Saturday, November 7, 2015

100 Miles of Nowhere, Camp Kesem Live from Michigan Edition!

"This Wasn't Really Supposed to Be a Thing..."
Elden & I before mounting up for the 2015 100 MoN
Today, November 7 2015, all over the world folks are doing the epic event known as the 100 Miles of Nowhere. The brainchild of the brilliant, kind, and slightly deranged Elden "Fatty " Nelson of, the event challenges participants to find the shortest tolerable course imaginable to go 100 miles without going anywhere at all. It is as much a test of one's mental toughness as physical stamina, though friends and family of the dedicated riders will surely tell you that it's proof positive of a deep affliction to the bike.

Fatty did the first one all by himself in his garage, and he wrote about it. To his surprise, it caught on. And now this thing that, according to Elden "wasn't even supposed to be a thing" is very much a big thing. 

Readers of this humble blog will recall that I've done this thing before. More than once, in fact. There was the time when I rode 3000 laps in my circle driveway, for instance. And the time I rode on a stationary trainer in front of my local bike shop. I like to make it a spectacle.

But perhaps you are asking...Why? Why do we do it? There are many reasons, truly, but the main one is that we get to engage in something truly wonderful that a certain group of people - I call them "People of the Bike" and my friend Mike "MC" Clark calls them "Bike-Minded Individuals" - have come to learn. That the bike is a tool to make good things happen. Not just for oneself, but if you work at it, for many, many other people as well.

100 Miles of Nowhere for Camp Kesem 
Team Fatty at the Kesem Summit, 2015 100 Miles of Nowhere
This year, I got to be part of Team Fatty once again for #100MoN, along with several of my dedicated, kind, and dauntless Michigan cycling community friends. We joined Fatty himself at the National Summit meeting for Camp Kesem outside Fenton, MI and got to see and feel the amazing power the bike can generate when we turn our pedals for a great cause.

When Fatty said he'd be coming to Michigan and he could use a little logistical help, I sent him a message and said I'd be happy to do it. I knew my MI crew would be equally stoked. We are, as People of the Bike, all about being there to help, especially when we can work together to make much more of a difference than any one of us could do alone. Our team consisted of two of my colleagues from Michigan State - Bump Halbritter & Mike Ristich, and three friends from the West part of the state: Derek Dykstra, MC, and Kaat Tahy. I've shared epic days in the saddle with all of them in the past. But yesterday's ride in which we went zero miles while riding 100 miles worth may have topped them all.

Healing the Harm Cancer Does to Families
Camp Kesem has a powerful mission. They provide children who have lost parents to cancer with a place to go to help with recovery from the damage that the disease does to families, to relationships. I've been witness to this, up close, in my own life. And I have to say, it is a hard thing to talk about. We know cancer does devastating damage to those afflicted with the disease. And we rightfully focus most of our energy on the care and comfort of people who are directly affected.

But cancer is something that families get too. They get it without asking for it. And it stays around. I've watched dear friends lose partners this way, and children lose parents. I've felt devastated for those family members. The nature of the disease and our limitations, clinically speaking, in understanding at any given moment how it may or may not be progressing, how an intervention may or may not be working...these weigh on loved ones in the circle of care in unimaginably difficult ways. At the time you feel most compelled to act, to care for and comfort those you love, you may find yourself without options to do much of anything. You turn your focus outward. Love overwhelms you. All while inside you are afraid, you are frustrated, you are mourning the loss of a life that has already irrevocably changed. You too have this thing called cancer. So may your children. It may not be in your body, your cells, but it has nonetheless invaded your life, your home, and your realtionships.

I wanted to write those things, because for those who have gone or are going through this ordeal, even thinking them can seem like the wrong thing to be doing. Add guilt to the pile of emotions that one feels in that situation. And there aren't many obvious outlets, not many treatments for the violence that cancer does to families. I lost my Dad last year to cancer. And one of the things he asked me to do was to take care of everybody around him, the people who loved him so much. "Help them," he said, "help the kids."
Counselors at the Kesem Summit Cheering Us On!

I know my Dad would have been proud to learn about the powerful response to this aspect of cancer that is embodied in the healing energy, spirit, and generosity of Camp Kesem. Our group felt it yesterday - we were cheered on during our ride by hundreds of college students from all over the U.S. who had come to the Kesem Summit to train to be counselors, to prepare to meet children this Summer who will spend some time healing, learning, singing and laughing with others who share their challenge: to overcome the pain cancer brought home to them.

So we rode. And we laughed and sang along with Kesem crew. We rocked. We rolled. Not necessarily in that order.
MC brings #bikeface to 100MoN!
Fatty rocks!

DiD and Kaat ride and inspire!

Mike leads the way
And in the end, as we drained our reserve tanks to finish the ride, we left refilled, with more energy than we had coming in. Seeing people assemble to give their time, to suspend the rules of their day-to-day lives to do something improbable, to connect with one's pretty great. And it reminds you that we can make amazing things happen when we combine the power of creativity and caring.
My MSU colleages with Fatty after the 100 Miles of Nowhere 2015

Saturday, October 31, 2015

SPACE Lab Update - After Week Six

I've now completed six weeks of training in the SPACE lab study. That means I have approximately twenty (!) more weeks to go. So I thought I'd make a few observations about how things are going. Overall, I am really enjoying it! I go and work out every day at Noon except Saturday, which is a rest day. It's a nice break in the middle of the day from work.

Going to SPACE
The Wrong Stuff? Ragtag asteroid miners
Each day I change into my cycling gear - most often in my office - and walk over to IM Circle on the MSU campus. This, as you can imagine, elicited some odd looks from some of my co-workers, especially the front office staff in the academic affairs wing of the Arts & Letters Dean's office in Linton Hall. They saw me go into the office in street clothes, and emerge wearing lycra. They were pretty sure I had a secret identity for the first week or two. Now, everybody's in the know, though, so it's mostly The Right Stuff and/or Armageddon jokes.

The Workouts
After the first couple of sessions which were mostly about calibrating my fitness level, the pattern of workouts is very steady. I alternate between a 30 minute sustained effort and intervals of various lengths. Every other day, then, it's a 30 minute ride for as much power as I can sustain over that period of time. It is very much like an FTP test, in other words, for those familiar with cycling or other endurance sports. A bit more on that later. The interval workouts are 4 x 4:00, 6 x 2:00, and 8 x :30 respectively. Each day also has a warmup, the length of which varies according to what the activity is for the day, and a cooldown that is determined by the time it takes for my heart rate to return to 120BPM - usually just a couple of minutes or so.

Since there are six workouts and I come in six days a week, the pattern looks like this for me:
MWF 30:00 sustained
Sunday 4 x 4:00 intervals
Tuesday 6 x 2:00 intervals
Thursday 8 x :30 intervals
Measuring Effort - All About the Watts
Monark LC-7 just like the one I ride.
One of the reasons I was so excited to participate in this study is to learn more about training with precise power measurement to calibrate effort. For cyclists on the road, this means using a power meter that is integrated into some bike component: the hub, the pedal, or the crank. For me, it means cycling on an ergometer - a kind of stationary bike that interfaces with a computer to both dynamically control the resistance and measure the watts produced by the rider.

This gives a very precise measurement of watts produced because there is no other form of resistance - hills, wind, or friction - just what is applied by brake in the ergometer. And unlike real rides out on the roads, the watts required are continuous (no coasting or downhills) over a 30 minute ride. If a traditional time trial is know as "the race of truth" because it is just one person against the clock, then this is the race of extreme truth...because there is no fooling the ergometer.

When it comes to learning about measuring cycling effort with power, I have not been disappointed. It's pretty amazing to see, especially when combined with other measures like cadence (revolutions per minute of the crank) and heart rate, just what I am capable of in general and on any given day. One thing I can say is that a few things I've come to understand about myself as a rider are supported by the evidence I see when I look at the cycling data I've generated so far.

So, What Have I Learned So Far?
Ranges for V02Max, from
I don't have a big engine, but I am efficient and I can use a lot of the power I am capable of making. My V02Max is not huge, which is what I mean when I say I don't have a big engine. By most folks' accounts, I am in the "good" and just short of "excellent" range, and nowhere close to "elite."

V02Max is something that varies for each individual and has a significant genetic component, which means you basically are stuck with what you have. But V02Max only defines the top end - the "max" - output you can produce in a very short, very hard effort. What is a more useful measure is how much of your maximum you can use over some longer period of time. This measure is known as your FTP - functional threshold power - and it corresponds to the level of energy you can sustain for 60 minutes. You can find this out by riding for 60 minutes, but usually a 20 minute test will do fine (for more about that, check out Allen & Coggin's book Training & Racing with a Power Meter).

My FTP looks to be about 230W at this point, but unlike V02Max, FTP is much more responsive to training so it will likely get better. Today, though, I can produce that amount of power for 60 minutes without slowing down. Based on the results of my first Max test, that's about 84% of my V02Max. So while my top-end power and my power-to-weight aren't particularly impressive, when I'm fit I can use quite a lot of the power available to me. This is not news to me, really. I always knew, for instance, that I cannot outsprint many people. And I can't overcook a ride either...trying to hang on to a pace that is too hard is a sure way for me to get dropped. But...what I can do is find a sustainable pace - and while it's not huge, it's still good - and stay there for a long time. If I can then coax someone else to go just a bit into the red, I can eventually outlast 'em.

And, I can recover really fast and at a relatively high level of activity. I don't need to back down the pace too much to get back to a decent level of effort. This means that I can attack from a fairly high pace, back off just a little and recover, and attack again...and do it over and over.

All of this I've known from experience. But now I also have some numbers. Here, for example, are all of the 30 minute sustained efforts I've done since the beginning of the study so far in a histogram, graphed along with the MaxHR for that same session.
30 minuted sustained efforts with Watts & HR
Already, an interesting trend has emerged here. I'm building fitness and improving my PR for sustained Watts over time, but I go through periods of improvement and then a moment of recovery. The ride on Monday 10/26 is a bit of an anomaly because the Saturday before I rode 55 miles, and so rather than try to go all out on that day I just set a pace for my FTP (230W). The week prior, I had set a new PR for 30 minutes each time. My best effort so far is 241.85W with a Max HR of 183BPM.

Some of the variation here is the result of me trying different pacing strategies as well. As I noted, there is no fooling the ergometer, and I dial up my own resistance (in Watts) for this workout. So if I want to ride, say, 230W for thirty minutes I can't start a whole lot lower than that or else I'll need to make that up later somewhere. That's quite hard to do in a short amount of time, obviously. It is average/normalized power we are talking about here, but there are no big spikes in effort on the ergometer.

The pacing strategy I generally pursue is to hold a relatively high rate of power - 230 or 240 W for the first 20 minutes or so - and then see where I am in the last 10 minutes. If I'm feeling strong, I can add resistance and go for a PR. Having done 240 a few times, I can say that it is very close to what I am capable of producing on any given day. There will not be huge leaps beyond this number, though I may (and I hope to) continue to improve over the course of the study. We will see where I can get in twenty more weeks.

For now, though, I am having a lot of fun. Geeking out over the numbers is part of that, so watch for more reports as we go along!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Go For Launch! My New Mission

Today was a pretty exciting day for space exploration, especially as it concerns a future manned flight to the planet Mars. No, I'm not talking about the discovery of liquid water, though that was pretty cool. I'm talking about the start of my own contribution to the Mars mission as a participant in a research project! The study will evaluate the use of feedback - including games - in the quest to keep astronauts healthy on long space missions.You can read more about the labs' work; it's fascinating stuff!

During long periods in zero gravity, humans can lose muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness. To avoid these problems, astronauts do exercises in space. Keeping space explorers motivated to exercise over long periods of time and with sufficient intensity is part of that challenge. Different methods of doing that is part of what the study I am participating will evaluate.

To Boldly Go...
My mission is not five years long. It's not even as long as it would take to get to Mars, but almost. I'll be doing 26 weeks of workouts during this study, six each week, all on a stationary bike. Last week, I had my first round of physiological testing, which included V02Max - a holistic measure of overall cardiovascular fitness - as well as body composition (fat %) and leg strength. I'll post a bit about my results in a separate entry, as they are well-worth geeking out about in their own right. Suffice to say that not many amateur athletes like myself get these tests due to their costs. But that's one of the cool benefits, IMHO, of participating in this study.

So, every week day and every Sunday at Noon I'll go and do a workout. Three of the workouts each week will be done at a steady pace, a.k.a. "tempo" rides. The other three will include intervals of varying intensity. For some of these, I'll have feedback in the form of data, a game-like display, or both.

Day One
V02 Max test setup - mine looked a lot like this!
Today was my first workout day. The goal was to calibrate my steady-state pace. There was a target in mind derived from my Max test last week for my easy or "all day" riding pace: 130 Watts. Assuming ideal conditions (no wind, flat ground), typical rolling resistance/tires, and at my current weight of 165lbs, that's just about 17mph. I rode that pace at 96 RPM for 15 min. after a five minute easy spin warmup. The goal was to make sure my heart rate agreed with that being my "all day" pace.

After that, I was free to ramp up the resistance to find something harder for the last 15 minutes of this workout. I dialed it up a few times until I was at 200W. My goal was to keep my cadence about the same, at 96. At that pace, I'd be going just under 20MPH in perfect conditions. In the Mid-Michigan wind, probably more like 18.5-19. But it felt reasonable. Hard but not unsustainable. Three minutes of cool down followed until my HR came down.

And that was it! Calibration done. Not much feedback on this one; I could only see my cadence. Tomorrow, I am guessing we'll do an interval workout. But I don't know.

I won't update this blog after every workout, though I am keeping a log of all my activity during the study and I may publish some results from that as we go along. But for a while at least, I won't be doing as much posting on some other sites like Strava (though I don't have to quit riding on the road or running during the study; I only need to log this activity to the researchers know about it). But don't worry. I'm working!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Buying a Stationary Trainer - FAQ

I'm always happy to get asked about stationary cycling trainers by folks looking to start (or diversify) workouts at home. In this post, I'm mostly pitching to non-cyclists or beginners. I'll save the rollers vs. trainer debate for another time. I'm thrilled to see folks consider a trainer because I think it really is a device that just about everybody can use to get some quality exercise and at their own, preferred pace or level of intensity.

Without exaggeration, my trainer is the single best exercise equipment purchase I've ever made. I have used it for eight years now and am really happy with it. More about that in my post called "Going Nowhere: The Technology" from a few years back. 

Here, I want to offer a few thoughts on buying a trainer for yourself in response to questions I get from friends and co-workers.

1. What Kind of Trainer Should I Get?
Like bikes, I recommend buying a trainer that you will actually use.  For that reason, I recommend a fluid trainer for every one. And...this may seem counterintuitive, especially for those who are not hardcore cyclists.
And now a word about types of resistance...and what "fluid" means:  
A trainer is something you hook up to your bike's back wheel that provides enough resistance to allow you to pedal as if you were on the road. How the resistance is created is the primary way trainers vary. So when we talk about types of trainers, we are also talking about types of resistance.

All things considered, I find it is better to go with a fluid trainer which uses hydraulic resistance over the other two common types of resistance: mechanical/wind or magnetic. The other two types are much less pleasant (they are louder, and rather than a smooth resistance "curve" they offer sharper tiered or all-or-nothing resistance levels). These types also tend to be far less convenient to use. You may have to get off the bike to change resistance or you might top out, limiting the kind of riding and workouts you want to do. Fluid trainers do cost a bit more than the other two types, but not so much more that it makes the less convenient ones more attractive. This is particularly true if those features cause you to use the trainer less. 

Fluid trainers are quiet - I can watch TV at normal volume when I ride mine - and they give you "road feel" resistance that works just by changing gears on your bike. Hence the fluid model is worth the extra cost. 

2. How much is this gonna cost me? 
Fluid models start around $300 for major brands like CycleOps or Kurt. But you can get a good fluid trainer for a little over $200 bucks by discount brands like Blackburn or house branded by Nashbar or Performance bike. Wind and magnetic units will go for around $150-250. The major brands will be sold at your local bike shop, which offers a chance to go ride them and compare. I also needed a warranty repair on the resistance unit for mine after several years of heavy use, and my LBS took care of everything for free. So if you've decided to go with a fluid model, I recommend going to your LBS for it. But whatever you do, don't be the guy who goes and rides one at the LBS and then comes home and buys it on Nashbar. That's bush league, man. 

3. Are they tough to set up?
Not at all. Most (apart from pricier direct-drive units that replace your back wheel altogether) just require lining the back wheel skewer up with a collar on the trainer and using a locking lever to hold the bike in place. It's easy to take the bike on and off (or swap bikes if more than one person is riding). After you get the initial set up done, it takes literally a few seconds. 

4. Besides the trainer, what else do I need to get?
You should definitely get a riser block - a plastic cradle that raises your front wheel to make it level with the back wheel as it is suspended in trainer. These are inexpensive ($20) and work better than phone books (the wheel is secure under load and won't slide). Without a riser or climbing block, your wrists will suffer from the pressure of pointing downhill. You won't want to do more than a short ride without one. 

Optional, but recommended: 
  1. a trainer tire. Nice road bike tires are expensive (~$60 or more) and nothing wears them out faster than riding on the trainer. A trainer tire is inexpensive ($~25) and is made of thicker, harder rubber that won't wear out. 
  2. a mat to put the bike and trainer on. Especially for hard floors, this will make the area less of a mess when you sweat and it will make your whole rig more quiet.
And that's it!

5. What about used models?
If you can find a used one, go for it. You'll likely see the wind and magnetic models pop up like mushrooms on Craiglist shortly after the New Year each year...but that's because of the annoyances I mentioned above. Folks upgrade to fluid and never look back, selling their cheaper models. If cost is a big barrier, you might get started this way too. You will not see many fluid models for sale used. In fact, I'm not sure I recall ever seeing one on CL even though I check it routinely in the bikes category. This tells you something, no?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

This new year, don't make a resolution, set a goal

We are approaching the two weeks of the year when fitness centers and gyms fill up. If you are someone who is planning to focus on your health and fitness this year, I'm here to suggest that you try thinking about a goal rather than a resolution to start your new year. It's a small change that can make some positive differences. Here's a few to consider, starting with the big one:

1. Set a goal for yourself not a resolution
A goal is something concrete that you'd like to achieve. Think about something today that would make you proud to say you accomplished a year from now. Make it something that, deep down, would even impress your quiet moments alone you would say "Wow. I DID that!" That's a worthy goal. Maybe it's riding your first century - 100 miles - on a bike? Maybe it's running your first 5k without walking? Maybe it's doing a sub 3:30 marathon and qualifying for Boston?

2. Connect your goal to the things that motivate you.
If performing in public is something that makes a difference to you - did you just feel your pulse quicken a little? - then you might consider setting a goal based on an upcoming event like a race or an organized ride. If you ride a bike and live in Michigan, for instance, maybe you decide this is the year that you do ODRAM, the One Day Ride Across Michigan. Or maybe DALMAC? Maybe you aren't the kind of person that needs a crowd to be motivated, though? Maybe it is all about testing your own limits? Maybe you ride the Pere Marquette Trail from end to end this year? Whatever it is, make it about your own personal milestone.

3. Write it down...then make it public
This is an important have to share your goal. I'm trying to keep this post short, so I'll save the literature review for another time, but there is good evidence to show that being accountable to yourself and others for your fitness goals actually helps keep you engaged over a longer period of time. To put that simply: if you say out loud and in front of people you care about that you'll run a 10k this year, you are more likely to follow through with it than if you keep that goal to yourself. Same goes for writing that goal down on a sticky note and sticking it to your bathroom mirror.

4. Make decisions, day-to-day, that get you closer (not further away) from the goal
Now you see why having a challenging goal is can be the driver for smaller, more consistent changes in your behavior throughout the year. Will you get up for a workout on Sunday morning before the rest of the family? You might if you consider that it allows you to get one step closer to completing the Detroit Marathon next Fall. Will you have a burrito or a grilled chicken salad for lunch? Maybe the salad helps you get over the hills to Lake Charlevoix that you know are waiting for you on DALMAC day 4.

5. Keep track of your progress toward the goal
This means factoring your larger goal down into smaller things that you can keep track of and even measure. Feeling good about your progress is a key benefit. And soon, you may be one of those folks repeating what sounds like a cliché: it's not the destination, it's the journey. Truly, for me, it's both...I definitely do better when I'm on a challenging path to a new and exciting place. But not far into the journey, I realize that I like getting there as much as I like getting to the end.

So...what's your goal for 2015?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Century One: A Few Things You May Not Hear Elsewhere

100 miles! (and .7 bonus)
There are lots of articles out there about preparing for your first century. And there are some really good training plans out there too, that give good advice worth following.

Why Do It? Because It's There. Like a marathon.
Riding a hundred miles in one day - also know as a "century" - has a few things in common with running a marathon. Folks can't seem to resist comparing the two. And having done both, I'd say a marathon is a bit harder for a couple of reasons. First, it's a race and most people do it at race pace the whole way. Second, there are no scheduled rest stops, nor can you "coast" downhills. It's running (or walking) or not. That's it. But for these same reasons, most people who do a marathon prepare more systematically than many who attempt a century. And so more first-timers fail to complete a century, in my experience, than fail to complete a marathon.

But there is one very, very important way that a marathon and a century are very much alike. And it takes folks who are new to both distances by surprise (not in a good way). They are both long enough efforts to require a whole new level of energy management. Both are dramatic breaks from the next shortest distance that folks have usually done (i.e. the half-marathon or the metric century: 100,000M). For both of these shorter distances, it's possible to gut them out.

There is NO WAY to do that successfully for a century or a marathon. You will suffer badly without making and sticking to an "energy budget" for these distances, which is precisely what makes them special. Even for well-trained athletes, a marathon and a century requires some income (energy in) and it absolutely means the athlete has to spend wisely (energy out). 

A Century Is Your Goal, Some Basic Things to Know
  1. It is a long effort. Around 6ish hours or more for most first-timers.
  2. There will be rest stops. You should rest at them. And eat and drink.
  3. There will be other riders. They will have different levels of ability and experience, so be careful when you decide to ride with folks you don't know well. Stick to your own "energy budget" (more on this below) even if it means letting them go. 
  4. Carry food and water with you. Always have some. Take more so that you are fully stocked after each stop. Even if you don't need it, someone who you are with just might.
The Good Stuff: Advice You (May Not) Hear Elsewhere

1. Your Ride Begins at Mile 60
You'll be taking inventory throughout the day, and making choices about how hard to ride, when to eat and drink, etc. for hours before you get to the point where you know how good those decisions actually have been. At mile 60 or so, the bills will start to come in. If you are sticking to your energy budget, you'll feel some leg fatigue and a bit saddle sore, but otherwise ok. If you have overdrawn your account, you'll start to feel bad around this time. With 40 miles to go, you'll start doing some impaired math and your brain will begin sending alarms. Some will be explicit and conscious: "oh shit, we've still got 2 or 3 more hours to go!" and some will be unconscious and sneaky: brain: make him nauseous even though he really should be eating! muahahaha!

What To Do: Ride smart in the first 60 miles. Go about 2-3 miles per hour slower than you can sustain on a normal hour long effort. If you can average 20, go 18. There will be plenty of time to pick the pace up in the last 40 if you feel great.  If you can average 18, go 16, etc. Enjoy the route. Talk to folks. And don't get drawn into a group going your 20 mile pace for the first 60 miles. You will suffer mightily if you do.

2. Eat. More.
Eating on ride day is part of preparing for the event. This is no time to eat as you usually do in terms of volume. Eating in the first hour of the ride is something you do to prepare for hour four. Eating in the second hour prepares you for the second half of hour four and first part of hour five. Eating in hour five helps you make it to the end.

As I alluded to above, your brain does funny things to make you stop when you've overdrawn your energy account. One of these things is make your stomach upset *precisely* when you need to put food into it. Early warnings may be gurgling, burping, etc. You must have nutrition, though. It will seem like a bad idea. But you'll soon feel better if you do eat (some people find liquid nutrition supplements to work better than food, but I find that real, actual food is best for me). It's really quite amazing. If you don't eat, or can't eat, you may as well get into the SAG car. Your day will be done. You are out of gas.

What to Do: Eat at every stop or at least once an hour. Practice eating on long rides before your event to know about how much you need. Once you know your limits and know what it feels like to bonk, you will get better at knowing when to do something about it. But until then, it is a good idea to ride with someone who has this experience and let them know what you are feeling. They can help you through it.

3. If you feel bad, you can feel better. Trust this. Rest, eat, and keep turning the pedals. 
There are two things that happen on a long ride or run that cause people to stop. One is a bonk - running out of fuel. This happens more often on a bike than on a long run because the bike's mechanical advantage lets people run out of energy before they hit their fatigue point. This is very hard to do with running alone, though you do see it often with triathletes due to the fact that the run comes as the last event. When you bonk, there is only one way to recover: eat.

I have a lot of these. 100 miles!
The other limit folks reach is their lactate threshold. This is a point at which it feels like your muscles stop working. They are out of available fuel and they are loaded up with waste products. Cyclists sometimes call this "cracking" - reaching your limit, particularly on a climb - where you simply can't go any more/faster. When you crack, there is only way to recover: rest.

But here's the cool thing. If you rest, you will recover! Your mitochondria will catch up and produce the energy your muscles need to go again. Resting at the rest stops and going a sustainable pace in the first 60 miles will help to ensure that you don't get behind in the first place. Eating will help too because - you see - that energy is what your big muscles need to keep going.

What To Do: Tell your brain that just because you feel bad at mile 65 doesn't mean you are in for 35 miles of hell. You can and will feel better. Shut up brain.

4. Ride Your Ride With Your Body
Ok, here's the thing about cycling in particular. The longer you do it, the better your body adapts to make long rides easier. First, those mitochondria I was telling you about. It takes a while to build up volume & density, but when you do, you keep them for a long, long time. That's why the 70 year old woman who has been riding centuries for 35 years can kick the 20 year old first-timer's ass when we get to mile 80.

The second adaptation is about using energy reserves. A cool thing happens when you train for endurance events that require more energy than you can get from, say, your daily meal. Your body has to shift to using energy it has stored up - in glycogen in the liver and in fat. This is sometimes called "system 2" where "system 1" is food energy, converted to blood glucose and then to ATP to drive skeletal muscles. But you have to train your body to shift smoothly into fat-burning from the ATP-CP system which uses available food energy in your bloodstream.  This is a big topic for another post, but suffice to say that you can get better at it. And over time you can sustain harder efforts for longer times without as much risk of bonking or cracking because you train your body to use energy from fat more efficiently. It's a good thing. But it doesn't happen overnight.

What To Do: More long rides. The more long rides you do, the more adapting you will do. You needn't do them fast. But long is important, because you have to force the changeover into system II. I find, these days, that this happens for me around the two hour mark. So if I'm preparing for 100 mile efforts, I simply need to do 3 hour rides more often to get ready. And I can ramp up the distance pretty fast. If I do eighty this week, I'll likely be ready to do 100 next. Really. And once you've done 100 a bunch, you'll always be able to prepare and complete the distance again.

A Final Thought
100 miles is a big deal. For most people, it means you are using up almost twice as many calories riding your bike as you would normally eat during a single day. Be proud of yourself for setting this as a goal and be especially proud for achieving it! If you try, let me know how it goes for you!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

How to Maintain: FAQ

I'm fasting for my annual checkup blood tests, which includes HbA1C, cholesterol & triglycerides, all indicators of my cardiac risk and of how well, on the whole, I've been controlling my blood glucose levels. I had my physical exam last week and all was well. It's been 7 years now that this has been the case.

Seven years of controlling my Type II and CVD risk factors with nutrition and exercise. Seven years with numbers in the "normal" range or better. And yes, seven years at my target weight.

Sometimes folks ask if it is "as they say" harder to maintain this weight (and really, I guess, that means healthy habits too) than it is to lose the weight or make the needed changes in the first place. I have a clear answer: no. It's way easier. But that's just one of the questions I get asked about weight loss. I usually try to change the subject to the broader category of healthy behaviors. Because I really never set a goal of losing weight, it was just a means to the other end of getting healthy and getting to a place where I didn't need to take medication to control my risk factors.

But I know folks want to know about losing weight and maintaining weight loss. are some other questions folks sometimes ask, presented with short answers. If you have others, feel free to ask and I'll answer them too.

About Me & Losing Weight

Q: So how much weight did you lose, anyway?
A: About 70lbs. I was 230 at my heaviest. For the last 7 years I've been within a few lbs of 160 with zero exceptions.

Q: How long did that take?
A: About 9 months. Apart from the first week with some water weight loss, I didn't drop more than about 1-2 lbs per week.

Q: Did you hit a "plateau?"
A: I didn't graph it, but I do recall weeks with losses less than 1lb. But otherwise it was pretty steady.

Q: So, how did you do it? Diet? Exercise?
A: Both. I did 45 minutes of vigorous exercise 6 days a week. I counted carbohydrates and calibrated my intake to achieve a normal steady-state blood glucose level between 100-140 mg/dl, with the high number being less than two hours after eating.

Q: Yeah, but what was your diet?
A: No restrictive diet. Just counting everything, watching what the food did, then adjusting portions, timing, and choices to get the BG results I wanted. I still ate (and still eat) everything.

Q: So you still eat sweets and stuff.
A: Oh yes.

Q: Wait, so did you count calories?
A: Nope. Because all calories aren't the same. (try getting fat eating celery; pandas can do it, but you can't).

Q: So did how did you set a goal weight?
A: I didn't really. I eventually got to a place where my other numbers - the ones I was really monitoring like BG, A1c, etc. were normal, and that determined it. Now, somewhere between 160 & 165 is what I try to stay at, but only as a shorthand for the other things.

Q: Ok, so then how do you figure out how many carbs equals the right amount?
A:  That took a while. But you can only do it by monitoring your BG.

Q: So about this *exercise*...what did you do to lose the weight?
A: I've written a lot about this, so I'll keep it simple. I rode my $300 7-speed comfort bike on an $150 indoor trainer. I did structured workouts consisting of short, intense intervals and varied these each day. I did it all while watching inane sports talk shows.

About Me and Maintaining Weight
Q: So what do you do now? is it the same?
A: No. I eat a little more and exercise a little more, on average, than before.

Q: How much more do you eat?
A: Not much. Roughly 1 more carb unit per meal per day than when I was trying to lose weight. That amounts to 2-3 units for breakfast, 3-4 for lunch and 3-4 for dinner and usually one 2 unit snack somewhere during the day too, depending on how active I am that day.

Q: How much more exercise?
A: About 6-12 hours per week. On the high end of that range in warmer weather. At least half and sometimes more than that is vigorous exercise (heart rate above 75% of max.)

Q: So why more exercise?
A: Just for fun.

Q: Oh, so that's not all for keeping weight off?
A: No...for that I'd need only about 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week, or 150 minutes of moderate (less than 60% of max hr).

Q: So this HR this important?
A: Only as a measure of intensity. Your body will only adapt to exercise that is a challenge. If you do the same thing over and over and never challenge yourself, you won't cause change. Bodies are amazing at adapting to things. The cool thing, though, is that intensity is better than duration for causing adaptation. So a little hard exercise can be as good for you as lots and lots of moderate exercise. (so stop reading on the treadmill).

Q:  But you are some kind of cycling freak now, right?
A: Kind of, yeah, but that's not required. It's just fun for me. (although when you burn 9,000 calories in a day you *can* pretty much eat whatever you want)

Q: So you are now, like, normal? I mean no diabetes or anything?
A: Clinically yes. Normal numbers. I'll find out if that's true still next week when my latest tests come back. But I've had an A1c near 5 for the last 7 years. So far, so good. And much better.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Buying a New Bike: Do, Don't Do, and FAQ

So you are thinking of getting a new bike...
One of the things that my friends and colleagues often ask me about is buying a new bike. Usually, they haven't been on a bike since they were young. They might never have set foot in a bike shop. Given the way the bike market has diversified - with lots of different models and brands available - it can all be quite intimidating.

I can't tell you in words just how much I LOVE giving this kind of advice! See, I can only buy so many bikes for myself before a) my sanity is questioned, b) my marriage begins to crumble (though since Leslie rides too, we are delightfully co-dependent). So helping others select a new bike is a great way for me to get the vicarious thrill. Also, it fills me with joy to think about the feeling my friends have when rediscovering the bike.

If you are thinking of getting a new bike, here are some things to do, things to not do (or not worry too much about, and then answers to some common questions!

Buying a Bike (for the first time in a long time): DO...

...go to a local bike shop (LBS). Bike shops sell bikes that are better quality than those offered in retail stores. The frames, the components, and perhaps most importantly the assembly/setup is worth the extra cost.

...visit several shops in your area. Bike shops have personalities, and they carry different brands and models to serve different kinds of riding. They do this to be competitive with one another, but also because the people that run these shops usually do so out of love (it's a VERY low-margin business and a tough way to make money) and out of dedication to a vision of one sort or another to provide something needed in the community (e.g. a woman-friendly shop, or a shop that caters to recumbent riders). a relationship with the LBS that fits you. Your bike will need service and you'll need a reliable place to get supplies like tubes, tools, etc. As your riding changes, you may also need other gear like a bike rack or bib shorts. Buying these from your LBS will help them out (the margin on these items is often better than on bikes, which is super low).

 ...think ahead about the kind of riding you want to do. This should be the first question you are asked when you are looking at bikes. How often do you plan to ride? How long will your typical ride be? Where will it be? On bike paths? on dirt trails? on the road, perhaps to work or to the farmer's market? maybe a little of all of these? Why are you interested in a bike? for exercise? for a source of green transportation? for long-distance bike tours? Answers to these questions will help narrow down what bike *categories* are best suited for you.

...think about your budget. Entry level bikes at bike shops will run from about $400 to $1000 depending on the category. You may also need a few accessories right away which can add some cost, namely a helmet, water bottles, bike shorts or other clothing, pedals and shoes (for road bikes, especially), etc.

...ride several different models that fit your riding needs and your price point. The good news about bike shop bikes is that they are very, very similar in overall quality and - because competition is very tight - all the major manufacturers (Specialized, Trek, and Giant are the big three) offer similar models at similar price points. You may need to go to more than one shop to try all of the ones that appeal to you. But riding them - outside - is essential. a bike that fits you. You can only do this by riding them. So go do it. You'll feel the difference.  How can they differ so much if the quality is all similar? The simple answer is that they have different frame geometry (the shapes/sizes of the main triangles that form the bike) and even small differences in geometry can make a surprising difference in how the bike feels depending on your own body. A good shop will help dial a bike in to your comfort zone, but even after all the adjustments are made to the seat, bars, etc., the fit will be better on some bikes than others. Just like a pair of pants. a bike that you LOVE. I mean it. Buy the one that is so gorgeous it quickens your pulse. The one you can't take your eyes off of. The one that makes you want to get on and go! I hereby grant you permission to care about the colors, the leather seat, the lug details where the seat tube joins the bottom bracket, the sparkly streamers that come out of the bar ends... A bike you love is a bike you will ride. And for all the expense, there is no bike more expensive than one that you do not ride.

Buying a Bike (for the first time in a long time): DO NOT...

...settle for shabby treatment by an LBS. If you can't get your questions answered when you are actively interested in a bike, or if you get attitude because you are looking at one kind of bike that the salesperson doesn't happen to like, this is not OK. I recommend that you  wrap up your visit and walk out. Go to another shop. The experience in the shop matters. a bike without riding it. It's like buying pants off the rack without trying them on. They might look good and they might be the right waist and inseam numbers. But they could be tight through the hips. Or they could pinch when you sit down. And they will just hang in the closet unworn, mocking you.

...worry about the brand of bike. If you are buying from a reputable shop, all the brands will be good. In fact, if you are buying one of the major brands, odds are they are made in the same handful of factories overseas anyway. If you are buying from a more boutique maker, you'll be paying a little more but you may or may not get a better fit (unless you are going full custom, bespoke, crafted just for you...but that's another post). Buy the bike that fits you, suits your riding needs, and that you Love. Brand be damned! afraid to ask for an extended test or demo. Bike shops will usually let you take a bike you like for a weekend to see if it will work for you. Go for it.

...spend more than you are comfortable spending. Bike prices scale up mostly as a function of the components on the bike - the wheels, the drive train (e.g. crank, derailleurs, gears, shifters...collective known as "the group" or gruppo) and your all-important touch points: the saddle, the bars, and the pedals. Frame materials contribute to cost too, but not as much as you might think. So...don't feel bad about sticking to a lower price point at first if you need to. Why? you can always upgrade the components later as your riding changes.

...leave the shop without everything you need to actually ride the bike. Got a helmet? pedals? If you don't, you'll kick yourself. the health impact a bike can have, and factor that into your thinking about costs. I haven't spent a dime on health care costs apart from my health insurance contributions (out of my paycheck from work) in four years. A lot of that is due to my bike. Well worth it!

Buying a Bike (for the first time in a long time): FAQ

1. Should I wait for a sale? Probably not. Because bikes are already sold by shops at a very low profit margin, sales are not frequent and when they happen, they are usually only offered on models that shops need to clear out of the shop. If the model doesn't happen to fit you (either in terms of style, size, or look) you'll be out of luck anyway.

2. What about used bikes? Like on CraigsList.
I know this can be tempting. I've bought a bike on CL myself. But only after watching it for 2 YEARS until the bike I wanted came around... The main reason I don't recommend buying a used bike is the LOVE thing. It's hard to find a bike that you'll feel passionate about that way. And depending on the condition, etc., it may not even be a bargain.

3. Can I buy a bike online?
It is possible, though most brands sell only through authorized dealers/shops. There are business reasons for this, of course, but also a customer-service reason. See above all that stuff about riding a bike first and fitting, etc. Hard to do that online. So...I don't recommend online purchases for a first (or first in a long time) bike purchase. It's just too hard to get everything right. another one? fire away!  use the comments or tweet @billhd

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Riding a Bike: Why It Doesn't Get Old

Unlike my "it's complicated" relationship with running, I love cycling. And while I'm mostly a road cyclist, I enjoy all forms of riding a bike. Commuting to work, cruising on fat tires on a bike path, plowing along a gravel road or trail. I don't have much experience on singletrack or trails, generally, but I'm pretty sure I'd like that too.

Now, compared to running, there is really no contest. Riding is way better. And I don't want to make this all too complicated. So here's my simple test: is it enjoyable while I am actually doing it? Bike: yes! Run: not really.

But just in case you need a nudge, here's a list of things that, for me, never get old about riding a bike:
  1. Speed. It is fun to go fast. Feeling the wind in your face. You can go fast on a bike. Even if you aren't some kind of hard core racer, you can  still go fast downhill. It makes grownups smile just like kids every time.
  2. Getting to know the land. You really learn a lot about the roads and the terrain, the sights and the natural features, and yes the traffic and the people who live near you when you ride a lot. Every bump and pothole, every stretch of silky new tarmac, every wooded glade with a country lane winding through it become part of your consciousness, on a bike, in ways that they never do in a car. It's possible to get to know places this way on foot too, but you just can't cover anything like the same amount of area that way.
  3. People who ride bikes are pretty great people. The bike tends to create experiences that challenge riders, and for those that have shared the challenges, there is a bond. This bond makes us want to help each other - we've been there or, maybe, we'll one day be there - and, beyond the karma of paying one forward, we likely have a reason to pay one back. 
  4.  Riding is an activity where you can actually talk - we aren't hammering all the time - and get to know each other. 
  5. Riding with others builds trust. When you are riding close together in a group, it benefits everyone to get to know the others nearby. Not just names (or sometimes not even names) but habits, strengths, experience. It helps keep everybody safer when we are all able to trust the wheel ahead, especially when we are zipping along at 25mph.
  6. Recovery from a bike ride is easier. Easier than running, easier than most other hard workouts. I can almost always ride again the following day even after a long or hard ride. This means I can ride more often too. And get more out of each ride if I have some kind of health or fitness goals that I am working on.
  7. The bike will take whatever you give it. Some days, you can give it all and the bike will happily oblige, letting you empty the tank only to wobble home cross-eyed in desperate need of rest and calories. But the bike is also happy to spin along at 10 miles an hour while you laugh with your kids. 
  8. Bikes fix what is wrong with you. Emotionally and physically, there are few problems that a bike can't help with at least a little bit. Only if you ride them, though. I've seen them transform lives - mine included - and make a bad day into a good one countless times.
The other day, I was talking with a friend of mine bitten by the bike bug last year. He's in deep now. I was mentioning that I don't try to evangelize bikes, nor do I think of my own affinity as something like a religious conversion. But he convinced me that despite that, I did manage to spread the good word whether I meant to or not. By example, sometimes. And by recommendation (if not admonition) at others. I concede the point. But you needn't convert or do what I do or what he does. There are lots of ways to ride a bike and to experience all the things I listed here. Nobody even has to know.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Running, at 44: Why?

Last week I turned forty four. Today I ran five miles. And as one does when on a training run, I did some thinking about running. So here's my version of the listicle genre, all about why I'm still running thirty years after I first started.

1. I like to be able to run. And I like to have run. 
Even though I don't like running much anymore, really. Two out of three are enough to keep me going. The first sentiment is about being in good health and feeling like I can still do something that I used to do when I was young. The second thing is about feeling accomplished and feeling tired in a good way - something that solves another problem lots of people have but which I am blissfully free of: sleep issues. Plus, you never know...

2. I am an athlete. And running is a core ability for athletes.
There is an identity thing going on with me and running, even though I'm not a straightforward "runner." I once was that. Today I ride bicycles more than I run, but I still like to think of and conduct myself as an athlete. I like to train and prepare for things, even if I don't compete all that often. And running is important to lots of other sports, of course, so it's useful on the rare occasions where I do one of those.

3. When I do compete, I like to do well.
I still enter a race every now and then. At least two a year for the last several years, and sometimes a few more. And while I haven't gotten faster as I've gotten older, I have gotten relatively faster compared to the others my age. Most of that is due to the fact that fewer people my age run at all, and those that do enter races likely don't train. I do not do much running-specific training, but I ride a lot and that has been enough to keep me competitive in my age group.

4. I like to suffer.
Yeah, I know, it sounds sick to say it. But the truth is you can get to a place where you enjoy going to a place that most people avoid when it comes to engaging in intense physical activity. A lot of that is the thrill of exploring your own limits, mentally and physically. And some of it is being out of your head and in your body in a truly physical way. The ability to push hard and then a little harder is something you strive for, and the discomfort (not really pain) is feedback. How hard can I go? Can I do a little more? It is hard to beat running for a pure physical test of your ability to go and keep going. It is so simple that it takes very little skill to get to your limit. And with no mechanical advantage, just you and the road, it's go or no go.

5. A good workout doesn't take long, is portable, and is really effective. 
If I have the shoes and proper clothes, a run is something I can do just about anywhere I go. And unlike a bike ride, I can squeeze one into a half hour and feel like I've got a thorough workout in for the day. 

So there are five reasons I'm still running after all these years. I go a little slower than I used to, but I don't really miss the speed relative to the clock like you might guess. I don't suffer any less for going slower, and as I said in #3 above, I actually do a little better in races these days so I don't care about the time so much. I do miss being able to recover from running fast - like the next day - as I used to when I was young. And I miss the ability to thermoregulate so effectively so that it isn't quite so tough on a hot day. But I imagine that despite these things, I'll still be running in another thirty years if I'm able to. The age groups are really thinned out in the 70+ category!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Chronic Illness: How Riding (and Giving) in Public Might Help

It is almost June, and that means that we are close to the 2014 Tour de Cure, a fundraising 100 mile bike ride that benefits the American Diabetes Association. As of today, I've raised $400. You can help out by making a donation too. If you do, it just might make you healthier.

That might sound like a stretch, I know. But stay with me on this one.

Diabetes - both types - is a chronic illness. There is no cure (yet), and so people with a diagnosis have to learn to live with and manage the effect of chronic illness. In the general sense, those of us who manage diabetes and its impact on our lives are far from alone. In fact, the CDC reports that up to half of all U.S. adults deal with chronic illnesses at any given time.

Chronic illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, hypertension, asthma, COPD, arthritis, and diabetes,  rather than infectious disease, constitute the major health challenges of our generation in the United States and, increasingly, the world.

Chronic illnesses present different, and very difficult, challenges for treatment and prevention too. Not just on a population scale, but on an individual one. First, the big ones on the list above - heart disease, cancer, diabetes - effect critical systems in our bodies and do so in a systemic way and on a molecular level. This means the problems are pervasive throughout the body, they get more severe over time, but they do so in very very tiny ways. Often we don't even know what is going on until a disease is fairly far along. And then, once we do know, we may or may not be able to do something about reversing or slowing the effects a disease has.

When I got my diagnosis of Type II Pre-Diabetes, I was lucky. I had time and I had options to respond. About that same time in my life, I'd recently lost loved ones - family members and friends my own age - to chronic illnesses where there were few, if any options, for treatment beyond palliative care. Knowing that, I wasn't about to sit by and ignore the chance I had to improve my health.

Sometimes we call it "fighting back." We want our loved ones with chronic illnesses like cancer to have strong resolve, to muster the will to "battle." But managing chronic illness isn't really about battling. Or, at least, it's not about going on the offensive. It's more about playing great defense and shifting your priorities to make your body function as well as it possibly can given the circumstances.

TdC 2007 at the Start
And that's where, for me, riding a bike came in. I rode a bike because I could do that to address nearly all of the risk factors I had been diagnosed as having. Amazing, right? One change with lots of potential good outcomes. And for me, it worked.

But you know what also worked? Saying, out loud, in places like this blog and on Facebook and to my friends and family in person that I was riding my bike. That I was going to do an event like the Tour de Cure and ride 66 miles (the distance of the first couple I rode).

And I am not alone. I'll spare you the long version, but suffice to say that there is a lot of research in a lot of different exercise and health behavior areas done by a lot of different people for the last 30 years that show basically the same thing: if you express your intent to change your behavior to be more healthy in social settings, including social media, you'll be likely to make those changes.

So...why not try it? Announce it here (in the comments) or on Facebook. Donate to my campaign as a way to keep both of us going (heh, no really, that works too!). And then let me know how it works for you.

One last point about chronic illnesses: nobody asks for them. In many cases, they are genetically linked and so we inherit all or some chance to have them affect us. But it is also true that what makes them tough to treat and prevent is the fact that how much they shorten or otherwise impact our lives is usually the product of not just one thing (like a bite from an infected mosquito) but maybe thousands of little decisions we make every single day. But that also means that if you start today making little decisions that go the OTHER way...towards a healthy, longer are helping to solve one of the most challenging problems of our time. So, make some good choices today. And a few more tomorrow. And change your life, or some one else's, for the better.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Quantified Self, Qualified

I've said on a few occasions here that the single biggest change I made when I began to get healthy was paying more attention. By that, I mean to my physical self as a whole. I started behaving as if I actually *am* a body made of flesh and bone and neurotransmitters. In my line of work, as an academic, it is surprisingly easy to go through days, weeks, months, and years doing otherwise. I call this "brain in a jar" syndrome. Over time, though, I found ways to pay attention to specific things about my physical self, specifically what I was eating, what activity I was doing, and how those things influenced my overall health and well-being in measurable ways.

I've talked about mindful eating, for instance, and how important the simple act of keeping track of what you eat each day can be. Tracking what you eat allows you to reconcile inputs with outcomes that you are trying to manage, like your blood glucose if you are controlling diabetes symptoms, or your blood pressure if you are managing cardiac risk. It can also, of course, help you adjust eating habits to meet goals related to body weight (losing, maintaining, or gaining).

Paying attention is, in itself, something that seems to have positive effects on goals many people share such as weight loss. My view is that paying attention is necessary, but not sufficient to be healthy. Others who posit a more direct relationship between paying attention and achieving healthy outcomes might say that the problem is one of a lack of knowledge due to insufficient information. My view is just a little different. My view is that it is a lack of *feedback* needed to determine if actions taken in the present are actually getting you somewhere. It's a subtle, but important difference.

Let's take weight gain/loss as one example. It doesn't happen quickly. That is a good thing and a bad thing when it comes to what you are eating on a given day. On the plus side, it means you can have birthday cake on your birthday. That piece of cake won't make you unhealthy, it likely won't contribute in a measurable way to your weight one way or another. If you have a piece of cake every day, well, that's another story. Unless you compensate for that in other ways, you might well see this new pattern start to produce new outcomes as time wears on.

Making changes that improve your health, especially lifestyle changes known to improve chronic disease symptoms such as high blood pressure, also may not have obvious effects very quickly. Even when you are on the straight & narrow, it is hard to know you are on the right path if there aren't any road signs. What paying attention lets you do, though, is keep track of the path. Even if you aren't seeing the destination (because it is yet over the horizon). The pattern of new behavior, itself, can begins to take shape on paper or, increasingly, on a computer screen.

Flying By Instruments
In the last several years, a range of new devices have been introduced designed to track activity, sleep, and other things. All of these can sync with computers and/or mobile phones, too, so that the data collected can be visualized and tracked with relative ease. Medical devices, too, can provide data streams. And because much of the logging work is passive, the act of paying attention to each little detail (such as how many steps one has taken) becomes easy enough to do routinely.

I've written about how I charted my eating & blood glucose levels like a mad scientist when I was first diagnosed with T2DM. That tells you how much I enjoy this sort of thing. So I've been looking forward to getting one of these tracking systems - I say system because we are really talking about one or more sensors + the log/visualization application - and seeing what it could do. I've been using one of these, a fitbit flex, for a few weeks now. And last week, I undertook to save some reports so I could reflect and share them a bit here. I had some initial trouble with the first flex I received, which was frustrating. It simply wouldn't wake up and track anything. But after a couple of weeks, the company sent me a new one and it has worked fine ever since. I really like it, in fact. But this is not a product review. My aim is to show you how the information allows me to pay attention to things and, importantly, what I try *not* to obsess over amidst all the data available to me now.

Broadly speaking, my goal in using the fitbit is to monitor how well my day-to-day, often subconscious choices about what to eat, drink, and how to move through the world might influence my health-related goals. Do they bring me closer to them? Do they take me further away? Or, more subtle, do my choices take me on a garden path rather than a beeline for my most important goals? That is, are there adjustments or course corrections I can make that could add up to something better? Since the course I'm navigating is long (in this case, there is no true destination or end state other than "being healthy"), I can't see where I'm going. In some cases, the outcome itself is invisible anyway because the indicator is an internal bodily state (e.g. blood pressure in a healthy range). No visual flight rules, in other words. Before, I was flying mostly by feel. Now, I'm flying with instruments.

My Week with Fitbit
The graphs I'm sharing here are not the day-to-day visualizations from the fitbit dashboard. Those are cool, and they give you a sense of what you are doing on a given day. Those displays have altered my behavior already. I'm motivated to hit my step goal (don't ask me's hard wired for some reason), so I'll work out ways to get an extra walk in. I'm also motivated to keep my calories in/out balance acceptable, even though I'm not terribly concerned about calories as a measure of what I eat. That balance is a pretty good indicator of my more general goal of "moderation." But when it comes to nutrition and its role in my overall health, I care more about the type of food those calories come from. In that regard, the chart below is very helpful for me.


Where did my calories come from?
With a weeks' worth of meals as input, this chart shows me that I'm achieving the balance I hope to with regard to carbohydrates, fat, and protein as components of my diet. I also see that I generally use more calories than I take in on a given day, but that this difference is not so extreme that I would see changes in my weight beyond a pound or so. My numbers for carbs and fats are low and high, respectively, the report notes. That's ok for me, though, since I'm doing diabetes. My fats tend to be the healthier ones too (Omega 6 & 3, which this report doesn't show).

The data to build the chart above comes from self-reporting via the fitbit dashboard food log, not the sensor I wear on my wrist. Maybe one day soon, I'll have an implant that allows for passive collection of nutrition data, but not yet (hey, a geek can dream, no?). So let's have a look at how I used up calories last week using data the sensor does collect.


Overall Activity Compared to My Gender/Age Group (U.S.)
I know that some of my friends and family think I'm some sort of crazed exercise freak. Probably due to all those 100 mile bike rides. But really, in an average, week, I'm not spending hours and hours exercising. Last week was pretty typical. And it puts me on the high side of the curve for my age and gender demographic...but not way, way out there in terms of overall activity (measured by calories burned). What is more interesting is how I achieve that. I don't have a job that has me moving very much. In fact, my line of work may well pose the single biggest threat to my health these days given that I manage everything else pretty carefully.

My point is that I have to get to an "active" lifestyle by being very conscious about moving during a given day. I have to make time for it and make it a deliberate part of my routine. Sometimes this involves making small changes in my habits like parking farther away from a building rather than closer. It also means I need to plan for some "very active minutes" to offset my hours of butt-in-seat time at work. And fitbit helps me track those very active minutes too.
My Very Active Minutes Compared w. U.S. Population we see a big difference. I averaged 78 very active minutes per day during my week, which puts me way out on the long tail (so far, you can't see my little green line very well in the graph on the right). A couple of things are also worth noting. This reflects not only my walking, but also my planned exercise, which included two runs and two bike rides. This is a pretty normal number of exercise sessions per week (four) but is a slightly higher amount of overall minutes because it is summertime. I am not training or preparing for any events, though, so this is about as baseline as we can get. A good overall picture of how I try to stay active in a job that doesn't involve much movement.

Something new to pay attention to, for me, is sleep. The Flex tracks sleep patterns, including how long it takes me to fall asleep and how many times I am awake and/or restless overnight. It uses those to compute a sleep efficiency score, which I really had no reference for prior to seeing the results on my dashboard. I have always been - knock wood here - a good sleeper. I can fall asleep easily and wake up easily. I sleep soundly, rarely get up during the night, and can sleep in all kinds of different conditions (hot, cold, noisy, bright, etc.). No complaints. And I don't take this for granted. Sleep is awesome. Thank you, sleep.

With the data I can see, I am somewhat validated in my sleep identity. I'll spare you the charts, as they are kind of boring, but I'll say that I sleep about as much as others my age and gender (about 7hrs per night last week, on average) and that's in the recommended range. I sleep a little more soundly than most (with 96% efficiency, meaning that I don't wake up often once I nod off) and I go to sleep quickly compared to most (within 7 minutes, on average).

Result: Steady as (s)He Goes
So what's the point of all of this? It's a happy and relatively straightforward one for me, at this point: my actions are in line with my goals. I'm doing what I hope to be doing, for the most part. And I'm doing it consistently. I'm not trying to lose or gain weight in significant quantities, and I'm not likely to based on my activity last week. I'm looking to stay active through the day even when I'm spending lots of hours sitting. My active minutes are good, but my overall activity shows that I have to remain vigilant given that my workday makes it all too easy to be sedentary.

All of this gives me confidence, via the feedback loop established here, that my choices are good ones. If I keep making similar choices, I'll likely see the results I want to see. This, to me, is the real benefit of the "quantified self" technology craze. It is not something to be found in the volume of information itself. It is the confidence that comes from seeing evidence that your actions are aligned with your goals. That's a qualitative thing from all this quantitative data.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Ride Report: 2013 Tour de Cure Michigan

It only took me a week to find the upside of riding for 12.5 hours, on a soggy trail, in the rain, uphill on the Great Allegheny Passage. Doing so makes riding 100 miles on perfectly lovely paved roads, in perfectly dry and reasonably cool weather, seem downright easy. That was my day on Saturday 6/15 at the Brighton, MI Tour de Cure Ride.

I rolled out with a lead group of about 20 and we would mostly stay together through most of the first 50 miles, with a little leapfrogging due to folks choosing to stop, or not, at the various rest stops. The TdC folks do a great job supporting this ride, and there are stops every 15 miles or so. I hit stops 2, 4, 6, and 7, and cruised through the others on the route which loops through parts of two MI state recreation areas: Pinckney & Waterloo.

The stats: I finished the ride in 5 hours, 40 minutes including all the stops. Rolling time was about 5:20 or so. I rode with my HRM and generally tried to go no higher than my zone 3 threshold of about 167 BPM until the last 21 miles when I gave myself permission to go as hard as I wanted to on the climbs back up from Hell to Brighton. I've done this course enough to know that this is the time when all the weekend warriors not used to going long would be loaded up with lactate and struggling home. I had been there in years past, because it is so easy to overcook the first 40 since it is mostly downhill.

Bill at Hell's Handbasket
All day, I rode well within myself in a Leipheimer-like effort. Then, after the last fuel & water stop at mile 79 in Hell's Handbasket where I got a fellow rider to snap a quick photo, I took off up the climb like a bat out of Hell.

I passed most of the folks I'd been riding with all day and soloed home for the most part. I offered my wheel a few times but everybody was waving me on. I felt like my energy-saving plan worked well. I had done a 5:20 century and enjoyed every turn of the pedals. Even what I like to call the "tough 20" between miles 60-80 that tends to be the most mentally taxing part of a 100 mile exploit seemed to fly by. I wasn't racing, and I could have likely gone a little faster (I'm sure I could do a sub-5 century alone now and, if I had a group to work with in an organized way, could likely do a lot better than that). But it was a great day on the bike all in all. And I was back in Brighton by lunchtime.

Most importantly, though, this ride is all about raising funds for the American Diabetes Association. I beat the drum on social media, and my wonderful, generous, and dedicated friends, family, and colleagues respond every year! This year, we once again produced a top-ten effort in terms of individual fundraising campaigns for the Michigan TdC. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

I continue to be inspired and energized by all of your support. Thanks to you all! We'll see you next year for this event, for sure.

And...stay tuned, because the June of Centuries continues with one more amazing ride coming up: the Allegrina 100!