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.