Thursday, January 16, 2014

Follow Up To Health Upgrade, Part 2

More stuff about becoming an aerobic beast that didn't fit in the last post.

First, a few people have asked me how much cardio I actually do. The answer might surprise you: on average, I've been doing between 2.5 and 3.5 hours of low-intensity cardio per week. That's it, and that's all it took to see the massive benefits. That's not a lot, people. I'd like to get that up to around 5 hours per week (I don't think 5 hours is necessary for health - I just want to see if my aerobic pace will improve), but it's tough to do that along with the lifting I do.

However, I do walk a ton. I live in a large city, and I love walking. My gym is a 15 minute walk away from where I live, and the nearest subway stations to me are 7 and 10 minutes away. So along with the targeted cardio, the constant movement also needs to be taken into account when analyzing your own fitness regimen. That being said, I was walking a ton before I got healthy, so while I'd say constant movement is necessary, it's not sufficient. And it's certainly lacking in the West, where we drive between parking spots that are 100 ft apart.

Another important point for me is that I use minimalist shoes (specifically, Merrell Trail Gloves, which I absolutely love). At one point a few months ago, I considered buying more padded shoes so that I could run more, but then I realized that that would completely negate the whole "better body awareness" that I mentioned in the last post. I decided that the signal of "my feet and lower legs are starting to hurt" that comes at the end of a run is actually a fantastic signal; it means that it's time to stop running. And again, since I'm healthy now and giving my body enough time to recover, the distance that I'm able to run before my feet/legs start hurting has been slowly increasing over time. Although I have no desire to run a marathon, at my current rate of progress, in about a year I should be able to healthily run a marathon in minimalist shoes.

About the minimalist shoes - I've been on the barefoot bandwagon for quite awhile (about six years), but it didn't "work" until this time around. When I first lived abroad, for four months in Tokyo in 2007, I walked around in a pair of fairly unpadded shoes. It was my first time walking a lot on a daily basis, and man did my feet hurt. Part of that was surely the newness of it all, but I think another part had to do with my health. Since I wasn't healthy at the time, my body was not reacting to stresses in as positive a way as it is now. Basically, my feet just hurt all the time. Also, when I started running again this time, after very quickly developing some Achilles pain (along with constantly sore calves), I discovered that my running gait sucked. If you're gonna go barefoot/minimalist, be very very careful, and learn how to run properly. I focus on trying to be as light as possible when I'm running, and the forefoot/midfoot strike basically guarantees me an ideal gait of 170-180 steps per minute without thinking about it. My main technique problem was not letting my heels come down to the ground naturally, and that's what caused the Achilles issues. If you're running on your toes, or you hear pounding when you're on the treadmill, you are most certainly doing it wrong.

Another fascinating change I've seen is that teaching my body to run has changed my perspective on the world that we live in. I like to think of it in terms of scale. Previously, when I was aerobically unhealthy, the scale of the world that I could thrive in was small. I could run a couple miles if I wanted or needed to, but it was fueled mostly by anaerobic energy (i.e., carbohydrates) and required immediate refueling and rehydration. Also, I was scared to death of the sun. As such, my world was small.

In contrast, one of the most enlightening things in the Kilian Jornet NY Times spread was about how he can run for hours and hours in the mountains without breakfast or even water during the run. No way, I thought. Impossible. Yet the fitter I've become, the more I understand. That 10 mile run I did in San Francisco a few weeks ago was done fasted (~14 hrs), and I didn't have any water with me on the run. Yet when I finished, I felt ... fine. A bit hungry, sure, but not lightheaded. Mouth was a bit dry at the end, possibly from the salty sea spray while crossing the Golden Gate, but I barely sweated on the run, despite being out there for nearly two hours. Essentially, if my feet weren't sore, I felt like I had plenty of energy to run right back if I really needed to.

In other words, I realized that the scale of the world I could thrive in had grown by at least a factor of ten. In less than two hours, with no food or water, I had crossed a distance which half a year ago would have been nearly beyond imagination without a car. The City by the Bay suddenly seemed a heck of a lot smaller. A similar thing happened in Seoul - if I could run between two distant subway stations on opposite sides of the city, then the whole city seemed way more manageable. What's 45 minutes end-to-end via subway if I could do the same thing in 75 minutes on foot? I started "collecting" the bridges crossing the Han, and am increasingly enthralled by the massive urban structures I run under, over, and through. This modern world of ours was not made to be traversed on foot, but if you can, it feels like you can conquer it.

Finally, the fitter I become, the more in tune with nature I feel, and the more I welcome "positive stresses" in my everyday life. For instance, cold doesn't bother me nearly as much as it used to. Not only can I endure it, but I can thrive in it. I find myself seeking out small stresses, knowing that I'll come out stronger on the other side. The scientific term for this is hormesis, and it's the basis for everything from building muscles to dealing with cold temperatures to winning a battle of the wits. But again, and this is super important - you need to start from a position of decent health in order to level up via positive stresses. If your body is always on the verge of breaking down or getting sick, then throwing intentional stresses at it isn't going to make it stronger, it's just going to push you over the edge to illness or injury. But on the flip side, if your body is strong and healthy, you'd be amazed at how adaptive it can be.

What health problems can we solve by taking advantage of the body's built-in hormetic stress response combined with aerobic health, healthy diet, and mindfulness? Or maybe a better question to ask: what problems can't we solve?

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