Saturday, July 31, 2010

Running, revisited

I went on a date with a woman who likes running, and she is training for a national marathon in November. "Do you like running because it's fun, or are you training for a race?" she asked me yesterday. I said "neither," explaining that I'm not training for a race, and I run only because I know it's good for me. "I don't think it's fun," I said. All of this was the truth, but it skirted the fact that I don't run with regularity. I swim most days but I run as cross-training only once in a while. Did I say I ran once a week? I hope I didn't, because while that has always been my intention, I have never met that challenge. Looking back at my records, the last time I went for a run was...June 10, 2010. And before that, the last time I went running was May 25, 2010. And before that, May 15, 2010. So I was doing pretty well until mid summer. So it's time to run again.
This afternoon I ran for 21 minutes plus 6 minutes of walking for warm up and cool down. My average heart rate was 155 bpm with a peak at 188 bpm. I burned 402 calories. I'm curious about the maximum heart rate because it exceeds the 185 bpm that is predicted to be my maximum heart rate (220 - 35 years old = 185). I know, I know. Everyone says that the 220-age rule is inaccurate, but who's to say what is, without hooking yourself up to equipment that measures VO2max? Lacking that equipment, I guess I can now say that my maximum heart rate is 188--probably higher, since I did not feel any ill effects during my run...unless you count muscle cramps in the chest and abdomen or the constant inner voice crying for me to stop because running isn't comfortable.
But gosh, one day soon, I know my date is going to ask me to go running with her. I better shape up quick by going running more often. How about I run again in 4 days? I should be recovered by then! I'll also try to go longer--say, 25 minutes plus warm-up time.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

First day back

Yesterday I indicated that today I would swim and lift weights as a way to re-start my exercise program after vacation. I am happy to report that I did both things. I meant to swim at the college pool where I usually workout, but I had some car trouble and didn't make it in time before the facility closed. So after work I came home and it wasn't too hard to get motivated for weight-lifting. I started with 5 upright rows at 85 pounds, proceeded to calf raises and chest punches, then I did a couple pull ups and finished off with 2 sets of 15 bench presses at 85 pounds. This represents a mediocre workout, as I didn't want to overtax my body after two weeks of doing nothing. I am terribly fearful of hurting myself so I keep the weight down.
After dinner I went to my community pool to swim laps for 25 minutes or so. I was doing great--my freestyle stroke felt really powerful. But after a 6th lap of breastroke I felt my trapezius tense up and I thought I should stop. A couple hours later, it is still sore. Damn! I'm not seriously injured, but I want this trapezius soreness to go away. I had it for a few weeks before leaving on vacation, and I needed ibuprofen for the first 5 days of my trip.
It seems like I'm always injured. Is this normal?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Walking amongst the brown bears

I walked this lonely road in Denali National Park.
I've just returned from a vacation in Alaska. Wow, it was truly spectacular and awesome. I could post a bunch of photos showing wild animals or natural scenery, but this blog is about fitness, so instead I've inserted a photo of a road I walked and walked and walked in Denali National Park. It was late in the afternoon and evening that I went for a hike by myself. This was brown bear country, so it was reinforced over and over to visitors that one had to be careful not to disturb a bear. People were encouraged to whistle while they hiked, or clap their hands, or attach a bell to their backpack. I didn't want to ruin the silence with such noisemakers, so I compromised and hiked only on the road where a passerby would surely stop and help me if I happened to get mauled by a grizzly. There were few vehicles, and even fewer grizzlies encountered on this hike, so all was well.

I walked 12 miles in 3 hours. I planned to hike one direction for an hour and then turn around and hike back. But after an hour I had not yet reached the alpine tundra landscape that I had seen from a tour bus earlier in the day, so I hiked on until I found it. Then I waved down a park bus and it took me back to the Wilderness Access Center.

I did a lot of walking while on vacation. Over my 8-day vacation, I logged 985 minutes of walking or hiking. This burned an average of 794 calories per day at an intensity of 5.5. This is admirable given that it was a vacation, but not especially high. I did not find the opportunity to do any cardiovascular exercise, nor weight-lifting. Perhaps I would have gone for a run a few times, but the walking tired me out, and my family had other things in mind for the evenings, which often included finding an ice cream shop and trying different flavor cones!

So now I have returned--having gained only 2 pounds from the aforementioned ice cream cones--and I must re-start my exercise program. I will start tomorrow with a swim and hour spent lifting weights.  Or maybe just a half-hour. The important thing I must tell myself, as I try to ramp up the motivation, is to do something rather than nothing. I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tired swimming day

On Tuesdays each week the pool where I swim is only open for lap swimming from 3-5pm. I have discovered that I don't like swimming at that time of day because I'm already tired from the day's work. That was true today, as I struggled to do my typical 1,000 yards in 30 minutes. My flip-turns were also off-target and lazy. I meet with my coach tomorrow morning, so I hope I'm feeling rested and healthy. My backstroke is back to being strong (I pulled a muscle doing backstroke about a week ago), and to hasten its healing I stopped doing backstroke until today. I also lightened the weights I lifted during my two dry land workouts. I might have worked out with weights again, but guess what? I pulled a muscle in my trapezius somewhere and I've been icing it all evening. My trapezius and me go way back. I first tore it (felt and heard a 'pop') in 2006 after carrying a load of dirty clothes to the washer in my apartment. That's a pretty dumb story, and it shows how old I'm getting! Today though, I wasn't doing laundry. Instead, I was at my 1,000th yard in the pool doing breaststroke and I felt the familiar twinge in my upper back that told me I needed to stop immediately. So I did. I hope I'm good for tomorrow's swim practice.   

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Top of the lineup

Me at a batting cage, allegedly perfecting my batting skills.
 Well, I made it. I made it into the top of the lineup on my softball team tonight. Coach Dave put me at batter #3. That has never, never happened. I'm usually near the bottom of the lineup in position 8, 9, or 10. For those unfamiliar with baseball or softball, the batting order is usually dominated in the first 3 positions by solid, dependable base-hit players that can get on base. Then, the "clean-up" hitter is put in position 4 to hit the ball well into the outfield, giving the runners on base time to score. So by putting me in the 3rd position, my coach was viewing me as a pretty good bet for getting a hit. I did not disappoint during my first time at bat. I poked it through the infield between the first and second basemen. I made almost the same exact hit my second time up to bat, but this time the second baseman got the ball. I struck out during my third time at bat, and then for my fourth time up I hit a infield bounce to the shortstop. You know, I nearly made it to first base on that hit. I can sprint faster than anyone I know, and I nearly beat the throw to first. I know "nearly" doesn't count, but I think I heard the people in the stands gasp at how fast I could get to first.

We ended the game with a 5-5 tie. It's odd to end with a tie, but the score didn't matter because the other team forfeited. They didn't have enough players at the official starting time, so that meant my team automatically won. We have a big team and we had to travel to a different town to get there, so we didn't want to just leave when it was determined that the game would be forfeit. So we sent a few of our players over to the other team and we played the game anyway. Obviously it was fun to play a game you knew you had already won. We laughed at each other when we made mistakes; if the game really mattered, we'd have taken it more seriously.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Practicing the flip turn

I practiced flip turns today with my swim coach. After a 200-yard warm-up and a 6x50 yard freestyle drill (these are pretty light work; he was protecting my injured shoulder), we spent almost the rest of the hour on flip turns. I've practiced these before but always seemed to drop my hips and/or push off too deeply such that I scrape my back on the bottom of the pool. So we tried doing some in the middle of the pool, in deep water away from a wall. Then we moved to the wall at the deep end. The new thing I learned today is to pause enough while underwater to plant both feet on the wall before pushing off. This way, I can ensure that my push-off is in the right direction and it also makes me straighten out (by raising my hips). Just now I realized that Josh (my coach) told me something else to do while underwater and positioning my feet. He told me to throw my arms out over my head before pushing off. I didn't think anything of this instruction at the time but now I see that by encouraging me to take on a torpedo shape, Josh was teaching me to be more horizontal at the end of the turn. It amazes me how he solves my problems without ever telling me what exactly he's doing. I just follow his instructions and rarely ask "why do you want me to do that?"

Josh is not always full of encouragement but today he was. He was more pleased with my turns than I was, so this gave me extra confidence. I joked "if I get good at this enough to replace my short pauses at the wall every 25 yards, I'll have to skip that extra breath I always take during laps." This was foreshadowing, since at the end of my practice he made me do just that: swim 100 yards with flip turns at every wall. I was tired by this time but followed through. The first one was fairly good, the second one--at the shallow end of the pool--was too deep and I scraped the bottom, and the third one was also deep and rather sloppy. But I was done, and I had never done 4 laps in a row without sneaking a breath at each wall. The day was good. Anytime you push yourself and do something you've never done before, that makes for a great feeling and a drive to keep going. See you in the pool!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Testing the Right Fielder

I play on a church fast-pitch softball team. I'm not all that good, but my teammates have really warmed up since last year, and they seem to like me even if I'm not a team asset. This is a competitive league, so it matters who wins and who loses a game. So it's not wise for me to say or do anything that the opposing team might recognize as a weakness, or else they will try to take advantage of my team's Achilles' heel: me. Nevertheless, it is fairly obvious that I'm a weakness. My teammates give me instructions that more seasoned members of a team would not need; like where to stand, how to swing, and what to do if there is 1 out and a runner on third base. Well, some combination of clues caused the opposing team to figure out, that if possible, they should hit the ball to right field where I may or may not be able to field the ball successfully. The first hit bounced in front of me and I was unable to judge the bounce and so it got behind me. I then grabbed the ball and tripped before throwing it to the cutoff man. Error. I then struck out twice.
My teammates ready themselves for next at bat.

Despite my teammate's patience with me (I was about to call it "eternal patience" but it does run out sometimes), I got angry. That last strikeout was not my fault; the umpire called it a strike when the ball was clearly inside the plate. How dare him!

So I refused to make any further mistakes that game, and I succeeded. The opposing team hit lots of balls my way, and I caught most of them, making several outs. I even fielded a ball and threw it home in time to stop a runner from scoring. I didn't get any hits at the plate but I didn't strike out. Instead, I hit a couple good hits that were caught on the fly by a fast shortstop. My team noticed. TZ said I was in the running for "Most Improved Player" this year. That's somewhat embarrassing but I appreciate the sentiment. Scotty's wife said I was the game MVP. That's pretty cool.

Shoulder flexion: Infraspinatus or deltoid?

As mentioned in several previous posts, I have chronic shoulder pain. It's usually my left shoulder that hurts, but sometimes it is the right shoulder. And it hurts in different places depending on the week. Of course it isn't continuous nor severe (otherwise I would go to a doctor), but I still try to figure out what I'm doing to injure myself. My latest bout of shoulder pain is on the left side in a muscle that covers my scapula. It is called the infraspinatus. This muscle uses the scapula as a base and pulls on the upper head of the humerus bone, rotating it away from the body (external rotation). It will also pull the arm behind the body. This muscle hurts right now, and I had a distinct weakness today while doing backstroke. In fact, I really couldn't do backstroke at all.
Infraspinatus is in red, hidden below the deltoid of the shoulder. (from Wikipedia) 
I was about to blame my freestyle technique on causing this pain, but now I'm wondering about that. You see, in freestyle I have been trying to extend my arms as far in front of me as I can to initiate the catch and hold them there for as long as I can between alternate arm pulls (described in a previous post).  This is not a problem for my right arm, as my head is down in the water and facing the bottom of the pool (or actually, a little left of the bottom if I'm doing the body rotation right). But when it is time to hold the left arm out in front while the right arm rotates up and out of the water, I usually take a breath, and the motions of my right arm and my neck tend to lower the left arm before the proper time. As a consequence, the lowering left arm produces unwanted drag and limits the amount of water I can catch and pull with that arm. My coach pointed this out, so I've been working really hard to keep that left arm in place even as I breath on the right side. As best I can tell, the infraspinatus is not involved in keeping the left arm out in front (if I were standing upright, my left arm would be held straight up--flexion). Instead, the lateral deltoid does this in conjunction with the trapezius and triceps. Certainly those muscles have hurt before, but not today.
So I still don't have a good explanation for how I hurt my infraspinatus. Sure, I did some backstroke yesterday, but not enough to do me harm. At least, I think. 

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

After 1 year of working out

I started working out in September 2008 at the age of 33. At that time I wasn't doing any consistent schedule of cardiovascular exercise, nor was I doing any weight-training. I had never set foot in a gym or fitness center. I didn't know how to swim. I had back and neck pain, and I had stress at work.
One year later, I was exercising my heart through cycling, swimming, and hiking. My back and neck pain disappeared. And while I still had (and have) stress at work, it seems a lot less important to me. Here is a comparison between September 30, 2008 and September 30, 2009:

Bench Press...............29 reps @ 60 pounds...........11 reps @ 120 pounds
Dumbbell Flys............30 reps @ 8 pounds.............30 reps @ 22.5 pounds
Biceps Curl................26 reps @ 8 pounds.............13 reps @ 30 pounds
Abdominal Crunch.....30 reps.................................53 reps
Cardio daily average..5 min/day..............................31 min/day

As you can see, the amount of weight I was lifting was substantially increased, but in some cases the number of repetitions was decreased as well. This was intentional, as I was trying to create conditions necessary for fast-twitch muscle fiber hypertrophy by lifting as much weight as physically possible until fatigue. Obviously the heavier the barbell or dumbbell is, the more quickly muscle fatigue is experienced.

My cardiovascular exercises were more frequent after a year, too. In September 2009 I swam on 9 days, went hiking or walking on 6 days, and took one 20-min bike ride. Today as I write this, I am not impressed with these stats because I am doing so much more now compared to Sept 2009, but what I was doing then was a definite improvement over 2008.
Elsewhere I have shown that my year's experience with weight-lifting did lead to small changes in my body dimensions; my chest circumference increased 2 inches and my biceps (upper arm) circumference increased 0.9 inch. I gained 4 pounds over a year's time.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Pool without markings = finger jams

Until I started swimming I never knew that markings on the bottom of the pool had any more than a decorative function. But now I rely on them all the time. In the pool where I do most of my workouts, each lane has a black-tile line (or is it blue?) that runs the length of the lane. There is also a line that crosses the lanes at the spot where the pool depth transitions from 5 feet to 12 feet, and when I'm doing laps I know that when I cross that line I'm less than 1/3 of the way to the end. Close to each lane's end at either end of the pool there is a 'T' shape that indicates that the wall is upon you. Swimmers use this landmark when judging where to start their flip turns. Since I'm not an expert at flip turns yet, I simply keep up the freestyle until I see the 'T' and then I reach out for the wall to stop or turn around. I have a good feeling for the size of the pool since I practice there several times a week.

But all last week my regular pool has been closed and I've been practicing in my neighborhood pool, which has no floor markings. The result is that I have thrown my arm out in front of me as part of the catch of a freestyle stroke, only to have the middle finger of my right hand collide with the pool wall and jam. It is disorienting to swim in a pool without pool markings. I suppose I could slow down when I think I'm close to the wall, and this would hopefully prevent collisions, but the pool is only 15 yards long so I'm barely starting to get into a rhythm by the time I reach the opposite wall and have to turn around. Oh well, I'll manage. Just don't ask me to open jars of peanut butter while my middle finger is healing.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Endurance training leads to muscle atrophy? Kind of.

I'm reading a book by Steven Vogel (2001) called "Prime Mover: A Natural History of Muscle." It takes a very broad view of muscle, from how its cellular machinery was discovered, to how other animals use muscle tissue to do a lot of different things, to how human muscles are arranged to allow our own specialized movements. It's a geeky book being enjoyed by this blogger geek. Anyway, Vogel makes this statement on page 90 that I find interesting, if a little puzzling:

Steven Vogel (NASA photo)
"Long-distance runners may be skinnier, on average, than the rest of us, but for all their training, they don't look radically different. Atrophy of fast white fibers about balances hypertrophy of slow red fibers. Endurance training, sustained activity against small loads, does induce increase in muscle mass--but the mass of the heart rather than that of the [muscles of the] skeleton."
I am puzzled by a lot of Vogel's statements throughout the book, and this quote is no exception. First, it isn't clear to me what his point is about how long-distance runners might look different from the rest of us. I think what he is saying is that they have little fat on their bodies, but their muscles are no more or less developed than other people. In fact, even though their overall muscle mass isn't different, the composition of their leg muscles is different. Vogel is saying that as one trains for endurance (long-distance running instead of short-distance sprinting), the muscle fibers that are involved with sprinting (white, fast-twitch fibers) will atrophy and the muscle fibers involved with endurance running (red, slow-twitch fibers) will grow in size. But then the last sentence of the quote above contradicts the second one; Vogel says that endurance training does not lead to hypertrophy of any skeletal muscle, but instead increases the mass of the heart muscle. This is consistent with college physiology textbooks, so I assume Vogel is only talking about the heart when he is talking about red muscle fibers going through hypertrophy. He needs to be more clear.
Regardless, I hadn't thought of how my own training is affecting my muscle fiber proportions. My swimming workouts have so far concentrated on distance and not speed, so I am increasing the capabilities of slow-twitch muscle fibers. Similarly, the running I do and the cycling both lead to more efficient (if not larger) red muscle fibers. My weight-lifting workouts probably are increasing my fast-twitch fibers, but not to a great degree. Given that I do a lot of repetitions (2 sets of 15 reps) of each exercise, I'm not sure whether this is doing more for my fast-twitch fibers or my slow-twitch fibers.
Emotionally, it makes little sense that doing more and more endurance training would lead to muscle atrophy (of white fibers), but scientifically I understand how and why this would be true. And it would only be true if endurance exercises were the only kinds of exercise employed. It is a valuable point that in order to keep and grow both kinds of muscle fibers, you need to do different kinds of exercise. I'll have to think seriously about how I train to make sure both muscle types are being exercised. I don't want anything to atrophy. That would be ridiculous!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

June 2010 report

Looking back at my records for June 2010, I see a month of rather low effort on my part. The summer months are not particularly busy at work so I should have plenty of time for my workouts. But summer is also a time for laziness, and that is part of the reason why I didn't do a lot of weight-lifting this month. But laziness isn't the right word. It's just that I often ran out of time in the evenings when I usually do my weigh-lifting. There were phone calls or late dinners or socializing at the pool, or...I don't know what. It wasn't really laziness but a lack or lower level of motivation to keep to a workout schedule. I only weight-lifted 8 days out of 30 for an average of 952 pounds per day (27,462.5 pounds / 30 days = 952). Of course, if I only considered the 8 days when I lifted, the average would be much higher (27,462.5 / 8 = 3,433). But that's not how I keep records. These meager sums are not going to lead to improved strength, injury prevention, greater confidence, or better physique without a shirt.

There was one area where I broke a monthly record: exercise intensity. I have defined this particular parameter elsewhere in this blog (see definitions at side panel), but briefly, exercise intensity is a representation of how hard I work my cardiovascular system. In terms of frequency, I did cardio on 26 out of 30 days. A lot of that was swimming (18 days). I played softball on 5 days, I hiked or walked on 3 days, I went for a bike ride once, and I went running once. I would like to increase the cycling and running, but I like swimming so much and I do need rest days, so I guess I've got a good thing going anyway.

Another possible bright spot is pull-ups. I did pull-ups on 6 days in June, and this gave me a 1 pull-up/day average for the month. I haven't met that threshold since Jan 2010. I think I can increase this now without injuring myself.

Photo of the Month
Me at my neighborhood pool where I swim when the indoor facility I normally use is closed.