Saturday, May 14, 2016

Performance Gains at Age 39? That Depends.

Photo credit: ResoluteSupportMedia viaFoter.com / CC BY
Can you still improve athletic performance at at 40, 50, 60 , 70, 80 or older?  At what age are performance gains no longer possible?

We can look at the age group world records to see the slow decline in performance.  You can look at weightlifting age group records at mastersweightlifting.org and you can look at sprint and running age group records at this Wikipedia page.  Keep in mind though, these are just the listed records.  Masters sports are not like Major League Baseball, where their are paid statisticians employed be the league.   Sometimes it becomes known that so-and-so has run faster than the record, and we just weren't aware of that.

A few questions though... How much do the elite level performances apply to "average" athletes?   In order be at the top of your game when you are seventy-five years old, do you need to be a high-level athlete when you are twenty years old?  Or are the top performers at seventy-five people that started their sport later in life, thus avoiding "burnout"?   Unfortunately I don't have the answers to these questions.

But I can say, that in some cases you can make large performance at age 39, 49, 59 and beyond.  This isn't a contradiction with the slow decline I was talking about earlier either.   For competitive athletes training in the same sport for eight, ten, twelve, fifteen years or longer, most of us will peak in our late twenties or earlier thirties.  For those of us who have practiced a sport four to five years or less, large performance gains are possible, and you should get after it will you still can!  I am, in fact, lucky to fall in the latter category of athletes relatively new to a sport, because I get to experience the thrill of improvement.  I thought my days of improvement in lifting were over, but perhaps I will have a couple more years.  After that I will strive to lose as little as possible.   Or I could change sports altogether, and VOILA!  New records and achievements all over again!

Besides being relatively new to a sport, how else could someone have increased their top lift, or lower their running time?  A few drug-free scenarios come to mind.

If the athlete was training in their twenties inadequately, so that they never achieved very much before, they could improve later in life with proper training.  For all of us who did not receive coaching and personal attention in our twenties, and who later on obtain a personal trainer or a coach, we can hope to improve.   That being said, I don't like or recommend to compare myself to what I did last year, much less decades ago.  Really it's better to do the best possible preparation and training you know how, and let the results speak for themselves.  Being an athlete is a lifestyle, and despite all you hear about how much "winning" matters, it's the lifestyle and the process that matters, NOT the outcome.  Take care of the preparation, nevertheless, and of course the outcomes take care of themselves.

Yet another scenario in which an athlete could conceivably improve later in life, even if they were properly training, and properly coached previously, is if there were some other limiting factor or barrier to their earlier training.  Perhaps they did not have access to the right facilities or equipment.  Perhaps they did not eat enough calories and/or protein in their twenties, but now they consume an adequate number of calories.  As you may know, if you do not eat enough calories and/or protein, your body will cannibalize existing muscle for energy.  This happens all the time for countless people, and I am one of the guilty parties.   You don't have to get the calories and protein from animal sources, but you do need to get them somehow (That will be a topic for a future blog post).

Anyhow keep training throughout your life, and enjoy the training process, not just the outcomes!

P.S. My apologies to the athlete in the photo if she is way younger than 39.  I am not claiming she is 39.  I have no idea how old she is.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Researchers Learn... What Coaches Have Known For Decades

Photo credit: Sebastian Mary via Foter.comCC BY-SA
I like science.  I really do.  But often when it comes to exercise physiology, researchers are late to the game, finding out things that athletes and coaches have known for ages.  We cannot prove what we have seen, found, experienced.  So it is nice to have some validation and evidence.

In April, the NY Times published an article about an interesting, but not unsurprising study.  In the study were three groups of out-of-shape young men.  The researchers got a baseline for all three groups that consisted of an aerobic fitness test of some sort, a measurement of their body's ability to regulate sugar intake, and a muscle biopsy to see how their muscles functioned at a cellular level.

Then for the next three months, group one did nothing different, remaining sedentary.  Group two did 45 minute steady riding on stationary bikes for three times a week.  Group three did 10 minutes of easy riding, including three all out sprints of twenty seconds each, also three times per week.

So guess which group had the best aerobic fitness at the end of the study?  Group two and Group three had nearly identical results at the conclusion of the study.  Pretty much what many athletes, runners, weightlifters, and Crossfitters already knew... intensity can lead to improvement.

Many people are looking at this study, and thinking, I only have to exercise ten minutes!  Really, I don't think that's the point at all.  It depends.  It depends on where you are now, and what you want to accomplish. If you have an attitude that exercise is pure drudgery, if you are looking for shortcuts, and you shrink from any thing mildly challenging, then you are going at this with the entirely wrong frame of mind.

What kind of aerobic fitness could these people have achieved if they mixed some longer days and some shorter days?  What if they had five or more sessions per week?

Have fun, mix it up, be consistent, and keep the ball rolling!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Birthday Challenge Results

A few weeks ago I wrote about undertaking a challenge for my upcoming birthday.  The challenge was to complete a variation of the workout called "Fran", in less than seven minutes and 39 seconds.

In Crossfit, workouts are usually named.  The reason for this is so that the workout can be easily identified when discussing it, and easily found in your log book.  That way you can track your results more exactly and more thoroughly.

So anyhow, the workout called "Fran"  is the one I did.  And I have done it probably a dozen times over the last few years.  In fact it is the most well-known, and perhaps notorious workout in all of Crossfit.

The first time I attempted to workout about three weeks ago, I found myself flat on my back gasping for air about four minutes in.  The wheels had come off. My heart was racing. Clearly my body was not ready for this level of intensity!

I lay on the ground for several minutes before I got up and finished the workout, for a total time of 18 minutes, 30 seconds.

But then a surprising thing happened.  Just a few days later, after only one practice run, my body had already adapted a tremendous amount.  In my second attempt,  the wheels never came off.  I finished in 8 minutes and 10 seconds.

I did one more practice run that was a variation of the "Fran" workout.  Then two days before my birthday deadline, I thought maybe I had a decent chance to succeed at the challenge.  I went into the gym in mid-afternoon when it is not crowded.  Warmed up a bit, and then started the stopwatch.  Seven minutes and 23 seconds later, I had succeeded.

I'm not really sure why we do these things to ourselves!  I guess one of the reasons is to find out whether we can, or whether we cannot.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Faery Hair versus Fran, Father Time, and Political Figure Who Will Not Be Named

The earth has completed yet another circuit around the sun.  Again. I don't have any New Year's Resolutions. Again.  But I do have a birthday resolution!  For my thirty nine years, I am going to attempt to complete the CrossFit workout Fran (Rx) in 7:39 or less.  To make the challenge a bit more I challenging, I aim to do so with unbroken sets in the first round.

All my previous Fran attempts have been in the high six to mid seven minute range, but those were all seven months ago or longer.  Even worse, I haven't stepped foot in a Crossfit gym for over six weeks.  And I let my Crossfit gym membership lapse.   But here is a list of what I have going for me:

  • Somewhat like Samson, I will have the power of Faery Hair!*  Not sure  yet what color I should get though.  
  • I will get at least seven hours and thirty-nine minutes of sleep.
  • I have continued to do barbell lifts (squats, deadlifts, overhead press, bench).  
  • I have continued to rock climb about twice per week, so I should be ready for pull-ups
  • Endurance is decent due four days of cross country skiing recently
  • I will do at least one rehearsal attempt of the same workout
Doesn't sound that hard perhaps, but doing unbroken sets in the first round is going to put me in a dark place.  Overall I am predicting this is going to be difficult but attainable. 

I would plan to start on my birthday at 7:39 p.m., just to have the power of the numbers behind me, but the gym I am going too is tremendously busy on weekdays at 7:39 p.m (and probably 7:39 a.m).  I don't want to be rude by getting in everyone's way when it is crowded.  So I am going to take a late lunch that day, and head to the gym in mid-afternoon.  The entry is thus entered on my work calendar (What else are work calendars for anyhow?).

I will post results shortly after the event. Hopefully I can get some pictures of the event or one of the rehearsals to post, with my hair sparkles sparkling, while I am throwing around more or less a hundred pounds of barbell in rapid succession.

*Not only can Faery Hair provide extra strength, I'm told Faery Hair can fight floppy-haired, crude political figures, whom I will not generate more publicity for by mentioning any names.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Is Your Office Job Ruining Your Health & Making You Dumber?

In the middle of reading the blockbuster book Move Your DNA, and I had to start writing about it even before I finish reading the book.  This is one of the most brilliant, deep, and thoughtful books on movement I have found so far.  While so many books on health, movement, exercise, and wellness have glaring holes you could drive a truck through, this is not the case here.

In the book the author, Katy Bowman, M.S., describes how captive orcas have a floppy dorsal fin.  Why do captive orcas dorsal fins sag, while wild orcas do not have this problem?  Apparently swimming in a small prison pool slowly in circles is not equivalent to fast swimming at varied depths that orcas can do in the wild.  You don't say.

Bowman goes on to compare modern humans to the captive orcas.  If you work in a office, you are nothing more than a captive killer whale at Sea World, with a floppy dorsal fin.  So here goes my rant on the issues of the typical office environment...


  • Lack of natural light... Even if you have windows close by, you are probably too self-important to take much time to go outside during the day.
  • Long life-sucking pointless meetings... Sitting in a chair, in large groups of people, wasting time.
  • Elevators... I work in a three story building, and people routinely take the elevator to get from the 1st floor to the 2nd floor!  The artificially flat environment we have created has wreaked havoc on the muscles in our feet and legs.
  • Junk food...  All the free food that shows up in the break room is slow acting poison.  But, hey, it's free.
  • Modern communications... Why walk over to your co-workers desk when you can simply IM them?

  • Sitting in a chair...  You go from sitting in your car in the morning commute, to sitting in a chair at work, to sitting in a car for your evening commute.  Then you wonder why you have back/shoulder/neck/foot/health problems!   The rise in popularity of standing desks is an improvement, but standing still for eight hours has it's own issues.  If you got an expensive treadmill desk, would that solve the problem?  Unlikely, because the variety of movement that your body requires is not met by one simple repetitive motion on flat terrain.  And if you think you can throw in thirty minutes of repetitive motion exercise a day to correct for eight hours of stillness, think again.

Unfortunately the lack of movement in the modern office environment is not only comprehensively destroying our health, it may also be creating the dumbest generation of human beings in history.  Just as domesticated and captive animals lose ten, twenty or even thirty percent of brain mass in comparison to wild animals, urbanized, office captive, and "domesticated" homo sapiens are probably no exception.  

  • https://books.google.com/books?id=mhzyhynJOc0C&pg=PA87&lpg=PA87&dq=20%25+smaller+brains+in+captive+animals&source=bl&ots=ih8BBFtmNF&sig=KBVUVYEv7vqzkJC3bozkGGvauUU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjg9uih19nJAhUQymMKHVxVBV0Q6AEIHDAA#v=onepage&q=20%25%20smaller%20brains%20in%20captive%20animals&f=false
  • http://anthropology.si.edu/archaeobio/cm/Zeder%202012%20JAR.pdf
  • http://discovermagazine.com/2010/sep/25-modern-humans-smart-why-brain-shrinking
  • http://scienceblogs.com/observations/2010/04/01/domesticated-dummies/
That we may be the dumbest generation of homo sapiens ever is not surprising when all we have to do is push keys on the keyboard and click things.  We don't have to remember where the good foraging is located, how to identify plants, how to track animals, or even how to grow food.  The brain itself is mostly needed for movement purposes after all.  The sea squirt is a creature that moves through the ocean, and looks for a suitable rock to attach itself to.  Once said location is found, it attaches to the rock, and proceeds to digest it's own brain.  Without movement, the brain is no longer required.  


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Simien Mountains Trek Day Five

As we rise on day five, we are fortunate to find that the rain from yesterday has let up, at least temporarily.  Eating our usual breakfast of one egg and some oatmeal, plus some of the left of lamb from the slaughter, we pack up for one last day of walking.  Shegaw and Zerie load up the mules for the last time.  If only we could backpack with mules carrying all the supplies every time!  Really, it's one of the best ways to travel in my opinion.

We leave the relative familiarity of Sankaber, and set off down the middle of the dirt road for Debark.  If the past few days are any indication, it's completely safe as the number of vehicles that have we saw pass by was a grand total of one; No problems with traffic when people cannot afford to buy cars.

If we're lucky we might even make it to Gonder by nightfall, in time to stop by Sofa Juice for a smoothie.  Despite the unattractive name, Sofa Juice makes some excellent avocado mango smoothies at an amazing price.

Walking on the dirt road for an hour or more, we are happy to see no cars.  Even with the declining altitude, the rolling hills begin to take their toll.  Five days of walking in the mountains at reasonably high altitude, with no rest days, and perhaps our bodies have not been able to quite adjust just yet.  We depart from the road, and head up one hill after another.  It seems that our scout Metuke is purposely taking us directly up the hills instead of around them.  Perhaps he wants us to get better views.  At this point, we have seen the views though, and we are just thinking about a rest day and Sofa Juice.  Merciless, we head up yet another hill, for one last look at the Simien valleys thousands of feet below, and a view that goes on for dozens of miles.

Heading into farm and pasture land, we encounter a brief hailstorm, which paints the ground with a white covering.  It's an unexpected site for Africa, as it looks like snow.  We snap a few photos for proof, and continue putting one foot in front of the other.

Soon we reach what appears to be a hand built farmhouse, surrounded by fields of wheat and barley.  Two kids, no older than seven, come running out to Metuke.  Metuke says ene bet (my house).  We head in side.  Do I need to mention there is no electricity or running water?  In the countryside we are not surprised to learn this.  His kids look happy, and everyone appears to be well fed.

Metuke motions for us to sit down on the hand built furniture as we stop for a lunch break.  His kids watch us closely... They don't have weird looking (pale white) visitors often.  Metuke pulls some teff injera out of a basket and another large container with red paste.  It's spicy, and at this point we are hungry enough that we probably wouldn't really care much, as long as it's edible.  Soon that thought gets put to the test.  Metuke pulls out another huge ceramic container and pour some chunky liquid into a few glasses.  Having seen the cows outside, and the lack of electricity, it doesn't take a genius to realize we are about to drink fermented milk.  They say that "hunger is the best flavoring," at the definitely helps us to down the entire glass of this novel beverage.  I stop at one glass, but my adventurous friend downs a second.  I guess, like bunna (coffee), it just takes some getting used to.

Metuke keeps pushing the food on us, and we appreciate his generosity, but we can only eat and drink so much.  Especially from someone that has so little according to Western standards, its a nice thing he has done.  Or perchance is he just buttering us for a favor to ask?  In our limited Amharic, and his limited English, we somehow figure out that Metuke wants to stay home, and not walk us back to Debark.  If I was in his shoes, I would be tempted to do the same, Not remembering the way back to Debark, we swiftly reject that idea.

Metuke says good bye to his children, who stay home alone (Well except for the cows, dogs, and chickens, so not entirely alone).  We head out from the homestead and we see some dark clouds in the distance.  Just like the day prior, these look threatening and heading our direction.  It is not long before we see flashes of electricity.  We count, one, two, three, four, five... and then the thunder erupts.  Five miles.

The clouds grow to cover the sky, the downpour begins, and the lightening and thunder move in to four, three, two miles, and then they are around us.    We are caught in a storm of biblical proportions, in the land which claims to possess the ark of the covenant that was given to Moses over 5000 years ago, and in which our pre-human ancestors have resided for millions of years.  By luck, or God, or science, we don't get struck by lightening somehow.  Climbing the last hills before the outskirts of Debark, we soon arrive cold and wet.  The storm continues as the streets turn into small rivers, and we enjoy the entertainment from the safety of some outside seating under an awning.  Eventually the storm lets up, and we catch a terrible van ride back to Gonder with nineteen other of our closest friends... Closest by the fact that we are all practically on top of each other in the van.  I guess that's the level of comfort you can expect for 40 birr ($2) on a 90 minute trip.    Oh well, as long as we return before Sofa Juice closes for the day.




Saturday, April 25, 2015

Simien Mountains Trek Day Four

Today we will begin the return trek, walking from Chennek Camp to Sankaber.  Eating our breakfast of an egg and some porridge, we look forward to another day of walking and excellent vistas.  Metuke is not surprisingly ready to go, and soon we set off walking.  Due to the longer distance we will cover today, and that we have seen much of the Simien Mountains already, some of the trek follows a quiet dirt road.

We're walking fast, probably five or six kilometers per hour.  I'm not sure why, but probably we want to show Metuke we are in decent shape.  It's a bit silly, considering we are on vacation of course.  I guess that our competitive side just won't go away.  It is nice, however, to put some distance between us and the other tourists.  Since there aren't any cars or buses on the road, we have it to ourselves.  The silence is luxurious, and that's one of the reasons why we are here.

After a few hours of walking the clouds begin to roll in.  Thick, dark and ominous looking.  We hear a few distant rumbles.  Then we feel a sprinkle.  We quicken our pace as the rain starts to come down steadily.  Soon it is coming down in torrents.  A flash appears down the valley.  We count... one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, BOOOMM, then thunder roars.

We hustle through the rest of the hike, dripping wet. Taking shelter under the eaves of the cooking hut, and soon after the storm passes.  A shepard and his folk passes by.  My hiking companion, ever the Paleo man, is craving meat.  He asks if Dinknesh will prepare lamb, and how much that costs. Yes that can be done.  Some negotiations commence with the shepherd.  They reach an agreement, and the shepherd leaves a small lamb with the two mule handlers.  The Paleo man starts to walk away, and I request he stays around for the slaughter, since it is his purchase. 

One of the mule handlers attempts to cut the lamb's throat, but the knife is too dull.  Metuke steps in and takes the knife away.  He sharpens it on a rock carefully, and then quickly kills the lamb. In less than two minutes, he has the lamb skinned, digestive tract removed and the lamb expertly butchered. Clearly he has done this many times before, and I am thankful for his skill and experience.  We take the large bowls of lamb pieces, including liver and one or two other organs (maybe heart, but I can't remember) to Dinknesh for preparation. 

Dinknesh confidently sets to work cooking the lamb.  In a hour or so, dinner is served, but we find that nobody else is eating lamb.  Every Wednesday and Friday is a fasting day for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, who represent a majority of the population.  No animal products whatsoever are consumed on these days.  We hope that perhaps the can eat the lamb tomorrow, but Dinknesh says that additionally they are not allowed to eat animals that were killed on fasting days.   Lesson learned.  Unfortunately some of the lamb will go to waste.  Nothing really completely goes to waste, as the bacteria and other animals will consume it eventually, but it's not the ideal situation.