Forgetting perhaps that I also run, my brother sent me a link to one of those clickbait Active.com articles the other day entitled, “15 Reasons Running is Better Than Cycling.” A listicle, even! His message said simply, “Uh oh …”
Without hesitation, I messaged back that at least cyclists don’t spend half the year injured, and he responded with, “Unless they crash.”
Fortunately, this blog isn’t about bicycle crashes—but unfortunately, it is about spending half the year with a running injury. Second year in a row, I might add. Different injury.
I think the thing that’s most infuriating about running injuries is that they seem to creep up without a lot of warning. There’s no shotgun blast as your achilles tendon rolls up into a ball in your calf or sudden sharp pain as your ligaments pull loose from the ankle bones. No, you just wake up one morning going, “What exactly is that little ache?”
This time, however, I feel like I can sort of pinpoint when it all went down.
I was running up a mountain a couple of weeks after doing Ragnar Wasatch Back. My calves felt tight, and I hadn’t done much running after Ragnar. But, I thought, that would constitute a normal taper before a race. Oddly, I remember feeling a tingling sensation and even a little numbness in the bottoms of my feet.
I can’t say for certain, but not long after that, I started waking up with a dull ache toward the rear of my arches. It took me probably a month and a half to self-diagnose plantar fasciitis, but here I am, five months later, still waking up with a slightly less extreme version of that dull ache every morning.
Now, granted, it’s 100% my fault that I’m still dealing with it. I should’ve quit running right away. But instead, I went and did my favorite event, the Grand Teton Relay, just a month later. Then I ran up the very same mountain as part of the Hidden Peak Challenge. And then, even after taking it mostly easy, I went and ran the stupid Turkey Trot at Thanksgiving.
Finally, I’ve decided to take a little time off running. And I’m convinced that, if I play my cards right, I can actually make this time off count for something. For starters, I came across a video from famed Canuck triathlete Kirsten Sweetland about making the offseason count:
And then I came across this fascinating podcast from a running researcher who says you basically can’t improve your running stride just by thinking about it—and that if you want to improve your running economy, you either have to do that by running tons of miles or through gym work.
So yeah, needless to say, I’m spending plenty of time in my home gym, and I’m riding the mountain bike every chance I get. I keep telling myself that if I end up racing the bike next year instead of running, that that’s okay.
A friend of mine posted something on Facebook today about running and how uncomfortable it was. It got me thinking …
There’s something really unique about running fast. There’s a certain threshold that you cross when you give everything you are over to it. Suddenly, every movement, every conscious ounce of your body is engaged in the deliberate action of running. Every muscle, every bone, every organ, and every drop of blood pumping through your arteries — it all comes together for one purpose.
You see this in professional runners when they go hard enough. You see Paula Radcliffe nodding her head like a donkey as she chases a marathon world record no one else has touched. You see the muscles in Genzebe Dibaba’s face tense up as she hurls herself toward the finish line. You watch Bernard Lagat’s eyes grow wide as he kicks out those long strides down the final stretch.
And in that moment, running is no longer something you’re doing; it’s what you are.
Of course, it feels terrible. But all at once it’s both delicately aesthetic, uniquely beautiful, and devastatingly intense. It’s a sublime and yet viscerally awful experience. Moments like those, you realize, have killed men and women — blowing the gaskets on their vascular cylinders, so to speak.
I don’t think any other sport is quite like that — not the same way, anyway. Not cycling, not swimming, not snowshoeing or football. So it makes sense that runners hampered by injury or age find themselves longing for another time, a time when the movement itself swallowed them whole — before spitting them out on the beach past the finish line.
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.
So needless to say, being injured has been an interesting (albeit unpleasant) experience. This bizarre cycle of losing tons of fitness through excessive resting and then re-injuring myself as soon as I try to start back up again — that has gotten very old very quickly.
I’ve run into three problems:
1. Diagnosis — I really don’t have the problem figured out completely. I wasn’t sure if I just strained a muscle (I was thinking soleus) or if I straight-up tore something (like a vertical tear in the achilles or something).
2. Re-injury prevention — Because I didn’t know what I did, I’m not clear on how I can avoid re-injuring myself. That’s the thing: for the first few weeks, I wasn’t sure if it was a result of running and cycling, running and swimming, just plain running, or even just plain cycling. I’m still not 100% certain how I did it in the first place, and that makes it pretty tough to avoid doing it again.
3. Rehab — It’s really easy for you to play armchair physiotherapist and say, “Duh—stop running, moron!” But newsflash: it’s an injury in a largely tendinous region of the body. That means it’s difficult to get a lot of blood flow in there, and when it’s hard to get blood flow, it’s hard to heal. So to some degree, I need aerobic exercise to keep a higher rate of blood flow. The other question is, do I put heat on it (like I would a muscle strain) or do I ice it (like I would a tendon injury)?
Fortunately, in the middle of all of this, the world’s finest exercise science and sports nutrition minds were convening a conference in Spain. And since it’s 2015, that meant I got to follow along via Twitter. Asker Jeukendrup had to make things one step simpler when he took all of the cool info I saw in 140-character tweets and summarized it like this:
Being the self-diagnosing hypochondriac that I am, and since I couldn’t get an appointment with a running doctor until December, I decided to start treating it like a tendon injury. I’m downing gelatin and vitamin c, and I’m trying to avoid impactful exercise.
So I had a recovery regimen to commit to. Then I read Born to Run (which, I should mention, was a brutal hatchet job on Ann Trason — but that’s a different story), and I started wondering about whether the new pair of Nike Pegasus shoes I got last Christmas are playing a role. Christopher McDougall, of course, hangs out with Jon Krakauer and therefore doesn’t have a lot of credibility in my book. But he’s not the only one out there who has suggested running shoes might play a role in the high rate of injury among North American runners.
The other day, I found myself in the mountains with a group of people leaving on a little nature hike. I’d talked them into doing it on the lower elevations of the Aspen Grove-Mt Timpanogos trail. After moseying along for the first mile with the group, I got an itch, poked my way to the front and took off on a little jog up the trail. When I got to the turnaround point, I didn’t feel like turning around—so I didn’t. I kept going.
It wasn’t until I’d gotten about three miles and 1,800 feet up the trail that I decided to call it a hike. By then, I could see the summit far above, with the clouds hovering, brooding over the snow-covered dampness of the mountain. So I bounded back down, fully expecting to have worsened my injury.
To my surprise, the next day my calf felt pretty good. I’d even felt some tightness while I was headed up, but that was all gone when I woke up the next morning. The familiar soreness in my gluteal and vastus muscles was back—and that just plain felt awesome.
But it got me wondering about trails. Maybe there’s still something I can do on trails. Maybe snowshoe season will be nicer to me than I expect. We’ll see.
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.
Right now, I want nothing more than to steal away into my hills—to run my way up and down to and from the caldera at the top of my local hill, leaping over the volcanic shelves and tapping rhythmically through the ruts the rain carves in the soft dirt.
It’s so odd. Work has gotten quiet in the last couple of days, but I’m finding myself overwhelmed—my mind isn’t quiet. My baby slept through the night a few days ago, but I couldn’t seem to coax myself to drift off. I need to let the anxiety go somehow, to take a few deep breaths and soak up some exertion.
“People change. The earth is always changing.” –author and physics professor Jack Weyland to me in a private conversation 12 years ago
It seems like change is the only immutable constant anymore. And if you don’t make it happen, it will inevitably happen to you. And who wants to have life happen to them?
My wife signed up for a triathlon a few weeks ago—one with a pancake-flat bike course. Her goal was just to finish. Today, the race organizer announced a switch to a much hillier bike course. That got me excited, but it left my wife pretty stressed.
When I called to let her know, I knew I’d stress her out. I probably should’ve saved the call for later, but it gave me a chance to stress out about something else besides my own work pressures. Sometimes, it’s nice to stress out about a race instead of work.
Then tonight, I got a phone call from my brother. He’s running in a half-marathon in the morning, and he knows he’s not sufficiently trained for it. “But doesn’t that make it all the more exciting?” I asked.
I love that. I feed off of it. Standing at the foot of some mountain, or at some snow-covered finish line 11,000 feet above sea level and knowing—knowing—I’d bitten off more than I could chew. And feeling completely overwhelmed.
There’s nothing quite like it—it’s like feeling alive.
A month or two ago, I walked into an important work meeting, and my boss’s boss’s boss (aka the Big Boss) said to me, “How far are you running these days?” I answered, “I haven’t been running much. I broke 20 in the 5k, and I switched over to the bike. How about you?” And he responded, “I’d rather grind down both of my knees than switch over to the bike.”
Whoops. Well, you can’t win them all.
These days, though, he’d be proud of me. I’m running plenty. I put in nine miles this week. NINE MILES!! That was my average volume when I broke 20 minutes last year. Okay, so it’s not much. And, in truth, I eventually worked up to 19 miles.
Running, you see, is a transitional sport for me. I do it when I can’t ride the bike, or I do it to complement riding the bike, or I do it when there’s torrential rain and lightning and I’m worried about wrecking the paint job on the bike. Don’t get me wrong; I like running. I like running uphill so much that I’d even consider switching over to it if I didn’t expect it to result in a calf strain. Heck, it’d probably be better for my bones, and it might even make me a better cyclist.
Just a couple of weeks ago, we had our first snowfall of the year. Just this morning, we had our second. I just walked my road bike down to the basement, where it’ll stay comfortably until mid-February, assuming we get the mild winter we’re anticipating. It’s too sloppy outside for the road bike, and the snow isn’t deep enough for snowshoeing just yet. So it’s time for a transition.
Usually, during this time of year, I hook that thing up to the indoor trainer and start grinding out the miles (do they really count as miles when you don’t go anywhere?). But ever since I raced the 2011 Widow Maker in the snow, I’ve been a little more willing to take my mountain bike out and enjoy the great outdoors during the frosty season. Consequently, the bike is becoming part of my transitional workout routine, and the run is slowly melding with my year-round exercise plan. My transitions, in other words, are becoming the norm.
So am I going to become a duathlete? Nah. I’d rather grind down both of my knees than do something silly like that.