Searching for the right mix of cardio and high-intensity exercise

I stumbled across a blog post titled Conflicting Cardio that pondered aloud the following:

As I read Mark’s essay, I distinctly remembered hearing advice somewhere that completely contradicted what he was saying. I remembered reading that we were actually genetically designed to run long, slow distances, and that the way our ancestors hunted was not in short sprints (antelope would outrun us no problem), but rather in long, slow jogs, waiting for the animal’s body temperature to overheat. At that point, the animal simply passed out from heat exhaustion, and we moved in for the kill. This is based on the premise that human beings evolved an evaporative cooling system, whereas animals didn’t; they don’t sweat, and thus, they’re terribly inefficient at cooling their bodies during exercise.

Fortunately for you, I have a spectacular memory. The article I’m referencing was from an issue of Men’s Health that ran about a year ago, titled Yes, You Were Born to Run. The author, Richard Conniff, based the article on research conducted by Daniel Lieberman PhD, a University of Utah biologist.

I find this situation particularly hilarious because it illustrates perfectly the dilemma that the typical North American finds itself in when attempting to establish what, exactly, is good for us in terms of our health. Is it low-fat or low-carb? Steady-state cardio exercise, or HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)? 12-15 reps or 6-8? The amount of conflicting information published is astounding.

What is the right combination of cardiovascular exercise and strength-training? Is one better than the other? Is endurance exercise healthy? These are important questions to ask.

Here is my brief take, which is cross-posted as a comment on Becoming Adonis:

Thought-provoking post.

Seems to me that any “cardio” should be conducted at low-intensity. “Intensity” is incredibly vague, so for my purposes, I am defining it as whatever rate at which my body burns mostly fat for energy. For most of us, I imagine fairly low levels of exercise — probably less than jogging but greater than walking (Though walking with weight could serve in a pinch). For individuals who train for endurance, the level will be higher as their bodies are more efficient at burning fat for energy — I’m thinking specifically of Ironman athletes or other high endurance individuals who necessarily blow through all of the glycogen stores in their bodies and simply must burn fat for fuel. For a discussion on this, see Mark Twight’s write-up on endurance and fat (here).

Based on a number of articles about endurance exercise (See More Reading below), I don’t see a lot of benefits in endurance training. I’ll save further discussion on that topic for another time.

Meanwhile, HIIT and/or weight lifting is right up the alley of most all of us mere mortals for the very reasons Mark Sisson and you describe (Sprints being a great example).

How do we put all of this together? Do we just ditch cardio/endurance exercise altogether?

Modern man is scarcely active relative to our ancient ancestors. Hunting/gathering at the grocery store is hardly going to require a lot of energy nor is typing 90wpm or clicking a mouse. The big incongruity is simply a lack of basic, low-intensity activity that would have been a matter of course to paleo man but is a foreign concept to us bloggers.

So what is the solution? We should simply seek to be more active at low-levels of intensity. This means more walking (perhaps weighted) or perhaps low-intensity biking or mountain biking. I imagine there are a number of competitive sports that could also fit the bill here. Mix these activities with HIIT and weight-lifting and you’ve got an optimal combination.

More reading:

  • Did you happen to see this post by De Vany on sweating? Totally jives with the evaporative cooling mechanism discussion in your post.
  • The Men’s Health article referenced can be found here

And a bevvy of articles on endurance exercise, most which question its health benefits:

Cooking and Human Intelligence

Research has been conducted on human brain chemical processes that appear to have changed about 200,000 years ago. The findings may indicate that a leap in human advancement came as homo sapiens were able to consume greater calories, a necessary precursor to fueling our energy-hungry brains. In specific, what may have driven the advance is that humans learned:

The extra calories may not have come from more food, but rather from the emergence of pre-historic “Iron Chefs;” the first hearths also arose about 200,000 years ago.

In most animals, the gut needs a lot of energy to grind out nourishment from food sources. But cooking, by breaking down fibers and making nutrients more readily available, is a way of processing food outside the body. Eating (mostly) cooked meals would have lessened the energy needs of our digestion systems, Khaitovich explained, thereby freeing up calories for our brains.

Our brains need something like 500 to 700 calories a day in energy, so it stands to reason that greater energy uptake would foster advances in our intelligence.

The best quote from the article:

“This happened because we started to eat better food, like eating more meat,” said researcher Philipp Khaitovich of the Partner Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai.

Take that, vegetarians!

(Link to the article at LiveScience)

On Coffee (And Caffeine)

The NY Times published an article titled Sorting Out Coffee?s Contradictions the other day. Here were my notable takeaways:

  • On the myth of dehydration: “studies reviewed last year found that people who consumed drinks with up to 550 milligrams of caffeine produced no more urine than when drinking fluids free of caffeine. Above 575 milligrams, the drug was a diuretic.”
  • On mental benefits: “At consumption levels up to 200 milligrams (the amount in about 16 ounces of ordinary brewed coffee), consumers report an improved sense of well-being, happiness, energy, alertness and sociability”
  • On being an exercise supplement: “caffeine enhances endurance in aerobic activities and performance in anaerobic ones, perhaps because it blunts the perception of pain and aids the ability to burn fat for fuel instead of its carbohydrates.”

There’s a bit more here.

That at normal or even high levels of consumption (575mg of caffeine is a lot) coffee is not a diuretic, acting instead like water in hydrating your body, hits on a point Mark Sisson has made. I had previously wondered at what consumption levels dehydration kicks in, so this is good to know.

It also hammers home something I’ve realized in the past few weeks as I have drastically reduced my “raw water” consumption, which is that even if I’m drinking beer, tea and coffee only, I am still managing plenty of hydration.

It also makes me wonder if overhydrating can have a negative side-effect, which is that your body becomes dependent on needing higher levels of water consumption. The reason I ask this is because I have previously drank 100 oz. of water every day (or more) plus all the water I got through food. On nights that I imbibed a bit of alcohol, I found hangovers to be stronger, which I also chalked up to the dehydration. Yet now, I’ve cut way back on my daily water intake and any hangover I’ve experienced seems less severe. How does this make sense? The closest thing I can liken it to (oddly enough) is becoming dependent on chapstick from overuse.

This isn’t exactly a rigorous experiment, but it’s still interesting.

My Bare Feet. Vibram Five Fingers Review

 

“What are you wearing? Some kind of aqua shoes?”

That’s a common reaction I get to my Vibram Five Fingers. Others include, “Hey can you run in those?” (Yes). Or, “Do they feel weird? Is it hard to adjust to them?” (Not really and No — its like being barefoot!). And of course, “What are those? And where can I get them?”

Five Fingers are shoes. Or slippers. Or socks with flexible Vibram rubber soles on the bottom. Or go simpler: they’re “Toe Shoes.” They have five toe cutouts (or pockets) and absolutely no arch support or traditional foam padding in the soles. They come in a few varieties (some providing more foot coverage, one intended for aquatic uses, a couple with straps, or the simplest, the “classic”, which has a bungie type operation that keeps them from falling off when used in more engaging activities (Update: Now there are 8 Five Fingers models available with a ninth VFF Trek variety on the way any day now).

I’ve been using my Five Fingers for about three months now. So far, I’ve used them for:

Five Fingers have helped me be a kid again: as a kid, I never wore shoes, preferring always to be barefoot everywhere. Even today, I rarely wear shoes, preferring Birkenstock sandals in the summer or clogs in the winter (or just wearing flip-flops). Five Fingers are great in that they allow me to do all sorts of active things outside, no matter what the surface while still protecting my feet against wayward sharp objects on the ground.

Five Fingers take my feet back to basics. I wasn’t born with shoes on my feet. From an evolutionary perspective, human beings existed for countless millenia hunting and gathering, running from prey, lifting and carrying loads — all without the latest brand of Nike’s. It stands to reason that our feet evolved over time to withstand the freedoms (both good and bad) that result from going barefoot everywhere.

Our ancient ancestors likely had tough, calloused feet, ready to withstand sprints (or walking) across all sorts of terrain. Furthermore, they likely ran lightly on their feet (and almost certainly had little reason to ever “go for a jog”). Shoeless running would necessarily minimize contact between the foot and the ground. Just imagine a cat or dog sprinting and you get the idea. Contrast running on the balls of your feet with the pervasive long-stride, heel-striking (inherently inefficient), sneaker-clad foot-roll. This style is clumsy, and the by-product of the thick-soles of modern sneakers, which mute important feedback between foot and ground (See You Walk Wrong, referenced below).

Kicking back in a pair of Classic Vibram FiveFingers.

Vibram Five Fingers minimize feedback-interference by having an almost insignifnicant rubber sole. When I wear my Five Fingers outside, I feel the curvature of the grass-covered ground. I feel rocks under my heels and get a real sense of the varying textures beneath me.

When I do olympic-lifts, I feel all the stabilizers in my feet activate (Like you might encounter in CrossFit). I feel reconnected to the ground, an empowering feeling when you’re trying to squat 275 pounds or stabilize whilst doing 1.5 pood kettlebell swings. For more on weight lifting, read this fans account of powerlifting in Vibram FiveFingers.

When I do hill sprints in my Five Fingers, I am considerably less likely to roll my ankle upon hitting a dip in the ground — meanwhile, it feels fantastic to be so light on your feet as you fly (sprint) up a hill or across a field!

Going about “virtually barefoot” may seem odd to our sneaker-crazed modern world, but why not take a break from restrictive, clunky shoes and sneakers and traverse the earth as evolution intended (Well, as close as you can get while still maintaining some protection!)? Plus, being active and “barefoot” will build stronger ankles and leg muscles and improve your agility.

Mind, the day after running “barefoot” for the first time (virtually so with Five Fingers), you’re bound to be sore in all sorts of previously forgotten ankle, foot and calve muscles. So be prepared. However, this general foot/ankle weakness should tell you something about how much your regular footwear has been subsidizing your strength.

The bottom line: if you like being active and barefoot, you’re almost certainly going to like Five Fingers.

Finally, there are a few other benefits of Five Fingers I thought I’d share:

  • Five Fingers are incredibly light and compact. This makes them supremely packable for traveling (Often you can even get through airport security without taking them off though its a bit of a gamble!).
  • They are machine washable! Yeah, you can just throw them in the washing machine, then hang them out to dry (I have freakishly non-stinky feet, but they can get stinky, so you might check out these Vibram Five Fingers cleaning tips.
  • Wet sports. This goes hand in hand with their machine wash-ability. Doing something in wet grass? Regular sneakers will get soaking wet and could end up smelling of mold. With my Five Fingers, if they get wet, its okay! They’ll dry fast. If they get muddy? Just wash them off and throw them in the washing machine. Easy.

Okay, you’ve sold me. So what now?

If you’re interested in picking up a pair, I’ve got some good news and some bad news and they’re both the same: there are a ton of models to choose from — 20+! That makes for a lot of options, which is great, but also means you could get a little overwhelmed trying to pick a style. Go with your instinct and just have fun (don’t get overwhelmed).

Otherwise, you could end up like me: in the 3+ years since I first wrote this review, I’ve dived feet-first into the whole barefoot-style footwear thing by founding a blog dedicated to this emerging way to reconnect with our humanity — it’s called BirthdayShoes.com and has received over 2 million unique visitors. I’ve now tried and reviewed virtually every Vibram model out there as well as all the other new minimalist/barefoot shoes. That’s over 50 other shoe models (I’ve lost count, honestly). Go check out just how many options in the world of barefoot/birthday shoes there really are!

If you’re planning on buying online, you need to read this. I’m afraid to say that a rash of fake Five Fingers have shown up on the internet (and in Google search results). By “rash,” I mean there are over 600 fake fivefingers online retailers masquerading as the real deal. You can learn more about this unfortunate phenomenon here. The gist is that if you’re on a site with “vibram” or “fivefingers” or some variant thereof that claims crazy discounts (60% off!) and isn’t vibramfivefingers.com — or if you’re looking on ebay (not a good sign) — you very well could be looking at a fakes retailer.

I’ve done my best to take some of the pain out of finding legit online retailers by creating listing many (but not all) of the fake sites (here) as well as creating a “store” that has authentic online retailers. The store also has info regarding free shipping policies, customer reviews, etc., and one store offers 7% off via a BirthdayShoes-exclusive discount code (it’s listed at http://birthdayshoes.com/store/).

On style and sizing — Back in 2008 when I got my first pair of Vibrams, I figured I’d start simply so I just got the simplest model available, the Classic; I bought two sizes that were the closest to my measurements and just returned the wrong size. Simple enough. The thing is that sizing Vibrams is confusing because the FiveFingers sizing doesn’t (necessarily) correlate to any standard sizes (American or European). By pure chance, my FiveFingers size happens to be the same as my Birkenstocks size (European 43 — I’m a 10.5 US size). To really get a handle on sizing, you should see this wiki on Vibram Five Fingers sizing.

Update February 2012: One last note on the above-mentioned likelihood of getting Overwhelmed by just how many options there are. These days, I now have probably 40 or more pairs of FiveFingers including all the newest/hottest models with the fancier soles and uppers; however, I still go back to my Classic FiveFingers as a “go to” pair assuming the weather permits. That’s because they’re just that comfortable. However, if you’re just going to get one pair for all occasions, I might recommend the KSO if you want to kick it “old school” in one of the original, most popular Vibrams; or if you want something more recent, go with the KomodoSport LS or Bikila LS as both are exceptionally comfort and fit the widest range of feet due to the laced uppers. Ahh there are pros and cons to all of them and it’s not easy to decide on “just one pair!” I don’t envy your position. Truth be told, you should know that there’s a high likelihood your first pair of toe shoes won’t be your last; I can’t tell you how many folks I know who now have multiple pairs (like 5+) of FiveFingers. Seriously.

Buyer beware: friends and family might chide your weird-looking footwear, but don’t be surprised when they order their own pair shortly thereafter (To date: I know two CrossFitters who are looking to buy them after seeing me use them, and one CrossFitter who has already taken the plunge).

If you have any questions about anything I didn’t cover, let me know!

Further reading:

Workout Blog

Check out my new “Workout Blog” here. This is mostly just to track progress with individual workouts as well as CrossFit. We’ll see how long I can keep it up. I’ve got a sidebar widget dedicated to listing the last ten posts. Might be good for any of you who are looking for workout ideas. Otherwise, you just ignore it! :p

Perseid Meteor shower at Grier’s Field

Word is there’s going to be a meteor shower in the early morning hours of August 12th. So says NASA:

The 2008 Perseid meteor shower peaks on August 12th and it should be a good show.

see caption”The time to look is during the dark hours before dawn on Tuesday, August 12th,” says Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center. “There should be plenty of meteors–perhaps one or two every minute.” …

The source of the shower is Comet Swift-Tuttle. Although the comet is far away, currently located beyond the orbit of Uranus, a trail of debris from the comet stretches all the way back to Earth. Crossing the trail in August, Earth will be pelted by specks of comet dust hitting the atmosphere at 132,000 mph. At that speed, even a flimsy speck of dust makes a vivid streak of light when it disintegrates–a meteor! Because, Swift-Tuttle’s meteors streak out of the constellation Perseus, they are called “Perseids.”

The moon will set around two AM on the 12th, which will make seeing the meteors much easier. I’ve yet to experience a really great meteor shower, and since I’m currently living in a less urban area, it should be easy to find somewhere with low light-pollution in order to observe the show.

Enter the realization that Grier’s Field, a rural spot dedicated to nighttime stargazing, is less than 60 miles from Augusta. I have the beginnings of a plan.

For those of you who aren’t into astronomy 1, Grier’s Field is where Robert Grier, of Grier’s Almanac fame (yeah I had never heard of it either), grew up. A bit more on Grier:

An amateur astronomer and accomplished mathematician, Grier put his knowledge to good use by publishing an almanac predicting sunrises and sunsets, lunar eclipses and phases, plus general weather trends. So accurate and popular was his almanac that it became an annual publication until Grier’s death, at which point another publisher took the reigns, and then another. Grier’s Almanac has now been published annually for over two hundred years. First published in 1807 as “The Georgia and South Carolina Almanack,” the almanac made Robert Grier’s name a household word in the nation until his death in 1848.

Hip to Grier, some nerdelicious astronomers from Atlanta created a dark sky community2 called the Deerlick Astronomy Village, which saddles up to Grier’s Field. Awesome!

So I’m thinking — why not drive to Grier’s Field on the 11th and set up shop for this meteor shower? Sure, I don’t have a telescope, but hey, maybe there’d be a generous nerd or two who would let me have a peep through their scope. Maybe I’d get lucky.

Anyone up for the trip?

Footnotes:

1 For the record, I’m not. However, those rare occurrences when I’ve been able to see the Milky Way are some of the most existential and awe-inspiring of my life.

2 I’m not big into the green movement. I’m not going to go into why here (maybe one day). However, I do have a general problem with pollution, where pollution is of the negative externality variety. Most specifically, I have a strong distaste for light pollution — not because its a waste of energy (not an externality – cost born by user), but because it blocks my view of the night sky. Sigh.

Being healthy on the road

Traveling has an uncanny tendency to thwart healthy routines. It is difficult both to make time for exercise and to eat healthy amidst the bevy of fast food restaurants, hotels, free food, abundant spirits and people who eat differently than me. How do you navigate these health obstructions while on the road?

I’m hardly an expert, but here is how I’m managing to maintain a low-carb diet replete with activity while being away from home:

  • Be active. Some Hollywood star has the following motto: “I try to break a sweat everyday.” (H/T IF Life) This just seems like a robust life-motto that reverberates in my head — a life where you exert enough effort to break a sweat every day just seems right to me.

    On the road, it can be difficult to do this with limited equipment. I like having a kettlebell around, but if you’re flying, you can forget about taking a 35 lb. or 53 lb. kettlebell along for the ride.

    This means you have to improvise. Good ways I’ve found to improvise include running sprints, doing push-ups, and air squats. I’m still trying to find a good pull-up substitute that can be performed with everyday furniture (Any ideas?).

  • Skip a meal or two. Fasting is such a powerful tool to recenter/refocus after finding yourself lost in the bad habits that result from traveling. I’ve found the easiest way to fast is to skip breakfast. Depending on how you’re feeling around lunchtime, feel free to skip lunch, too. I did this yesterday, not eating anything until dinner and I felt great all day and even managed a nice workout compliments of a treadmill and one of those all-in-one weightlifting machines (Improvise!).
  • Go for level-two fast food. I just made up that Level II distinction. What I mean by it is that you should take the extra ten minutes to seek out local restaurants that can serve up some healthier takeout dishes. For me, I’ve eaten a few greek salads with gyro meat or chicken. It’s not ideal but its better than getting a number five combo from McDonald’s.
  • Don’t strive for perfection. When you inevitably cave to cravings and eat that fresh-baked cinnamon bun that was calling your name at the hotel breakfast bar, let it go. Striving to acheive a perfect maintenance of your healthy habits while on the road is a recipe for failure. It’s okay to deviate — just take steps to get back on track (i.e. trying a mini-fast or having an intense workout in the hotel gym).

So that is what I’ve come up with so far. I’m interested to hear any ideas from any readers regarding other ways to be healthy “on the road”. Please comment if you think of something you’d like to share!

Finally, one of the hardest parts about breaking routines is getting back on track after the traveling is over. That topic remains a discussion for another day: though I will say that I’ve found fasting to be an excellent way to “re-rail” post-vacation.

On the road: Michigan

Last week was my pseudo-vacation with my family at Lake Oconee (so-blogged: 1 2). Good times were had by all though my vacation was accompanied by a normal workweek thanks to the lakehouse’s wifi (Thus, the “psuedo-vacation”).

I returned to Augusta this past Saturday, and on Monday I joined my adopted family for a road trip to Michigan — we have a wedding to attend this Saturday.

Unlike the last, I don’t consider this week vacation and am having a fairly reasonable time staying connected and on top of work. I also don’t feel the stress of making an attempt at vacation and work (Balancing the two is an exercise in futility — I suppose that should have been obvious!).

Working from the road can be frustrating due to the unavoidable connectivity hindrances, but even with these speedbumps, that I am able to have a normal workweek while being completely away from the home office is a testament to the mobility afforded by abundant technology.

And thanks to the packability (driving anyway) of kettlebells and Vibram five fingers, I’ve got my exercise covered, too. Speaking of exercise … off to check out the gym here at the Holiday Inn Express!

Synchronized Burpees

Here was our lake front CrossFit-worthy workout today:

2 minute plank
50 53 lb. kettlebell swings
2 minute plank
50 lunges
2 minute plank
50 burpees
2 minute plank
Time: 21 minutes

My sister managed to capture the photo below where my wife and I were momentarily synchronized in our burpees (the jump part). And even more, the picture documents that I was at least a few inches off the ground on my jump!

Note the Five Fingers! I’ve learned this week that they make great lake footwear (Deck, boat, etc.).

The workout was tough and I immediately jumped in the lake upon completion.