Saturday, May 24, 2014

7 Weeks Down

So a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I didn't trust the results from my digital scale's bio-electric impedance body fat percentage. This week I decided to do something about it, so I got myself a tape measure and tried the U.S. Navy method of determining the body fat percentage.

And damned if it wasn't right there with the bio-electric impedance. The scale had been very slowly descending from 29-30 to 27-28, but it could fluctuate quite a bit depending on my hydration, and I hadn't been following a strict hydration routine for the first three weeks, so those early higher results were in doubt. Now they're less so.

The second big change is to alter my strength workouts. One thing that has been giving me a problem with motivation was that I put together my strength workouts based on what I had done in the past, but since I've done four or five dramatically different workouts during various phases over the past 17 years, my current workout was a set of random bits from here and there with no real focus. It has made me firmer and stronger, but any kind of workout would have done that, given how far out of shape I was. But I had no tangible goals and no firm results, and so my motivation to do each day's workout was approaching nil.

So I did what I usually do. I bought a workout book. I have a dozen of them, but unlike those, this one builds on what I've been doing and gives it a systematic approach with goals to work toward. So I'm looking forward to seeing if a more systematic approach will give me better focus and accelerate my progress.

Because I'm approaching a really tricky time. Usually these fitness phases last about three months, at which point, I've gotten into pretty good shape. My motivation and focus drops, and I quit for several months (or years, this last time). I have tried a couple of times to fool myself into continuing to focus (and reach a new level of fitness and strength) by changing up my workout, but that hasn't worked well. Usually, by that time, I was hitting a plateau, and without continued results, my interest waned.

And right now, including the baby steps I took before starting up the spreadsheet, I'm either just at or just over the two-month mark, and nowhere near my weight, muscle, or speed goals. Admittedly, I've never let myself go quite this far out of shape before since leaving the Army, but I'm not going to get where I want in another month.

So I've got to hope that starting this new workout approach (coming a month before my usual quitting time), plus the continued motivation of Zombies, Run!, will keep my interest locked in.  I've also kept my diet nicely dialed in this time, and I think I'll be able to continue it as well.

I started out planning to do a sort of low-carb approach (which has worked well for me before), but I was kind of half-assing it, so after a week or so, I switched to the Slow Carb approach from Tim Ferriss's book, The Four Hour Body. But it just doesn't work for me. This is the third time I've tried it (though the first time I think I've given a real careful go), and I've never gotten the kind of incredible results he promises. So a couple of weeks ago, I went back to a more serious low-carb approach, only this time I'm having way more fun with it.

The times I've tried it before were when I was still married and living with my wife and her mother and grandmother. So I kind of had to separate myself from them at mealtimes, had to buy my own separate groceries, and often felt like I had to sneak my low-carb eating under the radar.

This time, I'm living alone, so I do all my own grocery shopping. I can buy exactly what I want, I do all my own cooking, and I don't have to worry about any comments from anyone about what I'm eating. I'm not losing weight super quickly--only about a pound and a half per week--but it's coming off steadily, and I'm not getting the kind of energy crashes and food cravings on overnight shifts that I used to. I used to hit the vending machines at work three or four times a night, eating chips and M&M's and cupcakes. I'm not doing any of that now.

The only problem I have now is deciding whether to start pushing my calories up to try to build muscle faster on this new strength regime. It may take me a couple of weeks to decide that for sure.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

6 Weeks Down - Positive Reinforcement and Losing Motivation

I mentioned last week that it was hard to stay motivated when I didn't seem to be seeing results. This week was full of positive reinforcement, and yet I've ended up losing a bit of motivation.

First, I seem to have my diet mostly locked down with a good variety of stand-by foods that are easy to fix and that I like, mixed in with new recipes that I'm trying. The money I save off the food I'm cooking (instead of going out) seems to go right back out for kitchen gadgets (I finally bought a blender) or fitness crap or what have you, but I'm eating and feeling much better in general than I was last year.

Second, although the numbers barely seem to be moving, I did hit the 10 lbs lost mark this week (I've bumped back to 9, but fluctuations happen). Funny thing is, because most of the fat I've gained is visceral fat, packed in around the internal organs, I'm starting to see the first hints of definition in my abs, even though I'm still paunchy.

Third, I went out this week and ran into a woman I haven't seen in a long time. And while we talked, her hand touched my arm, and then she did that little fingertip dance along my arm, over my shoulder and across my chest and asked, "Have you been working out?" And then she let her fingers linger a couple of extra moments before taking them away.

That's what it's really all for, isn't it?

Unfortunately, as good as that all was, it seems to have done precisely the wrong things to my motivation. Instead of spurring me on to build on success, it seems to have given me a feeling of "Mission Accomplished." I've been working less hard this week and making excuses for skipping workouts. I mean, I did have some legitimate scheduling problems that forced me to skip a couple of workouts, and there were some emotional distractions this week, but I still blew too much off. I have to remind myself that I'm nowhere near my strength or speed or weight goals, so I need to keep pushing.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Five Weeks In - Lies

My body, it lies. I've known this for years, yet sometimes I still fall for it.

I went for a run on Wednesday, and even though I had previously run continuously for over a mile and a half without stopping, this time my legs were burning like crazy and I slowed to a walk after a quarter-mile. After maybe 30 seconds of walking, I started running again and continued on for well over a mile before walking again.

Wonky physiological explanation follows: your muscle cells use several different stages of chemical reaction to store energy for muscular effort. I could throw around chemical names or acronyms like ATP and ADP and phosphocreatine, but the simple version is this:

You have a tiny amount of primary fuel available in your muscle cells for immediate action at maximum output, like a hard punch or jerk.

You have a slightly larger amount of stored fuel in your cells that requires a little breaking down first. This is available for hard sustained action, like a set of heavy bench presses. Without oxygen, though, you run out quickly, like within 30 seconds or so.

You have an even larger (but still small) amount of stored fuel in your cells that can be broken down with the help of oxygen. This fuel is called glycogen and is broken down when needed via a process called fast glycolosis. But there's only enough glycogen stored in your muscles for about 2 minutes of sustained activity, at which point the muscles start having to draw on blood glucose for energy and send chemical signals to your liver to convert stored glycogen to glucose for more energy.

And during this crucial switch-over, which for me usually happens right around the quarter-mile mark, your muscles scream that they are dying. They tell you that there's nothing left, and that you need to stop so they can rest a second and get their breath back, so to speak. One of the first things you learn when running for more than a couple of minutes is to recognize that signal for what it is--a desperate lie--and push through it until your muscles get the blood glucose working.

I've known about this effect for over twenty years, and yet I still fell for it on Wednesday. Why?

Because I wasn't thinking straight is the best answer I can give. I was distracted by the fact I had overslept, so I had only eaten about an hour before running, which made me wary of pushing myself too hard. My legs felt tight and tired from the workout I'd done the night before, and I had only a limited window of time before I needed to get to work. So my mind was everywhere except on my actual running, which means that when my muscles gave their fake danger signal, I listened and walked. And immediately regretted it.

I think my fancy new digital scale lies, too. Not about my weight, even though I'm not losing much. I expect that, because when you start working out the way I have been, you build more muscle as you burn off fat. Because muscle is denser than fat, you may get heavier briefly while actually getting trimmer. I've known this for years as well.

Which is why, to keep up my motivation, I splurged a little on a more expensive digital scale that uses bio-electric impedance to determine the relative percentages of fat and muscle tissue in your body. It is not an especially accurate method, but I figured that as long as the numbers were moving in the right direction, complete accuracy wasn't as important. It would just be an extra motivational factor to know that, even if my weight wasn't going down, positive changes were still happening.

The problem is, those percentages have barely budged in four weeks. I'm getting results in my workouts (reps going up, run times getting marginally faster), and I feel as if I'm getting smaller and firmer, but the percentages on the scale are just fluctuating up and down within a very narrow range. So what was supposed to encourage me is actually discouraging me a bit.

One problem I'm having, though, is that the scale has trouble giving a reading unless I wipe the sensors first with a wet cloth to improve the connection. So I'm wondering if the (very thin) layer of water between the soles of my feet and the scale is throwing off the results at all. It shouldn't--I just barely dampen the cloth--but I'm grasping at straws wondering why the numbers aren't moving.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Four Weeks In

So after running five times in Week 1, I came down with a minor leg injury. Acute pain just below the knee that I first thought was pretty minor and could be run through. I laid off the running for several days but continued with boxing (okay, really just hitting a heavy bag) and strength workouts. Then I tried walking a zombie mission to strengthen the knee.

Turns out, it wasn't the knee. It was the shin muscle where it attaches just below the knee. After my power walk, I worked camera on the evening newscasts, three more hours on my feet, and the next day, I could barely walk. My calves and Achilles were tight and on fire, and the shin pain was worse than ever; basically, everything between my knees and feet hate me. I tried to keep up the boxing and strength work, but torquing my body on the cross punches also stressed the legs, and I was even getting acute pain when I planked for push-ups.

I ended up laying off training completely for another week, except for some stretching to get strength and flexibility back in my lower legs. I bought a set of Dr. Scholl's Custom Fit Orthotics to help with my overpronation problem. But the pain continued to persist for several days.

So going into this past week, the fourth week since I officially decided to shift things into gear, I was getting pretty discouraged, partly because of another new thing I was trying. When I get into a cycle like this, I tend to get a little obsessive, and being a little nerdy, I like looking at numbers. But in the past, I've found it was better not to track my progress too closely. I had to learn to ignore daily fluctuations in weight or off-days where I couldn't improve my speed or lifting reps or poundages. The body does not work in smooth predictable lines.

But now there is a wider array of ways to track everything, so I decided to take the advice of Timothy Ferriss and just load up on data. I signed up with myfitnesspal to track my diet, which keeps much closer track of what I'm doing than a simple written food log. Zombies, Run! gives me fairly detailed data on my runs. I splurged on one of those digital scales that tracks bodyfat and muscle percentages. That plus records of my workouts has all been going into spreadsheets.

So the problem, at the beginning of Week 4, having spent about 2 of those weeks getting minimal exercise because of the injury, was that my numbers weren't improving much. I was losing tiny bits of weight due to the diet, and my fat/muscle ratio had improved ever so slightly from the few strength workouts I had logged, but we were approaching a month in with very little progress to show. I had a moment where I wondered if I would really be able to push on with this, or just accept that I was getting older and couldn't get back to where I'd been ever again.

But this week has been really encouraging. The leg pain was gone almost entirely, and when I gave it another easy test run on Sunday, it felt good. More importantly, it still felt good the next day. My strength workout felt like I was starting over from scratch, but I'm hoping that it'll come back quickly. I made some tweaks to the diet based partly on the data I was seeing from myfitnesspal, and the numbers are starting to move in the right direction. My subsequent runs have been much better, and I'm now running almost two miles before dropping to a walk. It feels really good to actually be able to keep running when the voice in your ear says, "Keep running to get there before the zombies," instead of walking and just imagining a day when you might be able to run. I haven't turned the zombie chases back on yet, though. I still get twinges when I try to sprint, so I'm going to condition my legs for a least another week first.

The new plan going forward, at least for a few weeks: three days running/boxing (I don't always hit the bag before I run--I'm having trouble now with skin scraping off my knuckles, which may call for new gloves or wraps), two days of strength and conditioning work, one day of yoga for flexibility and stability, and one day of stretching. I have a long way to go still, but I'm running faster, getting stronger and most importantly, feeling better. And I'm even starting to cook again, so I'm eating better while saving some money on food.