In my world, exercise is this balance between doing enough to get a fitness boost but not so much that I end up injured or sick. When you’re talking about achieving that balance of doing enough without doing too much, you’ll inevitably come across the advice “listen to your body.”
What’s funny about “listen to your body” are the people who use this phrase to give themselves a pass to stay on the couch and eat donuts. “That’s what my body’s telling me to do,” they say with a wry smile.
When you start out with an exercise regimen, you have to push yourself out the door. It takes some serious mental calisthenics. Sometimes, it’s not fun, and it’s rarely easy. So you start out by ignoring the voices in your head.
But after a while, you start to realize that when you thought your body was saying “stop, stop, stop,” it was actually saying, “Whoa, haven’t done this in a while.” And after a little warmup, it starts saying, “Okay, this isn’t so bad.” And then one day, you’re sitting at your desk and work and your legs just scream at you, “Let’s GO already! I’m so sick of sitting still!!”
You get out there in nature and you notice how gorgeous the sky is, how fresh the air is, and how beautiful the birds and trees and mountains are. You get hooked on the feeling of exercise, and you want more.
And that’s part of the problem. Once you really start paying attention to what your body is telling you, you want to keep going all the time. You sign up for an Ironman Triathlon or an ultra marathon or a double century bicycle ride because, hey, your body seems to be asking for it. The workouts get longer, harder, and faster. And your body gets healthier and healthier …
And then one day, your body says, “Uh, not right now” or “Okay, that’s enough.” And instead of listening you say, “I got where I am by ignoring those voices — why should I start listening now?”
The next thing you know, you’re at the doctor’s office going, “Why hasn’t my calf stopped hurting in the last six months, Doc?”
You see, fatigue is an interesting fire to play with. You have to push the limits of your fatigue to see improvement. But if you push too much too soon, you’re well, playing with fire.
Take last week. I started the day by going snowshoe running for about an hour and a half. It beat me up pretty good, and I came back with sore legs. But I’d planned to crank out an hourlong bike ride later in the day. I needed to push the limits, or so I thought.
As I sat there staring at the wall while I put on my wool socks and neoprene shoe covers, I imagined the workout I was about to do, but there was no excitement about it. I donned my facemask and helmet, mounted my bike and started riding.
Now, I’ve read the studies that say going long makes your immune system weaker than going hard. But it shouldn’t have taken a study to help me realize I shouldn’t have been so greedy with my time. My body wasn’t feeling it, and I should’ve known that just from the way I was feeling.
Lo and behold, a few days later, I woke up with a head cold and a sore calf.
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.
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.)
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.
Most 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.
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.
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:
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 with “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:And above that one, you get this: 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.
What I thought was even more interesting was this other infographic he posted: 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’.
I DON’T REALLY NEED TO LOSE WEIGHT. If anything, I wouldn’t mind gaining back a pound or four (as long as it’s all mitochondria-rich type 1 muscle fiber).
However, I have a friend at work, a guy I’ve worked with for a long time, who, a few years ago, needed to lose a lot of weight. Furthermore, I had an audience that was fairly interested in the subject as well. So for years on end, I read, researched, evaluated and shared what I learned about weight loss. But, at least for my friend, it never quite did the trick … until this one day.
He was so fed up he’d grown desperate. At the same time, I was pretty sure I’d figured it out. So I barged into his cubicle and sat him down and said, “Look, I think I have an answer for you, but you’re going to need to stick to this—exactly this—for a long time. You can’t bail on it after four weeks, because it’s going to take longer than that. You’ll need to keep it up for months on end.”
Then I explained to him what I’m about to explain to you.
And over the next year, he proceeded to lose over 100 pounds.
He’s gained a few pounds back, but for the most part, he’s kept it off.
So that was my preamble. Are you ready to hear what I told him? It’s not going to be pretty, and it’s not going to agree with everything you read on the internet. I don’t have a PhD or a fitness certification. My science might be a little bit messy, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Here goes …
Different types of exercise use different energy systems. And there’s really only one energy system that directly burns fat. It’s not the system you use when you do a clean and jerk, and it’s not the system you use when you do pull-ups, sorry to say. It’s also not the system you use when you do a 100-meter dash. Take a hard look at this chart:
Got a good look? Look across the top of the chart. Those are the continuous durations of particular exercises. An example of an exercise that takes 6 seconds or less might be bench press or squats done with 80–90% of maximal load. Another example might be full-out sprinting as fast as you possibly can. On the far right, an example of an exercise that lasts eight hours might include an Ironman Triathlon, long-distance cycling events such as the 206-mile LOTOJA, or swimming from Florida to Cuba … yes, seriously.
Now look down the left side. Those are all energy systems. Underneath every “duration” is the percentage of each energy system being used. Bench press to exhaustion, for example, uses ATP, the most basic unit of energy in your muscles, for 44% of its energy. “CRP,” which refers to creatine phosphate, keeps restocking your muscles with ATP as you use it up, and is responsible for 50%. Then “anaerobic glycolytic” — aka, carb-burning anaerobic exercise — gives 6%.
Now look at the bottom left. Notice that word “lipolytic” in the light-blue box? That word means “fat-burning.” Notice what percentage of your lipolytic system is being used for your 6-second max-out bench press. Yep, zero. Now look at what percentage of your lipolytic system you’re using to do your 8-hour Ironman Triathlon (which, by the way, makes you fast enough to be a pro — go you!). Yep, 71%.
That’s not something science needs to prove; it’s an axiomatic truth in exercise physiology. Lifting weights and sprinting don’t use fat. You don’t even TOUCH fat unless you do an exercise that lasts for 30 minutes nonstop. Ever tried bench pressing for 30 minutes? (Okay, maybe you have.)
That’s not to say weightlifting and sprinting don’t have their place — they do. And studies have shown that they burn more calories than the experts used to give them credit for. And sure, I’ll concede that weightlifting can even enhance your weight loss. But weightlifting and sprinting don’t directly burn fat.
What does? Well, look at the chart. It’s aerobic exercise that lasts for 30 minutes or longer. In fact, if you want to burn a decent amount of fat, you should be aiming for 60 minutes, not just 30. (Although there is a study that shows beginners lose more when they start with 30-minute aerobic sessions. So that’s a good place to start. But eventually, it will take more than that.) If you can, you’ll metabolize more fat doing a workout that last 90 minutes.
When you do consistent aerobic workouts over time, your body makes important adaptations, even before you see a change on the scale — and those adaptations will eventually lead to the right kind of weight loss. Your heart grows larger and pumps more blood. Your blood volume increases. You actually get more mitochondria in your cells. Remember those guys — mitochondria? They’re the little power plants your body needs to process energy at the cellular level.
And when all of that stuff happens … (drumroll please) … you get better at burning fat!
You’ve probably seen this. You’ve seen the skinny marathon runner or triathlete in your neighborhood. My brother recently took up training for and running half marathons, and he’s lost probably 50 pounds with that regimen. I promise I’m not making this stuff up.
You’ve also probably seen some people who look like they’re doing the right things but aren’t losing the weight. Perhaps they’re counteracting aerobic exercise with a poor diet — having sugary snack before every workout (which will predispose your body to using carbs during the workout), or guzzling HFCS-laden “sports” drinks as they slog through a session on the treadmill. Or, just maybe, they’re doing all of their workouts at too high of an intensity …
… on to the next chart:
Part of why long so-called “cardio” works to burn fat is the fact that you simply can’t do a 90-minute workout at the same intensity at which you can do a 90-second workout. As you can see from chart #2 here, the higher the intensity, the greater the proportion of carbohydrate to fat — until you simply aren’t using fat at all. The trouble on the other end, though, is that your total calorie burn (i.e. energy expenditure) is lower when you’re burning a higher proportion of fat. (In this example, the fat burn is even greater than it would be for you and me, because this chart shows the fat usage of a highly tuned endurance athlete.) So if you exercise at too low of an intensity, it won’t be worth your time because you won’t be going through a significant amount of calories. But if you go too hard and for too short a time period, those calories won’t be coming from fat.
When my wife was earning her biology degree, she had to go to the library and watch these outside-of-class lectures. In one of them, I distinctly remember the lecturer talking about how your body cannot process fat for energy without oxygen.
I’ve only ever had one period of significant weight loss in my life — when I took up cycling. I started riding ~90 minutes three days a week. And I wasn’t taking it easy. I tried to ride the most consistent pace I could for the full distance — up and down hills, over soft dirt farm roads, into the wind and rain, and eventually back to my apartment. After two months or so of this regimen, someone told me I was looking kind of gaunt. So I finally stepped on a scale … and learned I’d lost 15–20 pounds over the previous two or three months.
It’s a delicate balance: riding, running, swimming or hiking hard enough to burn through lots of overall calories but doing it at a low enough intensity that a significant amount of those calories come from fat. If you need help keeping yourself in the right intensity, and this is an important point, buy a heart rate monitor and read this article by Mark Allen.
Now, again, I’m not saying you can never do high-intensity intervals. But I am saying you need to build up your aerobic metabolism for a few months … or years — to really take the time to achieve those adaptations we talked about earlier. That means that, for a while, yes, I want you to stay away from intervals and high-intensity stuff. Just build up your aerobic system. Then, when you come back to doing intervals, the adaptations will be in place for you to burn through more fat while you’re doing them.
So let’s recap on our action item for just a second:
• Work out aerobically for 45–90 minutes at least three days a week (preferably four or five)
That’s it. That’s all I’ve told you to do so far. Nothing else. That’s your foundation. If you do nothing else, do that. And for goodness’ sake, don’t tell me exercise doesn’t work for you until you’ve done that for AT LEAST 6 months — yes, six months!
Is this everything I have to say about weight loss? Not at all. There’s more where this came from. But this is probably enough for now. I’ll give you the rest in another blog post soon.
As you can see from the little reminder at the top right, I’m about seven days away from REALLY starting my race season. It’s exciting stuff, as any olympic spectator can attest.
I was thinking the other day about everything I’ve done as I’ve prepared for this season. I broke 20 minutes in a 5k for the first time ever. I snowshoed and ran my way through the snow in winter and spring. I rode my mountain bike up a snow-covered trail in December and January. I weaved in swimming and running and raced a triathlon in May. I ran through the streets of Salt Lake City at 6 a.m. when I went there on business.
I just got back from a vacation to Alaska, where my parents live. My mom, knowing about my angst when I can’t squeeze in some decent aerobic exercise, took the unprecedented step of purchasing a bike for me before I came to visit. My mom is not a bike person, and therefore, she spent a whopping $15 on this gorgeous piece of machinery you see here:
As you can see, it’s a circa mid-’90s chromoly steel Huffy complete with those trashy tension shifters, a bent small chainring, a massive saddle, oh but an upgraded front tire.
My mother expected me to turn my nose up at it, but I showed up with pretty low expectations. And the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to give this thing a fair shake. I mean, after all, if Greg Lemond and Mark Allen rode Huffys, surely I could too. And besides, my mom had told me about this freaking awesome paved climb near their home, so I had to go check that out somehow.
After a few test rides and some modifications (you’ll notice I turned the handlebars around to give me some extra reach—the bike was pretty short on top), I decided it was time to take that puppy, er, Huffy on its maiden voyage.
The road my mom recommended was a zig-zaggy section of switchbacks that climbed up the side of a 2,500-foot mountain, the sister peak of the main mountain in town. I’d start climbing around 800 feet above sea level and then gain a little more than 1,300 feet in about 3 miles, coming out to about 8% in gradient. So overall, a potent little climb.
The first day I rode it (or maybe it was the second—I don’t remember), there was thick cloud cover the whole way up and even a light rain—perfect climbing conditions. I quickly discovered that the granny gear was bent beyond usefulness, so I wound up toughing out the really steep sections in my middle ring. The most beastly part of the climb came near the top when the pavement gave way to dirt:
Muscling my way through that section was a genuine challenge, particularly on the junk bike. But it was also a lot of fun.
One morning, as I got rolling, I came through a neighborhood with garbage scattered everywhere on the road. I asked one guy who was cleaning it up if some bears had gotten into his trash, and he confirmed my suspicions. That was a little freaky, knowing I was riding through bear territory, but in the end, I never saw a wild bear while I was on the bike.
I guess my parents have a black bear that frequents the neighborhood. But the last day, a lady out walking warned us that two grizzlies had been seen out that morning getting into someone’s trash. That’s Alaska, I suppose. You’re constantly on the fringe of wilderness, even when you’re in the thick of suburbia.
The last day I rode there, which just happened to be yesterday, I got halfway up the road when I noticed a bunch of teenagers going up the road on roller skis—the type with the hinge in the front to mimic XC skiing. I passed a handful of them jawboning their way up the mountain.
Then, as I came closer to the dirt road at the top, I noticed a bunch of them had gathered around a vehicle. I figured it must’ve been a local nordic ski club, or the high school XC ski team out doing hill repeats. Either way, I thought it was pretty cool to see them out doing that sort of thing.
As I passed by and said hello, the coach (or some silver-haired fella who looked too old to be a member of the team) said to me, “You’re not huffing nearly as much as that Huffy you’re on.” I responded, “Yeah, it’s doing all the work.”
The truth is, the Huffy had kind of grown on me. My position was relatively comfortable, and I felt like I was getting some decent workouts with it. I was almost sad to leave it behind, truth be known.
But, alas, the top of the dirt road came eventually, and with it came the end of my ride. My trip home, after all, was little more than a spiraling downhill. As I came back down to the last switchback, a female XC skier said something inaudible to me. I stopped and said, “What?” She responded, “Don’t die on the downhill.”
Good advice. After all, if I’d croaked while descending an 8-percent hill on a mid-’90s Huffy clunker mountain bike, I might’ve qualified for a Darwin Award.