Friday, November 18, 2011

November Birthday

I celebrated my birthday recently. For several days leading up to the big day, I was not feeling healthy or strong. I did a treadmill run (my first run in 11 days) last Thursday and again on Monday. But I cut short the Monday run because my back hurt and I had an abdominal cramp. Last Saturday I hurt my shoulder simply by angling my arm awkwardly while taking off my shirt. It had not fully healed by Tuesday when I tried doing a swim. Freestyle was out, but I could do breaststroke and backstroke. But I cut short the swim because my feet were cramping up. I was really fatigued and felt like doing nothing. So on Wednesday I went into the office for a couple hours and then came home to rest. I figured I had a virus that was affecting my joints and muscles. As I lay on the couch watching a movie (Contact by Carl Sagan), I realized that maybe I wasn't sick. Instead, maybe I was worried about my birthday and turning a year older. Yep, that was it.

I am another year older. The aforementioned shoulder injury is chronic and while I can be pain-free for months at a time, it keeps coming back several times a year. The muscle cramps are sometimes harmless, but sometimes not. If my calf cramps up, it does so with such great force that the muscle is damaged and it takes a week for the leg to heal and for the pain and stiffness to go away. My mother has this problem, too, so there isn't much hope that I will avoid it as time goes on. My body is aging and I can't stop it.

I also feel left behind by my age. Given my love for and skill in swimming today, I wonder what I could have been had I started swimming at a much earlier age. I seriously feel that I could have been an All-American swimmer or maybe even an Olympic swimmer if I had gotten the training as a boy. My body is made for swimming. I've also started doing triathlons this year. I love them! My training partner and I have somewhat joked about doing the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii before we reach the age of 40. He and I can dream about it, but neither of us has the time to train for something like that. As hard as I work to keep to a workout schedule, my job requires me to work at odd times of day and on weekends, and so I can't make fitness part of a weekly routine. I just do it when I can fit it in. This is perhaps the most frustrating thing of all, because one big motivator for me with regards to being an athlete is that I am in complete control of this aspect of my life. I direct what activity I will do and how long I'll do it. If I want to get faster, stronger, thinner, or bigger, I know what I have to do to make the goal happen. But that darn job gets in the way. Or an injury. Or foul weather. Or the end of daylight saving time.

All of the above were the thoughts that crossed my mind as I lay on that couch earlier in the week. Woe was me! Of course, as soon as I realized that I was feeling this way, my mood improved. Obviously I was being silly. Age 37 is not the end of life or any limit to reaching fitness goals. Sure, my responsibilities at work will get in the way of training. Or an injury. Or foul weather. But all these are temporary set-backs. I have the love of fitness now. I love triathlons and swimming and riding my new road bike. A birthday will not take this love away. In fact, a steady progression of birthdays is what has allowed me these opportunities. At age 32 I had never commuted to work by bicycle. I do that now. At age 33 I had never lifted weights. I do that now. At age 34 I didn't know how to swim. I compete on a swim team now. At age 35 I had never ran a 5K race or competed in a triathlon. I run on a regular basis now, and I've done three sprint-length triathlons. The swim team and the 5Ks and the triathlons have helped me make new friends. If I had died at age 32 I never would have experienced these things. So now as I look forward to my upper 30s and 40s, I wonder what amazing things I'll get to do. It's a grand journey and a little shoulder injury, muscle cramp, backache, late night at work, or snowstorm will not get in my way for long.

My most recent 5K race took place in an October snowstorm. Clearly I'm now addicted to athletic competitions.
So what will age 37 (technically my 38th year) bring? I am a little wary to make predictions, but I know I'll be running longer distances, cycling over steeper hills, and swimming faster. I plan to do a 150-mile bike ride with my friend Dan. He and I will also sign up for at least three sprint triathlons, and I really want to do an Olympic-length triathlon, too. If I accomplish any one of those goals it will be enough to brag about a year from now when I celebrate my next birthday.

For the record, as a 36-year-old, I:
ran  98 miles,
biked 476 miles, and
swam 105 miles.
These totals include two competitive bike races, two sprint-length triathlons, two 5K races, and eight competitive swim meets. I plan to do more than this as a 37-year-old!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Introducing Trek 1.5 road bike

Introducing my 2011 Trek 1.5 road bike.
I haven't posted a blog entry in a while, so I guess I'll start with something that happened soon after my last post in July--I bought a new bike! It's a Trek 1.5 road bike with a 62cm aluminum frame with H2 geometry (for racing, but not elite racing) and a carbon fiber seat post and front fork to help with shock absorption. I've ridden the bike more than 100 miles since buying it, and I can say it is a lot of fun. It is zippy and smooth. It can take corners very tight, and I have reached a maximum speed of 42.0 mph going down one of the steeper hills near my home. It's my racehorse, both figuratively and literally. Well, not literally really, as it is still a bike. But I bought it for competition in the triathlons I have started to do. I continue to use my old Trek 700 hybrid from 1991 for running errands, commuting to work, and riding on gravel bike trails. This new road bike I only use in races and when training for races on paved surfaces. After riding the new road bike on a route that I often took with my old hybrid, I found that the new bike has resulted in around a 1.5 mph increase in my average speed. The hills on this route are short but steep. The new bike's gearing system (50/34 crank and 9-speed 11-26 cassette) really doesn't help me climb hills any better than I can do with my triple crank 21-speed hybrid, so the improvement comes more on the flat topography (not much of that around here!) and the downhill segments.

Note the new cycling shoes, too. I had to buy those since wearing regular athletic shoes do not clear the chainstays at the rear tire (see previous post). My cycling shoes are mid-priced Shimano mountain bike shoes suggested by the bike shop. Road bike shoes have no tread on the bottom, so they cannot be worn safely when dismounted from the bike. I got the shoes with tread so that I will feel free to dismount and go for a walk if I want. Of course, I haven't done that. But I could. For example, in June 2012 I am planning to do a 150-mile ride as part of a fund raiser for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. If my friends and I stop and get lunch at a restaurant in the middle of the ride, I won't have to worry about slipping on the floor. Have I convinced you yet? Doesn't matter. The shoes are great, even if "true" cyclists get the type of shoes without a tread. 

I have determined that I will never have the top racing equipment. Like all hobbies, there are many levels: beginner, intermediate, advanced, and steps in between. With each increase in skill level, there is a concurrent increase in the price of equipment used at that skill level. For instance, my new entry-level bike cost only a fraction of what I would need to spend for a high-end racing bike with state-of-the-art components. I'd love to have a $5,000 bike but my skill level does not warrant that. So it's an interesting situation for my personal finances: as I get better at cycling, I'll need to get richer, too. Both situations would be welcome!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Heel-strike while pedalling a new road bike

I'm in the market for a new road bike. My purchase is imminent and I'm very excited to have a road bike that I will use for racing and training. I currently have a hybrid that I use for trail riding and commuting. I plan to keep the old workhorse and just add a race horse to my collection. Since this will be my first road bike, I've decided to be sensible about its cost, and I'm only considering the entry-level bikes that typically cost $1000 and feature an aluminum frame, carbon fork, and Shimano Tiagra components.

I've gotten a lot of feedback from friends and fellow bloggers about how to go about choosing a new bike. The overwhelming majority of folks said "you just have to test-drive a lot of bikes and choose the one that feels right." While this sounds like excellent advice, in practice I have found it quite difficult. You see, I'm 6'4" and none of the three local bike shops near me had any bikes with a 60-62 cm frame that my body size requires. One bike shop is already out of consideration because they really couldn't get me much bang for my buck compared to the other two shops. One bike shop was really awesome and has worked with me several days in a row to get me a bike that fits. After my initial visit, they ordered it and will add it to their inventory if I decide I don't want it. After taking my measurements and adjusting the bike to fit me, I took the bike out of the shop and rode it around the neighborhood for about a mile. I really want it! But I put off the purchase for one reason: I found that my heels bumped into the chainstay (interestingly, just on the right side) quite a few times as I rode around the  neighborhood. It didn't happen every time, but it happened often enough that I worried that maybe the bike wasn't going to work for me.
[I pause here to define "chainstay." The chainstay is the metal bar of a bicycle frame that runs parallel to the pavement between the bottom bracket (where the pedals attach) and the rear axle. The rear part of this metal bar bends outward from the wheel axle to accommodate all the gear sprockets back there, and it is this portion of the chainstay--the part that sticks out--that my heel strikes as my foot circulates around with the pedals. See photo below]

The red bar is the chainstay. Photo from
So back to the heel-strike issue. I pointed out the problem to the salesperson and he suggested that I try wearing different shoes (I was wearing running shoes that have a lot of material at the heel end). That made sense, so I looked over the shop's selection of cycling shoes. Many cycling shoes have a narrower heel than my running shoes, so with a narrower heel, I might not hit the chainstay as often. Choosing a pair of shoes, I discovered that the bike shop's inventory did not include my size. I wear size 13US. This isn't surprising, as I have trouble finding a good selection of shoes at any store, but it was a little funny that the bike shop had to not only special order a bike, but also shoes, for me. They ordered a couple varieties for me and I'll drop by tomorrow to see how the shoes fit and whether they solve the heel-strike problem.

But what if the shoes don't solve the heel-strike issue? Well, I figured I should go to a different bike shop and take a second bike for a test drive. I reasoned that maybe the problem with the first bike was its design, and maybe a different bike wouldn't cause this heel-strike problem.

The salesperson at the second bike shop couldn't find a 60cm frame, either. So I hopped on a 58cm frame and took it for a test drive. I wore the same shoes as before, since I almost always wear running shoes...even when I'm not running. This second bike still caused my heel to strike the chainstay (more notably on the left side this time). So it appears I'll have this issue regardless of bike make and model. 

So I'm strongly leaning toward buying that first bike, even if the heel-strike issue is unresolved by new cycling shoes. I expect I will quickly learn to position my feet in a way that will avoid the chainstay. For instance, pointing my toes inward will cause my heels to be oriented to the outside edge of the pedal, and presumably this will be enough to avoid striking my heel on the chainstay. But will this altered foot position cause me harm?

Is there anyone out there with this "big foot" problem?

Why don't bicycle designers make a frame that fits big people?!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Road bike suggestions

I'm about to start looking for a second bicycle. My existing bike is a Trek hybrid that I bought in 1991 as a high schooler. The price of the bike back then was $299.95 (I still have the receipt), and in today's dollars that would equate to around $585! Hybrids are really popular today, but in 1991 I didn't know of anyone with a hybrid...especially one with a 23" frame. Even today, I sit taller on the bicylce than I do when I drive my car. My bike has treated me well, and I plan to keep riding it for years to come. It's my workhorse. I ride it to work, I ride it to do errands, and I have ridden it on thousands of miles of gravel bike paths throughout the eastern USA. However, the bike's steel frame and treaded tires slow me down when trying to climb hills in my hilly neighborhood. I found myself at a competitive disadvantage during a recent triathlon race.

And since I had so much fun with that triathlon, I want to do more. Having a bike designed for road races will be fun and motivating, too. So, what kind of bike should I get? My budget is around $1,000 so what I'm looking for is an entry-level road bike for someone who rides on hilly rural roads and enters the occassional race. Do my readers have any suggestions with regards to brand or components I should be looking for?

Monday, June 20, 2011

My first triathlon!

On Saturday I participated in my first triathlon! It was AWESOME. I can't wait until I do this again. I trained with a couple friends and that made it so much more fun than if I had done it all myself. This was not a full-length Olympic triathlon, of course. Are you crazy? I have never in my life ran 10 miles or whatever the terrible sum would be. I'm not a runner. I'm just not. But swimmer? Yes. And cyclist? Almost. So here are the details:
Feeling confident at the start of my first triathlon.

200-yard SWIM
This is shorter than the typical sprint triathlon (where the swimming portion is usually 700 yards or so). It's not my fault. I wish it had been a longer swim, because I'm competitive in that area. Anyway, the swimming portion took place in a high school swimming pool, with two people sharing each lane. There were 8 or 9 heats, with the slower swimmers (based on seed time) going first. I was in Heat 6. Honestly, it was hard not to make fun of some of the people swimming in the earlier Heats. There was one man who threw his arms out like he was doing the butterfly, and his head was out of the water the whole time. Yes, so it was the butterfly-doggy-paddle. A very interesting stroke that I might try to patent. I had a lot of confidence going into the triathlon because most triathletes (seems to me) have little swimming experience. I swam with speed and energy, but of course I didn't want to burn out, so I did not go at top speed. I won my heat with ease, jumped out of the pool, ran over to my pool shoes, threw them on, and ran out the building to the bicycle staging area. My swim time plus "must-put-on-pool-shoes" time was 3:40. I beat my training partners Dan and Geoff. I was expecting to beat Geoff, as he is not a swimmer. But Dan and I both swim for a Master's Swim Team, and he is always faster than me. I think the 20-second difference between our swim times is more about how we transitioned to the bicycle than the actual in-pool swimming speed.
My training partners Geoff and Dan, before the triathlon began.

11.2-mile CYCLING
This was by far the most exciting thing I've done all year. I've never participated in a bicycle race. I completed the 11-mile hilly route in 45:09, though this includes both the swim-bike transition and the bike-run transition. I sat in a chair I had set up in my transition area, threw off the pool shoes, briefly towelled off my feet, and put on socks. The socks I had previously rolled up so that they would roll over my mostly wet feet without too much delay. This worked really well! I put on a shirt, my running shoes, my cycling gloves, and helmet. Then I jogged with the bike to the starting point, hopped on, and within two cycles of the pedals my right shoelace got caught in the chain and gears. It was ripped to shreds and I had to dismount to re-tie my shoes. What a way to start a bike race! It literally only took a few seconds so I'm not fretting about it. I zoomed down the road out of the high school parking lot and onto the streets of the town. Police or firemen were posted at most of the intersections to stop traffic and let the cyclists race through. What a blast to finally own the road and not have to worry about getting hit by a car. (This was only true at intersections though; otherwise we did have to share the roads with cars). Within a couple miles we were out of the town and on rolling country roads. There were 76 cyclists in this race, and we were well-separated due to the different swim start times. I passed a few cyclists going up the steeper hills, and I was passed by others going down some of the hills. Given the relatively few number of people who passed me, I really thought I was holding my own on the cycling and I'd be competitive in the event--like performing better than average for my gender-age group. But nope. I placed 12 out of 13 in my gender-age group, and I placed 37 out of 76 overall. Even Geoff and Dan beat me by a minute or two. What? The cycling was supposed to be my best event. But Geoff commutes to work most days, and he has a hill to climb. And Dan does a "spinning" class every Thursday where they work him hard. It seems I had not been training as much as I thought I had, at least compared to my comrades. But no problem. I had fun! 

3.1-mile RUN
Finished with the biking, I dismounted and ran over to my transition area. I took off my helmet, my gloves, and drank a few ounces of Gatorade. A student of mine (I teach at a small college) was in this race, too, and his transition area was adjacent to mine. He and I swam in the same heat, and he did not pass me on my bicycle, so I knew I was actually beating this 22-year old. In fact, looking at the results, I was beating him by 1.1 seconds. I was also beating Geoff by 8 seconds, but Dan was ahead of me by more than a minute and a half. The run would change all that, as I have very little experience running. I run a few miles each month, but it's not my strongest or favorite activity to do. So, I was competitive among my friends until the running portion. Geoff is a runner, and he ended the race 6 minutes ahead of me (all of this was acheived during the running portion). Dan ended the race 2 minutes ahead of me, so was running only 0.07 mph faster than me (his pace was 9.72 min/mile and mine was 9.84 min/mile).

As usual, the run was only bad during the first mile. I had trouble picking up my feet and my right calf muscle was tense. I have problems with muscle cramps in my calfs, and in my experience, if it got real bad, I would have to stop running and I'd have trouble finishing the race. So I decided to stop running and walk for a couple minutes. This was a good idea because my calf muscle loosened up and it didn't bother me again after I started running again. The running route was simply around the high school parking lots, down a hill, through another parking lot, and then it finished with 5 loops around the stadium's track. Once I was headed to the track, I knew I'd finish the race and I felt good. Geoff was done already, and he encouraged me each time I made a circuit. Dan was right behind me. And that college kid that I was beating? Well, he's on the college cross-country track team, so yeah, he beat us all, finishing 21 overall, out of 76 adults. He ran 3.1 miles in 20:48. To do this, he would have had to pass me several times as we circled around the high school buildings and the stadium track. But I never saw him, and after I spoke to him after the race, he said he never saw me, either. There was no way for him to cheat (and I wouldn't expect him to do that anyway), but it sure was strange that we were both focussed so much on our own performance that we failed to notice who we were passing or being passed by.

In sum, I finished the route in 1:19:18. Maybe I didn't win the race, maybe I wasn't better than my peer group, but I still surpassed what I thought I could do. My goal was to finish in 90 minutes. I never expected to run very fast, but it turns out that my pace of 9:84 was my second-fastest run, ever (as calculated by My average speed on the bike was 14.9 mph, which is quite frankly admirable, since this was a hilly route and my bicylce is not a road bike (it is a hybrid model with a steel frame). My swim was not at top speed, yet it appears that it was rivalling my performance at a Master's Swim meet on 11 Jan 2011. My time then was 3:12, whereas on Saturday it was 3:40 which includes running out of the pool to my bicycle. I did really, really well. I feel so strong. I must do this again sometime soon.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Introducing Speedo Endurance

My first racing swim suit did not last long. I started wearing it in late November 2010 (see related post), and I swam in it for the last time in May 2011. The fabric at the butt crack (wish there were a nicer phrase to use) was splayed and I had to retire the suit for fear of it splitting down the middle during a swim. I was completely surprised that the suit wore out so quickly, but in speaking with some swimming buddies it appears that the elastic Lycra material is damaged by pool chlorine, and my daily use of the suit led to its early demise. My swim buddies wear separate suits for training and for racing. I did not know this because I am new to the sport.

The "board shorts" style swim suit I wear.
So, what should I do? I thought my options were to go back to wearing a non-racing pair of "board shorts" while training (see left), or to train in a new racing suit that will wear out every season. There are also some training suits that are very short but feature a mesh outer covering. I've seen college swim team members wear these in the pool. These latter training suits seemed to be a good compromise between the bulkiness of board shorts and the sleek hydrodynamics of a racing suit. I can't swim as fast in board shorts due to the drag they create in the water. The drag is actually a good thing when training, as it makes the body work harder. Nevertheless, I am having fun at least pretending to be a competitive swimmer, so I want a suit that helps me show off and feel good about my progress. Anyway, all this discussion about trade-offs of different kinds of suits was a bit hypothetical because I was now without a racing suit, and my triathlon was coming up in mid June (in fact, it is tomorrow!). So my first purchase would be a racing suit, even if the thing doesn't last long in pool chlorine.

The racing swim suit I just bought.
Fortunately, a swim team member told me about Speedo's Endurance fabric, which is meant to hold up to chlorine a lot better. He swims hundreds of miles per year and he swears by the suit. So, I've now got one. I bought the Speedo Endurance Mercury Spliced Jammer in black and gold. It cost a pretty penny, but now I don't have to buy more than one suit. I plan to swim in this suit for both training and competitions. It contains PBT polyester in place of Lycra. has an awesome web page that compares these and other types of fabrics.

My initial reactions: (1) it is not as elastic as my previous jammer; in fact, it feels a little tight at the waist as I put it on. Once it is on, it does not feel too tight. In fact, the fit is really good. (2) the fabric feels thicker and more durable. (3) As mentioned on the website, the material does not conform as much to my body as the Lycra-containing suit. That is, it reveals less of my male anatomy, and I'm thinking that's a good thing....

Monday, May 23, 2011

Ever throw a boomerang?

Only a couple years ago I used to throw a boomerang with some regularity, and I'm happy to report I still have that skill. Saturday I did a some throws at Keystone State Park. I have two boomerangs purchased from more than a decade ago. One has always been harder than the other to throw successfully, but this week I quickly re-learned how to throw them so that both came back to me nearly every time.

Launching a boomerang.
Maybe I should step back a bit and explain how boomerangs actually work. First, you stand in the middle of a large field--these 'rangs fly in a circle with a radius of up to 40 meters (44 yards). Then you figure out the direction from which the wind is blowing. I find that my 'rangs fly better when there is a light breeze rather than a heavy wind or no wind at all. I throw the boomerang exactly 10 degrees to the right of where the wind is blowing. For example, if the wind is from the North, I throw the boomerang toward the NNE. The throw is not the same as a frisbee throw. Instead, it is a over-the-shoulder fling, straight down, as if throwing a hammer. I release the boomerang at the horizon when my arm straightens out, parallel to the ground. The boomerang then slices through the air in a straight line until it is about 40 meters away, and then it banks sharply to the left and travels in a circle around me as I stand watching it. If I've thrown it correctly, it will travel around me for about 270 degrees and then return to near my position where I can catch it before it hovers down to the ground.

Failing to catch a boomerang. That's actually the fun part.
If I've thrown it incorrectly, the boomerang might hit the ground far, far away. Or it might circle a complete 360 degrees over my head and land behind me somewhere. The initial throw is not supposed to be hard; the force is supposed to be generated by a fling of the wrist, but I've never done that well. I end up throwing the boomerang too hard. You might think this would cause the boomerang to travel forward farther than expected, but that's not how it works. A boomerang thown too hard will make the 360 degree circle and then do another partial circle befoere landing on the ground. The problem with a second partial circle is that it may land rather far from my initial throwing position. But you know what? I actually find it fun to run after the thing while it is still in the air. I run and leap and try to catch it in midair. I am completely serious when I say that American football players should integrate boomerang catching into their training. To catch a poorly-thrown boomerang requires a lot of sprint running, jumping with arms over head, and a nimble grab of a spinning object as you land. It's like football, I tell you! I am therefore just a little disappointed that I was pretty good with my throws, because that meant I didn't get the cardiovascular workout I was expecting! Nevertheless, today I have delayed onset muscle soreness in the following areas: flexor carpi ulnaris (lower arm), deltoid (shoulder), external obliques (abdomen), hamstring (upper leg). Feels so good!

Last week I also biked 5 miles, ran 2 miles, and swam 2,400 yards (over two days). I did two gym workouts, too. This is good and I'm feeling good and feeling strong. I do wish I could find the time to do more though!

Monday, May 16, 2011

New cycling jacket

Last week I did my standard 5.0 mile loop around the country club near my home. It's a quick ride that I can fit into a 20-min time slot. It is convenient, and it is still challenging because it features several hills. I have been averaging around 14.4 mph on this route for the last month, and I told myself I would buy a cycling jacket as a reward whenever I reached 15.0 mph. I thought this was a reasonable short-term goal. I figured it might take 3-4 weeks to acheive this goal. However, I averaged 15.1 mph on my very next ride. Oh dear! I guess I need more experience in setting goals, because that was clearly too easy. But I reached the goal, so I must buy the jacket, right?

Pearl Izumi Elite Barrier Jacket
Right. So I am now the happy owner of a Pearl Izumi Elite Barrier Jacket. Size: Large. Color: screaming yellow. Semi-form fit. The label reads: "Fabric provides superior wind protection and water resistance. Direct-vent panel provides superior ventilation. Reflective elements for low-light visibility. One back Velcro pocket."

I wore this jacket today as I rode the country club loop. I averaged 14.9 mph (see what happens when there is no reward incentive?) with maximum speed of 32.0mph. I rode 5.07 miles in 20:27. The air temperature was 59 degrees F with high humidity and a calm wind. I wore the jacket over top of a compression short-sleeved shirt, and below the waist I wore compression underwear and cycling tights. I was plenty warm. I might have done without the tights and just gone with shorts. Anyway, I am very pleased with the jacket performance. It fits perfectly, with just the right amount of room inside for movement of shoulders and arms. The jacket is made for a person like me with a flat abdomen, so there is no spare fabric there to flap around in the wind. The sleeves are remarkably long compared to most jackets and fit my long arms perfectly. The sleeves have elastic cuffs that keep the sleeves positioned well at the wrists. The rear of the jacket is cut long so that when one is leaning over on the bicycle to race down a hill, there is adequate coverage. The fabric is soft and light. I can tell it has some kind of coating to repel rain, but it is not objectionable in any way. It reminds me of fabric that camping tents are made from. I think this jacket is awesome.

However, I am trained as a scientist and inevitably I will find a few things to improve upon (FYI, that's how science works). So my two criticisms are:
  • The zipper is too small. So far, so good. But my experience with zippers like this one is that it will catch in the fabric. I don't know, though. I just tried playing around with it to see if I could get it to catch, but it won't. Not so far.....
  • The upper arms are too wide in diameter. At a speed of exactly 15 mph, the fabric around my upper arms begins to flap in the wind. It was kind of cool that it would stop flapping below 15mph and start flapping as I exceeded 15 mph, but at the faster speeds I was bothered by the thup-thup-thup sound the fabric made. Obviously, this would increase wind resistance, too. So how much fabric is there? I have the jacket on right now and I can grab a 2-inch flap of material around the upper arm. I'm actually surprised now how little space there is in the arms. Given how much wind-flapping I noticed, I would have thought there was more extra material there then there actually is.
By the way, my upper arms are 12 inches in circumference, so if you've got more meat on your biceps and triceps than I do, you're probably going to avoid the wind-flapping issue. I'm trying to bulk up my arms, shoulders, and chest, so maybe one day the wind-flapping will go away. After I first started weight-lifting in 2008, it took about 16 months for me to grow my biceps from 11 inches to 12 inches, so further growth is possible. I just have to be patient and purposeful about it. If I want to. Some days I couldn't care less about my muscle mass. Other days, I do care. Just yesterday someone was talking to me about their son, "who used to be thin--like you--until he started a weight-lifting program." I was not offended by the comment, but alas, I dislike being the representative case for how "thin people" look. I think this is because "thin" in my mind connotes "weak." Whether or not the "weak"label is true, I don't want to be called that. 

Coincidentally, it is now time for me to do some bench presses. Until next time, workout hard and have fun!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Does mini-golf count?

I ask the question only because that was the sum of my physical activity yesterday. No, I'm not counting mini-golf as a workout. Maybe it would count if I were an obese man with a heart condition. Or an elderly man. But I'm far from either condition. I am above average in health for a 36 year-old. I have very little fat and I could run 3 miles or bike 50 miles or swim 2,000 yards tomorrow if I wanted to---because I have done all those things in the last 6 months. The problem is, I won't want to do any of that tomorrow. It is so hard to push myself to do more than half of those totals.

But let me stop right here with the forlorn regretfulness. I'm in great shape, and in the last 6 months I have acheived things I never thought I would do. I never thought I'd ride 50 miles on my bicycle in a single day. I never thought I'd swim 2,000 yards in an hour. Indeed, when I swam a 1,650 race in January, that was the most I had ever swam in one setting, and I had no idea I could even do that! I never thought I'd run a 5K race. It just wasn't something I ever wanted to do. But three days before the event I woke up and decided I would try.

So let me look ahead six months from now. What do I see? I will have done a sprint triathlon in June. I will have run another 5K. I will have biked another 40 or 50 miles with friends. I will be swimming 1,500 yards routinely, and my coach will probably have built me up to 2,300 yards in a single practice. Or maybe I'll do more than all this. Who knows? The message I should hold on to is that even if I fail to run a mile every morning, and even if I have to slow to 5 mph climbing a hill on my bicycle, over the longer term I will still be acheiving something great. I will even more of an athlete 6 months from now, and my body will be stronger and faster.

The only area that I actually do need to "worry" about is my gym workouts--the ones that include weight lifting, pull-ups, elastic band exercises, and abdominal crunches. I made great progress in this area in 2009, then I slacked off in 2010, and 2011 is even worse in terms of monthly weight-lifting sums. So, modifying the goals I set for myself about 12 days ago, I plan to:

Simply do some weight-lifting four days in each string of seven.  It matters not what I do on any of those days as long as I do something in the weight-lifting category. If I lift 4 days in a row, I can take 3 days off if I want. In fact, I could take 6 days off as long as I lifted during the first 4 days and last 4 days of a two-week period. That's close where I am right now. I lifted on Days #1-#4, then again on Day #10 and Day #12. To meet my new goal, I'll have to lift on Days #13 and #14. The advantage of this goal is that I will be more regular with my lifting compared to any time since early February of this year. Another advantage is that it has enough flexibility that I can do social activities on many evenings and not feel like I missed out on a workout. The most important advantage is that I think I can fulfil this goal, and sometimes exceed it. Just like the running, biking, and swimming, I need some situations where I burst forth into new territory. I want to set a new personal record in lifting frequency or weight. I am pretty sure I this will happen sometime before the end of the month.

But not tonight. My workout tonight was ordinary. I benched 105 pounds in two sets for a total of 17 reps. I did elastic band exercises for my rotator cuff (not quite healed, but close). I did 2 pull-ups. I did 22.5-pound bicep curls in two sets for a total of 23 reps. I did 8-pound lateral raises for 9 reps...and then time ran out and I had to move on to other things. But hey, this counts as a workout. It counts.

Friday, May 6, 2011

11 miles of running, biking, and swimming, plus a softball game and finally some weight-lifting

This entry continues a little series of blog posts describing my struggle to push myself a little further with my cardio and gym workouts. I keep promising that my responsibilities at work are slowing down so I'll have more time for working out, but so far that hasn't happened yet. That really should be true next week, though.

Since my last post, here is what I've done:

Tuesday: Treadmill run for 24 minutes at pace 10:59. Average heart rate = 148bpm and maximum was 178 bpm. No weight-training.

Wednesday: Nothing. A big day at work. Sorry.

Thursday: Swim practice with my coach. He earned his pay by tiring me out. I started with my normal 500-yard freestyle warm up. Then he had me do 6x50s of freestyle drills. For some of these he had me do an 8-kick/3-stroke pattern with finger-tip drag. This was meant to do make me concentrate on my rotations, and the finger-tip drag sets my catch up better so that my hands enter the water in a more natural position. My coach also noticed that when I do the finger-tip drag I am more graceful with the strokes, which probably saves me some energy over the long run. He also directed me to keep my "chest in" when I swim, which I find a little difficult to envision. Nevertheless, his point is that I stretch too far forward as my hands start each stroke, and keeping my chest in will keep my hand entry point in a better position.

When he told me this, I had an eureka moment. I have mentioned previously that I am suffering from a muscle strain in my left shoulder. I go back and forth about what has caused this injury, but it makes perfect sense at this point that stretching my hand too far forward and then initiating the pull stroke could cause injury to the infraspinatus muscle. I know from my physiology textbooks that muscles are most likely to be injured when they are contracting from a stretched position.    

One more observation from my coach regarding my freestyle is that my stroke cycle is completely dependent on my breathing cycle: breathe (right side)--pull (right side)--pull (left side)--repeat. He said that breathing should be disconnected from the arm motions. To break me out of my breathing pattern, he made me breathe on my left side. He actually thought my breaths on that side were shorter and less intrusive to my streamlining than when I breath on the right. OK, so I'll try to do more breathing on the left. Hopefully when I do, I won't swallow as much water as I did on Thursday!

Following the 6x50s of freestyle, my coach had me do a string of timed swims, I did a 100-IM (the Individual Medley consists of butterfly followed by backstroke followed by breaststroke followed by freestyle). Coach G. allowed me 3:30 to do the 100-IM and I was done after 1:30 or so. This gave me two minutes to rest, during which G. raised his eyebrows and congratulated me on swimming the 100-IM faster than the 100-freestyle drills I did last week.

The 100 IM was followed by 2x25s of butterfly (coach: quit doing a flutter kick); followed by another 100-IM; followed by 2x50s of backstroke (coach: make my kicks smaller); followed by another 100-IM; followed by 2x50s breaststroke (coach: tuck knees in more and don't kick so far out to each side. Remember to look at the pool bottom as I kick, and aim my arms for the far side of the pool; this will propel me straight ahead instead of downward). Another 100-IM, and then 2x50s of freestyle. Upon finishing, I was beat and had a headache. I didn't tell Coach G., though.

My day was not finished with the swim. A couple hours later I played a slow-pitch softball game with some other faculty against our graduating senior students. I played left field and caught one fly ball. I also fumbled about three more balls hit my way. At bat, I was 1 for 3 in terms of hits, but I made a good showing. The students would have been impressed with my athleticism if only they were still sober at this point (see beer cans in photo!). Oh, and given that they are 15 years younger than me, they don't realize that the human body doesn't work the same way when you get older.
One of my friends and a bunch of college students look on as the softball game proceeds.

I still did not weight-lifting on Thursday. I ran out of time.

My post is getting long now, so I'll abbreviate my Friday activities. First, I went on a bike ride: 4.8 miles in 20 minutes with an average heart rate of 142 bpm and a maximum of 162bpm. After the bike ride I to lift some weights. I did 2 sets of bench presses @105 pounds for a total of 18 reps. I did rotator cuff exercises. I did 2 sets of pull-ups for a total of 4 reps. I did 6 reps of an upright row using a 80-pound barbell. I did 2 sets of dumbbell shrugs for a total of 40 reps. Lastly, I did two sets of calf raises for a total of 30 reps. Let's go, Scott Cannon. Let's do more!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Re-set Day #6

Yesterday I "rested," or at least I didn't do any workouts. I'm on day #6 after deciding to increase the frequency of my workouts following a 36-day "drought" in my weight-lifting sessions and a 39-day drought in my running. Over the last month I have continued to swim and bike, but not much else. So what did I do today? Oops! Mostly just go for a bike ride...

4.8 mile bike ride around the country club near my home. Actually, the country club isn't that big; I rode around the golf course twice for a total of 4.8 miles. My average speed was 14.6 mph and my maximum speed was 34.1 mph, obviously obtained while going down a steep hill. My average heart rate was 151 bpm and my maximum during the 21:01 activity was 167 bpm. I burned 165 calories according to the bike computer, or 303 calories according to the heart rate monitor. I wish the two gadgets would agree. Out of frustration, I go to a website calculator, which gives me a midline estimate of 251 calories.

I did get the chance to do some lifting, but not everything I had planned. I ran out of time. I did two sets of bench presses @ 105 pounds; for the first set I did 13 reps and I did 7 reps for the second set. My left shoulder is still weak; it is recovering from an injury to my infraspinatus experienced on Re-Set Day #1. It's sooooo ironic and typical that I hurt myself on the first day that I committed to doing more weight-lifting!

I did a limited number of rotator cuff exercises tonight, too.

I am looking forward to a lot more workout time this week, as responsibilities at work have lifted considerably. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

And he rested on Day #5

I decided to rest today, Day #5 after I decided to reinvigorate my fitness plan with more frequent gym workouts. It is important to rest, and let the body repair and rebuild (or just plain build) tissues that I used during the previous 4 days of working out. As I write this, I have midly sore quadriceps, pectoralis, infraspinatus (left side), trapezius, and posterior deltoid (left side) muscles. This delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a good thing because it means I've pushed my muscles harder than usual, and that's the point of working out. The extra pain in the area of my left shoulder is a little more serious, as it is a sharper pain than just DOMS, but it's just a small (and chronic) injury attributable more to swimming than weight-lifting. I' not worried about it. It will heal up soon. So what caused all this muscle sorenes? Well, I've already outlined my activites for Days 1-3 in previous posts. Here is what I did yesterday, on Day #4:

  • Outdoor run, 2.1 miles in 25 minutes (but maybe less; I got sidetracked talking to a neighbor after my run and didn't turn off my fitness watch). The route I take features a fairly big hill at the start. As I started to climb the hill, I thought "uuugh, this is tough." But just a couple minutes later, while still climbing, I had a change in perspective. The climb wasn't that bad. I was doing OK, and I felt this way through mile 2.0. But then, as I neared the point where I could either go home or extend my run for another mile, I decided I was finished and I stopped. I could have gone further. I really could have. But this was my first run in 39 days. I didn't want to push. I promise myself and my readers that I won't go another 39 days before my next run. In fact, I'll do it again in a week or less. 
    Small waterfall at Ohiopyle State Park.

  • Hike, 2 miles or so in an hour. I walked with a friend on a trail in a park along a stream with gushing waterfalls. The trail then climbed a couple hundred feet to a hilltop. We went at a pace fast enough to count as cardiovascular exercise...except for time spent admiring the waterfall. 
  • Bench press, 105 pounds. I did two sets. The first was 12 reps, and the second was 8 reps. Not impressive, really, but it's a good re-start after a workout drought. I have the whole summer ahead of me to add weights. 
  • Rotator cuff elastic band exercises: There are several of these I do for each shoulder. I am still very weak in the external rotation of my left shoulder, but I am definitely stronger compared to just the day before. I clearly injured myself a few days ago with the 2,000-yard swim. The freestyle strokes are not the source of the injury; rather, it is the position I put my arms at the tail end of my flip-turns. It is awkward for me to outstretch my arms "above" my head as I swim underwater. Seriously, I think I have a birth defect in my left shoulder's construction that prevents me from positioning my arm correctly. Maybe this little injury has stretched the necessary ligaments to improve my swimming posture in the future. Hmmm...I'm not sure I believe this, but I can still hope.... 
  • Pull-ups: I did two. Again, I plan to increase this sum considerable as the summer approaches. 
  • Upright row, 80 pounds. I only did two reps of this. My left shoulder didn't feel strong and because it is still healing from who-knows-what (see above), I stopped after two. Hey, 2 is better than none. 
My schedule for this week has to remain in flux, as I'm not sure when the pool is open during exam week (I swim at a college pool). But whatever days I do not swim, I will bike, hike, or run. As for the gym workouts, I will start up again tomorrow for Day #6. More bench presses, elastic band pulls, pull-ups, and biceps curls on on tap for Monday. I'll add an additional exercise each day throughout the week. I 'll rest again after another 4 days. 

Friday, April 29, 2011

Re-set Day #3

Today is the third day of working out after a period of relative inactivity. Three days ago I set some goals for the coming week and I've achieved a few and let others slide. Today is no different, but at least I've gotten to do something each day, which is different from before. My goal for today was to swim early this morning, run in the evening, and do a short gym workout. I did most of that:

I awoke early and got to the pool, but it wasn't open at 8:25 when I arrived. Student life guards are responsible for opening the college pool from 7-9am, but this is the end of the semester and I suspect who ever was responsible for this morning's opening wasn't all that responsible! Anyway, I was able to take some time right after noon to go for a swim. I did 1,100 yards, mostly freestyle but a few laps each of breaststroke and backstroke. My backstroke by the way is feeling really good. I don't get as tired after a lap now in comparison to last summer.

wild phlox seen on my nature walk
Late in the afternoon I took a walk with a group of students in a nearby nature reserve to look for wildflowers and an owl nest that was spotted there earlier by am acquaintance. We didn't find any owls unfortunately, but we were greeted by the delicate whites, purples, blues, and yellows of rue anemone, phlox (photo at left), bluets, and yellow violets, respectively. The owl nest was supposed to be near a patch of marsh marigold--a wetland plant with yellow blooms--but I couldn't find any marigolds and thus, no owls. According to MapMyRun, we walked 1.6 miles. Though this was not a "run" as I had planned, I am still counting it as exercise. So no running today!

My gym workout was composed of more bench presses (105 pounds; one set of 11 reps and a second set of 7 reps). some elastic band exercises for my shoulders, and 2 pull-ups. My pectoralis is still very sore from the previous days' bench presses. My infraspinatus is not sore today, but my external rotation of the left shoulder is still very weak compared to that of my right shoulder.

I will try to do a run tomorrow morning before I see my girlfriend later in the day. I also expect to have time for a gym workout, which would be beyond my initial plans. On the other hand, maybe after Day #4 I should give my body a day of rest. I'll think about that. Workout plans made a few days ago must be adaptable to current conditions. I'm not afraid to take a day's rest at this point. I have momentum now!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Re-set Day #2

This was day two of my "re-set," before which I went 36 days without doing a gym workout. During this "drought," I continued to swim and bike, but not at a normal frequency. Things at work and at home have just been two busy. So, I'm trying to start again.

My schedule today was a little different than planned, so I did not have time to swim at midday when my pool is open. I also did not have time to do much gym workout, but I did get in about half of what I planned. I did two sets of bench presses using 105-pound weights. My first set was 13 reps and my second set was 7 reps. I felt a lot stronger today compared to yesterday, so my muscles seem to have recovered well from that 2,050 yard swim on Day #1. I have a lot of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in the midline fibers of my pectoralis; I believe these are sore from doing the bench presses yesterday rather than the swimming. So, it seems that my bench press form was not as bad as I thought; I really was working the pectoralis (I feared I was doing the exercise wrong, relying too much on muscles in the back). My infraspinatus muscle is not painful today.

Is it strange to enjoy DOMS? It's a feel-good sort of pain, and I get some pleasure out of massaging myself in the area of soreness. Hey now...get your mind out of the gutter. I'm not talking about that kind of massage!

Today I also did about 40 reps of a rotator cuff exercise, and then my girlfriend arrived and I had to quit.

I now feel like I've been cheated out of the parts of the workout I didn't have time to do today, so I've got a new plan for tomorrow in order to catch up. Tomorrow I will wake up early and take advantage of the pool hours in the morning. Then at the end of the day I'll go for a 20-min run followed by a gym workout consisting of bench press, rotator cuff elastic band exercise, and pull-ups.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Re-set Day #1

Yesterday I posted an entry that discussed how I have skipped the non-cardio portion parts of my workouts for the last 36 days. I set some goals for the first few days in order to get back into a routine. Today is Day #1 of that plan. Here is what I did:

At swim practice this morning I swam 2,050 yards. This exceeded my goal by a considerable degree, but what I do in practice is dictated by my coach, so I was simply guessing at what he'd have me do. He worked me hard today! I started with 500 yards of warm-up (I only did freestyle today). Then 6x50s of a finger-drag drill, which is meant to help me put my hands in the right place as they start their catch. Then the coach taught me a new drill in which I swim 50 yards but interrupt it twice to do a 360-degree somersault. This helped me improve my flip-turn, since my flip turns have gotten really sloppy lately. Coach reminded me to pull my hands all the way into my chest at the start of the flip; this speeds up the flip and helps me initiate it better. I was also told not to breathe right before doing a flip because that lifts my head out of the water, which makes my hips sink. Lastly, on the flip-turn, I should not be afraid to hit the wall when on my back; I can turn over after touching the wall. Otherwise I waste time flipping and then kicking. Most of the rest of swim practice was 3x200s on 4:00 and 4x100s on 1:45, which means the faster I go, the longer I can rest in between. This seemed to work well for the 200s, but I got zero rest between the 100s because it took me 1:45 to do each 100 yard swims. 

But enough about swimming. My goal this week is to increase my weight-lifting activity. So this afternoon I came home from work a few minutes early and did some bench presses. I started at 105 pounds as planned, but I was unable to do 15 reps like I expected.  The [excessive] swimming earlier in the day has killed all the strength in my left shoulder area. In particular, my left infraspinatus muscle is sore. I don't think I've done any great harm, but it is clearly in the midst of repair and I have no strength there. Hmmm, consulting Delavier (2006), I don't see the infraspinatus included in the list of muscles used during a bench press. So maybe some other muscles in my left shoulder were affected by my swim today. Either that or (1) I'm engaging the wrong muscles to do the bench press, or (2) I'm simply weak from lack of lifting exercises during the last 36 days. I don't think it's (2) because my left arm was definitely weaker than my right as I attempted to lift the barbell.

I did some rotator cuff exercises, too. I did most of what I planned, except that I was unable to do 20 reps of two types of elastic band exercise that involves exerternal rotation of the left shoulder. I only did 10 reps of those exercises, as my arm felt weak and I didin't want to do harm. Consulting a few websites confirms that it is the infraspinatus and the teres minor that are responsible for external rotation.

Finally, I did 1.5 pull-ups. My goal was 2, but I was unable to get all the way up on the second one. I know a lot of my "inability" to accomplish my goals is all in my head. I am afraid of hurting myself, and that isn't exactly a bad thing, but it also keeps me from moving forward and getting stronger.

I am exciting for tomorrow's workouts and I'll report back on my results later.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Breaking the weight-lifting drought

I've completely let go of weight lifting for about a month...36 days to be exact. It all started with a 4-day conference and the preparations leading up to it. Upon my return, there were other engagements at work and a few weekends spent with friends.  So those are my excuses. So what am I going to do about it?!
I need to start back up with a slow transition from nothing to something. I propose this for two reasons: (1) I don't want to hurt myself, and (2) I don't want to set a goal/make promises I can't keep. So here is my schedule for the next two weeks:
Wed 27th: Swim practice as usual (1300 yards). When can I do some lifting? I teach an evening class. I will endeavor to come home from 5pm to 6pm before my 6:30pm class. I will do 115-pound bench press reps to exhaustion or up to 15 which ever comes first. Based on how that goes, I will add weight and do another set with fewer reps. Well, hmm, that doesn't sound like starting slow. So let's start with 105 pounds instead. I will also do rotator cuff exercises because I need to do those to keep my shoulders in shape. Finally, I'll do 2 pull-ups.
Thurs 28th: I'll swim again in the afternoon (1100 yards). Then I'll come home around 5pm and repeat the exercises I did the day before (even if sore).
Fri 29th: I teach through 4pm and then I'll probably head over to a friend's house. There won't be much time for weightlifting or swimming, so let me squeeze an outdoor run into my lunch break. I'll leave around 12:45 and come back 20 min later. Don't forget the hear rate monitor and the MP3 player! I'll grab lunch after my run and then teach class at 2pm.
Sat 30th: Probably no swimming, and I'll be sore from the run the day before. But let's fit in some weightlifting (add upright row to the list). 
Biceps on 2/24/11. I won't stay this strong if I fail to workout regularly!
Sun May 1st:  Church in the morning, but I'll have time to do a bike ride in the afternoon. I'll also do a lifting workout: bench press, rotator cuff, pullup, bicep curls, lateral raise, and abdominal crunches...the whole list (I used to do this sort of thing every day).
Rest of May:  Responsibilities at work lighten considerably, so I will do cardio every day and lift weights to some degree four days a week. I have to get in shape for my first triathlon in mid June!
I know that tonight I can write any plans I want, but it won't do me any good if I don't commit. So I will update this blog each day through the end of the month, reporting on what I did or didn't do. My readership is small, but the point with the daily updates is just to keep me energized and ensure I follow through.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

18 miles of biking and whitewater rafting

On Sunday I accompanied a few students of mine on a bike/paddle trip. The trip wasn't my idea, but when they proposed it, I was very happy. I knew it would be fun, and it was. I met what I thought would be a group of 15 college students on my campus at 8am on Sunday morning. We were due at the river outfitter's shop around 9am. The trip organizer and her boyfriend joined me on campus at 8am, but no one else showed up. College students always find ways of disappointing me, so this wasn't a huge shock, and I didn't let it bother me much at all that day. We arrived at the shop around 9:20am and the staff were surprised that we were a group of 3 rather than 16. I shrugged and said, "well, it's too early in the morning, it's cold, and they are college students." Indeed, most students didn't have any better excuse than "I stayed up too late last night, so I didn't feel like getting up." Before I get too flustered about the maturity level of people who insist that they should be treated like grown-ups (they will quickly grow up, but only after being coddled in college), I better get to talking about the good and fun things about our trip.

We were fitted for the bicycles we would rent. Our route was a steady, 9-mile incline along a river upon a dirt trail that used to be a railroad bed. It was a pleasant and easy ride, and we completed it in a little less than an hour. MapMyRun tells me that I climbed 240 feet in 8.67 miles.

Arriving at a parking area, we met a Guide with a pickup truck. He gave us our raft and loaded our bikes onto the truck. He gave us wetsuits to put on in a nearby rest room. I had never worn a wetsuit, but it went on easily and felt comfortable, so I'd do it again. The Guide also provided a packed lunch for us. It was only 11am but I was strangely hungry after the bike ride. Instead of leaving the three of us to eat lunch by ourselves, the company guide sat with us. This was awkward. I felt I needed to engage him in conversation, so I asked a few questions. He talked about hunting rattlesnakes in the area. "Hmmm, interesting," I said. "Is that just a hobby? What do you do with them?"

"I eat them!" he enthusiastically replied, not understanding that consuming rattlesnakes for food is a rather unusual thing to do. As we finished up lunch, the Guide began giving us instructions on paddling down the river. He suggested that at such-and-such falls, we should keep to the left, but at another set of rapids, it would be best to keep right. None of these instructions were helpful, because we had never been on this river before, and we didn't have a map that told us the names of each set of rapids. I was getting nervous, but this was unnecessary. For the most part, the "rapids" and "falls" were harmless, and I think the greater danger was running aground in shallow water, and not capsizing the raft. One exception to this was the last set of falls. The man told us that we would encounter a giant rock in the middle of the river. It would be a more gentle passage if we went right of the rock, but then we would very quickly have to cut across the river to the left in order to land at the boat launch. Otherwise, we would miss the exit point and be at risk for going over a large waterfall about 200 yards downstream. So, to avoid those potential problems, the man suggested we go left at the giant rock. He said this course "would be more fun," and we could then easily exit the river.

It took about 2 hours to raft down to the giant rock the man told us about. Early on, we decided to go left to avoid the problem of missing the boat launch and going over a nasty waterfall. I was in the stern of the raft, so I was in charge of steering. It amazed me how slight a change in paddle orientation would affect the raft's direction. I also appreciated the strength required to steer; I may not have burned much energy paddling, but my abdominal muscles and back muscles were sore the next day. Steering, I took us left of the giant rock. But then there were smaller rocks ahead of us, forming a ledge and a 3-foot waterfall. We were headed for one of these rocks and I couldn't decide whether to go to the right or left. The river took us right into the rock. "No big deal," I thought, "the water will make the decision for us, and push the raft to the right or left." But the water didn't make that decision. We got hung up on that rock; the front third of the raft was grounded on the rock and we didn't go anywhere for a moment. In our efforts to dislodge ourselves from the rock, the raft began to turn. The water pushed the rear of the raft unto another rock so that now our raft was perpendicular to the flow of the water. We were stuck again, in a precarious position! Rushing water on our left, and a steep drop to our right. The student sitting at the front-right corner of the raft looked over her side and saw the steep drop. She panicked and threw herself to the left of the raft, grabbing the student sitting in the front left corner. This changed the distribution of weight and the raft began to turn. I ducked low. The rushing water then turned our raft parallel to the river again, but this time the stern was in front and the bow in back. We went down the 3-foot waterfall backwards!

I loved it. There were so many possible outcomes to this story, and I never would have guessed that we would navigate a waterfall going backwards. With no skill whatsoever, we somehow avoided capsizing, falling into the river, hitting our heads on rocks, and getting hypothermia. I laughed in hysteria for the rest of the ride to the boat launch. The students were a little in shock, but my good attitude helped them recover fairly quickly.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Research results I learned from a conference

I attended a conference this weekend and had a blast. It is always great fun to see what others in my field are doing. I am a biologist. Biology is a broad field, and while I am an expert in one or two areas of biology, I have a lot to learn in other areas. I suppose that is true of anyone, regardless of their type of training. So below is a list of a few random things I learned (or re-learned), which I thought my readers would find interesting:

1. Levels of both testosterone and insulin-like growth factor (IGF) increase in the blood after cardiovascular exercise. The researchers tested blood before and after a 20-40 min session on a stationary bicycle, at different levels of exertion, and found that both hormones increase during the hour following exercise. The researchers did not follow the participants after 1 hour, so I don't know how long the effect lasts. Levels of IGF increased greater following 40 min of exercise compared to just 20 minutes of exercise, and IGF was also higher after intense exercise (at 90% maximum heart rate) compared to more moderate exercise (75% maximum heart rate). These findings are significant, because both T and IGF function to facilitate muscle growth and repair. I knew this before, but this work reminds me that it is not a direct link between exercise and muscle growth; certain hormones and their cellular receptors must be in place and operate efficiently in order for my efforts to pay off in stronger or larger muscles.

2. Exercise moderates the effects of psychogical stress on a person. We all know that exercise makes us feel good, and this research showed that people who had recently exercised (within a couple hours) were better able to cope with a psychological stressor (graphically disturbing images) than people who had not exercised before exposure to the stressor. The investigators used functional MRI technology to measure brain wave patterns while people viewed disturbing images (violence and injured people). Those who had exercised prior to the fMRI had less brain activity in parts of the brain involved with coping with stress. I am pleased to know about this finding and will plan to use exercise both as an outlet for getting rid of stress, as well as a preventative medicine for combating stressors I might encounter after a workout.

3. An injury to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee may not always need surgical repair. A researcher presented a case study in which physical therapy was utilized for two months following injury with the objective of strengthening the hamstring and quadriceps muscle groups (actually, I can't remember what other muscle group was chosen besides hamstring). With stronger muscles, the knee joint was stabilized and the patient (a college football player) could go back to playing in games. The researcher does note that the knee stability is dependent on these muscles remaining strong. If the patient stops exercising and the leg muscles atrophy a little, the knee will go back to being unstable and may require surgery in the future. I have never had any serious knee issues, but I expect the same principle would apply to other joints. For example, I struggle with a chronic shoulder injury, and I find that weekly rotator cuff exercises keep the joint strong. If I stop the exercises for a string of days, the shoulder feels weaker and I am prone to straining it.

4. Some cases of obesity is due to mindless eating. Dr. Brian Wansink of Cornell University was a keynote speaker at the conference (see He presented his research that showed that the amount of food people consume at meals is dependent on the size of their plate. He also presented work that showed that the good taste of food (which is why +30% of people say they over-eat) is not as much a function of flavor as it is expectation. If you go to a fancy restaurant, you expect the food to taste better, even if in reality it is the same food served at a less-fancy restaurant. Dr. Wansink showed that people ate a greater portion size of "Belgian Black Forest Chocolate Cake" compared to "Chocolate Cake" when the actual cake was the same but the name it was given on a menu differed. He noted with some humor that the Black Forest isn't even located in is in Germany! This research is fascinating and will hopefully help me reduce my caloric intake on strings of days when I don't exercise (otherwise, I can't get enough calories).

Monday, March 28, 2011

Pull-up #3

My headline refers to the fact that today I did 3 pull-ups in a row and it felt pretty good. It is probably time to push myself to do 4 next time (good thing this is an anonymous blog, or else I would feel so embarrassed at the small number).

I am very cautious with pull-ups because I seem to pull a muscle every time I do them. I'm exaggerating, but still, I seldom do them because (1) I need to make sure I'm warmed up by doing other exercises, (2) I need to make sure I'm not too tired to do them properly, (3) if I'm at home, my doorway-mounted pull-up bar is too close to the floor so my form suffers, and (4) if I'm at the pool or fitness center, I don't want anyone to see how few I can actually do. Looking at this list, I'm pretty much screwed. First, the first two items are often contradictory. Because I don't want to pull a muscle, I don't start a workout with pull-ups. In fact, I often wait until the end of my workout to ensure I am warmed up. But by then, I am tired, and the danger of pulling a muscle increases because of that. So many days go by without push-ups because I am too afraid. I have previously discussed the frustration I have with my doorway-mounted pull-up bar at home. I still do push-ups at home, but I am leery. My best option for pull-ups is on the pool deck where I do my swimming workouts. But if there are too many people at the pool, I don't want to be a spectacle. All this adds up to the simple fact that I physically don't have the strength to do many pull-ups in a row. And of course, if I don't push myself to do more, I never will gain the strength I desire. So I'm stuck with making very, very slow progress over doing two in a row for several months, and then adding a third. 

About the graph: I started doing pull-ups in December 2009, and each day I do pull-ups I do as many as I can in one set. I probably should do more than one set, but I never have. So what is plotted here is the maximum number of pull-ups I could do in a row during one of my workouts, separated by month (red line). Also plotted (blue bars) is the average number of pull-ups completed per day in each month. Most of these averages are below 1.0 pull-up because I do not workout every day, and on the days I actually do pull-ups, I do a small enough number that it averages out to less than one per day. Looking at the data, there really isn't any trend. I haven't improved any over the last year; nor have I regressed. The only patterns I see are drops in the number of pull-ups done in the months of February 2010, March 2010, July 2010, and January 2011, which all correspond to minor shoulder or upper back injuries caused by doing too many pull-ups (or doing them with poor form, or with fatigued muscles, or with muscles not properly warmed up). So you can see, I have every right to be cautious as I try to increase the number of repetitions...

Friday, March 25, 2011

Fashionable Cycling Clothes?

I went for a bike ride last week around my house. I did 6.1 miles in 26 minutes at an average speed of 14.1 mph. It was windy, and there are steep hills on my route. According to, the biggest hill is a 3.1% grade that continues for 0.82 miles. MapMyRun rates this as a category 5 hill--the mildest of their six categories. Well, even if it's not the biggest of hills, I still have a hard time climbing it. And that leads me to today's topic: clothing.

During my bike ride it was 54 degrees F with winds at 21mph gusting to 31mph (there is an airport weather station very close to my house). It's a little chilly for a summer-time outfit, so I wore the following: (1) old running shoes, (2) white cotton socks, (3) black UnderArmour tights, (4) compression shorts under the tights, (5) blue UnderArmour compression long-sleeved mock shirt, (6) gray long-sleeved cotton/polyester long-underwear on top of the compression shirt, (7) cycling gloves, and (8) a black and red helmet. My bicycle is white, if that matters.

How fashionable is this cycling outfit?

So what was my mistake?
Answer: For one, I had no fashion sense. The cotton/poly long-underwear over top of the compression mock shirt was the most blatant violation of fashion. After all, long-underwear is supposed to go underneath something else. A second potential mistake was wearing form-fitting clothing of any style. I have a great figure, so I'm not ashamed to show it off, but I also know that the UnderArmour is not really necessary when one is only moving 5 mph up some of the hills!

What statement does wearing a complete set of cycling clothes make about my cycling ability? I can easily envision myself wearing all the clothes of a weekend warrior cyclist--complete with cycling jersey and spandex shorts--with lots of miles under his saddle, but the reality is that I'm not that fast or experienced. What a funny sight it would be for me to wear the clothes of a professional but perform like an amateur.

Long-underwear and tights for cycling?

So I throw the question out to you, dear reader. What should I wear when I go cycling in chilly weather? Jeans seem to be too restrictive; sweat pants are too baggy and would rub against my bicycle chain. A shirt made of a thin layer of Lycra or polyester--the type of material that UnderArmour and cycling jerseys are made from--doesn't seem warm enough. At the same time, I'd look funny if I wore tights and a heavy sweatshirt. Suggestions, please!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Close of the Swim Team Season

On March 6, 2011, I competed in my fourth swim meet as a member of a Masters Swim team. Until this season, I had never swam competitively, and before fall 2009, I had never swam at all. Alas, the swim team season has ended and I must wait until next fall to compete again. I look forward to participating again next season. The prospect of racing again gives me a great incentive to keep training throughout the spring and summer. I just can't wait.

My mood is quite a bit more positive now (after my fourth competition) compared to my mood after my second competition in December 2010. In December I swam the 200-yard freestyle and got physically sick from the exertion. I did not pace myself and I swam past the point of exhaustion. It wasn't fun. Since then I've done the 100-yard freestyle and the 100-yard individual medley, and for both I was appropriately tired but not awfully fatigued. In fact, the 100-yard individual medley (IM) was my last swim on March 6, and I was triumphant if I don't say myself!

I had submitted a seed time of 1:41 upon the recommendation of my swim coach. Actually, he recommended 1:40 and I added a second to that because I figured his suggestion would be a little fast for my comfort. As it turned out, I swam the race in 1:28. The race began with a fairly good dive and then 25-yards of butterfly. I felt powerful as with each stroke my lower legs came out of the water and then struck it with some force. I was already a few body lengths ahead of my competitors by the time I reached the wall and began backstroke. I had recently worked on my backstroke with my coach. He had me rotate my arms out of the water right next to my head ("armpit to ear"), and then extend them as far in front of me as possible. Somehow this made backstroke less tiresome for me--probably because this resulted in better rotation of the body axis and a greater pull of water with each stroke. I was glad to show it off during the IM.

By the 50-yard mark I was out of breath. I hadn't done much breathing during the butterfly stroke, and the backstroke worked me hard. I also knew that my breaststroke was my worst stroke, and I find the transition from backstroke to breaststroke a little weird, too. The reason my breaststroke is my worst stroke is because I thought I knew how to do it, and then my coach pointed out that my kick is late. I've been trying to correct this without success. I'm a bit self-conscious of the stroke now because I know I'm doing it wrong. Anyway, I tried to do it right during the race and as a consequence I got my timing all screwed up. This loss of coordination in my stroke actually led me to try to breathe while still under the water, and that's never good! By the time I got to the far wall, I was ready for that stroke to be over. It was time for freestyle, and as I turned to start freestyle, I took a full second to catch a breath and look to see where my competitors were (I was in lane 6 so I couldn't see most of them when swimming). They were all at the far end of the wall, a full 25 yards behind me. With an inner grin, I started my freestyle stroke and proceeded at a fairly leisurely pace to the end. The pressure was off; I had won, and there was no need to exhaust myself. I'll do that the next time, as I will have a personal best to beat. This race set the benchmark for my future races.

It is worth mentioning that I swam in two other races. I completed the 25-yard breaststroke in 18.53 seconds. I don't have another race to compare that to, but it seems to be on par with my 39.72 second 50-yard breaststroke race in December. I also swam the 25-yard freestyle race. My time was 15.31 seconds, which beat my previous time of 15.86 seconds.


Monday, February 28, 2011

Bowling isn't glamorous, but it's a fun workout

Bowling. That's right, I went bowling two days ago, and today I've got sore muscles. So even if bowling isn't a popular activity for fitness enthusiasts, I still included it on my fitness log. According to a calorie-calculating website, my 90 minutes of bowling burned 353 calories. This is more calories per hour than a lleisurely walk. Plus, there is the aforementioned delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This is most evident in me today in the following muscles: (1) flexor digitorum superficialis of the forearm, (2) hamstring of the back of the thigh, and (3) longissimus thoracis of the middle back. The soreness in my forearm is understandable, given the weight of the bowling ball and the release action of the hand. The soreness in my hamstring is also understandable, since I am only sore on the right side (I hold the ball on my right side), and my leg was probably used to to support my weight upon release of the ball. A sore back is a tad more surprising, particularly since I am more sore on the left side than on my right. But again, I probably had to balance my torso during the ball release, and a left-side contraction of the back could counteract the right-side contraction of the thigh to keep me from plain falling over. Incidentally, the 10-year old boy bowling in the lane to my left fell down several times during my 90-minute set of games. I asked his mom if he was doing that on purpose, and she said she didn't know. I bet he wasn't.

I like bowling, so I will probably report on it here again. I'm not good at it, though. My friend and I played five games. My scores: 85, 115, 105, 103, and 71. I put considerable speed on the ball and I have good aim. Still, I only got three strikes in five games. Three strikes and now I'm out! *grin*