Monday, August 31, 2009

I've never liked running....

I've never been a fan of long distance running*, but it's about as evolutionary an activity as you can choose for exercise. It's interesting to think that a million years ago, some human was running across the steppe, endurance hunting an animal. I, on the other hand, spend my running days in a constant battle with myself. As soon as I start running hard, my inner voice starts asking me what the hell I'm doing. Why don't you just stop? It'll feel so much better. Are you a masochist? Maybe you're tired today. You can do it next time. Well, putting it off till next time is a cop-out, and running is actually a decent metric for aerobic improvement.

So, after finishing my strength circuit today, I decided to run a time-trial mile on the treadmill (always at 1% incline, to best simulate running outside). I cut 45 seconds off my previous fastest mile, run last summer in a gym in Tokyo. I felt like I was going to die at the end. But I guess the training is starting to pay off.

*Sprinting, on the other hand, I find incredibly interesting. Expending a maximum amount of energy in 10-20 seconds to traverse the land as fast as humanly possible is just so uber cool. Still waiting for my stopwatch from Amazon, which means the sprinting trials will have to wait till after my vacation. Anyone successfully stay in shape while on a two-week vacation?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Aerobic Plateau

Well, had to happen sooner or later. Seems I've run full-speed into a plateau with my intervals. The last two times I've attempted my new interval workout, I've gotten stitches and had to modify the workout (either by decreasing intensity, or increasing recovery time, or both) to finish. I hate stitches!

Inspired by "Six Sessions of Sprint Interval Training Increases Muscle Oxidative Potential and Cycle Endurance Capacity in Humans", I've decided that instead of trying to stubbornly push through the same workout until I complete it (which will be both frustrating and potentially demoralizing), I'm going to switch it up. I've realized that my "sprints" in my intervals are not sprints at all. The reason I reach "failure" in my interval workouts is because I have extremely short recovery times (about 45 sec), and my recoveries are still at a reasonable pace (5 - 5.5 mph). So, for the next two weeks, I'm doing faster sprints with longer recoveries. I wish I could get out on a track, but I'll see if I can accomplish this on a treadmill, and may even throw in some cycling sprints for good measure. Then, three weeks from now, I'll attempt the same workout from today that I died during. According to the paper, I'll be good to go.

Stay tuned. =)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Heart rate improvements so far

It's been extremely rewarding to see improvements in my heart rate from my exercise routine that I posted about last week. Aerobic fitness was one of the main things I wanted to improve, so seeing large gains in both max capacity and general cardio fitness has been great. Some examples:

- Today I did a strength training circuit day, and because there was no clock with a second hand (and I don't wear a watch), I used the treadmill between supersets to time my minute recoveries. I noticed that even after intense exertions during the supersets, my heart rate was dropping to 110-120 beats per minute within 30 seconds. I honestly thought the heart rate monitor was faulty until I verified the measurement by taking my own pulse. Recovery time is a major metric for cardio fitness, and this was both surprising and very welcome.

- Ability to maintain a low heart rate during moderate exercise. The best example of this has been with biking, where I can go for an hour on the exercise bike at a decent resistance and clip and keep my heart rate down safely in Zone 2. Back when I used to train haphazardly, I was never able to get anywhere near this level. During these rides, I visualize my heart as an engine, and try to maintain a steady power output while "greasing" the engine with blood (internally) and sweat (externally). Call me crazy, but the visualizations make the workout much more enjoyable - I'm building a stronger, more powerful engine for my body!

- Running: While there is still really no such thing as Zone 2 running for me (I'd have to be going so slowly that I could probably walk just as fast), my low-speed jogging heart rate has steadily been going down, and is now just in Zone 3. One day I hope it will be in Zone 2, but since I have no desire to do long-distance running, it's really just a fitness measure for me.

Unfortunately, I haven't seen wonderful improvements in resting heart rate. I can tell how hard I worked out by my post-workout heart rate as well as my resting heart rate the next day, but I've only been able to knock off about 4 beats per minute, and even that is based on sketchy data. I want to drop my resting heart rate to 50 bpm. I'm nowhere close =P.

Another area where I've seen improvements is in avoiding running stitches. I suffered one during my treadmill intervals yesterday, but I was able to mitigate and finish the intervals by dropping the intensity down to my previous workout's intensity for the last half, and walking for two minutes following the final interval. I'm convinced I get stitches by venturing into anaerobic territory for too long, so presumably, the fitter I get, the harder it will be to get a stitch.

Life goal: Run a 6 minute mile, and a 20 minute 5k. Haven't tested either of these, but based on my interval speeds, I'd imagine I'm a long way away. =)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Healthcare: How much does that test cost?

I recently had some blood tests ordered by a doctor. She sent me across the street to the "lab" to have blood drawn and sent off. But before they took the blood, I was curious how much the tests were going to cost me. Here is a slightly paraphrased version of the inane conversation I had:

Me: "Will my insurance cover this?"
Phlebotomist/Receptionist: "I don't know."
Me: "Umm.... Could you check please?"
Phlebotomist/Receptionist: "Well, I won't know if it's covered until I send it off to the insurance company."
Me: "Okay. Could you call them and ask?"
Phlebotomist/Receptionist: "No."
Me: (trying to get an upper bound) "Uhh.... Okay. How much would they cost out of pocket?"
Phlebotomist/Receptionist: "I don't know. We'll see when the insurance company gets back to me."
Me: "So you're saying that I might have to pay an infinite amount of money out of pocket for these blood tests?"
Phlebotomist/Receptionist: "Well, no, some of it is probably covered."

I eventually got her to go through her papers and find the actual cost of the blood tests so I could determine an upper bound on what I'd have to pay.

The moral of the story is that it's extremely unclear how much medical procedures cost in America (and even more unclear what your insurance company is going to cover, which you often don't know until after you've already had the procedure done and incurred the liability for the expense). The fact that it takes so much trouble and effort to figure out how much you've paid for healthcare is one of the reasons why healthcare sucks so much in this country. If it were easy to see how much things cost before you had them done, with a comparison chart for how much that same test/procedure costs in other practices, hospitals, states, and even countries, then maybe we'd be a bit more adamant about demanding cheaper health care. This data, in addition to the comparative outcomes data that Orszag is pushing, seem to be prerequisites for any meaningful reforms.

Addendum: The receptionist, after prodding, said the maximum I would possibly pay was about $228, which was the cost of the tests. I just got the statements from my insurance company. The tests came to over $700, of which I had to pay about $100 or so. Basically, the incentive here is for the lab to maximize what they can get from the insurance company. The end result is that the lab company makes a fortune, the doctor who prescribes the tests probably also gets paid a lot, the consumer (me) has to pay way more than necessary, and the cost to the health care system as a whole is ginormous.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

My exercise routine

Some people have asked me about my exercise routine, so I decided to post it. First, this is not a routine from a book or infomercial - I developed it myself after deciding my goals and reading up on fitness and exercise science. I'm constantly adjusting it, and still trying to figure out what works best. This probably is not for you, and besides: Don't take health advice from engineers.

Now that that's all said and done, let's start with the goals. I wanted to create an exercise program that would improve total body fitness. Specifically, I wanted to get stronger (but not focusing on hypertrophy), more powerful, and most importantly, more aerobically fit, as I felt that was my weakest point.

The problem is that strength and cardio fitness seem to be at nearly complete odds with one another. Every see how gaunt marathon runners are? Have you ever seen a bodybuilder ride the Tour de France? I noticed this quickly myself in terms of mixing workouts: if I did a hard leg strength day, then my legs hurt too much to run or bike the next day. And conversely, if I did a long cardio day, my legs felt like rubber and couldn't do strength or power the next day.

In any case, here is my current program, after 5 weeks of tweaking:
Sunday: Long, low-intensity cardio (e.g., two hour zone 2 bike ride).
Monday: Rest or yoga.
Tuesday: Strength circuits.
Wednesday: Running intervals on the treadmill.
Thursday: Low-intensity recovery cardio (e.g., one hour zone 2 bike ride)
Friday: Strength circuits.
Saturday: Rest day.

So far, this routine creates the best balance of strength and cardio training for me. Wednesday and Friday are the toughest days, mainly because running intervals are my VO2max training, in addition to following a strength day which almost always has leg exercises. And Friday is the fourth workout in a row, but I'm willing to push hard because I know Saturday is a rest day.

The two "zone 2" bike rides are my attempt to build an aerobic "base", and are probably also good for lactic acid threshold training. I usually keep my heart rate between 125 and 140 for these days. Sometimes I get bored and push hard (160-170) for 15 minutes or so.

I've chosen a circuit-based strength workout that usually consists of three different supersets (two different exercises), three sets each, resting 60 seconds between rounds. I try to focus on larger muscle groups, and since I only do strength twice a week, I try to hit all the major muscle groups each time. I do a different workout Tuesday and Friday, and try to swap in at least half new exercises every week. The circuit aspect and short rests mean that these are tough cardio workouts, too. For warmup and cooldown, I do very low-intensity cardio, usually 10 minutes each.

About half the days I use foam rollers after I finish, and I've noticed that this speeds recovery, especially for iliotibial and quad soreness.

Since beginning this program, I've noticed dramatic improvements in my aerobic capacity. This is noticeable on the intervals, which have been improving every week (I also have to work harder to get a stitch, which confirms my belief that I used to get them from overworking), as well as on the low-intensity bike rides, where I can pedal at a much higher RPM and resistance than before, while my heart rate remains in the proper zone.

I've also noticed strength improvements each week, and in general my fitness is much better and my daily energy level is much higher.

Some downsides:
- In order to really build strength, I feel like I need a third day each week. Not enough time.
- One high intensity cardio day per week also feels lacking. But there's nowhere that another one would fit, unless I pile two workouts per day.
- Long cardio day basically takes an entire afternoon, and the repetitive nature of it is conducive to injury.
- This is a pretty intense workout schedule. Definitely worried about burnout, but I'm trying to listen to my body. If I notice that I'm regressing, I'll add in more rest.

Anyway, there it is. If anyone has suggestions to improve this workout plan, please let me know!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Eat slowly and live longer

Ever since I was a kid, I was taught to eat fast. In high school, I got home from high school gymnastics practice at 5, and had to leave for club gymnastics practice at 5:30, leaving half an hour to scarf down some food, do some homework, watch 15 minutes of news, etc. It was a terrible habit, but I never thought much of it until recently, when I started reading a lot about nutrition. I've now decided that eating slowly is vital to an overall approach to good health. Which is why today I present the top five reasons why eating slowly will help you live longer and healthier.

1) You'll eat less.
According to something I once read somewhere, it takes about 20 minutes after you start eating for your "fullness" sensors to work properly. That means that if you finish eating in less than 20 minutes, you have no way of knowing if you ate too much. Ever get super full after the fact? Yeah, that's it. Eat slowly, and listen to your body, not outside cues like the TV or your 1pm meeting. Your body will tell you when you've had enough.

2) You'll have less stress.
Some people think that the "French paradox" (they smoke, drink a lot of wine, eat a lot of triple cream high-fat awesome foods, yet they're thin and have healthy hearts) can be partially explained by how they eat: slowly, around a table, enjoying the experience of a leisurely meal. When you're stressed, your body releases corticosteroids into your bloodstream. These stress hormones do a whole lot of no good to your body, including increasing your appetite (i.e., making you eat more), and increasing blood glucose levels (which, if chronic, can lead to diabetes). Eating slowly promotes less of a stress response during your meal. So relax and enjoy your food.

3) Eating slowly promotes thorough chewing.
One day in college, I did an experiment with a close friend. I asked them to chew some pasta and count the number of chews before swallowing. I did the same. I think I lost 17-3. I didn't realize at the time, but that was another terrible eating habit I had. I now realize that chewing thoroughly is vital to your digestive health. For one thing, it is less taxing on your stomach and intestines, since chewing thoroughly means your stomach and intestines can concentrate on absorbing nutrients instead of first breaking the food down. My guess is that your stomach will produce less acid too (ulcers or heartburn, anyone?). It's really difficult to eat fast and simultaneously thoroughly chew your food. So slow down and chomp down a few more times.

4) Eating slowly causes less of a glycemic response.
I haven't researched this one, but it seems to make sense - if you spread the food that you're eating over a longer period of time, it should cause a less severe spike in your blood glucose levels. These spikes are known to be bad for your health. Also, since you'll probably eat less food if you eat slower, the spike will be even smaller. Double win.

5) Eating slowly can be good for your brain.
Whoa whoa, hold on a second. Where'd this one come from? Well, eating slowly allows you to enjoy your food and all the amazing sensations contained therein: colors, textures, smells, flavors, even sounds. Exposing your senses to new experiences has been known to stimulate the brain and keep it healthy as you age. And focusing your attention, or mindfulness, on the sensations associated with your food can be meditative. Eating slowly also allows you to take a break from the stresses of the day, which can both boost productivity and promote greater creativity.

So there you have it, folks. Five reasons why eating slowly is good for your health. On the downside, I am now the slowest eater in my family and on my team by far. But at least I'm enjoying my food!

Eat slowly, live longer.

Disclaimer: Don't take nutrition advice from engineers.

Edit: After writing this post, I googled "eating slowly", and the first result was this other post titled "5 Powerful Reasons to Eat Slower". Credit where credit is due! I really didn't read that post until after writing this one, though. Looks like they share some of the same thoughts. Guess I'm not crazy after all. =)