4:39; Eaton ran 4:34 and Hardee 4:40.

Those times are incredible, given their fatigue level at that point as well as the fact that they are both tall muscular men (6'5"" and 6'1", respectively), not skinny lithe professional milers. I ran a 4:45 mile once but I'm smaller and more wiry than they are – and I felt like I was sprinting the entire time.

In terms of a practical gauge of overall fitness, "meeting in the middle" at a nice blend of strength and run endurance is a worthy goal for all of us. So here's the equation for a power :: run ratio:

Amount of weight you can bench press (or choose your lifting exercise) / Your mile time in minutes

In other words, let's say you can bench press 150 pounds and run one mile in 7:00. 150 / 7 = 21.4, so that's your score or ratio. A year later, you can run a mile in 5:58 and bench press 170, because you've been training so efficiently. So now the ratio looks a little more complicated: 170 / 5.96 = 28.5. The ratio goes up if either your mile time improves or your bench press increases.

It's the ratio that matters, not the absolute weight. You could have a huge guy who can duck under the bar and hoist 260 pounds for the bench press, but he can only manage a 12 minute mile, so his ratio is 21.8, barely better than the prior example of someone who benches 150 pounds but can run a 7:00 mile. Yeah, the ratio is a reflection of pound-for-pound fitness.

A mile is a pretty good run distance without overtraining; it's a fair representation of both raw speed and endurance (I suppose you could use the 400 or 800 meter dash too). In addition, just about everyone who is familiar with gyms and weights has given the bench press the whirl, but you could use another weight technique like the push press.

My own ratio (and right now I'm guessing on the mile) is 200 / 6.4 = 31.25, but I'm going to get timed in the mile early this fall.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

When Fitness Means Going Out To the Edge, But Not Quite Over The Precipice

There is nothing like spending a quiet afternoon in the thrall of a great book. Today I'm reading Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms, in real tactile paperback form. It's my third time through, at least; the first in college, the second when I was in Italy at Lago Maggiore with my wife 20 years ago, near many of the towns like Stresa where the scenes are set. I remember looking for the hotel mentioned in the book and ordering the same drink Frederick Henry ordered. These are the kinds of things English majors do.

Hemingway has a great line in the novel: "...the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places." In my book I use this line as a metaphor for a theory of health. I didn't intend to cheapen or dilute a classic quote from a great piece of writing by making it relate to a "fitness strategy."

I wanted to help people understand what hormesis means (and you certainly don't have to remember the latter term at all to stay fit).The concept is that if you have undergone a little pain or hard effort but not too much, the cells of the body will respond adaptively and that this mechanism can make you fitter and more immune to physical or infectious threats later on. Chapter 11 of my book Fitness For Geeks goes into more detail on this notion.

Another more scientific way to put it is "activate an adaptive stress response that raises the resistance of the organism against high doses of the same agent." These actions include:
  • cold water swimming or cold thermogenesis, sometimes combined with heat stress like a sauna or thermal bath
  • high intensity exercise such as sprinting or lifting heavy weights
  • Fasting or caloric restriction
  • one or two glasses of wine (one shouldn't conclude however that having a glass of wine inoculates you from the effect of numerous wine glasses!)
I just came back from swimming in a Vermont river with my son. The nights are cool now in Vermont, so the river has gotten colder. Now it's about 57 degrees F. I spent about 20 minutes swimming against the current in two different dips. the tips of my fingers are still numb an hour later. I tested my pulse with the little fingertip device, like a clothespin, that I obtained from RestWise – it signaled a pulse rate of from 41-43, which is low for me. Cold thermogenesis must lower the pulse rate for an extended time, which is mostly a good thing

The idea is that there is a sweet spot for this kind of fitness pursuit, a preferable dose/response. Too much, and you get weaker, more broken at the broken places so to speak. This is why moderate duration exercise, short-term lifting or sprinting, is generally better than ulta-level exercise, at least from a practical fitness standpoint. I think difficult physical ordeals like an ultra race might be hormesis if you only do them a few times with very long durations between them, but I can't prove that.

Certainly, over the milennia of humanity, societies have concluded that hard physical training to an extent, and mild discomfort such as cold ocean or river swims "harden" the body or organism against infection and premature physical decline.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"The Desert Is My Friend": 10 Ways To Better Adapt To the Heat

Pheonix, Arizona hits 115 degrees in several places, with multiple days exceeding 110 degrees fahrenheit. Sacramento, California, where my daughter is at the moment, hits 106. Death Valley hovers around 126; well, at least that's not unexpected, as the only thing that thrives out there, at least based on my one hike from Badwater, CA, are weird looking crusty salt formations.

Meanwhile, global warming gradually converts the American southwest and midwest into something akin to the Australian Outback. Do these temperatures begin to appear uninhabitable for humans? They do to me, a cool-weather person who suffers during a humid 82 fahrenheit (give me a sunny 52 degree morning any day). Here's a few tips to get help you through the rest of the Summer and beyond.

(1) Acclimate. You can't "beat the heat" as the cliche goes, you can only live better with it. Your body has an amazing ability to adapt or acclimatize to the heat, but you have to help this mechanism along by exposing yourself judiciously to hot temperatures.1 It takes no more than a continuous hour and a half or so per day of walking or light biking in hot weather to cultivate this adaptation (although more intensive exercise seems to quicken the process) – "even resting in the heat results in some acclimation."2

This is why athletes training for a hot Olympics try to simulate the equatorial conditions as much as possible during training.

We know it isn't healthy to live in either winter or summer in completely 24-hour artificial environments, because they shut down these built-in adaptive responses. I do a lot of cold-water swims throughout the year and very-cold weather skis and hikes – and now that I'm better informed about heat adaptation, I'll be adding these behaviors to my repertoire :)

What happens to the body during heat adaptations?
  • "The three classical signs of heat acclimation are lower heart rate and core temperature, and higher sweat rate during exercise-heat stress. Skin temperature is lower after heat acclimation than before..." Basal metabolic rate is [also] decreased during warmer months.3 BMR represents the calories you burn just by maintaining your physical systems, such as the heartbeat and the function of the brain.
  • "With acclimatization, the sweat glands become able to conserve sodium by secreting sweat with a sodium concentration" lower than non-acclimatized people.4 You sweat more when you're heat adapted, but the sweat contains a lower salt concentration, so it's "more efficient sweating."
  • Heat adaptation hones your thirst response, so you don't let yourself become dehydrated. "Therefore, heat acclimated persons will dehydrate less during exercise in the heat, provided that access to fluids is not restricted. This is an important adaptation as heat acclimation increases sweating rate and if fluid replacement is not proportionately increased then greater dehydration will occur."5
  • "Most studies report that heat acclimation increases total body water. The magnitude of increase ranges from 2.0 to 3.0 liters or ~ 5% to 7% of total body water."6 This seems to be a significant factor – you can hold on to an extra two to three liters of water just by being better acclimatized.


The body isn't just some dumb machine that constantly needs to be synthetically cooled, baked, and medicated. If you feel like you've got the A/C market cornered between your house, car, and office, then I have one (no...three) words for you: power grid crash. Recall what happened in India lately. And it happens occasionally in the U.S. too albeit, hopefully, at a smaller scale.

(2) Make heat your friend, or at least an object of mutual respect. If you can't beat it join it. Obviously, you can't take up residence in a ventilated pup tent in the middle of Badwater, California, but you can make it easier, with attitude and practice, to live with the hotter days.

A funny and telling story I recall from a long time ago involved a participant in a wild race across the Sahara Desert called the Marathon Des Sables or Marathon Of The Sands. A reporter covering the 150-mile or so six-stage race wrote about a Frenchman in his sixties, a "mystic" who could sit for hours in a tank of ice water.

The reporter found him halfway through the brutal ultramarathon, walking barefoot on blistered feet with his shoes tied together and slung over his shoulder. All the man said was "the desert is my friend." Yeah right, the reporter thought to himself; this guy will never finish the race (I heard that the race had a "two IV" rule – if you had to have a second intravenous fluid replacement, they pulled you from competition!).

Later, the reporter spotted the man among a group of finishers several miles away; he'd not only finished, but he was sitting placidly in the lotus position, "chilling out" as it were. What did this Zen guy know that we don't know? Acclimate, adapt; acclimate, adapt.

(3) Avoid pavement and heat islands. Paved-over areas will amplify heat by as much as 10 degrees or more. Park your car under trees and stay in forested areas as much as possible. Obviously, never leave a child or a dog in a hot parked car! Similiarly, don't linger all day inside among laptops, computers, flatscreen TVs, and other electronics, as they generate a lot of heat and will significantly heat up a room. Just unplug 'em to cool off, and disconnect.

(4) Enjoy cold water swims and cold showersthey have benefits that extend beyond relief from the heat.

(5) Drink more water, within reason, and monitor the color of your pee (if it's clear you're well hydrated; very yellow you're dehydrated).

(6)Take it down a notch physically if you're a regular outdoor exerciser. The exception is training for a hot-weather event, but take it slow nonetheless as heat-adaptation takes up to two weeks (a study discussed in the cited article here indicated adaptation after 10 days when the heat exposure was daily, and 27 days when the subjects were exposed every third day).

(7) Eat lighter, colder foods in the heat and drink cold not hot tea or coffee so as to not ramp up your own thermogenesis or heat production.

(8) Dress lighter, looser, and in white, reflective colors, and expose more of your skin to any breezy conditions, to help increase evaporative cooling (taller people can dissipate more heat because they have more exposed surface area, thus early people in Africa were tall and lithe, while the Paleolithic peoples like Neanderthal were short and broad because they lived in a much cooler environment). Obviously, don't expose skin to the sun to the extent of sunburn.

(9) If you can find a cool spot, sleep and siesta during the hottest periods of the day, around 11am to 2pm, and "live at night" or work during the earliest cooler hours.

(10) If you have the opportunity, go to high elevations, where the temperature is likely to decline about 5 degrees per thousand feet. In my experience, this figure can wildly fluctuate depending on local conditions – yet you can almost guarantee that it will be appreciably cooler and breezier in the high country compared with the "heat islands" created in the vast developed flatlands. A place in VT I stay in, at 1,500 feet above sea level, is almost always about 8 degrees cooler than where I live at 50 feet above sea level.

1 Human Adaptations to Heat and Cold Stress, Michael N. Sawka, Ph.D., etal.; http://ftp.rta.nato.int/public//PubFullText/RTO/MP/RTO-MP-076///MP-076-$KN4.pdf
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
>5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.

Monday, August 13, 2012

How To Calculate the Elevation Grade Of Your Uphill Walk Or Cycle

You ride, walk, or hike a hill, and it felt like your strongest uphill effort ever. You want to know, for posterity, the average elevation grade of that climb. For us stat geeks, that's a percent elevation grade, such as "10 percent."

You might recall from Tour De France broadcasts the breathless coverage of a hard climbing stage – "this part of the climb averages 12 percent or more!!" These climbs are generally rated by their average elevation grade and length. The famous Alpe D'Huez climb in the French Alps, for example, is around 8.5 miles long with an average grade of almost 8 percent.

In short, a road with an eight percent grade ascends in elevation eight feet for every 100 feet in length. Beyond having a watch that produces this statistic for you (and my old Garmin watch will do that, after you consult a chart), how do you figure out the average elevation grade? It's a fairly easy equation for us do-it-yourselfers, using either feet or meters, for example.

Increase in elevation for the climb / Total distance of climb * 100

Last night, I took a very fine evening ride on my mountainbike in Vermont, USA. It included a nice climb which I've measured by hiking with Endomondo. The climb was 1.14 miles (about 6,019 feet) in length, and rose 580 feet in elevation. So:

580 / 6019 = 0.0963 * 100, which = 9.6 percent

My mile or so ride had an elevation grade of about 9.6 percent. For every thousand feet of length it rose about 96 feet in elevation or steepness – so imagine starting at one end of a football field on a bike, but the other end of the field is tilted up about 29 feet. That's about how steep the road was.

Anything of around 10 percent is pretty hard steepness on a bike (easier for walkers or hikers), and requires a small chain ring and a low gear on the bike to negotiate for any length (for us mere mortals).

A long ride, 10 to 20 miles long, with a 6 percent average grade, is very strenuous, and requires a low gear and lots of water. On rare occasions I train on a climb that is 3.6 miles long (6 kilometers) with a grade of six percent, and that's a confidence builder, because it's climbing but not that hard.

Have any bike or run climbing stories to share?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Recording and Mapping Your Backcountry Adventures

The "backcountry" usually refers to those wilderness areas where we find ourselves hiking, biking, and climbing, such as the mountains, the deserts, the woods, or a combination thereof. The smartphone apps such as Endomondo's make a nice accompaniment to these journeys (along with your best friends and loved ones of course!). They will use GPS software to generate richly textured data for maps, including your own route, the topography, your mile-by-mile pace (or "splits"), and other useful stats.

Fitness For Geeks discusses the benefits of EndoMondo, Google Earth, Backpacker GPS Pro and other tools for use on your treks.

This screen grab from the Endomondo app shows yesterday's roundtrip hike on the Long Trail above the Mad River Glen ski area in Vermont, USA. If you export the file that was used to generate this pretty map (see to the right of the screen), you can then import the resultant GPS Exchange (GPX) file into Google Earth. The book has a little how-to segment on this task.

The entire hike was 6.2 miles long, gained about 1,970 feet (600 meters) in elevation, and took a bit more than four hours. Beyond eye candy, there are many practical uses for this data, such as being able to plan a much longer trek and determining how fast you chug through the miles and elevation, not to mention the motivating aspects of having a detailed record of your wilderness journeys.

You can also share the map with other people as well as hang on to it for posterity. What if it showed a really important, possibly life-saving route, such as one that led to a river for drinking water, a food source, or the return trip from a popular but remote recreational area?

You're always going to discover something interesting or counterintuitve. For example, my mile splits (42:48, 43:05, 35:21, 33:14, 41:11, 39:57), the last three of which represent the return hike, indicate that the descent was faster. So? I'm usually a faster ascender, as my knees are often complaining bitterly by the descent. Perhaps these splits tell me that I can slow down on the descent and save some gas for the following day.

Looking at the topography, I also got a great idea for a winter hike traversing the ridgeline, then skiing Mad River Glen's winding southerly trail to the bottom of the mountain slope.

In case you were wondering whether people were actually using these apps, EndoMondo recently reached 10 million downloads, about 75 percent of people outside the U.S.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

What Recent Reviews Are Saying About Fitness For Geeks

"... The author’s writing style is very conversational. He makes what can be dry material entertaining to read...he never gives strict recipes for how to improve your level of fitness, he only gives general guidelines, some of which are self-conflicting. I think this is important because there is no right answer, each person must find what works best for them through careful experimentation." – Levon's Tumblr blog; link to review.

" I learned about some new research and have been convinced to take two actions: 1) buy a fitbit tracker 2) experiment with intermittent fasting. Depending on how those go, this book could bump up to a '5' or down to a '3'. Well written, though." – Glenn Hughes; link to review

"...Mr. Perry ... has compiled a substantial amount of advice and information that, if followed, couldn't possibly harm the health and fitness of those on the receiving end... A book that can be read end to end, the composition of each chapter makes for an easy pick and choose, depending on your perceived need. The physiology of the average human is explored in depth, along with nutritional requirements, level of exercise, means of exercise and the efficacy of certain foods and their constituents."

Bruce Perry is of the polo shirt, jeans and trainers school of thought, offering a thoroughly relaxed and conversational tone even when discussing particularly complex subjects...if, like me, training is simply a word used to disguise a fast pedal to debbie's for some frothy coffee, one who is less impressed by the serious style of many a discourse on the subject, this is definitely the book to acquire." – thewashingmachnepost.net; a cycling web site

Read the latter review in its entirety here.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Move...Even When Clobbered By "Enforced Sedentism": It's Your Body Right?

A lot of us are forced for hours into positions for which we were never designed: namely, sitting. If you have a long commute or business trip, school and camp drop-offs as part of the immersion of your lifestyle into modern Americana, or your job simply involves ceaseless cubicle occupancy or van driving, then you don't need reminding that it's difficult to keep moving under those circumstances. And that kind of "enforced sedentism" wreaks havoc with your efforts to get and remain fit.

But it doesn't have to.

I decided to test my ability to weave exercise into an otherwise sedentary day. I used two tools familiar to readers of Fitness For Geeks (and if you're not familiar, please consider reading the print or Kindle version:); the FitBit tracker and the EndoMondo sports tracking app.

The resuts were good, and certainly not complex to describe or replicate. And this isn't just static data either – it's reassuring feedback indicating that you are in control, it's your life, not some unsympathetic employer's or the implacable forces of modern life.

Here's the day in a nutshell: I first had a 20-mile roundtrip car commute through suburbia to drop my son off at camp. I started the day with a set of pullups on a nearby jungle gym, then hopped into the car and dropped off the tyke. Starting from that parking lot, I walked while making a necessary cell-phone call (note the qualifier; I do not spend a lot of time on phones) – maybe a little over a mile. During all this time I had a FitBit clipped to my belt.

Now the hard part movement-wise – I had to make a long drive to northern New England, about three+ hours in duration. At every rest stop, I parked farther away than the facilities (on purpose) and stopped at most opportunities. This account is sounding a little anal, but bear with me.

Finally, when I got to Vermont in the late afternoon, the first thing I did was take a hilly four-mile walk, as the sun melted toward the ridgeline. That obviously was the coup de grace concerning my efforts to get some substantive movement in.

The FitBit dashboard shows that I got in more than 7 miles (an equivalent estimate) of walking that day, took thousands of steps, and expended about 2300 calories (what with zero jogging, cycling, treadmilling, etc.).

The EndoMondo screen shows the walk. The new element of these stats for EndoMondo is an estimate of hydration, here 25 ounces or about a pint and a half. This is a reasonably good estimate of the amount of fluids I would have to imbibe to replenish the sweat lost during the hike, particularly during the summer. The calorie estimate, which really isn't that important anyways, is artificially low, because I configured the walk as "Fitness Walking" rather than "Hiking," to which the app assigns higher calorie outputs.

In reality, the walk involved an elevation gain of about 800 feet in two miles, so that qualifies as more like hiking.

The upshot? I sat on my behind driving all day, but I still accomplished the equivalent movement of an excellent rest day with reasonable metabolic health. Proper, as in not constant, eating and movement throughout the day will improve your fasting glucose and insulin. Try it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Buying Fitness For Geeks

You probably have a local, independently owned, brick and mortar bookstore to support. To find an independent bookseller near you, use the INDIEBOUND STORE LOCATER.

Also available at:

O'REILLY || AMAZON || BARNES & NOBLE || POWELL'S || BAM!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Endomondo's New Look: And What Happens When There's No Data Connection?

Endomondo has a nice new look now to their App Interface, and your phone, whether it be an iPhone or Android, will "automagically" upgrade to the new version. Which is version 8. You'll notice some other touches, like I have (but I haven't seen all of them), such as the photogenic "terrain" option or feature of the mapped depiction of your workout.

The photo shows this topographical quality of a nice mountainbike climb I did on June 30.

When you record a workout with the sports tracking app Endomondo, it will automatically upload the data to your personal page at http://www.endomondo.com/workouts/. But what happens if your phone and the app itself cannot connect to the Internet? This is what happened to me lately when I was outside the country. The short answer is that the app will store your bike/run/other activity locally, on the device's hardware, until the next time it can connect with the Web.

This happens without your intervention, the next time the app can get a web or HTTP connection from say a WiFi service, so that it can pipe the data from your workout to EndoMondo. You just open the app and discover that it's already happened (such as when I returned from my trip).

I have an Android cellphone, but I assume with all the different equpment types out there, that some people may lose their data if it can't be automatically uploaded. If you choose "History" on the app's menu, it will display a little icon (perhaps a red cross) next to the workouts that haven't been uploaded yet.

The app's code seems to be making web connections beneath the surface – meaning that I have not found a menu command that manually compels the app to "try to connect to the web,"

Sunday, July 15, 2012

N.Y. Times Articles Underline the Fine Line Between Fun And Risky Decision-Making In The Mountains: The Role Global Warming Is Playing

As many of us flock to places like the Cascades, the Alps, The Andes, and Denali in Alaska with sometimes lifelong ambitions at stake, the Alpine environment is becoming riskier and even more unpredictable. It has something to do with the increased numbers of inexperienced people that are venturing into the mountains for adventure and bragging rights, but it goes beyond that.

Extreme shifts in weather and rapidly changing conditions brought on by global warming make decision-making even more complicated, even for mountain guides, rangers, and other experts who have fine-tuned instincts when it comes to retracing the climbing routes they know very well.

The same "odd" weather patterns we all notice in less Alpine-oriented regions take place in the high mountains, rapidly altering route safety, increasing the risk of avlanches, ice falls, and dicey, often lethal conditions on so-called safer climbing paths. As the article pointed out, the nature of the popular West Buttress route on Denali is changing to the extent that it may become impassable for most climbers trying to reach the summit.

Is it a spell of especially tragic bad luck, in combination with the fact that we find out about everything that happens almost instantaneously and that news is front-loaded with the bad outcomes, or has a greater shroud of tragedy settled over the Alps and other places? The press is now reporting that two more people just died on Mt. Blanc, after nine were killed by an avalanche last Thursday. This isn't any reason to stay out of the mountains and other remote beautiful places, but it does underline the importance of remaining conservative and making accurate self assessments during your excursions in the wilderness.

Tom Sims in the NY Times also chimes in on the spate of recent outdoors tragedies, why athletes are motivated to take extreme risks, as well as a New Zealand researcher who studies these issues.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Veneer of Civilization Glosses Over Potential Recreational Hazards in The Alps

This article in the British paper The Guardian is spot on in its discussion of the "deceptive" hazards represented by the European Alps. Visiting climbers and enthusiasts cannot take them lightly, just because many of the mountains are "only" 4,000 meters or about 13,123 feet or less. The veneer of civilization and amazing engineering feats such as cable-cars tend to gloss over any potential Alpine hazards. I've taken an interest in what's happened during the last month or so because I'm a recreational climber who has returned recently from a guided climb on the Monch and Jungfrau.

We usually hear about everything that happens, from near deaths to personality and petty team-dynamics squabbles, on Mt. Everest and other places in the Himalaya. But it's the Alps where the vast majority of tragic accidents occur. Nine climbers died in an avalanche on July 12 on the Mt. Blanc massif near Chamonix in France. Five climbers fell to their deaths on the Lagginhorn near Zermatt in Switzerland on July 3. Two climbers from Italy died on the Monch in May in a fall.

My son and I about a month ago were cavorting in the snow at the end of a cable-car ride at the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise in Zermatt. This is a very limited area for Summer skiing near the Matterhorn and the Klein Matterhorn. It's deceptively fun and seemingly hazard-free; a Summer holiday destination for families. Neverthless, a young man from Costa Rica took his snowboard out on the glacier about a week ago and tragically died after falling into a crevasse.

The mountains are imposing, sublime, humbling, and potentially unstable geological features that make us seem very small and insignificant by comparison. As essentially a "flatlander" from the suburbs, I like to refer to a climb as an Everyman's moon landing. "Fear is good," as the mountaineer Ed Viesturs puts it. I'm a proponent of following your gut, even if it means you might not reach your goal that day. Life is fragile. We have to pay the mountains their proper respect, and always keep in mind who you might leave behind.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cold Thermogenesis; A Fitness Feature You Probably Don't Pay Any Attention To, But Should

I listened to the informative wide-ranging podcast involving Ben Greenfield and Dr. Jack Kruse this week, and it emphasized the fitness advantages of cold thermogenesis. The picture shows the ultra cold-water swimmer Lewis Gordon Pugh from Outside Magazine, but you don't have to brave Arctic swimming to accrue the benefits of cold thermogenesis (CT).

Cold thermogenesis literally refers to the extra expenditure of calories to keep your body warm, in response to cold exposure. CT is a health optimization strategy, and much more. The advantages of CT go way beyond ramping up your metabolic rate by shivering (or even by its physical precursor, non-shivering thermogenesis), according to Dr. Kruse's research.

We know that cold exposure such as ice water baths or cold-water swimming has a hormetic and anti-inflammatory effect. In other words, CT helps you reduce stiffness and inflammation from exercise or daily life, and it's a "good stress" that often results in beneficial, adaptive cellular responses. As long as you do it enough, CT also has the following benefits:

  • It stimulates brown fat to burn more fats for energy; brown fat is a metabolically active form of fat cell or adipocyte which plays an important role in generating body heat when we're exposed tot he cold. People greatly differ in the amount of brown fat they have – it diminishes with age, and a person who has more fat probably also has more brown fat.
  • Our bodies use energy, our stored fats, much more efficiently when we're becoming cold adapted.
  • Dr. Kruse has found that hormonal states involving growth hormone and leptin, for instance, are positively affected by CT. He points outs that CT can generate more metabolically active brown fat or brown adipose tissue. He believes CT in general can play a role in extending longevity.
  • CT is an appetite suppressant and make you feel more energetic afterwards. I can attest to these qualities based on my own experiences with CT. You continue to burn more calories at least an hour after cold exposure, like after an ocean swim.


For example, "athletes such as Michael Phelps have benefited from cold thermogenesis" to pump up their athletic performance, according to the podcast.

Dr. Kruse theorizes that CT stimulates an "ancient pathway" in our bodies whose essence is the evolutionary adaptation by humans to cold environments. According to Dr. Kruse, the U.S. military such as Navy Seals are paying more attention to CT since discovering that their physical performance has improved dramatically when preceded by cold-water exposure.

So how do you introduce CT into your lifestyle in the first place? I advocate cold-water swimming, which I've been doing all late-Spring and Summer. Get a pool thermometer and test the temperature of a local ocean, lake, or river. I've been swimming in temperatures ranging from 49 to 64. You don't have to live in the country to benefit from a cold waterbody, as many cities are located next to rivers and oceans.

Even if you live in Florida, for instance, you might be able to find cold pools (at a fitness facility or spa, for instance), or simply take cold showers.

Swimming in 60-degree fahrenheit (16 degrees celsius) water is not as difficult as you think, and is actually pleasurable given its beneficial effect on your body.

As common sense would dictate, the warmer temps on the latter scale permit longer term swimming and thus probably a better adaptative response (at 49-50 degrees, I can hardly even take a stroke before quickly leaving the water, leaving me wondering about the efficacy of that polar plunge, beyond its hormetic effect). All of these swims are accomplished without a wetsuit.

Brown fat metabolism seems to operate "below the radar," via a different mechanism than the shivering of muscles. Although I'm becoming cold adapted, I tend to shiver a fair amount after cold-water exposure, which makes me think that I do not carry very much brown fat.