Friday, October 31, 2008

Rest day and rollers

I took a day off yesterday. I think I needed it. It has been a while since I took a real rest day. Usually I do a short (1 mi) swim on my "rest" days, but this time I decided I needed a day off. It helped.

Today I rode my rollers because the weather is cold and wet. I also find it a good intermediate workout that has both cycling and running benefits. It also gives me a chance to gauge my fitness. And the news was good. I rode pretty easily at 220W and my heart rate stayed nicely within the 145-155 range, with no real increase over time.

All in all I rode 1:33 minutes and burned an estimated 1,300 calories in the process. My average power was well above 200W. I had to stop a few times to readjust the roller belt because it kept coming off, but other than that there were no glitches.

My Ergomo "normalized" power (NP) output for the ride was 217W, which -for me- means a medium intensity ride. My average was 215W.  I like the NP readout on the Ergomo. Although I have no idea how they calculate it or how accurate or valid it is, I have found it correlates well with my perceived effort. One thing that is clear is that NP is nearly identical to average power if you ride steady (as happens on rollers).

(the manual says (sic) "NP is calculated using a special formula that both smooths and weights your power output to better reflect physiological (especially metabolic) "costs" of variable-intensity efforts") 

When I ride hard, my NP goes close to or over 250W while my average maybe as low as 200. When I rode with the Specialized Team last weekend my NP was 247 for a 2 hour ride that burned 1,260 calories over 30 miles. The average power was just below 200W for that ride no doubt reflecting the long downhill from Skyline to Menlo Park. When I ride easy NP stays below 200W. 

I find NP is a better indicator than average watts. However since it correlates so well with my perceived effort I can usually guess my NP for a ride to within a few watts. And that tells me that listening to your body is really the best you can do.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


The Ironman is less than one month away. I am almost done with my long workouts and ready for the taper. Today I decided to run some intervals in the neighborhood. There is a nice 0.9 mile loop with a serious climb in it (200 ft over 0.25 miles). It is pretty steep with only a slight let-up in the middle. Then there is a nice smooth descent. After a 1.25 mile warm-up, I ran the loop 7 times, and then finished with a few more hills and a nice jog home. All in all about 8.5 miles.

So far training is going well. Knock-on-wood, no injuries, although my right achilles does ache slightly from time to time and my calf does feel a bit stiff then. But so far it has been steady, neither getting worse nor noticeably better. Occasionally my left knee will act up a bit too, right above the patella, but that too seems contained. The shoulder is much better and I think I will survive the 2.4 mile swim, although I may have to resort to some breaststroke near the end.

I ended today's workout with a nice 1.25 mi swim. Keep your fingers crossed.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Variety is the spice of life

All too many athletes go through the same routine day in and day out. Then they get bored, they burn out and they never improve. In the end a fair number of them give up. It is tempting to settle into a rut and think that the mere repetition of things will somehow work miracles.

Don't get me wrong. Practice does make perfect and repetition is as important in training as in other aspects of life. But that does not mean you have to do the same thing over and over again until you drop dead. You need to add variety to your workouts. You need to variety at all levels. On the smallest level you add variety by introducing "play."

You also need to alternate intensity with rest and long workouts. If you want to you can call these changes mesocycles, which by the way means nothing more than mid-length cycles. Short is mini, middle is meso, and long or big is macro. In that context, your season is macro, your month to month is meso and your daily is micro.

Enough labels for now. Just don't go overboard into the domain of pseudoscientific expertise. All you really need to remember is to change things often. Don't ride the same rides, don't run the same loops and don't always go hard in the same places or at the same times. Sometimes you need to climb hard and other times you need to attack the flats and the wind. Always focus on what you will need for your next race.

The most important thing to remember is that to get better you need to go hard. And to keep from getting injured you need to ramp up to hard. And to prevent over-training, you need to rest after you go hard. It is as simple as that.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Fitness throughout the ages

According to U. of Leeds exercise physiologist Dr. Harry Rossiter ( New Scientist, 2/8/2007), average Athenians around 500BC were as fit as today's top elite athletes. Using a reconstruction of an ancient trireme, a warship powered with 170 rowers in three tiers, Dr. Rossiter measured the metabolic requirements to drive the replica at published speeds. We have good records of many trips made by such ships. Distances, departure and arrival dates and times, very dependable data.

Dr. Rossiter found the rowers would have been top elite endurance athletes by today's standards. Given that Ancient Athens had up to 200 triremes at any one time, for a total of at least 34,000 individuals, rowers were not some small elite force. 

They were average young citizens. No heart rate monitors, no power meters, no cardio-zones, mesocycles, microcycles, periodization, or what have you. No Powerbars here either. No protein supplements, Gatorade, no GU, no special vitamins or micro-nutrients, just plain old food, water and exercise. Certainly no amphetamines, steroids, EPO or Cera in this crowd.

Dr. Rossiter leaves open the possibility that ancient athletes were genetically better adapted to endurance exercise. If that is so, then we have lost some pretty good genes. I doubt it however. I think those Ancient Greeks just worked hard and worked hard all the time.

This is one of the best documented cases showing that there were fit people throughout history. And a clear indication that no "special" foods, drinks, measuring instruments, etc. are needed for high performance. 

Unfortunately that view is not what sponsors like to hear. It does not sell books, magazines, training plans, gadgets, drinks, bars, gels, vitamins, computrainers, and what have you.

But I can surely attest to the fact that the less you buy into all those gimmicks the better off you will be. And faster too. 

Eat normal food, avoid sugary sweets, listen to your body, add variety and rest when you are tired. It is too simple, isn't it? Makes you wonder where the catch is.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mesocycles, thresholds, and other hoopla

Just got a newsletter from USA cycling with some impressive graphics and discussions relating to mesocycles and periodization. The article is entitled, "Periodization Part 4, The Mesocycle and Training/Planning Platforms and Periods."

It has such wonderful scientific-sounding phrases as "The mesocycle may be the most important aspect of the periodization process." If that doesn't impress you, then I don't know what will. The mesocycle, it seems has a lot in common with lunar (and related cycles).

Surely, the six bar graphs showing the "Classic 28 Day," or the "14-7 Platform" will convince you. Never mind the 23-5 and the 16-5 platforms, or the 28 day Overload/Block Period. If you are thinking birth control, think again. I just can't shake the image of colored birth control pills in their neat 28 day packages. Must be my background.

Finally, there is the rather timely "Crash Period" graph, showing the 21 day mesocycle and looking somewhat like the Dow these days.

If the science label or the business-like powerpoint doesn't convince you, how about some religion?

The man behind all this turns out to be none other than Joe Friel, writer of many books on training, with such semi-religious titles as "The Cyclist's Training Bible", "Cycling Past 50", "The Triathlete's Training Bible", and the "Mountain Biker's Training Bible." It appears that Joe not only has the science in his pocket, he is big on religion as well, or bibles at least.

Ironically enough, it is not my only "encounter" with Joe's wisdom this week. The Cal Triathlon emailing just happens to have a reference to lactate threshold and Joe's training "zones." If you use this method you will always know if "you are in the right zone" If such talk reminds you of Timothy Leary or another long-ago movements, you are not alone.

I am afraid I am not a believer. I realize that my irreverent talk may incur the wrath of some very important people, but so be it. After having read all this stuff and looked at the graphs, I can only scratch my head. Macro-cycles, meso-cycles, micro-cycles, it is enough to make anyone dizzy. Horoscope anyone? A Copernican revolution is needed lest we drown in epicycles.

It also reminds me of my days in clinical practice when (usually elderly) patients would show up with elaborate pill organizers filled with a myriad of colorful pills, tablets, and capsules. "She takes one of these every other day doctor, with food, and then two of these in-between meals, and then one of these three times a day, except Sunday, and Monday, " etc. etc., the helpful companions would say. 

It was a logistics challenge without equal (except the mesocycles perhaps).

Ironically enough, what we usually found was that if we (carefully and slowly) took away all those pills, the patients enjoyed a remarkable recovery from whatever foggy state was clouding their brains. The other symptoms and lab abnormalities also improved rather dramatically in the process.

I am a minimalist. Things that look complicated do not impress me, quite to the contrary. I like simplicity and elegance. I found it works best.

You eat normal food, you train hard, engage in plenty of variety and play, and when you are tired you rest. It is not very commercially stimulating, but it works wonders.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Mind games

Endurance racing requires a certain mindset that many people find hard to comprehend. There is an addictive quality to it that is similar in some ways to that seen in extreme sports or skydiving. As is common in all such events, it is a highly personal and individualistic mindset that drives the competitor.

Whereas the extreme sports-types go for the powerful adrenalin rush, endurance athletes are more into the soothing endorphin-like quality of the runner's high. It is a powerful, yet very peaceful high with a deeply satisfying somatic quality. That sets it apart from the feel-good bouts one gets from successfully controlling a device, as in driving a race-car or flying a plane. The endurance high is felt deeply in one's bones, ligaments, and muscles.

I have found that endurance athletes do not really know, or want to know, or cannot express why they are doing what they do. Some will state bluntly that it never occurred to them to ask. As many would say:"If you have to ask, then you won't understand the answer."

In an interview, former pro triathlete Ken Glah said he started competing in Ironman because he really liked training for it. Most triathletes find routine hard exercise relaxing, soothing and invigorating. They often say it sets their mind free.

If you look at the competitor lists you will see that many also engage in endurance sports as a way to overcome or deal with adverse events in their lives, or the lives of relatives and friends. The World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), owner of Ironman often promotes and highlights these feats. People battling deadly diseases or those with relatives suffering from deadly diseases, often engage in endurance events.

Endurance appeals to older competitors who tend to do better, relatively speaking in long events. The longer the event, the more it relies on strength and endurance versus raw speed and peak performances. That favors more mature individuals over energetic teens.

While many no doubt joined the ranks in pursuit of a health benefit or in the hope of delaying the ravages of aging, it is often not the main reason. Unless people find a way to enjoy the distance, they usually do not last all that long in this sport. Endurance athletes are in for it because they seem to need it for what it is. There is that funny addictive quality again, and there is no denying that it plays a much greater role than anyone is willing to admit.

Although cameraderie is an essential component, endurance racing is largely about the "loneliness of the distance runner." Just you and your mind and the long road ahead. As many have pointed out, the athlete is often his or her's only real opponent, and nowhere is that more clear than in an endurance event.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Science III

If you took the time and read the previous posts, you may wonder why the science bar is set so high. You may also wonder how many "scientists" really practice science as defined here. To wit, I used to joke that any discipline with "science" in its name was not scientific at all. Like political science, social science, computer science, brain science, etc. I stopped telling that joke because I found people tend to react rather violently and fail to see the point. Given the status (and money involved) of science in our society, people do not like to be told their work is not "scientific." Add to that that the majority of the population equates science and truth and you can see why this joke is like saying "I have a bomb" in the airport.

Fine, but what about having the bar set high? Why is that necessary? It is because people are very easily fooled. I say people, because it is a characteristic of all people, regardless of their intelligence, upbringing, social status, etc. All people are easily fooled and they are experts at fooling themselves. Everyone has ideas, things they learned or experienced, prejudices, opinions, fears, that are based on spurious associations, hearsay, peer pressure, personal experience (often misinterpreted) etc. Scientists are no different from any other person in this respect. They are just as likely to be religious, believe in the afterlife, be afraid of ghosts, as anyone else.

Second, many people have an agenda. Some have a very active and explicit agenda, but even those who don't often have to prove something to the world. They are motivated to prove something to themselves and to others. They are driven to make a point or simply to be right about something. Such biases are even more explicit when it comes to behavior, nutrition, health, performance, etc. The more it affects people's daily lives, the stronger the biases are. Most people can be pretty neutral about gravity, but when it comes to what food is good for you, hardly anyone is without a preset opinion.

Third, there is a lot of money at stake, and money has an agenda. Once again this is more applicable to health, medicine, and nutrition than to abstract things in the physical world. Modern science is especially dependent on money and money does not come free. It exerts a noticeable influence at all levels. From the types of research that is "fundable," i.e. a couple of decades ago you could not propose any research that would imply or might find differences between the genders, to the findings of such research, i.e. many people tried to suppress the work on helicobacter and stomach ulcers; to the endless ongoing research into side-effects of birth control pills, circumcision and sexually transmitted disease, etc. that is doubtlessly motivated to prove and support a certain point of view.

Fourth, science is based on and requires open communication and free exchange of information. That does not sit well with those who aim to gain an advantage, as is true from the military all the way down to the sports competitor. One might even argue the lay person looking for health info is trying to get an edge. But conducting science in secrecy is not really possible. I know you will quickly point out all the secret government research, including the Manhattan project. When doing so it is easy to forget that the Manhattan project was mostly about engineering, not science. Once again, many will quickly take issue with this claim, not because they know it to be true or not, but because they view science as more prestigious than engineering. Or because they don't want to be known as engineers (yes folks there is a pecking order here).

Much of what goes under the label science is nothing but engineering, or empirical discovery. Guess what, there is nothing wrong with that. Science is not the only way to discover truths about nature. If anything, science is definitely the slowest (and from a practical perspective) the most inefficient way to discover new things. Many, taking a serious look at the "war on cancer" have come to that conclusion. And they are right. There is not really a scientific way to find a cure for a disease. You can do a lot of science about organisms, diseases, etc. but that is a very round-about and long process. Penicillin for example was not discovered in a scientific experiment. It was confirmed in a scientific experiment, but it was discovered by accident. And that is the way most discoveries are made.

If you want to find something new, better not do science. Better poke around, look around, and do so without any prejudice or forethought. Better think crazy thoughts and do things people wouldn't do. That is how discoveries are made. By pushing the envelope and questioning the obvious.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Science II

Let's assume that the observations have been repeated many times and that they can be trusted. Let's further assume that we have formulated a plausible hypothesis that can explain these observations. Is that enough to attach the label of scientific discovery? It is not. To validate we need to do a series of experiments. We cannot rely on after-the-fact, or post-hoc explanations, however plausible they may seem. We need a predictive test. We need to elicit the event and see it unfolds the way we predict. We use the hypothesis to predict what will happen. If we are right our prediction should be very close to reality. How close? Close to within the limits of measurement error of our best possible measurement capability.

You may have heard this situation described another way. You may have heard we should have a null hypothesis. The null hypothesis states nothing will happen. All our observations were due to random chance only. When we set out to do an experiment, we try to disprove the null hypothesis. We show that the probability the events happened by chance alone is very small. Therefore we can accept the alternative hypothesis. This is the way statisticians like to describe the situation.

In any case, if you think we are done now, think again. We have carefully observed some new phenomena. We have hypothesized a cause for these observations that is both parsimonious and plausible. We have done repeated experiments in carefully controlled conditions to show that our predictions are correct to within measurement error. We have documented our findings and written a paper. The paper has been submitted to a scientific journal. There it was reviewed by a panel of peers and published. Surely, we can now claim a scientific discovery has been made?

If you said yes, let me assure you that you are not alone. As a matter of fact you are in good company. Many -way too many- scientists would agree with you. FDA would agree with you. Most universities and grant agencies agree with you. The whole American and Western European value system agrees with you. The whole publish-or-perish culture agrees with you. The money people agree with you.

But you are nonetheless wrong. Nothing has been proven. Not until another independent party is able to repeat the experiments and confirm the results. Many "important" scientific papers, written by eminent scientists, employed at the world's most prestigious institutions, reviewed by panels of equally well-known and eminent peers, and published in journals of the highest professional standing, have later been withdrawn because nobody could replicate the results. In some cases, deliberate fraud was the reason, but that is far from always the case. Scientists do make mistakes. They are also susceptible to wishful thinking as the rest of us are. The issue is more problematic in life sciences.

It is actually extremely likely that many "scientific discoveries," thus announced are false. In most cases, replication by an outside party is never done, either because it is too time-consuming, too costly, or simply because nobody is too interested in doing so. There is little to be gained by repeating other people's work. It is a thankless job. Furthermore, so many discoveries evoke so little outside attention that nobody really bothers to replicate them. Even in cases that were later recalled, it often took years before the withdrawal happened. And it often happened quietly and may have gone unnoticed.

Extensive reviews by mathematicians and statisticians have found significant errors in many peer reviewed publications. This is especially true in medical and health related areas where the errors are often significant enough to invalidate the results. Yet such cases almost never get recalled. Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that medical scholar Dr. John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist documented how thousands of peer-reviewed research papers every year are seriously flawed. His conclusions were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2007. He said: "The hotter the field of research, the more likely its published findings should be viewed skeptically. A new claim about a research finding is more likely to be false than true."

Caveat emptor!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


I want to take a few postings and explain what science is and what it can do for you. This may be a bit long-winded but I think it is important, so bear with me. The end result is sure to surprise you, I promise. Here we go.

Science is often misunderstood. Even its practitioners are not always clear as to what constitutes science and what doesn't. Sometimes they confuse or obfuscate things by accident, but other times, they appear to do so deliberately. So what is science you may ask? One dictionary defines science as "The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment." The essential points are quite simple, and they are (almost) all there.

Science is an activity. It is not a thing or a concept like truth. A scientific discovery is a finding or a set of findings that result from such activity. It is the result of some action, meaning some disturbance, some provocation. The activity employs a method, also called the scientific method to get there. It relies on observation and experiment. The end result is a theory. That part is omitted in my dictionary for some odd reason. Let me repeat for emphasis. The end result of science is a theory or a set of hypotheses. It is not the truth. Hopefully it is close to the truth though, but that is another matter.

We need to start somewhere and observation is where we start. Careful observation is key. It is the initiator. We see something happen and we wonder, what causes it to happen? Our conjectures lead to a hypothesis. A proposed explanation without any assumption of truth. Often many hypotheses can be formulated, but we need to play favorites. The scientific method dictates that we should favor the simplest explanation. That we should use Occam's razor or the principle of parsimony. That we should not invoke things (esp. beings, spirits, deities) that we cannot observe or whose existence we cannot prove. Furthermore, if we are going to do science, we need a hypothesis that can be tested. If it cannot be tested we cannot do science. It's as simple as that. Right off the bat it should be clear that many things are not amenable to science. That is one thing practitioners often ignore.

We should really make sure our observations are repeated many times and that we observe carefully and take notes. We should also make sure the phenomena are properly isolated. So what do you do when things happened in the past and will not be repeated in our life-time? What do you do with things that happen only once every few hundred years? Strictly speaking such observations may not be amenable to further scientific activity. Note that the observations may be true or false, but the truth or falseness has nothing to do with it.

It should now also be obvious that many things relating to health, sports, and performance are not easily amenable to scientific work. It should also be clear that science relies very heavily on repetition. One needs to do things over and over again. That too is often impossible, or impractical, or too time consuming or too costly to do. These reasons ( and excuses ) are perfectly acceptable however. Sometimes things are obvious to us, and observation is good enough for what we need to accomplish. That is fine.

What is not fine though is to say something is scientifically proven, unless you were willing and able to perform all these tedious and costly and time consuming repetitions. And unless someone else, totally independently, did everything all over again just to make sure. That is really what it takes. No cutting corners allowed here!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Nutrition and science

There is very little science in nutrition science. Unfortunately, this is one area where we know very little but make very big claims. Nearly all rules and prescriptions regarding food are based on culture, custom, religion, hearsay, prejudice, or other unsubstantiated data. Things like the famous food pyramid are driven by commercial interests only. The food pyramid urges you to eat what farmers want to sell. It is as simple as that.

Fortunately, we are largely independent of what we eat. Humans are true omnivores and nearly any diet that is unforced will do. Especially for adults. Adult humans are remarkably insensitive to food types as long as the quality is good. Quality in this case means free of toxins, infectious agents, or contaminants. By and large, food in the Western world is of very high quality and unintentional food poisoning is quite rare.

Unforced is another key term. In this context it means the person can pick and choose from a variety of items. The more freedom people have the better. The more a specific diet is forced on them, the more likely they are to get sick. Nearly all vitamins and essential elements have been discovered by forcing people to eat "scientifically" designed diets.

Contrary to what most parents seem to think, kids naturally know what is good for them. If left to their own devices and kept away from artificially sweetened items, they will eat a healthy diet, even though their day to day intake will be far more erratic than that of an adult. It is true that kids will binge on certain foods, but after a short while they will have enough of it and develop a taste for something they lack.

Humans have one great weakness and that is sugar. Pure sugar is rare in nature and it is difficult to find. But sugar is an essential food item and so people are very attuned to finding it and liking it. Craving it is the better word. Marketers of all stripes discovered this rather quickly and in rich cultures without a solid tradition and footing in cuisine -such as America- sweets quickly took over. Coupled with a sedentary life-style, sugar is wreaking havoc and causing illness everywhere.

The result is an epidemic of obesity. Due to advertising and global trade, other cultures that did have a solid tradition -such as France, the mediterranean, and others- are quickly falling prey to the sugar menace. Armed with a small amount of technology, it is easy and cheap to make highly refined sugar products. Furthermore, these items sell so well that the temptation to sell them is equally hard to resist.

Although many texts recommend a carbohydrate rich diet for athletes, I think it is a mistake. Carbohydrates are important before, during, and after hard workouts, but to switch to a year-round high carb diet is asking for trouble. Many athletes have trouble with their diet and weight as is, and suggesting more sugar is making things worse. It has gone so far that many avoid fats, a key ingredient, and the best substance to induce satiety and remove the constant hunger many carb-rich athletes feel.

Whatever you do, please try to eat a normal diet. It doesn't really matter what diet you choose as long as you pick one that has been tried and tested for a few decades at the minimum. No diet has any advantage over another and all the claims to the contrary, whether made in the popular press or in "scientific papers," are downright wrong.

The worst thing you can do is try an artificial diet, or one concocted by a "scientist" or "nutritionist" a short time ago. These diets are nearly always trouble and should be avoided at all costs.

Remember to always eat normal food, and avoid sugary drinks.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Linear thinking

Many people seem to think that if a little of something is good for you, then more must be better. I call this type of thinking, linear thinking, and I am always amazed at how prevalent it is, even among those who should know better. Maybe it is a cultural phenomenon? We in the Western World, favor linear views. We have a linear view of history for example and we have a tendency to call more of the same, progress. That linear view is embedded in our religion too. God created everything and from there on it just "evolves," where "evolves" means advances in a straight line towards an optimum.

From a marketing perspective, linear thinking is powerful. It is easy to understand and marketing people emphasize the need to keep things simple. Humans, it appears, are not all that smart. Or maybe their smarts are reserved for special cases? Could it be they are just plain lazy and prefer simple stories? Whatever the cause, linear thinking appeals to people.

It is of course true that many things are linear, or have a significant "linear" regime. Our bodies for example try to keep many variables within a linear range. Engineers too like to make devices that behave linearly or have a significant linear range. It has even been shown that people engage in certain behaviors to linearize a non-linear problem. I remember a Science paper that claimed baseball players move in a certain way to straighten the path of an oncoming ball. That makes it easier for the visual system to predict where it will land.

And we don't just like to think ahead in a linear way, we also like to extrapolate backwards the very same way. If a lot of something is very bad for you, then a little must be somewhat bad.

Experience however, has shown that this view is severely flawed. In most cases, moderation is best. Too little of something is no good, but too much of it is not good either.

These are good things to remember when training or preparing for a race, or enjoying a glass of wine.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Boston Marathon

I signed up for the Boston Marathon of 2009. Surely there is no greater race, at least none that I know of. It beats Ironman hands down. Nothing like 26.2 miles of screaming fans to bring you home. I think there were two stretches, less than half a mile each, where only a few fans were lining the road. The rest of the way was three or four thick and making a hell of a racket.

The Boston marathon is like one great traffic jam from Hopkinton to Boston. It carries you along in a huge wave of humanity. It is the ultimate trip with a downtown finish like no other. Some argue only New York is bigger but I can't tell. I've never done New York, but I am considering it for next year. This year would have been great but it is too close to my Arizona Ironman.

Yippee Boston, here I come.