Friday, September 18, 2015

Conditioning for Beginner's

A beginner (to karate) in a class I was taking asked about my thoughts on conditioning for karate today. I referred him to this blog, of course, but I also thought a recap of my thoughts on this topic is in order.

So let's assume that you're someone who is already enrolled in classes in some traditional martial art. Let's suppose you have some extra time and energy and want to get in better shape for your art (or for your life).

The first thing to recognize is that you're not an elite athlete (unless you are, in which case stop reading this and get a real coach). Elite athletes need elite coaching. Advice like the type I can give you is very general, very rough, and will, if followed, make you a very, very strong karateka... but not elite. Elite athletes need highly personalized and specialized programs, and they pay large sums of money for that kind of training. My blog is free. I'll get you into the top 5% of your age group. Getting into the top .1% requires an entirely different approach, and I'm not really the guy to get you there.

Still reading? Good.

Your best bet, assuming your instructor is decent, is to do more training in your art. If you're already taking one class a week, take another. If you're taking two, start taking three. The best way to improve in your art is to train in your art.

Of course, this will only work for some people. Maybe your classes are far away and you have time for more training but not more commuting. Maybe you can't afford (financially) more classes. Maybe your instructor doesn't offer more than a certain number of sessions per week to you. Maybe the classes are too demanding for you physically, and doing more would be too difficult for you.

In any of those cases, the next best bet is to remember that the best workout is the one you'll do. Any physical activity, for most of us, will be better than none. So if I tell you to do more push-ups, and you absolutely hate push-ups but like to take long bike rides, then by all means take long bike rides.

So if you're only willing or psychologically able to do some particular type of exercise, then do that. If you have some super aggressive conditioning plan that you can't follow, you're not going to make any progress. Trust me on this - I have vast personal experience designing super demanding exercise programs that I couldn't follow, and every time I did that I wound up taking a 6 month (or longer) break from training entirely and wound up in worse shape than I would have been if I'd just spent that time gardening.

If you have the energy, time, and psychological motivation to do a variety of things, and want to know the most efficient choices to make to get better at your art, follow these basic steps:

1. Get enough endurance (otherwise known as gpp, more or less, or wind).

Are you huffing and puffing and weak in the knees during class or during sparring? Is fatigue your biggest problem? If you're weak from lack of energy, you won't be able to really master the skills of karate. If you're surviving class pretty well, and when you spar your speed limits you more than your wind, then skip this section!

Long Slow Distance (LSD): The basic building block of endurance is two, forty five minute to one hour sessions (roughly) of having an elevated heart rate per week. By elevated I mean above 120, not necessarily so high that you're panting and feel ready to puke. If you're taking two one hour karate classes per week you're already hitting that target. If you're only taking one hour long karate class per week, take another forty five minutes to do something that keeps your heart rate up but doesn't kill you.

Like jogging? Jog (slowly). Or kayak. Or bike. Know a little karate? Spend an hour practicing your kata, or your kihon... but if you do that, pace yourself. Don't work so hard that you're gasping for air or shaking in the limbs. Practicing karate while highly fatigued will make your technique worse, not better. Wear a heart rate monitor and aim to keep your heart rate between 120 and 150 beats per minute. Or just pace yourself so you can carry on a conversation at any point during your training session. Maybe do a kata, then take many deep breaths, or stretch, or walk around, then do another one.

If you're getting 2, one hour sessions per week of this type of training, it's enough. More lower intensity training isn't going to get you much better results - if you love it, of course, that's great, go ahead and do it, but it's not the most efficient way to get 'in shape.' For example, I love kayaking, if I lived in a better place for it I'd kayak 4 hours a week - but that's not because it would make me better at karate, it's because I love kayaking. If you love jogging, jog more, but above 2 hours per week it's not the most efficient way to improve your karate.

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): If you're already hitting that 2 hours per week of lower intensity exercise, but want a little more 'cardio' for your sparring or classes or whatever, more LSD isn't going to do the trick. Instead, add some HIIT to the mix.

HIIT is pretty popular (it's the foundation of Crossfit), and pretty simple. Do something that's really hard, but doesn't overload one particular part of your body, but rather that taxes your whole body and lungs. So, for example, pushups probably aren't good, because the limiting factor for most of us is our arms getting tired, not our overall cardiovascular system. You need to find something that can have you breathing really hard, sucking wind, and maybe feeling a bit nauseous, all in less than 20 seconds.

Great choices are the Airdyne (or similar exercise bike), a VersaClimber, power snatches (with a fairly light weight or a dumbell), and burpees. Exercises that utilize a lot of different muscle groups are best, so the fatigue isn't centralized. You don't want to fail because one muscle group is fried, you want to fail (or come close to it) because your entire cardiovascular system is taxed.

Pick a time - say, 15 or 20 s. Do the work for that time, then rest for the same amount of time, then repeat. Electronic timers (that beep on some countdown) are very, very handy for this.

Do 8 sets or so (so if your work set is 15s, 8 sets is 4 minutes of overall work). Then take an extra minute of rest, and do an other 8. The 'work' should be hard enough to really, really suck. You can build up to doing more sets, but don't go past 20 minutes or so of total exercise time, and don't do it more than twice a week. I don't mean 20 minutes of work, I mean 20 minutes total of work and rest. If you can knock out 20 minutes easily, do something harder - add weight, go faster, whatever, but raise the intensity, not the duration.

If you're doing HIIT twice a week, on top of twice a week LSD (which, remember, probably includes whatever martial arts training you're doing), that's enough endurance work. More than that isn't going to do much for you beyond wearing you out.

2. Get Strong.

I've written elsewhere about this, but it bears repeating. You can't be too strong. As we age, the thing that can negatively impact quality of life most is a lack of strength. Can't run a mile? Buy a car. Can't touch your toes? Bend your legs to tie your shoes. Not strong enough to get up out of a deep squat? Congratulations, you now need a wheelchair and your life has now completely transformed, and not for the better.

There are lots of variations of good strength routines. A basic one looks like this:

There are 5 basic 'movements' (one doesn't involve moving): upper body push (pushup, overhead press, that sort of thing), upper body pull (row, pullup), hip hinge (deadlift, kettlebell swing), squat (squat, air squat, split squat, barbell squat, even leg press), and core stabilization (plank, crunches, planks on a bosu ball, ab wheel rollouts).

If you don't have time for a dedicated block of strength training, pick exercises in each of these movements and fit them in wherever you can. Do pushups when you wake up. Do a few air squats during your lunch break. Hang a chin-up bar by your bathroom and do a couple of reps every time you go into it.

If you do have time for dedicated strength workouts (say, at least 20 minutes at a time, but not more than 40), here's a simple starter program.

Pick one exercise for each of those 5 basic movements that you can do in your facility (gym, your house, wherever you are working out) with the equipment you have (even if that's just your body and the earth's gravity, you can manage, although a few cheap items will make life much easier, like a chin-up bar). Make sure each exercise is hard enough that you can do at least 8 reps but no more than 15 or so (let's be fair, if you can do 6 or 20, it's not a tragedy, just adjust your set numbers accordingly).

Do 4-6 sets of each exercise. I like to do these in circuits - one push set, one pull set, one hip hinge set, etc. so I do 5 different exercises, then rest a couple of minutes, then do them again, repeating the whole cycle 5 times (give or take). You can do 4 sets of push, then 4 sets of pull, and so forth if you prefer. If you do these quickly you can get a HIIT effect - but you can't get something for nothing. If your strength training is taxing your cardio to the point that it counts as HIIT, then it isn't going to be AS good as strength training. So with limited time and energy, that might be a good compromise, but you'll get better results separating the two.

Repeat this workout twice a week. If you're a beginner, stick with the same exercises. Once you've gotten good at them, you can swap out the exercises every workout. Do pushup for your press one workout, then overhead kettlebell presses the next time instead.

Do fewer reps each set than you can. So if you can do a press 12 times, but can't get 13, then your work sets should be around 10 reps, not 12.

Try to do do some exercises with just one limb - presses with one arm, one legged squats, stuff like that. Otherwise you risk letting your dominant side get much stronger than your weaker side, and you lose the ability to stabilize asymmetrical loads.

If you want to add muscle, make sure your reps are in the higher range (10-15) or do more sets. Volume leads to hypertrophy.

Do every rep as fast as you can without hurting yourself. Some exercises are 'grinding' exercises - they are slow and take a ton of effort, while some are more explosive. If you can, rotate between those two. For example, I might do one arm pushups (which is a grinding, slow exercise for me, and which I can only do for a few reps), then the next workout do regular pushups - but do more of them, and do them really fast, perhaps with a clap or something in there. Ditto for squats - I'll do one legged squats, which I have to grind out, and alternate the next workout with squat kicks (squat down on two legs, throw a front kick as you explode up to a standing position).

Do this workout twice a week.

3. Specialize

If you're training in karate two hours a week, adding in specific HIIT workouts a couple times a week, and strength training twice a week, that's already lot of training.

If you still have the energy (physical and psychological) and the time and the desire to do more, you can try a few different things. You can spend more time working on your basic skills - there is really no end to that. When you do your skill training, make sure MOST of your skill training is done while you are NOT fatigued. When you're tired you get sloppy, and training sloppy technique is counterproductive.

Beyond that, you can do some periodization. spend 6 weeks of really heavy strength training - maybe pick a particular movement (say, squat) and hammer it with extra sets and reps for 4-6 weeks, while still doing the rest of your work, then hammer something else. Do some sprinting.

4. Temporary measures.

I wrote in a few places above that one shouldn't do more than a certain amount of these things. There are times, though, when you might want to push the upper limits of that training. For example, before a promotion (belt test) I might do extra HIIT sessions for a few weeks to get my endurance really high so I can survive the test.

That's fine, but you have to make sure to do those things for relatively brief periods of time (3-4 weeks), and carefully monitor yourself for overtraining. If you start to feel tired all the time, or your HRV plummets (assuming you're measuring your HRV, which is a topic for another blog post), or you're getting sick a lot, back off. The older you are and the more stress your under and the worse your diet and the worse your sleep the harder it will be for you to tolerate high volumes of training.


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Bachelor Snacking: dried fruit and nuts

One side effect with the Paleo Diet is that many people, seduced by the mantra of "only food quality matters, not quantity," can get suckered into eating too many calories for their activity level by eating certain kinds of high quality but energy dense foods. Now eating an entire jar of almonds or bag of dried blueberries in one sitting is almost certainly better for your health than eating a quart of ice cream or an entire sheet cake, but 'better' doesn't necessarily mean 'good.'

A few of the Paleo diet gurus (I don't necessarily mean 'guru' here to be disrespectful, I just mean any of the academics, doctors, or bloggers who advocate publicly for the Paleo diet) recommend against eating nuts or dried fruit, even though both things ostensibly fit the Paleo notion of what's okay to eat.

First of all, if you already have good body composition and good blood sugar regulation, congratulations, whatever you're doing is working, skip the rest of this post. Oh, and I hate you. Nothing personal.

If you're still reading I'll assume you'd like to lose some body fat or handle blood sugar better. So, should you be eating dried fruit and/or nuts?

Obviously, if you're allergic to nuts (I'm including the things we think of as nuts that aren't really, like peanuts, just to make life easier) then they're a no-go. If you aren't allergic, they still need to be restricted or avoided for a simple reason: they're a dense source of calories. I mean 'dense' here in almost the physics sense of the term - lots of calories for very little volume. It's just super easy to have a jar of nuts near you and kind of graze on them all day and wind up eating a ridiculous number of calories. Yes, those aren't empty calories, nuts are nutritious and overall probably good for you, but still too many calories.

Does that mean one shouldn't eat nuts at all? I wouldn't say that. You have to figure out if you're the kind of person who can moderate your own nut intake. Can you eat a controlled amount of them? Can you weigh out portions (or buy them in prepackaged small packs, the way Trader Joe's sells cashews in 100 calorie individual bags)?

Only you know the answer to that. If you eat nuts, you MUST measure out the portions at least every so often. Say, every month, actually weigh, on a digital scale, the serving of nuts you're eating. Maybe you're doing fine and eating a controlled amount, but if you're like me you'll find that your serving size will creep upwards, and what started as a 150 calorie snack might be a 375 calorie snack a few weeks later, and might be explaining why your six pack is looking more like a keg.

If you have the discipline to weigh and measure all your food every day, that's wonderful, but I don't think it's strictly necessary. Weigh and measure your food once in a while, to create benchmarks for yourself, and rough it the rest of the time.

So what about dried fruit?

The rules for dried fruit are similar to those for nuts, with one important caveat: most dried fruit contains a lot of added sugar.

There's some back and forth about the vilification of sugar, but let's get it straight: sugar is probably pretty bad for everybody, worse in large amounts, and isn't particularly good for anybody. Everybody should limit the amount of sugar they eat. If you love some sugary food, and eating it brings you great happiness, that might make it worth the biochemical/metabolic damage the sugar is doing to you, but make no mistake that you're making a trade.

So if you're going to eat regular storebought dried fruit, you need to acknowledge that you're getting a lot of sugar with that fruit, and it's a treat, not really part of a healthy diet.

Now if you can find unsweetened dried fruit (just check the ingredients for 'sugar' - if there isn't any, it's unsweetened) then you're back in the same boat as nuts. There's nothing inherently un-nutritious about dried fruit, except that it's a lot easier to eat too much of it than regular fruit. Most people won't eat a half dozen apples in one sitting, for example, but give me a big box of raisins or dried apricots, and it's much easier to overindulge.

To sum up: unsweetened dried fruit can be eaten regularly, but in moderation and in measured portions, because it's just too easy to eat too much of it. The same goes for nuts. Sweetened dried fruit (which is the majority of what you can buy easily) should be treated like a treat, like candy. I'm not going to say you should never eat candy or things that are bad for you, but you need to carefully weigh your desire for them against your physique or body composition goals and make a decision that you're going to be happy with.

This post was prompted by the fact that I found unsweetened dried pineapple for sale at Trader Joe's the other day. I love dried pineapple - it's one of my favorite things - but I find the unsweetened stuff quite hard to find. Dried unsweetened blueberries are also awesome, and quite difficult to find, although Bob's Red Mill  makes them (they're pricey).

Post to comments if you have other unsweetened dried fruits to suggest. Dates, grapes (raisins), apricots and figs are often sold dried and unsweetened. Berries and tropical fruits (pineapple, mangos) are usually sold with tons of added sugar.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

My Rice Chex Diet (Not Perfect, but Pretty OK)

For any given person (with all their physiological quirks) at any given time, for any given set of goals in whatever priority they are, there is a Perfect Diet. There is some perfect set of foods, eaten at some perfect set of times in some perfect amounts, that will result in the best possible result for that person, given that person's own goals (the Perfect Diet for someone trying to bring down their marathon time isn't the same as the Perfect Diet for that same person heading into a powerlifting meet isn't the same as that same person just trying to maximize their lifespan).

There are 2 funny things about the Perfect Diet:
1. Nobody knows what their Perfect Diet is. Seriously, nobody. It's a platonic ideal. Nobody knows down to the gram the absolute best meal plan for their goals every day; there simply is no way to gather that kind of information. [Note: I'm not denying that lots of people know a Really Great Diet for themselves, just that they don't know the Perfect Diet, at least not perfectly.]

2. Despite #1, many (or most) people who are at all health conscious have a pretty good idea in what direction their Perfect Diet lies. For an easy example, most of us know we should be eating less sugar, less artificial sweeteners, and more green vegetables, almost no matter what our goals are. Some people might already be eating what is the absolute best diet (the diet closest to their Perfect Diet) to their knowledge, but in my experience those people are rare.

So why don't (most of us) eat in a way that is closest to supporting our goals? {Note that the question is NOT why don't we eat our Perfect Diet - we literally can't - but why we don't at least do better]

There are many answers to this question. Sometimes we are paralyzed by knowledge - we know that to eat the best diet we know of we'd have to dramatically change our entire lifestyle. Maybe we don't love the foods that we'd have to eat, or we do love the foods we'd have to eliminate.

I am, of course, no exception to these generalizations. I know a lot about what I should be eating, Yet I do not (and never have been able to) consistently eat that way.

My son recently challenged me to get a six pack (he actually said, "Dad, I wish you had a six pack like those guys in the UFC." He's seven, I'll cut him some slack). So I redoubled my lifelong efforts to get lean, fueled as much by my own vanity as by my son's disdain for my flabby belly.

Back in serious martial arts training, I know I can't afford to just restrict calories willy nilly and maintain my performance. I also know from experience that I can't do karate well (I mean well by my standards, I never do it REALLY well) on a very low carb diet.

So I need carbs. And by carbs I mean starch: actual glucose polymers, not lots of fructose or sucrose (I can go into the chemistry of that some other time). And I can't tolerate gluten, so the easiest starch sources (bread! crackers!) are all out.

I may not know the Perfect way to get my carbs, but I do know some Pretty Damn Good ways to get them. I could eat some steamed or baked potatoes, white or sweet, each day. Bake them the day before, then cool them, then reheat and eat. Or cook up some rice in a little oil, let it rest in the frig overnight, and reheat the next day (cooked then cooled white potatoes and rice have lots of resistant starch, which is good for you... another topic for another post).

There's just one problem: I can never seem to motivate myself to stick to this process. I tried, and I kept finding myself hungry in the middle of the day, needing some carbs, with a full email box of work to do, with an empty refrigerator and no time to cook anything.

At this point, there are two ways to go: give up completely or acknowledge that you can't manage the Perfect Diet, and you also can't manage the Pretty Damn Good diet but maybe you can settle for the Fair But Not Great diet That's Still Better Than What You Were Doing. And yes, I am totally going to make a book out of that and sell the hell out of it.

My 'solution': Rice Chex. I needed some source of starch that required absolutely no preparation time, with a long shelf life (I can't be bothered to shop every 3 days) and portability (I travel a lot). And gluten free.

Rice Chex fill all those criteria. Very little sugar, not too expensive, and the best part? They're good, but not THAT good. I need my carbs to be  palatable, but if they're really tasty, I know I'll eat more than I should, and then my son can forget the six pack. But Rice Chex are right between 'meh' and 'not bad,' so I can eat them all the time but I never greedily reach for a second bowl (nor do I shudder in disgust at the first bowl).

It's pretty clear Rice Chex are not part of anybody's Perfect Diet. For one thing, they have a pretty high glycemic index. They also do not have much in the way of additional nutrition - no healthy fats, no interesting phytochemicals, no protein to speak of. But they are a cheap and easy way I can get my starch in, with 0 prep time, and support as much hard training as I want.

[In full disclosure, General Mills is not paying me a penny to endorse their cereal, nor do they even know I exist, though I'd be happy to sell out if they made me an offer.]

My point here is not that YOU should be eating Rice Chex (though they're worth considering if you're facing the same issues I am). My point is that while there is one Perfect Diet for you from a physiological sense, the Best Diet you should be on is the one you'll actually stick to. I can stick to the Rice Chex diet, whereas the Sweet Potato diet might be physiologically/chemically better for me, but I can't be bothered to actually eat that way.

Find your Best Diet You'll Actually Do. In the end, that really is your own Perfect Diet.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Dadbods and six packs

As I write these there are two funny things going on, one personal and one societal. Personally, after 3 years away from martial arts training and a moderate but significant accumulation of bodyfat,  I'm back in training and leaning out, to the point where I think I'm as lean as I've ever been, or at least close to it. And societally, the new 'big thing' is the dadbod, which is, as far as I can tell, just a catchphrase for people suddenly marveling at the fact that a chubby Leonardo DiCaprio can convince models to have sex with him despite being, well, chubby.

So as I get ever closer to my personal goal of having a visible six pack, women all over are publicly declaring their preference for men with some flab around their middles.

I'm not looking for sympathy here, my desire for a six pack has everything to do with my own vanity and very little to do with what most women find attractive. I do think that this whole 'dadbod' thing is worth of some unpacking and examination, because when I read what people are writing about it I find that most of it is somewhat misguided.

1. You never needed a six pack to find people who want to have sex with you. It took me decades to figure this out (I can be pretty stupid), but while I'm sure some women only sleep with men who have shredded abs, this is not true for the majority of women, and it's not even especially true of attractive women. There are plenty of women who prefer men with some extra bodyfat, and even more who don't particularly mind it. I think it's probably more difficult to find women who prefer men who are morbidly obese, but even those are out there. And for women, the converse is just as true: there are men who prefer women in any imaginable shape & size, and there are even more men who at least don't mind an extra few pounds.

2. A six pack, or shredded abs, isn't about health. Large amounts of excess bodyfat is unhealthy. There's tons of research showing that morbid obesity leads to all sorts of health problems. But there's really no research showing any health benefit to that last 10 or 20 pounds of fat that separate the shredded from the lean-but-not-exactly-shredded, and lots of anecdotal stories of people messing themselves up trying to bridge that gap. If you're naturally lean, great, enjoy it. If you're not, starving yourself to get those last few pounds or doing tons of cardio to get there is a vanity project, not an enhancement to your health. The stress of long term calorie deprivation or very high volumes of moderate intensity exercise can definitely have a negative impact on health.

3. Many people associate having a six pack with being an jerk. I've come across a bunch of comments written by women proclaiming their preference for the dadbod. I am somewhat skeptical - I mean, if they had a chubby boyfriend who started working out and got really lean and muscular, would they really be disappointed with that? But even if I'm wrong, and dadbod really is their aesthetic preference, many of them were saying that right along with comments like, "fit guys are so self absorbed, only talk about their diets and workouts, and make other people feel bad about their less than perfect bodies." My conclusion: many people associate being ripped with being a jerk. I strongly suspect that the real appeal of the dadbod is, in most cases, due to the underlying belief that a less fit guy is less likely to be a jerk.

Look, obviously there's nothing about having shredded abs that actually chemically turns you into a jerk. But there's also no doubt that many people with shredded abs actually are jerks (just because lots of people are jerks generally speaking), and when you add that stereotype to confirmation bias, many people wind up believing that all lean guys are jerks.

So, if you want to have a six pack, and are able to manage it healthfully, and it makes you happier, that's fantastic. But don't be a jerk. Here's a quick guide to being less of a jerk (and, fyi, I am guilty of all these things, and can be a jerk, so this is very much a case of do what I say and not what I do):

  • Talk about things other than your workouts and nutrition. Almost nobody cares.
  • Eat out with your friends. Practice self control when you eat out, but don't socially isolate yourself just because you're fit.
  • Don't body shame other people. It won't make them more likely to work out and get healthy, it will just make them think you're a jerk.
  • Every hour of every day, repeat this to yourself: "Just because my diet/workout plan/supplementation regime worked for me does NOT mean it will work for anybody else, let alone everybody else."
  • Talk about things other than your workouts and nutrition. Almost nobody cares. (This one was worth repeating, and it's true even if you do Crossfit).
4. Your bodyfat percentage does not define your moral value - either way. It is quite obvious that both sides of the anti-fat-shaming/ anti-obesity argument ascribe moral value to either being normal (eating pizza and wings, not being too dogmatic about gym attendance) or super-healthful (eating clean all the time, exercising a lot), depending on where they stand. Both sides are wrong.

To the fit snobs: not everyone is at a place in their life where they want to or even can live a very healthful lifestyle. There is more to life than being shredded - socializing is just as important as exercise to personal health. And people go through periods of time (sometimes long periods!) where other things do and should take priority - like taking care of kids, dealing with difficult work or family situations, or dealing with personal issues. So stop judging.

To the anti-fit snobs: there's nothing evil or selfish about wanting to be healthy or lean. If your friend wants to eat the celery and not the chicken wings when you go  out, how is that hurting you? If they are nagging you or being a jerk about it you have every right to be angry, but be angry at them FOR THAT behavior, not for being healthful or caring about their appearance.

There is moral value in how you treat other people. Not eating a brownie is not a sin. Being a jerk to someone who does eat a brownie might be. Eating a brownie is also not a sin, as long as the brownie eater isn't shoving it down the throat of some unwilling bystander.

[There is a tricky gray area with this last point. If you have a loved one who lives an unhealthy lifestyle and either suffers from some health complications or has a family history of it, there is a (I think) natural inclination to try to change that behavior. I'm not going to weigh in on this issue - it's complicated and outside the scope of this post. Let's just say that I'm trying to tell you not to nag your healthy friend who grabs the second slice of pizza, I'm not trying to tell you whether or not you should do something about a close relative eating a half gallon of ice cream the day they get home from cardiac bypass surgery.]

I really want a six pack. But I think I'm doing it for the right reasons - it's because I'm vain as shit, not because I think it will make women like me more or make me healthier or make me better at my job. Being leaner might help my martial arts performance, but to be honest the calorie deprivation might hurt my training just as much as the decreased body mass helps. If I ever manage to get shredded abs I'm pretty sure the only change in my life is I'll have a little smile on my face whenever my shirt comes off - and that nobody will care about that but me. And if you're not vain as shit, and don't care about your abdominal definition? Then don't pursue it! And please eat a chicken wing for me!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Back to the Grindstone

I recently got back into regular training for the first time in 3 years. I've blogged before about my reasons for not training, and about what to do when you can't really train fully, but I've finally reached a point in my life where I can do some minimal training and actually go to classes once in a while.

If you're keeping track (and there is no reason you should be), I started training in Seido Karate in the fall of 1988 (probably September). It is now May of 2015. That makes about 26.5 years elapsed since I first started training.

In that 26.5 years I've taken off - and I'm not counting a week or two away, I mean blocks of time longer than a few months - at least 16 years (maybe as much as 18, I don't have dates for all of it).

So I've trained regularly for about 10 years, despite starting almost three decades ago.

Coming back to karate training after a break provides some massively inspirational moments and some massively depressing ones.

First of all, I always forget how wonderful the social aspect of karate training is. Seeing and reacquainting myself with old friends is a large part of what's great about returning.

There are, however, multiple traps you have to avoid if you want to enjoy returning to training after a long absence.

You have to avoid the trap of comparing yourself to those who stayed. If you dwell on how much better everybody else has gotten, and how much you've lost (or at least stagnated), then you won't enjoy the training. This is a constant battle for me. It's nice to see others succeed, but it's a little difficult to see people I used to teach who have progressed far beyond me.

You have to avoid the trap of comparing yourself to the you-who-would-have-been. I'm not particularly good at karate, talent wise, but I'd probably be a lot more skilled if I'd managed to train regularly for the last 26.5 years. If I compare where I am to where I might have been it's a little depressing.

The last trap is trying to do too much too soon. Going from couch surfing to six day a week training will wreck you, especially if you're older or not particularly athletic. Take days off and get back into training gradually - if you're doing things right you'll have the rest of your life to train, and a couple days off every week won't make any difference in three months or three years. There are tools now to help you manage your workload - like Heart Rate Variability tests - that I'll try to discuss in a future post.

The last point I wanted to make is a confirmation of things I've said before: the most important thing to maintain during times when you can't do much training is strength. I didn't do a ton of cardio or flexibility training in the last three years, but what I did was keep up my strength training. And now that I've been back at regular training for two months, my technique is very close to where it was before, and my endurance is catching up fast.

First of all, you can maintain strength levels without taking a lot of time. Keeping strength will not take multiple hours a week - you can do a lot to keep your strength with, say, two half hour workouts a week, which is within what most people can manage. Compare that to the time it takes to keep up peak endurance - much different.

Second of all, strength takes longer to come back. Building lost muscle tissue just takes a long time. Re-acquiring skills (nervous system adaptions) are much faster, and the adaptions needed to rebuild endurance are also fast.

So if you don't have time to train, at least keep up your strength work. When you do come back, expect to be less skilled than you were, and expect to be behind your former peers in skill. But even if you can't catch or pass those who started training with you, you can definitely be better - far better - than if you just spend the rest of your life riding that couch.

And if you have to spar with me, please take it easy on this old man who can't seem to manage a life that keeps him in the dojo.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Neurological fatigue, stress, and high intensity training

I've had a very stressful few years.

I'm not looking for sympathy - far from it - but it's important context for what I'm writing about. I've gotten divorced, started new relationships, gotten engaged, switched careers, and been splitting my time between 2 or 3 locations with 4+ hours driving between them, switching at least every other week. I'm also getting a bit long in the tooth (44!)

Now I've never been particularly athletic in any way, but I've always been able and willing to work pretty hard in various athletic pursuits. That's what I love about martial arts - there is such a systematic and well developed skill set that hard work can achieve so much to level the playing field against better athletes (compare that to, for example, sprinting, where technique means a lot but the best technician who is predominantly slow twitch still won't run nearly as fast as an untrained but very athletic person).

So I'm the guy who's happy to go somewhere and work on something until I've soaked through all my clothes and hit a new pr in whatever I'm doing, five days a week, week in and week out. [Please note that I'm not claiming to be one of the hardest working people out there, just that I'm not below average.]

But over these last few years I've found my ability to push the envelope in my workouts is diminishing.

It's not that my work capacity has gone down or that my ability to push hard has gone down, but I find now that when I push really, really hard, especially if I do it repeatedly (as in, several times a week for several weeks), I get wrecked.

Not wrecked physically - wrecked psychologically.

I had all the signs of being overstressed - noticeably increased anxiety, difficulty focusing, irritability, etc. My workouts were short, but their impact on me was preventing me from living the rest of my life.

The solution?

I started to mail it in when I worked out. I didn't get this idea all by myself - Dan John has been a big influence - but it's the first time in my life I've deliberately taken it easy when exercising.

That sounds crazy, but it works better than you'd think. Suppose I could do 12 reps with an exercise - instead I'd stop at 6 or 7, but do many more sets, with plenty of rest in between. My rule was simple: if I had to get myself psyched up to do something, I didn't do it. I only attempted efforts that I could knock out with little to no real preparation, and nothing that left me shaken afterwards.

Four things:

First, 2 sets of 6 reps of an exercise is much, much less mental stress than 1 set of 12, assuming 12 is pretty close to a max effort for you.

Second, 2 sets of 6 reps (with a load you could handle 12 times) will do a lot more to maintain your strength and fitness than you think - and certainly much more than doing nothing.

Third, keeping all your reps sub-maximal in effort makes it a lot easier to concentrate on proper technique - none of the reps are ever sloppy.

Four, if you're overstressed by life and your workouts, your health and fitness will suffer. Reducing the stress might actually end up leaving you MORE fit than you were when you worked harder. This is doubly true if you're trying to lose bodyfat - being very stressed (high cortisol) can cripple that effort, while easing off some on your workout intensity might leave you leaner than when you were killing yourself in the gym.

I've long been a huge proponent of higher intensity training - and I still hold to that. I still think that you're better off doing light intervals (say, 10s work/ 20 s rest with with something that gets your heart rate nice and high) over a slow, steady jog for the same overall timespan (more on this in a future post).

But if you're in a position where those high intensity killer workouts are killing you, keep the same style of effort (peaks and valleys of effort) but back off on the intensity.

There are certainly days when I push it much harder than others - days when I go for 12 reps at once. But I don't even try to do that every day.

If my life gets any easier, I might go back to regular balls to the wall training. I enjoy doing that. If I do, I'll write about my experiences. But for now I'll be doing much more moderate work, more frequently, and seeing just how fit I can get using that modality.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Pain, the nocebo effect, and good instruction

I just listened to a very interesting podcast here. I'm not a huge fan of Jon Fass as a fitness expert (he seems like a perfectly lovely person, I just have intellectual qualms about his stuff generally), for reasons not worth addressing here unless someone asks in comments, but he is pretty knowledgeable about some things and what he said about pain jives well with things I already knew.

The podcast is worth listening to, but I can summarize the key points:

  1. Pain is not as simple as: damage to the body ==> pain. For example, some people have back pain. Some of them, when examined with MRI's, have damage to parts of their spines (herniated discs, fractured vertebrae, etc.) It is easy to assume that the damage causes the pain. But when people who have no pain are picked off the street randomly and tested they often show very similar damage - but no pain at all.
  2. Pain is profoundly influenced by expectations and psychology (which is not the same as saying it's 'all in your head'). Take the placebo effect. Give someone a sugar pill but tell them it's a painkiller and they will often feel better - the pain goes away. Similarly, there is a nocebo effect - give someone a treatment that they think might have side effects and they might experience pain even if you're not actually doing anything to them.
  3. In short, a person's beliefs and expectations can influence whether or not they experience pain from a particular physical situation. There are probably physical states that are always painful (broken leg?) and some that are never painful, but there is a much wider range in the middle that might go either way.
None of which is to say you should ignore pain or encourage your students to do so (in the context that I think we all understand that there is a difference between the temporary, normal, and mild pain of muscular exertion and the pain of injury). Pain is often a real and important indicator of mechanical injury. Unless you're an orthopedist, if a student of yours is in injury-type pain I wouldn't suggest you do anything other than refer them to a physician.

But you should also understand that certain beliefs might make your students more likely to experience pain. And as an instructor or a fellow student, your words can have a profound impact on other people's beliefs and expectations.

Let me give a quick example. I played (American) football (poorly, but I was on the team) in high school. Everyone was hyper-aware of the risk of knee injury, and it was thought by most of us that almost all hard training was likely to cause long term knee damage. We all told each other this, and all believed it. We took it in stride (and some misguided pride) that playing football would give us all 'bad knees' eventually. 

So my knees hurt. By my junior year I had constant low grade pain in my knees. Then I stopped practicing (my career ended), and the knee pain dissipated.

Did I have damage to my knees that healed? Was there some physical, mechanical abnormality in my knees in high school that went away? Perhaps. But I often did more and harder training (albeit of slightly different kinds) in later years and never had even a tiny amount of pain at any other point in my life, up to and including now. I have also never done any training since then that I believed would cause knee pain.

I'm pretty sure my expectations of getting 'bad knees' led to my knee pain in high school. It's hard to imagine another explanation for a pain that simply went away, without any intervention, never to return, even as I aged and did a lot of hard training later in life. 

What is the point? If a student comes to you with a sharp pain, take it seriously. I would never suggest otherwise. HOWEVER there are things you can do during training that might prevent the pain from ever occurring.

When you teach proper form, it is (I think?) only natural to suggest to people that doing things incorrectly can lead to injury. Locking joints while striking, letting knees cave inwards in stances, etc. all put the body in compromising positions that can lead to injury.

The problem is that telling your students this makes it more likely that they'll experience those injuries (by the nocebo effect). Obviously, the right solution is NOT to avoid teaching proper form. But when teaching proper form, emphasize the non-injury-related aspects of that form. Teach your students to use proper alignment because it's more efficient, takes less energy, increases accuracy, or increases power. Or even because it looks better.

You should continue to demand that your students constantly improve their technical abilities, but you should probably emphasize all the reasons for this without talking about how it will make them less likely to get hurt. Because if you do, then when they realize their form isn't absolutely perfect (because almost nobody has perfect form), they might believe that their technique is hurting them - and that belief itself makes it more likely that it will.

Once again: Don't lie to your students. Don't ignore a student in pain or suggest that they ignore pain. Do teach proper movement to minimize the chances that your students get hurt. Do emphasize all the reasons for that proper movement EXCEPT the fact that it will minimize their risk of injury.