Hanging Out!

A brief departure from health and fitness posts…

When I was young, my secret superpower wish was that I could fly – or be invisible. I was a shy kid and while I knew everyone could see me, I sometimes felt invisible, and feeling left out stung. And then there were the times where I just wanted to be left alone. While I still can be shy sometimes around new people, especially if they seem standoffish, it’s nothing like it used to be. That means that these days flying would win hands down. The freedom of movement. Being above it all. The ability to visit hard to reach places. The views!

Since I wasn’t born on the planet krypton and haven’t stumbled upon any magic lamps, I figured hang gliding would be the next best thing. I never followed up on the desire, though. Then one day I was sifting through my emails and found a Groupon for a tandem glide and decided to go for it.

The glider would be pulled along by a plane before being let loose and I would get about fifteen minutes of flying time. Right before it was time to take off, I was hit with a sense of dread. No, not the fear of crashing; I was afraid I would vomit! My family is renowned for our weak stomachs. I asked the pilot if anyone had ever thrown up on him and he said “No, but if you have to, lean to the right.”

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I wedged in to my suspended cocoon and we were quickly aloft. I felt a hint of nausea, but it wasn’t bad. Air travel affects me much worse. The noise from the plane engine was pretty loud, but it was amazing to be in the air. Then we were cut loose and I basked in the peaceful silence. I even got to steer for a bit, leaning into turns. Giddy delight!

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All too soon I was earthbound again. I can’t say that I gained a new perspective on life or anything like that, but it was a wonderful experience and it was very cool to turn one of my “Somedays…” into a “Today!”

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How I Survived My Summer Offseason

In some parts of the world, the summer months are ripe with races. In my neck of the desert, where midday temperatures routinely top one hundred degrees, formal racing opportunities dwindle. For others, the downtime comes when the ground is buried under crunchy layers of white stuff. Still, there are plenty of ways for a even the most ardent race-a-holic to stay motivated and well-trained during the inhospitable seasons.

Get Out of Dodge:

Is the weather awful? Go somewhere where it isn’t! Destination races can be a lot of fun. This summer, I cooled off in San Francisco and Flagstaff. Last year I ran a half marathon in Disneyland. Make like a kid and head to a sports camp. I’ve had great times at running camp. Incidentally, my hometown of Tucson is home to several triathlon camps during the winter months. Consider a fitness spa vacation to both sweat and unwind.

Alternative Events:

While there are fewer formal races, I’m fortunate that my city provides a few weekday events during the summer weeks. My favorite is the local aquathlon series (800 yard pool swim, 3 mile run). The swim can get a little crazy, as we circle swim three or four to a lane. Swimmers are assigned lanes based on an a submitted start time, but some estimates are better than others. I know my times vary from week to week. Some days, it’s like bumper boats, and other times things go… just swimmingly. Then it’s pop out of the water, put your shoes on, and run three laps around a park path, weaving through walkers, bikers, and oblivious children. This particular summer was a lot of fun for me, as both my run and swim times improved since last year. I also had some great sprint-to-the-finish battles and even managed to win a few. They are relatively small events, and you get to know some folks pretty well by the end of the summer.

One other thing I like to hit at least once during the summer is an all-comer’s track meet. There are several youth track clubs that participate as well as full-grown folks. I like to do mile time trials occasionally to gauge my fitness, and it’s fun to do them in a competitive setting. If that means getting beaten by an eight year-old, so be it. My mile PR dropped to 6:07 this summer.

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Now, if your offseason happens during the winter, you might find snowshoe races, cross country skiing, indoor or winter triathlons in your area.

Just do it anyway:

Some folks just decide to suck it up and race. One local running event company hosts a “Run With The Roosters”, which starts at 5:05 AM. I passed on that, but I did take part in an evening 5K and a sprint triathlon. With racing getting more popular these past few years, I have noticed that there are several events to pick from, even during the dog days of summer. If extreme weather is just one more challenge you’d like to take on, there are events like “The Hottest Race on Earth” just for you.

Well, my offseason is rapidly drawing to a close. Starting with an 8-miler on Labor Day, I have eight more races packed in to next two months. I’m eagerly anticipating my times dropping with the temperature.

Leveling the Running Field

One thing that I like about running is that it’s a completely objective sport. Want to win? Finish first. It doesn’t matter if your form is in the crapper or the judge from nation X can’t stand your country. On the flip side, certain inequities become apparent. Women are generally slower than men (a topic worthy of its own post). A fifty-year old will usually lose out to a twenty-something. Even people who don’t necessarily care how they stack up against others can become discouraged when age siphons their speed away.

Enter the WAVA tables. Based on age and gender, a person gets a numeric ranking based on a time for distances from 5 to 100 kilometers. A 100 ranking is the theoretical best a person can achieve, and most world records are scored 98 to 99. A 60 is considered “Local Class”. The number has nothing to do with the percentage of people that you’re faster than; it simply compares your speed to the ultimate performance for your peer group. A teenager can face off against his grandmother. Someone who is 20 years past her physical prime might actually be a better runner now.

I started plugging some of my PRs into calculators and was pleasantly surprised to the see the times a 25 year-old man with a matching WAVA score would run. While I will probably never run a sub-3 hour marathon, if I can manage a 3:31:26 next year, it would convert to one. I hope to someday run a sub-20 5K, but with the adjustment, I am already there.

Distance My PR 25 year-old man WAVA Score
5K 20:43 17:35 71.2
10K 44:01 37:43 69.2
1/2 Marathon 1:40:03 1:26:19 66.5
Marathon 3:38:41 3:08:40 63.5

There is a part of me that feels like this is a big cop-out. Like how in Bull Durham, Crash Davis doesn’t want fanfare for breaking the record for minor league home runs. It’s a “dubious honor” that underscores his inability to last in the majors. On the other hand, it has opened my eyes to how impressive some of the local masters runners really are. Our times may be close on the race course, but their level of performance blows mine away. A few races will even award prizes based age-graded times. Ultimately, I think that anything  that brings more motivation and fun to the sport of running is a good thing.

Here are a couple of calculators to play with:
http://www.marathonguide.com/fitnesscalcs/ageequivalent.cfm
http://pinebeltpacers.org/AgeGrade/newwava.html

Monitoring calorie burn

Many gym goers live and die by the calories burned feature of their heart rate monitors. Call me a Cynical Cindy, but I’ve always thought that some of the numbers that I’ve heard people throwing around seemed kind of, well, high. As someone who is interested in helping other people be fit, this concerns me. Could inflated numbers lead to extra eating (I burned it all off plus some, so pass me another cookie)? Will people become discouraged when weight loss is much more meager than expected? I don’t claim to be any sort of expert, but I enjoy research and this is what I’ve learned.

The best way to estimate calorie burn is by measuring oxygen consumption, but this is cumbersome outside the laboratory (and not to mention costly), so people have sought other methods. Heart rate is relatively simple to monitor and there is a relationship between higher heart rates and increased calorie expenditure. It’s not a perfect correlation, however. Heat, dehydration, stress, and caffeine can all increase heart rate even while calorie burn remains static. Unless an exercise session is short, cardiac drift also becomes a factor. As core temperature rises, the heart works harder even if oxygen uptake remains unchanged.

Heart rate zones vary from person to person and can change drastically as someone becomes more or less fit. The old “220 minus your age” method is a wide generalization and may be flat out wrong, especially for women. At the end of a hard race, I’m pegged at about 165, while a male friend who is about seven years younger will hit the 180s on a moderate run. This leads to the question “How accurate are the resting and max heart rate values that the monitor is using to perform the calculations?”, if even uses them at all. Most companies do not publish their formulas, so we don’t know.

How does weight factor in to the equation? According to recent findings, running burns approximately .75 calories per pound per mile (± 5 calories/mile). A 135 pound person running 7 miles in an hour expends around 700 calories, while a 160 pound person would burn 840, even if their heart rates were the same. Running is a good exercise for performing comparisons, because the movement is relatively standard and it’s much easier to benchmark against a measured mile than say, 15 minutes of Zumba. People who like to experiment might want to try running a mile with their heart rate monitor and compare the calorie burn against the formula above. If the numbers are extra generous (or stingy), I would expect that trend would carry over to other forms of exercise as well.

There are a few other caveats to consider. The less vigorous the activity, the less accurate the results. The numbers are virtually useless for strength training.  One scholarly source listed the Polar’s “laboratory error” as 16.9–20%, and some other brands were worse (see Table 1 in the linked document). Heart rate zones and weight need to be kept up to date to for the most accurate readings, but it’s easy to forget to do it. 

Even if the calorie readouts are skewed, there is still value in training with a heart rate monitor. If your goal is getting the most burn for the buck, they’re good for comparing different activities. They’re useful for tracking fitness gains. They can be help detect overtraining (is your heart rate much higher than normal during a certain activity?). Many athletes use them determine training intensity. They can provide clues about why you might be having an off day. For example, during one of my marathon training long runs, I really struggled through the last couple miles. My heart rate was low, which led me to believe it was a fueling rather than a fitness issue, and I was able to fix it the next time out. Some people find seeing a calorie burn can be highly motivating and might even go the extra minutes or mile to reach the next round number. By understanding its strengths and limitations, the heart rate monitor can be a valuable instrument for helping people achieve their fitness goals.

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For more information on heart rate monitors and other methods of tracking calorie burn, check out the following article. http://www.wired.com/playbook/2012/08/fitness-trackers/

Want to be fit and trim? We have secrets!

I like fitness magazines. They’re a great resource for new exercises and recipe ideas. They keep me up to date on fitness trends and gadgets. And yes, I find the pictures motivating. On the other hand, the covers can wax a bit hyberbolic for my taste.

Your dream body in just 2 weeks!
Bikini Ready in 7 Days!
One minute to flat abs. Our must-try move.

Color me skeptical*. One word that’s been jumping out at me lately is secrets. I get it. Eating right and working out is hard. It’s tempting to think that the reason someone else is leaner, faster, or stronger is because they’re privy to information you don’t have. Is a new pill, diet, or exercise apparatus the missing piece to the puzzle? I decided to paw through a stack of old magazines, and I’m ready to spill…

Secret Dogs

Tell me how I can lose my pooch.

Drop a Dress Size 20-Minute Secret Solution (Shape, January 2012, page 100)

A workout featuring compound exercises using a FreeMotion cable machine. Many muscles are worked during each exercise so you can get an intense, full-body workout in a short amount of time.

45 Celebrity Hot Body Secrets (Shape, March 2013, multiple pages)

I couldn’t find an article, but there were celebrity tidbits sprinkled throughout the magazine. Were there 45 secrets? I didn’t feel like counting. Here’s what I learned: Jessica Alba and Elisabeth Hasselbeck do Crossfit, Emily Blunt does pullups (it says she can do four sets of 20 reps – if that’s unassisted, I’m seriously impressed), Ashley Greene does Pilates, weights, and yoga, and Eva Mendes works with a trainer.

There was a nice feature on Laila Ali’s diet on page 102. She eats things like oatmeal, egg whites, fruits, veggies, lean meats, flax, sprouted bread, almond butter, lean meats, and homemade ice cream. When she needs to get something quick, she’ll stop at Whole Foods or a Subway, where she asks for the bread to be hollowed out in the center.

Malin Ackerman “I work hard for my body!” Her summer shape-up secrets (Shape, June 2012, page 36)

To prepare for her bikini shoot, she consumed a diet of 85 percent vegetables/15 lean protein and bumped up her workouts to five SoulCycle classes a week. She normally eats fresh food as opposed to processed and enjoys a thick steak and french fries about once a week. She also acknowledges that she has good genes.

Get Sexy Legs Fast Pro Secrets Inside (Shape, October 2012, page 58)

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I’ll be back with even more secrets.

Four exercises selected by none other than Arnold Schwazenegger. They include the Arnold press, concentration curl, front squat, and deadlift. I found it interesting that only two of the exercises actually work the legs.

Flat, Sexy Abs (Even After Four Kids) Brooke Burke’s Fit Secrets (Fitness, January 2012, page 24)

Her diet secret? Never skip meals. She’ll use harissa, a Middle Eastern spice paste, as a low-calorie way to jazz up dishes. She also works out  five days a week for an hour a session, mixing Pilates, strength training, and treadmill walking with a 15% incline. During exercise she wears a Baboosh body wrap, a product she created, to “sweat out all the bloat.”

Burn calories all day long! Slim down secret (Oxygen, Sep 2012, page 78)

Another article highlighting exercises that use multiple body parts to expend energy more quicly. Most of the moves are performed using cable machines.

15 “Keep it Tight” Secrets! (Oxygen, Nov 2012, page 84)

How stretching and flexibility affects overall fitness.

Shrink Your Belly Plus More Slimming Secrets! (Oxygen, December 2012, page 96)

An elastic band workout routine. Bands allow resistance to be applied to the muscle in certain directions that can’t be mimicked with free weights. Reps can be performed at high speeds, and you lose the ability to use cheat using momentum. Bands are also cheap and portable.

So, there you have it. There are some interesting tips. I’ll have to try harissa, but I’ll pass on the Baboosh – my sweat glands are active enough, thank you. Compound moves provide a great bang for the buck. For the most part, however, I see a lot of working out and healthy eating. Nothing earth-shaking there. Sure, there are some new exercises, but push ups still haven’t gone out of style and don’t cost a dime.

Try different moves to mix things up. Use the standards that have a proven track record. Just make sure to get moving, because no matter how great the advice in the magazine might be, turning pages doesn’t burn a lot of calories – and that’s no secret.

*This says the woman who has been known to succumb to an impulse buy when a magazine promises to Banish Cellulite Forever! I haven’t achieved full banishment, but I have managed to lock it up in a tower, Rapunzel-style, and give it a crew cut.

The most important thing

My husband and I were concluding our Christmas visits. We had spent the afternoon with his mother and her caregiver talking about this and that. The fact that I was a fitness instructor and liked running races came up, but wasn’t lingered on. As we were heading out the door, the caretaker asked said, “I’m trying to lose weight. What’s the most important thing I should do?” Wow. One thing. I paused for a moment and said something like this: “Consistency. There are a lot of eating and exercise plans out there that people have had success with. You need to choose something that makes sense for you and your life that you can commit to. You can’t get permanent results from temporary behavior.”

Your life is a journey and so is your path toward health. You may be motivated to lose weight for a wedding or vacation, but what happens next? Does the plan you’ve chosen take you beyond the milestone? Many plans start out with a short, strict jump-start phase, which can be fine as long as you know what to do when it’s over. Can you see yourself doing it for the rest of your life?

While I believe that there are some definite truths when it comes to owning a fit, healthy life, I also believe that there are a lot of roads to Rome. People have differing work and family obligations. Some have physical challenges. Some have abundant resources and support systems, while others don’t. Then there are the internal differences. Some people thrive on structure and don’t mind counting every calorie. Some need the convenience of meal plans. Sweets are the downfall of some, fatty while salty fare might thwart others. What’s delicious to one might be gross to another. Some people crave companionship when they exercise, others enjoy having slices of time to themselves.

Our motivations, emotional makeup, and tastes differ and can even change along the way. I started reading fitness magazines when I was a High Schooler obsessed with the thought of the “perfect” body. I would vacillate between strict dieting and sugary binges. It has been a process learning to eat for nourishment and to appreciate the way that healthy food made me feel. Exercise went from being something I had to do to burn calories, to something that my body craved. I appreciated the strength and endurance that I had gained. I liked being fit.

So whether you are just starting out on your fitness journey, or finding your way back to the road, commit yourself to progress. Know that there will probably be times when find yourself clutching your queasy stomach while staring at an empty plate ashamed that you ate the whole thing. Sometimes the snooze button gets the upper hand. We slip up. We need breaks occasionally. We can always start again. Consistency wins. Happy 2013!