Friday, June 28, 2013

The 4-Minute Workout: Reality or overly ambitious research conclusion?

A lot more people, including myself, are talking about minimalist training for endurance sports. I wrote in a previous blog how I adapted and successfully used high-intensity intervals to structure my training to post a Boston marathon qualifying time.

An eye-catching article ran in the New York Times’ wellness blog a couple weeks back with the headline “The 4-Minute Workout.” It opened by saying, “Thanks to an ingratiating new study, we may finally be closer to answering that ever-popular question regarding our health and fitness: How little exercise can I get away with?”

With more and more people feeling the time squeeze, and with increasing evidence pointing to the negative health consequences of sedentary lifestyles, this is a valid question. The article went on to reference the positive findings of a recent study published in the journal PLoS ONE, which showed that a single bout of four minutes at 90% of maximum heart rate performed three times a week elicited similar improvements in VO2max, blood pressure and fasting glucose to that of a four by four minute protocol. 

This sounds great! Why don’t we all just cut down on our training time?

I’m not one to shy away from pointing out the shortcomings when it comes to the media accurately reporting on scientific research. But this time it’s a classic case of the researchers overgeneralizing the research findings beyond the studied population. (There is also a pretty big glaring overreach by the NY Times article – both exercise protocols included a 10 minute warm up and 5 minute cool down. So, if you’re really looking at TOTAL TIME for the workout, it would be 19 minutes, NOT 4 minutes.)

Let’s take a closer look.

In the methods section, the authors describe the study participants:
“Twenty-six inactive but otherwise healthy overweight men [my emphasis] (BMI: 25–30, age: 35–45 years) were recruited for this investigation at St. Olav's hospital, Trondheim, Norway (study period: 05.01.2009–03.04.2009).”
**Note the subjects were exclusively young/middle-aged MEN.**

Later, in the discussion section where the authors interpreted the study results, they say:
“The present study demonstrates that a relatively intense stimulus administered only once and for a relatively short duration can substantially improve VO2max and work economy. A single bout of 4-minute interval training three times per week will not solve all lifestyle-related problems for people already obese or overweight, and it is not the only solution for inactive persons with a BMI below 25. However, brief interval training can have a central role in public health and lifestyle medicine initiatives, in addition to changes in nutrition and other, less intense physical activity [my emphasis].”
**Despite the known hormonal differences between men and women when it comes to responding to high intensity training, the authors still apply their findings to ALL individuals, rather than to just MEN, which was the study population.**

The study did include a section on limitations, but failed to mention anything on this, and later concluded:
“Our study demonstrated that slightly overweight and healthy individuals [my emphasis] only required brief, duration bouts of exercise with good effort three times a week, to produce large increases in VO2max and work economy and reduce blood pressure and fasting glucose levels.”
As researchers (and I include myself in this statement) we have an obligation to accurately describe and communicate a study’s findings. When this fails to happen, misinformation is only compounded down the line (especially in the popular media), which doesn’t help matters for the average American trying to make heads or tails of what they should be doing.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A personal best at the Philly Triathlon...but it almost never happened

At the Philadelphia Triathlon on Sunday I smashed my Olympic distance personal best time by 16 minutes!

But it almost didn’t happen…

The race was scheduled for Sunday morning, so my wife and I planned to drive up on Saturday afternoon, stop at the race expo, and then stay the night at my cousin’s house. I went for one final easy swim at the pool Saturday morning before packing up the car and hitting the road. We thought if we left around 1pm that would give us plenty of time to get everything together in the morning, and then make it up to Philly for the expo.

Well, that was before I actually looked at when the expo closed. I remembered it was open on Friday until about 7pm, and assumed it closed at a similar time on Saturday. I also recalled (okay, sometimes my memory is a bit fuzzy – just ask my wife) we left around a similar time last year. Turns out, the expo actually closed at 4pm (you can’t pick up your race packet on the morning of the race). We left at 1pm, and 3 hours is normally plenty of time to go from DC to Philly – but, that’s without traffic.

So there we were, it’s 3:30pm and sitting in bumper to bumper traffic on I-95 about 40 minutes outside of Philly. I started to COMPLETELY panic! My wife is frantically looking through my phone to see if there is a number to call. I’m in the driver’s seat hoping my stressed out yelling at the cars in front of me will magically make them move faster.

It’s now 3:55pm and I’ve convinced myself we’re not going to make it.

I'm not quite show how it happened, and after saying "keep moving" I don't know how many times to the cars in front of me, we pulled up to the expo at 4:10pm. "There must be others like me who were caught in traffic," I thought. "Surely they wouldn't close up shop exactly at 4pm."

I jumped out of the car and sprinted for packet pick-up table inside the expo. Thankfully, there were still a few volunteers breaking down tables and one friendly woman helped me out. After fumbling my ID because of all the adrenaline, I finally had my hands on my race packet, which felt like gold to me at that point.

I made it. A huge sigh of relief. Then a few deep breaths later I was now thinking about the race.


I slept really well the night before the race and woke up just a few minutes before my alarm was set to go off at 4:45am. I felt good. I was excited. Maybe a little too excited because after I grabbed all my stuff,  shut the locked door behind me, and started walking across the street to the car, I realized I forgot my all-important sunglasses on the table inside. Come on!

I dwelled on it for a few minutes - about how the sun will be in my eyes, and how I'm going to have to squint during the entire bike leg. But after a minute or two, I was determined to not let a little issue turn into a big one (and hey, look on the bright side, one less thing to worry about in T1).

The hardest part about the Philly Triathlon (and thank goodness this is only for another year because I'll change age groups) is that my age group is the very last swim wave. This extra time is in addition to having to be out of transition early to catch the shuttle bus to the swim start (the Philly swim course is a point-to-point course). So even though I was out of transition at around 6:15am, my swim wave wasn't scheduled to go off until around 8am. Yup, almost two hours of hanging around. (And on a day like this past Sunday, this additional time meant a lot out on the run course, which was pretty darn hot).

All the extra time before the start caused a lot more anxiety last year when I was a lot less confident in my swim. After a solid off season of focusing on improving my efficiency in the water, I was back on the dock ready to prove I made some significant progress.

Before I knew it I was in the water. Those first 100 meters are always the toughest. I tried to find some space and fall into a rhythm. I was passing people left and right and before I knew it I was seeing swimmers with yellow swim caps. I caught up to the swim wave ahead of me. I kept plugging away. Focusing on my breathing, sighting, and staying relaxed. Then I see swimmers with red swim caps. "Am I really going that fast that I caught up to another swim wave?"

I made it to the swim exit and started climbing out of the water. Those first few steps were a bit unsteady. Heading into T1 I felt a little out of it - like I wasn't totally stable. I looked at my watch coming out of the water - it read 23 minutes. Woah, no wonder I felt a little hazy, this was a full 8 minutes faster than my swim last year!

The bike course passed by the Philadelphia Art Museum. Yea Rocky!
On the bike I continued to push. The Philly bike course is a double loop with 4 fairly short climbs in each loop. It's dead flat between the climbs. So, my strategy on the bike was fairly simple - attack the climbs, take advantage of the easy downhills, then carry the momentum into the flats to push the pace. I will say, though these short hills are a little technical, they were a ton of fun. Much better than a straight-forward out-and-back course.

About 20 minutes into the bike leg I was holding a pretty solid pace. Then I looked down and noticed one of my front brake calipers seemed to be rubbing on the wheel rim. I had issues with my front brakes all last week with them not releasing properly, but I thought I had resolved it. I couldn't tell for sure but of course my worst fear was that the caliper was rubbing and slowing me down. In a state of not exactly thinking clearly, I "carefully" reached down with one hand to see if I could slightly adjust it.

Well that was dumb! Of course a spoke nicked my finger, and before I knew it I saw and felt blood pulsing from my finger. For the next 30 minutes or so, I did whatever I could to stop the bleeding. It finally did dry up towards the end of the bike.

My first lap was solid and I was on pace for about a 1 hour and 6 minute bike split. I slowed just a little on the second lap and finished in a solid 1 hour and 10 minutes. As with the swim, I felt my bike training was validated with a bike split that was about 6 minutes faster than last year.

Coming into transition I saw my family for the first time, which gave me a nice energy boost. But, the heat was catching up with me and I started to feel fatigued. I tried keeping a pretty comfortable pace, picking out the next person on the horizon to try and pass. About half way through the run my legs were definitely feeling heavy. I think I could've taken in a bit more fluid and nutrition on the bike, and I was certainly trying to make up for it now. I went with a packet of UCAN Superstarch (about 110 calories/26 grams of carbohydrate) on the first half of the bike, which I've used successfully in the past, but I probably could've used two.

With my wife and my cousin's son, Cal.
The second half of the run I did everything to just keep up a decent pace and hang on. I felt my mind wondering and negative thoughts creeping in. It was time for that all important mind game. I wouldn't say I necessarily won it this time around, but I don't think I lost either. After what seemed like hours baking in the sun, I finally saw the finish chute. I spotted my family and blew a kiss to my wife.

I crossed the finish line - 2 hours and 21 minutes.

I grabbed as many waters as I could hold, alternating between drinking and dumping on the back of my neck. After a quick visit to the medical tent to wash out the cut on my finger, I was able to get my hands on a Coke. This was probably my second Coke in two years (the first was after a century bike ride last year), but I just red-lined my body for a solid 140 minutes, and I was in need of some quick sugars.

I ended up placing 11th in my age group, just missing the top 10 by about 30 seconds or so. I wasn't too happy with my run leg (I ran a 6:55 pace) considering that's what I consider my strongest discipline. Though I tried to put it in perspective (my run leg was still 120 out of more than 1200 finishers). My training over the past 6 months has focused almost entirely on my swim and my bike, and I was in the top 16% for the swim, and the top 15% for the bike. I was happy to achieve the goal I set for myself of getting faster in the water and stronger on the bike.

I'd say that made for a successful first race of the season! Now its time to start preparing for race #2 in a month.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Now Available on Google: Searchable Nutritional Data

Want to know how much sugar is in an apple; or how much potassium is in a banana; or the amount of saturated fat in coconut?

Well, Google has made the answers to those questions much more accessible.

A couple weeks ago Google announced it would make all kinds of nutritional information searchable. Typing in the search command "how much fat is in coconut milk" brings up your standard nutrition facts panel, much like the nutrition fact labels on products you see in the grocery store. Specific data includes calories, fat (saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated), cholesterol, sodium potassium, total carbohydrates (fiber and sugar), protein, and vitamins and minerals.

The function primarily pulls data from a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and looks like this:


While this function is certainly helpful in providing a quick glimpse of basic nutrition data for general foods, it does lack a bit of detail. You are able to distinguish between whole milk and skim, but you can't look at the labels for specific brands. Or if you search for nutritional facts on "crackers," there isn't the capacity to look at data for all the various kinds, such as those that primarily use seeds instead of flour.

Though nutrition facts tell part of the story about food, it doesn't tell the whole thing (and in my opinion, not even the most important part). The most important part of the nutrition facts on a product isn't how many calories or grams of sugar, but the INGREDIENTS. The ingredients list can generally tell you everything you need to know and alert you to any red flags for things that can impact your health (for example, things like hydrogenated oils).

Regardless of its limitations, the function is a great example of the power of big/open data to help inform consumers. The extent to which consumers are actually able to understand and use this data is another story, but kudos to Google for making it available. I'm looking forward to seeing how the function evolves and if additional information is added in the future.

Monday, June 10, 2013

How exercise can wreak havoc on your body

We endurance athletes and fitness enthusiasts are in a perpetual state of more, more, more. We're constantly testing ourselves and pushing our bodies to the max.

But, what does this actually do to the body?

There has been quite a bit of conversation in the media and scientific literature about the diminishing returns associated with exercise. Not enough is associated with a range of health and chronic disease issues, while too much can be just as harmful to the body. In previous posts I've written about some of the cardiovascular risks associated with prolonged endurance exercise.

In lieu of this month's regular "Monthly Reading Roundup," there was really one major article I wanted to share. Why, because it takes a detailed and comprehensive look at what exactly a hard workout, marathon, or triathlon does to your body's lipids, hormones, enzymes, and major organ function, like your kidneys.

Fitness expert and Ironman triathlete Ben Greenfield undertook his own personal experiment to test the damage that back-to-back triathlons caused on his body. A few weeks ago he did both the long-course (half Ironman distance) Wildflower Triathlon and the Olympic distance in one weekend; one race on Saturday, the other on Sunday. He had comprehensive blood work done a couple days before the races, and then again afterwards.

The results were both fascinating and scary, especially since my training protocol probably isn't too far off from what he does.

By far, the most concerning aspect is the huge rise in cortisol and inflammatory biomarkers. He writes:
"Yes folks, that’s nearly a seven-fold rise in inflammation. In other words, this type of brutal event creates a complete inflammatory firestorm in your body."
And the biggest issue isn't necessarily producing some inflammation following exercise (which is a good thing in terms of recovery and muscle development), but the cumulative effect:
"The problem is that in the absence of proper recovery, round after round of this acute inflammation can eventually become chronic inflammation, and that is when lack of blood flow to tissue, poor mobility, and risk for chronic disease or serious injury set in."
 He sums up by saying:
"You need look no further than my cortisol levels, TSH, insulin, testosterone, growth factor, creatinine, blood urea nitrogen, white blood cell count, and liver enzymes to see this to be true.
And heck – I actually take care of myself pretty darn well. I sleep 7-9 hours, eat a healthy diet, meditate, and avoid excessive training. Just imagine what someone who doesn’t do all those things looks like.
But I’ll be the first to admit that despite the healthy measures I take, I’m brutally beating my body up with the sport I’ve chosen (triathlon), and if you’re reading this, you probably are too (Crossfitters – you don’t get off that easy – I’ve seen hundreds of these blood panels and you have the same issues)."
So if you're an endurance athlete, or you simply exercise frequently and beat up your body, this article really shines a spotlight on the delicate balance between performance and health.

It's a very detailed article, but well worth the time. Click here to read.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Beating the heat at the North Face Endurance Challenge

It was going to be a hot one. The forecast for the weekend was for low 90's, and, of course, the wonderful humidity that the DC area is known for.

But, that was one of the last things I was thinking about when a friend of mine asked me to join her marathon relay team for last weekend's North Face Endurance Challenge, two days of trail runs ranging from a 5k all the way up to 50 miles.

My first triathlon of the year (Philadelphia) is only a few weeks away. So, heading into the event my mindset was to treat my leg of the marathon relay - a quarter of a marathon, or 6.55 miles - as a litmus test, much like I did for Cherry Blossom. Only this time the distance was more specific to what I'll see up in Philly, which will be a 10k (6.2 mile) for the run part of the triathlon. 

The exciting part about the race was that it was something new - a trail race. And even though the forecast was for hot and humid, I was shooting for six minute miles. It wasn't too long ago I was playing multiple soccer matches over the course of a weekend in the dead of summer when temperatures were well into the mid 90's. The heat would be tough, but I knew it wasn't anything my body hasn't experience before.

The start of the marathon relay wasn't until 11am, which meant a fairly regular morning. I was able to sleep a little, wake up at a decent time, and have a pretty normal breakfast (and of course coffee - which I usually don't have before early morning races, though there is some pretty strong evidence suggesting a performance benefit from consuming some coffee before exercise).

This was my first experience as part of a relay team and one of the hardest parts was simply the downtime. Having to arrive for the start of the race, but then wait two and a half hours to actually run was something very new. Though, I couldn't complain about spending some quality lounge time in the shade, just relaxing at the park where the run was held. It sure would've been nice to have a book though.

Every so often I would stand up to move around a bit and loosen my legs. After about 90 minutes since the race started, I made my way closer to the start/finish line (which also served as the transition area for the relay teams) to keep an eye out for our first runner, James, who was doing the first two legs. He came in a little under two hours (not bad for his first race!) and our second runner, Kim, was off.

Now it was time to get focused.

After some short warm-up efforts, I finally felt my mind had switched from relax mode to race mode. I didn't want to overdue the warm-up with the heat, but a solid 15 minutes and I felt ready. I kept anxiously checking my watch, counting down the minutes until the approximate time I thought I'd see Kim come towards the transition area.

And before I know it she rounded the corner and comes into the transition area. We quickly exchange the timing chip strap fastened to her ankle, and I'm off...

I race out onto the course like I was trying to win. The first mile was all about getting accustomed to running on something other than pavement. I make it onto the trails every now and again, but not often enough to remember how much extra energy you need to focus and stabilize yourself on the uneven ground.

The next 4.5 miles was a mixture of paved pathway, packed gravel pathway, and packed dirt trails through the woods. Though I was trying to keep as fast a pace as I could, I really didn't have much of an idea what it was - I was just going based on feel. There were no mile markers, and I don't race with a GPS watch. The aid stations provided some guidance, but there were only two of them, spaced about 2.5 miles apart.

So, I decided to not even look at my watch and just run. There's something about running through the woods that feels so natural, so pure. I blew by the first aid station without taking anything and was really just trying to pass as many people as I could. I felt my pace slow just a little bit, which I wasn't too worried about because of the heat. I knew it would happen.

I ran at pretty close to max effort. I figured, it's a short race, why not push it. (Though, I wasn't thinking about how I might feel the next day, which I spent completely wiped out with zero energy -  something that I've never experience after a race).

I felt myself getting hot and thirsty, and thankfully I came up on the second aid station. I grabbed two cups, threw them back, and kept on going. It was all about getting to finish line at this point - as fast as I could. I tried to take in as much of the scenery as I could, but before I knew it, I was closing in on the finish area. To make things more fun I had a nice dual with someone to the finish. It's always fun to sync up with someone at some point during the race. Rarely are any words spoken, but you're both taking jabs trying to go a little faster.

I crossed the finish line and my hands immediately went to my knees. I quickly grabbed one of the ice-cold water bottles and squirted about half of it on my neck. Man that felt good. I took a glance at my watch and saw 39 minutes - not too bad at all! I'll take a 6:06 in 90 degree heat any day!

Our relay team did pretty well - finished 22nd out of 81 total teams.

I was also really happy with how I ran, especially considering the heat and that it was my first trail race. I was even more stoked when I actually saw my chip time results, which were posted Sunday evening. I, of course, kept my time with my watch, but I was shocked when I saw how my time stacked up with the field. I compared my time with those who ran the stand-alone 10k.

With my pace, I would've placed first in my age group had I run the 10k, and fourth overall.

Well, I guess I'll just need to put that race on the calendar for next year...