Want to Get Skinnier? Get Faster

You probably won’t think this study is as interesting as I do, but it’s really interesting — I think, anyway.

What’s the difference between well-trained athletes and recreational athletes? For one, well-trained folks have done a lot more cumulative exercise than us schmoes. They have more muscle as a percentage of their body composition. And they typically have less fat.

Here’s another difference: they burn more fat than we do — even at higher intensities. See, usually, the more intensely you workout, the less fat you burn. But as it turns out, even when they’re exercising at high intensities, well-trained athletes burn three times as much fat as recreationally trained athletes.Graph answering the question, "Are you or aren't you a fat burner?"

Furthermore, the rate of fat burn seems to correlate with VO2max. What is VO2max? It’s a measurement of how much oxygen you have per liter of blood, and it’s a performance predictor for endurance sport success. How do you increase your VO2max? With a lot of endurance training and with occasional high-intensity intervals. In fact, according to one article from Alex Hutchinson’s Runner’s World blog, the best intervals for improving VO2max are around 3–5 minutes.

Improving your VO2max will make you a better athlete. And as it turns out, it will also make you a skinnier person. So if you want to get skinnier, focus on getting faster. And if you’re focused on getting faster, expect to get skinnier.

(Image borrowed from Asker Jeukendrup’s blog. Asker, if you want me to remove it, please just ask instead of filing a lawsuit or sending a cease-and-desist letter. Thanks.)

A Thousand Words


Years ago, a newspaper photographer snapped this photo of me making my way up the road to the summit of Rendezvous Mountain, the peak of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. They say a picture speaks a thousand words. Sometimes, it speaks in ways or languages that don’t make sense with mere words.

For me, this photo is a memory of an absolutely surreal moment. My daughter, the one who got stuck with more of my genetic material than any of my other kids, had kept me up for most of the night before. Finally, at about 7 a.m., my wife and I had what is still today the most awful argument of our marriage. We were exhausted and drained, emotionally, physically — every way imaginable.

Rendezvous Mountain had been on my bucket list for a lot of years. Sure, I’d done plenty of road bike hill climbs before, but I’d never done a mountain bike hill climb. I always wanted to give this one a shot. So when I looked up at the clock and realized there was still time to make the race, I looked back at my wife and said, “Can we go?”

For reasons beyond my comprehension, she said yes.

Now, a little background: I’d been having trouble with my position on the bike. Really, I’d just been swindled by some goofball on the internet who talked me into messing around with my clipless pedal setup. So I’d decided, “Forget it — I’m just going with platform pedals for this one.” If you’re not a cyclist, that probably doesn’t sound like a big deal. If you know anything about climbing steep gradients on a mountain bike, you understand that was a mistake of epic proportions.

But a few hours later, we arrived at the event. It was a hot day with a bright, blue sky. I paid my $20, collected my number and went to warm up … as if anyone needs to warm up when it’s already 90 degrees out. At some point in my warm up, my front tire skidded out from under me and I went down hard on my knee. It was bloodied and sore, but I’d just drug my wife and children on a two-hour drive and paid the $20 to enter the event, so I wasn’t about to abandon.

I lined up with the other racers — the smallest field I’ve ever seen at a cycling race. The race organizers told us to go, and I worked my way up the group. I caught one gal just as the trail got steep, and suddenly, my rear wheel slid out from underneath me. I was walking.

I threw my leg over the saddle, rode past some trees, and there was a wall of radiating dirt in front of me — the steepest quarter-mile pitch of fire road I’d ever set eyes on.

“It’s not possible to ride a bicycle up that,” I thought to myself … just as I watched the rest of the pack ride up it … and then disappear around a switchback.

I pushed and hiked just as another cyclist came up behind me — the only one left. He and I chatted for a minute. Because of work, he hadn’t ridden a bicycle more than once in the past few months, but his wife was in the race, so he felt obligated to do it — but just for fun.

I climbed back on and rode away from him. Eventually, I got to where I could see another rider up ahead of me. Again and again, I’d reach a hot, dusty switchback, lose traction, get off, and start hiking. I’d remount and go again. Switchback after switchback.

By the time I reached the photographer, I was in a state of utter delirium — microwaved from above by the sun and below from the reflection off the bright mountain soil. I managed to keep the pedals turning as the photog caught me in a moment of barefaced agony. Before I got out of sight, I was walking again.

Toward the summit, I finally remounted just in time to ride past my wife as my daughter ran out to see me — and then tripped and fell on her face. But instead of crying, she just stood up, stopped and stared, listening to my fragile breathing.

As I looked closely at her dirtied face, I thought of all of the jerk things I’d said to her mother. And I regretted them, soulfully — viscerally. This little girl deserved better, I told myself.

“I love you,” I said, looking deeply into her eyes as I rode past and meaning it more than I’d ever meant it before.

Moments later, I crossed the finish line. Jill Damman, the racer I’d been chasing, who was just ahead of me, and whose husband I’d ridden with at the beginning of the race, would go on to win the women’s division of LOTOJA just weeks later. The picture at the top of this post, which I requested from the photographer, would end up on the front page of the sports section in the Jackson Hole News & Guide. And although one rider finished behind me, I would be listed as the race’s “maglia nera” or “lantern rouge” — the last finisher — the only time I’ve ever had that distinction, ever.

But for me, when I look at that picture, I think of how deeply I’d scraped and clawed into my soul that day. I think of the version of me who was completely exposed on that mountain that day, the me who loves his wife and daughters so much that he’ll do anything to be better for them. And I think that maybe the person on that bicycle on that mountain telling his daughter he loves her — the person in that picture — was the real, genuine me.

About your rear end …

Yes, this whole post is about your rear end — your bum. Not that there’s anything wrong with your bum, personally … I mean … this is already awkward … so let’s just get on with it.

So you’ve probably read all of this stuff about “sitting disease” or how “sitting is the next smoking” or “sitting will kill you even if you exercise” — good ol’ doom and gloom headlines. Well, they’re probably true. And what’s worse, you’ll miss out on a lot of life because you’re too busy suffering a long, slow, miserable death in front of a screen.

I write this with some sense of chagrin, because I have a desk job too. And even though I take the stairs as often as I can, walk places when possible, and try not to spend all day sitting and staring at my computer, I still spend a lot of time on my derriere. And unless you have an on-your-feet job, you probably do too. Kinda stinks, right?

What’s so bad about sitting? Sitting has a negative effect on all kinds of stuff — cholesterol, fat storage, etc. etc. But I specifically want to talk about atrophy in your gluteal muscles. One of the consequences of being a sitter is that you end up with really weak gluteals (any time I write “glutes” spellcheck changes it to “flutes” – ha ha!). And if you’re also an athlete, that can cause all sorts of problems, not the least of which is the so-called “dead butt syndrome.” For me, I find that butt weakness is somehow connected with my recurring battle with iliotibial band syndrome.

There are actually three gluteal muscles, not just your gluteus maximus, and they all play a role in what’s popularly come to be known as your “core” — the muscles that control how the top half of your body interacts with the bottom half — abs, lower back, psoas, etc. So when they get weak, that weakness translates to other issues throughout your body.

So what do you do about gluteal weakness? How do you fix sitting disease? Well, since most of the articles about sitting say that exercise alone isn’t enough, I can’t guarantee this will prevent your premature death — sorry! But there are nonetheless ways to fix the ol’ gluteals.

BvaXi9CIcAAbibA.jpg-largeMost people head straight for the gym, and if that’s your preferred route, here’s what you need to know about the sort of exercises that will make the biggest difference for your duff:

But I’ve found what I think is an even better way to train your gluteals. For years now, when I’ve felt ITBS coming on, I’d go find a really steep hill and run up. The next day, my ITBS would be worse, but the day after that, it’d be gone.

I’d been doing this little routine for years when I came across a Runner’s World article that claims that on a 7% incline, “muscle activity in the men’s glutes was 83% greater than when they ran on the flat.” The author’s conclusion was that you need to go strengthen your gluteals so you can run uphill better. MY conclusion was I’d magically stumbled upon the cure for a bad butt: running uphill!

As it turns out, I’m not the only person who thinks this way. Even Arthur Lydiard — the famed kiwi running coach whose insights probably serve as the backbone for that half-marathon training plan you downloaded — believed that running uphill fixed most biomechanical issues.

“But running uphill is MISERABLE,” you say? Well, when you’re gasping on the ground holding your chest, dying a fast, painful death after running up a hill, just think how much better off you are than all of those people in front of their computers …

Okay, so I stink at the whole motivational thing. So what. Instead, just watch this video about uphill running and see for yourself that somewhere in the world there are people — aside from me — who run uphill for FUN. Who knows? Maybe you could be one of them someday.

The Headlines Are Alive …

… with the sounds of high fructose corn syrup.

So what’s so bad about HFCS? Is it really any worse than table sugar? Aren’t they practically the same thing? Does it really have anything to do with people gaining weight? Why do people lose so much weight just by giving up soda? I don’t have all the answers … but if you read between the lines, you can probably figure it out.

Earlier today I came across the biggest “duh” non-surprise headline from the NY Times: “High-Fructose Heart Risks.” If you’re someone who doesn’t care to click and read it yourself, fret not, because I’ll summarize for you:  One study suggests that high-fructose corn syrup — even when consumed in smaller amounts over a short period of time — may have deleterious effects on your cholesterol. In other words, you may not have to drink very much HFCS-laden soda pop to trash your health.

Why would I say that’s not much of a surprise? Well, it wasn’t that long ago that Princeton researchers discovered mice could get fatter by eating HFCS than by eating table sugar. And as the folks who made the movie King Corn (which I still haven’t completely watched) learned, the increased consumption of high-fructose corn syrup seemed to magically coincide with the rise in obesity in the United States. (The corn growers argue that HFCS consumption has now fallen but obesity hasn’t, thus demonstrating a lack of correlation. But that observation seems to ignore the fact that becoming un-obese is pretty difficult to do once you’ve achieved it.)

A screen shot from Dr. Lustig's presentation — fat storage from fructose vs. glucose.
A screen shot from Dr. Lustig’s presentation — fat storage from fructose vs. glucose.

Dr. Robert Lustig, a prominent (and biased — he’s written and profits from books about sugar) university professor, says that fructose must be processed through your liver, where fat is made, rather than directly to your cells like glucose and starch. But he also says there is no difference between HFCS and table sugar, because both are about equal parts fructose and sucrose. Dr. Asker Jeukendrup, in a video he made for Gatorade, says “fructose is a lot slower” than other sugars. I’d imagine if Gatorade wasn’t funding the video, he’d explain that fructose — combined with the natural fibers in fruits — is slower, whereas, when you take out the fiber, it still goes to the liver, but it gets there a lot faster.

So is HFCS solely responsible for the obesity epidemic? No, I don’t think so — not independently anyway. There’s also been a bit of an inactivity issue that has come with it. Together with trans fat, HFCS and the invention of the personal computer seem to have created the perfect storm. And when you have multiple causes for a problem, you can’t expect to have a single, one-size-fits-all resolution.

But one thing you can do is to start reading ingredient labels. When you do, you’ll be surprised how often you see HFCS. Try finding a loaf of bread without any HFCS in it — not an easy task. Then make a commitment: Don’t buy it, and don’t eat it. Stay away from anything that you know contains HFCS. Chances are, you’ll still eat some of it, but you won’t do it knowingly. If you don’t buy it, you won’t eat it, so don’t buy it.

This information does not constitute medical advice. This is all my opinion … so don’t be a spaz about it!

The Ultra (aka “a race recap from 6 months ago”)

Look, another photo—I'm on a roll!

Years ago, I’d set a rule for myself that I’d never do the same race twice. And then one September, I discovered the Widow Maker, and I instantly fell in love — with its mercurial weather, its relentlessly unforgiving and often puzzling gradients, its capricious traction, its pristine alpine air, and most of all with the adventure of ascending a 3,100-foot mountain in 70 minutes or less. So I scratched my rule and replaced it with a commitment to come back to the Widow Maker for as long as the race exists.

Well, life changes, and in 2014, I had an obligation to my daughter that far outweighed any rashly made promises I’d made in the blind heat of racing passion. When i realized I wouldn’t be able to make it to my favorite race, I looked around on the calendar for something else.

As it turned out, there was one other hill climb that used the same course — with a slight variation. I’d still get to climb to monolithic Hidden Peak, 11,000 feet above sea level, but first, I’d have to climb from the valley to the ski hill, a climb of 3,300 feet in 9.5 miles. If you’re doing your math, you know that means this would turn out to be about 6,400 feet in 15 miles.

I figured I’d take it casually and simply participate instead of racing it. When the race started, I moseyed along, casually chatting with the racers around me.

“Hey man,” one of them said, clearly annoyed my garrulousness, “you’re not going hard enough if you can talk.”

What can I say? Exertion makes me talkative. Chocolate makes me talkative. Being within a five-minute radius of another human being makes me talkative! But I didn’t want to throw off his groove, so I quieted down. When he decided to attack the pack as we hit the climb, I went with him. And when he saw I was on his wheel, he turned and said, “You wanna work together?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I’m game.”

It came time for me to take my pull, so I got out of the saddle and went to the front. But when I turned around to see who we’d dropped … he was nowhere to be seen. Whoops.

Out of the saddle and feeling good at Snowbird — that's a first!
Out of the saddle and feeling good at Snowbird — that’s a first!

So instead, I soldiered on ahead by myself, and every time I got out of the saddle, I caught and/or dropped someone else. Working my way up the climb, I found rider after rider who’d gone out too hard or whatever, and one by one, they dropped behind me.

As I rounded Taylor’s Flat, with about a mile to go, I eased up, knowing I’d need to save some juice for the mountain bike climb. And at that point, a couple of guys got away from me. But when I came to the transition, I told my wife I was having a journal day. I grabbed my mountain bike and my Camelbak, and I was off.

As I rounded the initial switchbacks, I caught up to some girl who I’d seen ahead on the road climb, and she commented that she probably wouldn’t be able to keep up with me. I told her I’d never done that particular race before and I hadn’t even ridden much longer than an hour all year, so I probably wasn’t much of a threat.

Just moments later, we got to a steep climb, and as I gripped my handlebars, they twisted slightly with the torque. Handlebars, in case you’re not aware, are not supposed to do that. I quietly hoped I was just hallucinating, but as I came to the big switchback that signals the start of Peruvian Gulch, they twisted again. “Oh no,” I thought. “I knew I should’ve packed a multitool.”

My handlebars started wiggling out of place, and my magical fitness quickly faded. Racers started catching and dropping me just as I’d done only a half hour before. I’d been pedaling uphill almost nonstop for two hours when my bars finally came completely free of the stem, and when that happened, I had no choice but to walk. The heat of the day was starting to microwave the trail beneath me as the peak loomed tauntingly above. I threw my bike over my shoulder as I fumbled through loose rock on a steep switchback.

Behind me, another racer approached, and this time he looked oddly familiar.

“I think I’ve seen you in a YouTube video,” I told him. “Isn’t your name Brett Hawke or something?”

“You really have seen me in a YouTube video, haven’t you?”

We exchanged a few pleasantries, but ultimately, I learned he didn’t have a multitool either, so the conversation ended pretty quickly.

After a few more passersby, an older gentleman came riding up the switchback beneath me.

“You got a multitool on ya?” I plied.


“A multitool — do you have one?”


After about the third time, I thought he was just having obnoxious fun at my expense, but then he reached into his jersey pocket and then handed me a fairly robust multitool. “I don’t want to have to slow down to give it to you,” he said snarkily.

“Thanks!” I called as he pedaled off. “I’ll give it to you at the top.”


Despite the odd exchange, I was elated. I tightened the hex bolts on my stem, threw a leg over my seat and got back to pedaling what was left of my sorry carcass up the mountain. I easily cleaned the last few switchbacks, crossed the finish line and tracked down my good Samaritan. Minutes later, my wife and sister got off the tram and found me crumpled over my bike.

I’d produced one of the worst race results I’ve ever had for the Ultra, but on the flip side, I’d had a great ride on the road hill climb, enough for a 6th place in my age group. I’d flirted with my limits and perhaps even pushed them a little.

When the date for the Widow Maker rolled around, I was with my daughter, where I needed to be. But little did I know that, hundreds of miles away, it was snowing on Hidden Peak, and there was a race organizer telling a group of mountain bikers to head back to their cars.

The Widow Maker had been postponed …

Exercise and Weight Loss, part 2

So my blog’s been getting a lot of traffic from Russia lately … not sure what that’s all about, since I’m not using the Cyrillic alphabet. I’m hoping my blog doesn’t get commandeered by pirates.

Anyway, if you don’t know who Asker Jeukendrup is, he’s one of the foremost names in nutritional science, not to mention an Ironman triathlete. The other day, he started posting some really interesting infographics to his Twitter feed. But the one that caught my eye most was this guy:

Graph answering the question, "Are you or aren't you a fat burner?"Pretty fascinating stuff. As you can see, the point he’s making is that not everybody burns* fat at the same exercise intensity, although you can pretty reliably say that when someone really kicks it into high gear, their fat substrate usage drops.

It was pretty interesting to see in graphic format, but what was really striking to me was the text he tweeted with it: “Are you a #fatburner? Some people are. Some people aren’t, even if corrected for diet & other factors.”

The trouble “to be” verbs is that they suggest you’re either a fatburner or you aren’t — and that there’s nothing you can do about it. And when you let people take a fatalistic viewpoint — i.e. blame it on their genes — they throw up the white flag of surrender pretty quickly.

Every year, when my employer tests employees’ wellness metrics, I hear people in the hallways talking about how they must have a genetic predisposition toward high cholesterol or obesity or whatever. And maybe they do. But unless you’re a really extreme case, there’s a pretty good chance that you can do something about excess belly fat.

Obviously, I wasn’t the only person wondering about this Twitter post, because, if you read a few posts below this infographic, you get this little insight:Asker Jeukendrup says that fat burning is trainable after all.And above that one, you get this: Asker says the average mom needs to just get out and get active to burn fat.The point of the post was not, “Are you or aren’t you a fatburner?” It was that some people burn fat at different exercise intensities than others, and some have a long way to go before their bodies are trained to burn fat at all. Your body’s ability to burn fat is going to depend on certain lifestyle decisions you’ve made in the past. If you’ve spent years overeating and being relatively inactive, your body might have some adaptations to make before you can really get the fat burn going. If you participated in a high-intensity sport in the past, your body may have may adaptations that affect your ability to burn fat now.

But that was the whole point of my previous post about aerobic conditioning: To get your body burning fat, you need to make the adaptations that come with improve aerobic fitness. Will you get ripped or cut on aerobic fitness alone? Maybe, maybe not. Will you lose tons of weight? Regardless of whether you do or you don’t, you’ll get healthier by adding a habit of regular aerobic exercise to your life. And thus far, the science says that if you want to lose belly fat, aerobic exercise is the way to go.

What I thought was even more interesting was this other infographic he posted: Graph showing that low intensity is better for burning fat than high intensity exercise, and that eating carbohydrate beforehand reduces fat burn during your workout.Now, obviously, I like this one because it backs up what I was saying in my other blog post: high-intensity exercise, such as lifting weights or sprinting, taps into fat less than moderate-intensity exercise. But there’s another important element here: the fact that eating carbohydrate within an hour before your workout lessens how much fat you use in that workout. So there’s a tip for you — if you’re trying to reduce body fat, don’t eat carbs before your workout.

Obviously, there’s more to the subject of fat loss than I can squeeze into this one blog, so I’m going to save some for later. Bottom line: Don’t give up on exercise and diet for weight loss. Just recognize that it might take more effort and time than you might’ve expected.

*Before you go into a conniption over the usage of the term “burn” here, yes, I read that article about how fat isn’t really burned but exhaled. But for the record, there is still heat resulting from that chemical interaction, so the term “burn” isn’t completely without justification. Just sayin’.

Cold, wet, miserable … and happy

In my early years as an amateur cyclist, I used to do nothing in the winters. I couldn’t ride the bike, and the internet experts somehow convinced me that specificity was so important that I shouldn’t bother with anything that didn’t involve pedaling. Some of the blame was mine too — I took cycling way too seriously in those first few years.

Somehow, through the Thanksgiving Day 5k races, I managed to adopt running for some of those winter months, which paid off to some degree. But in 2008 (I think) I went to a used gear sale at my alma mater and found a pair of Crescent Moon snowshoes on sale for a mere $70. I say that with some sense of irony, because my wife thinks anything that costs more than $10 is incredibly expensive and an overwhelming burden on our family. (Hey, that frugal attitude has gotten us pretty far, so don’t knock it!)

Snowshoeing in Park City
Snowshoeing in Park City

I think I used my snowshoes first in Utah at a couple of different trails in Ogden and Park City. But then I learned we had a bunch of snowshoe trails in the mini-mountains around our local bunny hill, and I even found a map online, because that’s how resourceful I am. So I drove my car up to the bunny hill and found a trail named “Lower Cole’s Climb” …

Moments later, I was gasping as I marched up into the forest between the bushes and trees, the claws of my snowshoes digging in to the icy snow beneath me. The climb was narrow, serpentine, and brutal — taking me up the face of a mountain that I would later learn was completely inaccessible in the summer.

Each weekend after, I would come back, sometimes with my brother-in-law but often alone, and explore another part of the trail system. There were overwhelming and exposed quick climbs, eerily still and narrow forest routes, and unrelentingly steep long climbs, all of which were rendered significantly more difficult when they were covered by fresh powder.

I remember telling my coworker I’d become a snowshoer who cross-trains with cycling, rather than a cyclist who cross-trains with snowshoeing. I even made a low-quality YouTube video about it at one point:


My favorite was to come to the hills when it was really, really cold — like in the negatives on the fahrenheit scale. The snow would be soft and dusty — perfect snowshoe weather and often cold enough to keep everyone else at home. Sometimes, I’d show up just after a patch of fog had rolled through, coating branches and limbs with hoarfrost, and giving the forest an other-worldly appearance. I’d get up on top of the high climbs and see the distant snow-covered peaks and wonder about snowshoeing on them.

Then there was the wildlife. After an exhausting 950-foot climb up the Moose Rim trail one cold morning, I was startled to find myself standing perhaps 15 feet from, of course, a moose. It was a bit of an awkward meeting, so I tried to break the ice by talking to it … or her, I guess. As I walked away, passing a group of trees next to the moose, I asked, “There isn’t another one over here, is there?” And sure enough, there was. That year, I saw seven moose in perhaps four weekends of snowshoeing.

I’d finish every hike with snow plastered to my back and ice crystalized on my neck gaiter. I’d strip off my jacket before I even got in my car. And by the time I got home and pulled into the garage, I’d be shocked to find my legs so fatigued that I’d have to sit in the car for a moment before I could muster the energy to go inside — where I’d gobble everything I could find and then take a well-earned nap.

One Saturday night, my wife and I were watching some special on PBS about a woman who’s a river guide in Idaho. The woman told the camera, “I need to get cold and wet and miserable, and then I can be happy.” My wife turned to me and said, “She’s just like you.” And she’s absolutely correct.

I don’t know why I’m writing this all in past tense and with perfect aspect. Fact is, I went snowshoeing again this morning, saw a bull moose with a cow, tripped and fell on my face,  came home with sore legs and wet clothes, and enjoyed it as much as I ever have. Guess I just wanted to share.