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:

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.