Sunday, December 29, 2013

Follow Up To My Health Upgrade

It finally happened - I got a cold.  For the first time since I drastically reengineered my health half a year ago, I found myself coming down with something. Since temporary setbacks are often a good time to judge your progress, I decided to take this opportunity to write an update on my personal journey through health and fitness reinvigoration.

Last time, I wrote about how low-intensity aerobic training had completely upgraded my health. My sleep schedule normalized, my digestive issues completely disappeared, my energy and mood both skyrocketed, and I generally felt "good" for the first time in my life. Since then, I've realized just how drastic a change I've actually made, but the real eye-opener is that I had never seriously considered that there was anything wrong with me - although my baseline was shitty, I never knew anything else, so I just wrongly assumed I was normal. Well, there is nothing normal about getting cold after cold in the winter, having one slowly improve but never quite disappear, only to tail right into the next one. For as long as I can remember, every single year I would come down with an upper respiratory infection that would last at least a month. This made training (gymnastics) difficult, because you're constantly coughing and can't get enough air. This literally happened every single winter, and I stupidly assumed that I was just susceptible to bronchitis/URIs (which I was), and there was nothing I could do about it. In retrospect, that seems completely ridiculous. Young, "healthy" people should not be sick for over a month every winter!

So back to that cold. After three weeks of round-the-world travel, consistently less than ideal food choices, holiday stress, sleep deprivation, and a ton of baby visits, I woke up jetlaggedly early last Friday on a fine San Francisco morning and decided to go out for a run. I ended up running a little over ten miles, from SoMa to Sausalito. That was my longest run ever, and I followed it up later that day by seeing a few different groups of friends, drinking plentifully with each group. The next morning, I woke up a bit congested. I met a friend at the gym, got a quick workout in, and noticed that the congestion wasn't going away. The next day, I was still feeling kinda congested, and only got a couple hours of sleep in due to more visits and an early flight the following day. I woke up that morning, finally decided I had a cold, and was lucky enough to treat myself to 14 hours of unadulterated luxury flying across the Pacific in United Economy while listening to a small child across the aisle scream incessantly throughout the entire flight.

Now, I know some might disagree that I actually had a cold, but that morning of the flight I know that's what it was based on how I felt. Except in contrast to every single cold I've ever gotten previously in my life, my immune system fought this one off like a friggin' champ. I never got sluggish. I never "felt like shit". No sore throat, which accompanies most of my colds. I never had a cough, or anything even approaching an upper respiratory infection. Heck, I even started feeling better on the flight! For the first time in my life, a cold left me with zero downtime and really not very much unpleasantness. Sure, it's possible that I coincidentally caught a really light cold for the first time ever, but it's also possible that coincidentally my health just magically got better at the same time I changed my diet and exercise. That's the problem with anecdotal stories like mine - they're experiments of one, and it's impossible to rule out chance.

In any case, I can now visualize the strength of my immune system pretty well. I think of it like a gauge, where 100% is "fully healthy", and 0% is "completely broken and sick". The stresses that you place on your body deplete your immune system and bring the gauge down. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, if it's "good" stress - in fact, stress is necessary to get stronger, as long as you give your body time to recover. So when I lift heavy things, that's good stress. When I drink too much alcohol, that's also stress, albeit bad stress. When I'm stressed, that's additional stress on the immune system. Sleep deprivation - more stress. All these things make the bar go down. But now, since I have a normal immune system, the bar fills back up quickly. Eating good foods fills it up even quicker (I specifically go for lots of vegetables, and bone-based soups such as seolleongtang, galbitang, samgyetang). Getting quality sleep fills it right back up. Basking in the sun tops it off. And another thing I never expected - the low-intensity aerobic exercise that I focus on (with heart rate down in the 180-age range) seems to be rejuvenating for me. It's healing. And if I don't get enough of it, I don't feel quite right.

In case you're interested in fitness specifics, last month I ran my first 10K ever. Before the race, I had done less than an hour total of "speed work". I don't mean in the week prior - I mean since I started doing low-intensity running six months ago. About two weeks prior to the race I did two minutes fast, eight minutes "aerobic" intervals for an hour or so, and then the Monday of race week I did five minutes fast/five minutes "aerobic pace" intervals for about 8K. That's it. I knew my approximate "fast" pace from the fast intervals, and thus set my goal time at 50 minutes, despite having no idea if I could actually maintain the pace for that long. I ended up finishing the race in 48:58, which I was incredibly happy with. For point of reference, in April I ran about 5K in San Francisco during a training run (pre-Maffetone) in about 31 minutes, and I felt like crap and ended with an awful stitch in my side. The improvement from that to a sub-8 minute mile pace for 10K in such a short amount of time is pretty mind-blowing to me. I'll take it.

Back in that original post, I stated that I thought my cardio capacity was "somewhere near average". Now I am quite certain that it is well above average. This is evident not just from the race, but from the way I feel in general. I feel exactly like how people who live at altitude describe going down to sea level: it feels like I have more oxygen at all times, and that it takes less oxygen to do everything. I'm certainly not running up mountains yet, but I can at least imagine it now. And contrary to conventional wisdom, my muscles didn't "melt away" from focusing on cardio - in fact, all of my lifts are currently at new maxes, despite barely lifting for the first four months of the new training (I was doing one day a week of light maintenance work), and losing weight from when the previous maxes were set. Improved cardio makes lifting easier, because I recover faster both in the gym between sets and also in the regular post-workout recovery period. Everything works better this way.

In general, though, one of the best changes that has come with my improved health has been a much greater body awareness. As I've gotten healthier, I've gotten more sensitive to how my body feels, what state of recovery it's in, how different foods affect it (e.g., the Standard American Diet makes me feel awful and lethargic, and after two weeks in the States, my mile pace had slowed nearly a minute per mile at my aerobic heart rate) and so on. All of which begs the most important point - health is an individual initiative, and works differently for everyone. Too much of health and fitness advice tries to give people a "routine" to follow, and they feel that as long as they follow it to the letter, they'll get results. But it doesn't work like that. There is no getting around the fact that you need to listen to your body, and you need to listen closely. I now have a much better sense of when I'm headed towards overtraining, and as soon as I am, I pull back and simply rest. And I feel no guilt at all, because since I am finally healthy, I know that my body will recover and come back stronger than it was before. Whereas before, I knew that there would be a very long asymptotic return to baseline, perhaps never reaching it.

So, where to go from here? On the health side, I'm going to keep pushing my body with lots of low-intensity cardio, but augmented with more heavy lifts and sprints once the weather warms up. There are also a multitude of literal mountains I can't wait to climb, because I know I have the energy and fitness to easily do so. This health change has been one of the most important things I learned this year, and it has been an amazing adventure combing through the research and discovering how connected so many modern health problems are. It's incredible to me how short-sighted the traditional view of health is, when in reality it's holistic and based on the complex interactions of huge systems. Now I'm left wondering how long it will take to undo the effects of three decades of poor health. Whatever the case, I'm certainly not going back to the old life, cause the new one just feels too damn good.

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