Sunday, February 24, 2013

My favorite workouts (Part I): swim sessions

Training during the winter is tough. It's cold; daylight is short; and we tend to do a bit more of our training indoors, whether lifting weights, swimming, on the indoor bike trainer, or on the treadmill.

So, as a way to keep things interesting and keep myself motivated, I'm also looking for new and different workouts to try. Some I'll try once or twice and move on to others things, while I find myself regularly incorporating others.

This is the first in a series of postings I'm planning to do where I'll share some of my favorite swim, bike, run, and strength workouts I've picked up, modified from others, or came up with myself over the years. 

Swim Session #1

I adapted this from Chris McCormack's "elevator" swim workout (which he's dubbed as one of his 12 all-time key workouts), but pared down the volume because it's still early in the season, and I've been doing shorter, but more frequent sessions. This type of workout is a favorite because it's a great combination of speed and holding race pace. Not to mention, because total volume is just under 2000 meters (in this variation), I find it's a great bang-for-your-buck workout that I can get done in about 40 minutes. There are endless varieties of the workout; and in addition to what I've posted below, I've also tried 4x50 / 1x200 as the basic structure, varying the speed on the 50's and keeping the 200'(s) at race pace. This can be adapted to be a great volume set, and what I've found is as I progress through the winter months and get closer to race season is I'll modify the "race pace" component of the sets, going more for 1 or 2x 200 meters.

300m warm-up

3x50m (all as fast as possible, with 10 second rest between each)
1x150m (race-pace, with 20 second rest before next set)

3x50m (2 fast / 1 easy pace, with 10 second rest between each)
1x150m (race-pace, with 20 second rest before next set)

3x50m (1 fast / 2 easy pace, with 10 second rest between sets)
1x150m (race-pace, with 20 second rest before next set)

3x50m (2 fast / 1 easy pace, with 10 second rest between each)
1x150m (race-pace, with 20 second rest before next set)

3x50m (all as fast as possible, with 10 second rest between each)
1x150m (race-pace, with 20 second rest before next set)

100m cool down

Swim Session #2

This is a workout using 50 meter intervals, but the basic structure of the workout can be applied to a few different distances, whether the pool is configured in yards or meters. My favorites are to do 50's or 100's, either in yards or meters. It's also a good, standard workout to do periodically throughout the year to test your fitness levels. 50 meter intervals sounds fairly easy, but the trick is to do them as fast as possible, with only a very short rest between intervals (7-10 seconds is what I usually shoot for), and once you start to fall out off your goal pace, your body can't get any more benefit from the session. If you do them right, I find I'm in and out of the pool in about 30-35 minutes, but I feel as though I just put in a few thousand meters.

300m warm-up

50m intervals as fast as possible with 7-10 second rest between each (repeat until time falls more than 5 seconds outside of target pace)

100m cool down


Give 'em a try, and let me know what you think. If you have a favorite swim workout, post a comment below. I'd love to give it a try. Happy training!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Should we really substitute saturated fat?

Remember all those years people were saying to stay clear of saturated fat? Remember being told to use margarine instead of butter? Remember hearing you should use vegetable oil? Remember being told to watch saturated fat intake, and use polyunsaturated fats (like margarine and vegetable oils) as a substitute if you were going to eat fat?

The current U.S. dietary guidelines call for people to substitute saturated fat in favor of polyunsaturated fat. The World Health Organization's new global action plan aimed at preventing chronic diseases, which is currently being developed, similarly calls for policy measures to decrease the levels of saturated fat in the diet and also eliminate trans fat, in favor of polyunsaturated fats. (The trans fat piece is a good thing).

A recent study published in the British Medical Journal provides further evidence as to why everything I just wrote is probably wrong.


The study recovered data on 458 middle-aged men (aged 30-59 years) from a large randomized controlled trial, called the Sydney Heart Diet Study, which was conducted between 1966 and 1973.
These men who were specifically enrolled had, on average, a coronary event in the past 11 weeks. The goal of the study was to essentially evaluate the effectiveness of replacing dietary saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat in the form of safflower oil and safflower oil polyunsaturated margarine, or a similar recommendation often heard today. (Second to canola oil, safflower oil has the highest unsaturated to saturated fat ratio of many of the most common oils and fats and is also quite high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid content.)

The men were allocated into two groups, a control group, which was not given any specific dietary advise (though some of those in the control group had already begun substituting margarine for butter after their coronary event on advice from their doctor), and saturated fat intake remained about 15% of total dietary calories throughout the study. The intervention group was instructed to increase their polyunsaturated fat intake to about 15%, reduce their intake of saturated fat and to less than 10% and reduce their dietary cholesterol to 300 mg per day. To achieve these targets men in the intervention group were provided with liquid safflower oil and safflower oil polyunsaturated margarine (high polyunsaturated fat group). The overall diet for both groups consisted of about 40% fat, 40% carbohydrate, and 15% protein, and 3-4% alcohol (doesn't add too 100% because of rounding).


Now what did the study find? First, the study found that after 12 months the cholesterol levels of the men on the high polyunsaturated fat diet were 8.5% lower than the men on the high saturated fat diet. At first glance this may seem like a good thing - oh, cholesterol went down when eating more polyunsaturated fat. But, the study measured only total serum cholesterol, which really isn't a good predictor of poor health outcomes in the future. Just think (and this is over-simplified, I know), you have your LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and HDL cholesterol (the good kind). There can easily be a situation where total cholesterol decreases, but it's predominantly HDL, which isn't necessarily a good thing. Not to mention, the indicator says nothing about cholesterol particle size (large and fluffy vs. small and dense), which many think is a much better predictor of adverse health events. (If you're looking for a much more in-depth explanation, I recommend reading Dr. Peter Attia's "straight dope" blog series on cholesterol over at The Eating Academy. It's well worth the time.)

The below series of graphs really tells the story.
  • (Graph 1) Men who consumed the high polyunsaturated fat diet (the blue line in all three graphs) had a 62% increased risk of death compared to the men who consumed the high saturated fat diet (the dashed red line in all the graphs).
  • (Graph 2) Men who consumed the high polyunsaturated fat diet had a 70% increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease compared to the men who consumed the high saturated fat diet.
  • (Graph 3) Men who consumed the high polyunsaturated fat diet had a 62% increased risk of death from heart disease compared to the men who consumed the high saturated fat diet.

Source: Ramsden, et al (2013). BMJ;346:e8707
So, when it comes down to it, the study essentially shows that increasing dietary polyunsaturated fats from sources like vegetables oils (safflower, canola, sunflower, corn and soybean) and decreasing saturated fats is associated with an increase in both overall death rates and heart disease death rates.

The study does have some limitations (the study didn't control for some healthy lifestyle changes, such as smoking cessation, and it's a correlation study, indicating nothing about causality), but I think it does add to the growing body of evidence to suggest what we commonly hear about what's good in our diet is often contrary to what the research shows (a few examples here, here, and here). It's also a clear case-in-point regarding what I've written about before: not all calories, and especially not all fats, are created equal. So, when you can, take a look at the most important part of a nutrition label on foods: the ingredients list!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Is your story worth telling? How I stay motivated

My cell phone buzzes - the dreaded alarm. I squint and look at the screen. It's 5:40am. It's dark. It's cold. It's snowy/icy/rainy. There's 45 minutes worth of swim drills and 50m intervals waiting for me a mile down the road at the pool. And I have a decision to make. Do I roll over, pull the covers back over me, and hit the snooze button? Or, do I get out of bed, rub my eyes, grab my swim bag, and make the quick 5 minute drive from our apartment building to the pool - in the dark - to start my day the best way I know how?

These are the little battles we fight with ourselves everyday. The inner struggles we go through on a daily basis that ultimately come together to make us who we are.

As the temperatures hover around or below freezing (I'm thinking of you Twin Cities and Chicago), snow covers the ground outside, and day light is hard to come by, working out seems to be the last thing we all want to do. (Doesn't a warm cup of coffee or hot chocolate on the couch sound so much better?) So how can we get motivated, and stay motivated? How can we overcome that urge to roll over and hit the snooze button in the morning?


I've been asked these questions a number of times - "how do you wake up that early and workout everyday?" (Not to mention the second workout that usually happens in the evening as well.) "How do you motivate yourself?" My wife would like me to think it's simply because I'm a morning person, but, I think there's a lot more to this answer than what's on the surface.

Back during my soccer years I developed the habit of writing down inspiring quotes I heard from different places - articles, songs, movies, video clips. I even went so far as to write a bunch of them on small pieces of paper and tape them on my bedroom wall. Anytime I sat at my desk or laid in bed, there they were, the inspiring words of inspiring people - the likes of Michael Jordan, Vince Lombardi, Lou Holtz, and Jim Valvano. Some way, my hope was that their words would transcend the paper (or screen or speaker), and into my own consciousness - my story would pick up where there's left off.

And that's exactly how I think about my life's journey. It's a story. My story. Parts of my story are inspired by different things, and by different people - like those quotes on the wall. It's something I still do today. Not necessarily putting quotes on the wall (YouTube has certainly made things easier to tap into content), but letting others' inspiration become my own inspiration; letting their story motivate me to tell my own.

And that's how I look at it.We all have one opportunity to write our tail, and just as I've learned from the stories and experiences of my heroes, I hope one day for my story to do the same. Sure we may get a few different shots at accomplishing a particular goal (whether it's to run a 5k or a marathon, or travel to every continent), but we only have one chance to live our dreams. I've often times found myself feeling the most alive, the most inspired, when I'm out on a long run, the rain's coming down, there isn't anyone else on the road, and it's just me and me. There's really something spiritual about it - truly feeling the earth's elements, entering into a state of pure self-reflection, and often saying aloud to myself, "I feel alive today."

There's a guy by the name of Joel Runyon who runs an excellent blog called the "Blog of Impossible Things," and talks a lot about embracing life by pushing ourselves to do things we never thought we could - in essence, writing a truly epic life story. He had a fantastic, yet simple blog post recently that really made me connect the dots.

He describes a conversation he had with a client of his:
Michael: I want to run, but it’s freaking raining out….what do I do?
Me: Run
Michael: It’s pouring…like…literally downpour.
Me: Well did you want to run?
Michael: Ya, but only because it was convenient for me…I get it.
Me: You asked
5 minutes later Joel got this message via Twitter:
"Doing sprints in a downpour. I have a love/hate relationship with @ "
 Later, Joel posted this tweet:
"Some people look for excuses to give up. Some look for excuses to keep going. #bigdifference"
For me, it's all about finding excuses to keep going; to keep seeking out all life has to offer; to write a story that's worth telling.


I've mentioned in previous posts how big a role the mental game is in endurance sports like triathlon and marathon running, and how training style and intensity plays a huge role. Well, this is all part of the mental game. Like those days when you don't feel like training, there are inevitably times during a race when you want to call it quits. I'm not saying to disregard recovery or taking a day off is a bad thing. Over-training is a real and serious issue that taxes things like your adrenal glands and nervous system, and is hard to overcome. But, I am talking about our individual resolve - to persevere when things are tough and learn new things about ourselves. 

There is a saying in endurance sports training to never have bad days. We're able to grow and improve - physically, mentally, and spiritually - when we're consistent; no bad days. I think it's only when we embrace every day - EVERY, SINGLE, DAY - and feel a sense of gratitude for the things in our lives can we truly tell a great story - a story worth telling.

So, ask the question - what lights the fire of resolve inside you to achieve the things you want to do? Are you looking for excuses to give up or excuses to keep going?

We all have the potential to tell a great story. In the end, the question simply becomes...whose the main character? 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Monthly Reading Roundup: January 2013

At the end of every month I've decided to do a summary posting including some of the interesting things I read (or in the process of reading) for that month. There are a variety of news articles, reports, journal articles, and the like I come across and share via twitter and other outlets. So, I though it might be useful to condense all these into one, monthly "reading roundup" posting, with book titles, research articles, and other news articles. In the future I hope to add a few more sections, like food recipes and exercises/workouts, but until then, stay tuned and happy reading!


A Life Without Limits: A World Champion's Journey, by Chrissie Wellington

The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance, by Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney


"Adolescent neurodevelopment," Linda P. Spear (Journal of Adolescent Health, February 2013)

"Epigenetics and early origins of chronic noncommunicable diseases," G. Wang, S. Walker, X. Hong, T. Bartell, & X. Wang (Journal of Adolescent Health, February 2013)

"Biological contributions to addictions in adolescents and adults: Prevention, treatment, and policy implications," Marc Potenza (Journal of Adolescent Health, February 2013)