Book of the Week – The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training Over 40

As we age we lose strength.  When strength goes so does mobility and balance as well as an increase  of other unpleasantness.  Through the typical bad diet and inactivity we also approach what is called the sick aging phenotype. Although we’re unable to reverse the aging process we are able to mitigate it to a great deal. We’re able to do some things which help us to live longer and better with much more quality of life. If that sounds like something you’re interested in, and you’re over 40, this is the book for you.

This is a howto book on how to get stronger using just five or so basic exercises. Barbell exercises such as the squat, deadlift, press, and bench press.  It’s based on research, and experience. It is an outgrowth of the Starting Strength approach by Mark Rippetoe.

Order the book.  Spend a week or so reading it cover to cover, and then think about how you might implement the program. I have found it to be effective.  One serious consideration though.  You must know how to perform the exercises precisely or you will get injured. I suggest a personal trainer. I am calling one today.

Closing thoughts.  At 60 years of age I want to remain as healthy and active as I can.  I also want to do it in an intelligent, empirically driven, fashion. I really think this book offers that.   But, the barbell prescription is powerful medicine.  Use it with care.

Injury & Weight Gain: An Update

The Bad News

About a year ago I started to gain weight, and went from 165 lb average, to a 175 average, and that creeped up to a 185 lb average. Waist size went from a rather loose 34 to a rather snug 36. The problem started when I tried to maintain my weight at 165, then 170, and failed.  In the meantime I injured my left knee, and have just confirmed that it has arthritis.  I will know more after May 22ed when I visit an orthopaedic sports doctor.

The Good News

There is still lots of good news. My peak weight, before I started to loose, was up around 245 plus pounds, and a size 46 inch waist size was tight. I would have been satisfied with 185 if I had been convinced it would stop there.  I did not.  I have given up running for the meantime, but suspect that the doctor’s advice will be to continue to avoid the sport I love.  During the process I learned a lot, and am taking up competitive race walking under the theory that it will not be so hard on my knee. The weight is starting to go down, partially because it is warmer now, and I am out of school with more free time.  Less stress.

What I Learned

What did I learn?  A lot, and I plan to learn more.  First of all I think I lost the weight too fast, and that steep weight lose has had an effect on my metabolism.  Most BMI calculators say that I should be able to eat 2000 calories net per day.  I have found that number to be too high.  For me it is 1400 calories.  I suspected my metabolism might have had something to do with it, but was pretty much convinced after I went back down to 1400 net calories per day, renewed  a stricter diet  (avoiding high glycemic  foods such as pasta, potatoes, etc.), and then started to see the weight come off again.  At around the same time the Biggest Looser story broke which told how research had shown that most of the contestants gained back a lot of weight, and an altered metabolism was suspected as the culprit.   Thinking it was starving, the body wisely went into a survival mode as it slowed down metabolism. We use a scale, the body seems to have other metrics. You can read the article online at the New York Times. Was that what had happened to me?  Maybe, and then again maybe not.  I suspect there are a lot of factors that come into play with weight loss, and the science is just not there yet.  In the meantime, I have resigned myself to the 1400 calorie ceiling and found a way to keep it that seems to work for me now.

The Way Forward

One strategy that I found that worked for me was a schedule that included shifting my meals to later in the day, and essentially eating four of them.  Around 300 – 350 calories at noon, the same amount at 4 p.m., and then 600 – 800 for supper at around 7:30, and finally a late snack.  Noon and lunch do not vary much at all.  Supper and the late snack calories vary depending on how active I have been. I know it breaks a LOT of the rules but it works for me.

I also discovered how much it meant to me to have fitness goals, and  incorporate competition into my goals.  Not that I was that competitive for my age class as a runner, but because I found those competitions to be tremendously motivating.  What to do?  Race walking. It has always appealed to me since I was a kid when the renowned race walker Larry Young could be seen around town training.   Walking VERY fast. By the way, Larry Young competed in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, and is the only American ever to medal in race walking in that venue.  Larry attended Columbia College on the ONLY race walking scholarship ever awarded by a college in the United States.  Hometown boy made good.

Race Walking

I know I could just go out and walk.  There is also Nordic Walking, and fitness walking, and then just kind of making up your own thing. Strolling.  While walking is natural to us, race walking requires a very specialized technique that you have to learn. Starting with Larry Young  I have a rather long history of being interested in race walking which I will write more about later. For now, suffice it to say that the first and only time I have race walked was over thirty years ago, with my oldest daughter and we were both disqualified.  I plan to do something about that.  I will compete again this summer, fully expecting to be disqualified, but have decided that next year my goal is to be competitive in my age group while  avoiding being disqualified for the wrong technique.  Stay tuned.

WillPower: The Book

The single best nonfiction book I have read this year, and maybe the best one I have read in three or more years, was Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister, and  John Tierney published by The Penguin Press in 2011.  I will save you the trouble and provide you the Amazon link here.  According to Wikipedia Roy Baumeister is the internationally known “Francis Eppes Professor of Psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida.”  You can also visit his faculty web site.

This book offers remarkable insight into the obstacles we face when losing weight, exercising, and otherwise trying to lead an organized, healthy, fulfilling, and productive lifestyle.

I always highlight, and write notes when I read, if the book is intriguing. I then go back and take notes.  I have not done that yet, but below is a list of the most memorable, and useful items, that I remember from my first visit. In no particular order:

  • although we can increase our capacity for using willpower, it is also something that can be depleted.  When it is depleted you make bad choices you regret later.
  • making too many decisions too fast can deplete willpower. This phenomenon is known as decision fatigue and is related to the next item:
  • willpower requires energy (our brain is 2% of our body but consumes a whooping 20% of the total calories we burn).  If our energy is depleted our willpower, along with other functions, decreases.
  • we can have too many goals.  It is not a good idea to have a large  laundry list of goals (and goals are not to be confused with tasks).  Finishing a degree, writing that novel, and remodeling the house, while you are trying to lose weight is probably not a good idea.
  • organization is the friend of willpower.  The more organized you are the less stress, and cognitive energy, goes into finding things, doing things at the last minute or missing deadlines, and worrying about what has not been done.  Unfinished business, commitments, and obligations creates an “open loop.” This leads to yet one more item:
  • I personally think that it is essential to have some kind of organizing system like the Getting Things Done (GTD) system of David Allen which postulates the aforementioned “open loop” problem.  Tame your tasks. Unfinished business creates an open loop and we often have lots of little, and big, unfinished tasks, commitments, and promises. We are into something else, or maybe two other things, and suddenly remember another thing we forgot to do because we have no system of keeping track of what needs to be done, and what has already been accomplished.  That is known as a todo list my friend.  Get one, and love it.   The GTD system is specifically mentioned in the book and I have had fantastic results with it so far and I am just in the early stages of learning it.  I will be reviewing that book next since I am still reading it.
  • avoid having to make too many decisions and especially trivial ones.  Make a decision, and unless it is a disaster or obviously the wrong one stick with it.   Either have yogurt or egg whites for breakfast and stop worrying about it. They are both good choice.  Wear the gray or black socks.  Does it Preplanning meals, workouts, and activities is a best practice.  You can be flexible but don’t fret too much about first world problems or matters that well, don’t matter.
  • habits are your friend.  If something is habitual you don’t have a chance to think about it.

I also think that reducing clutter (in all areas of your life), and practicing some degree of minimization is helpful.  Everything is connected.

The book is not the complete instruction manual for building willpower I was hoping for.  It was also written in 2011, and I am sure there has been a lot of good research since then.  But, it is entertaining, and filled with lots of great information that you can apply.  I will be investigating the phenomenon of what we call willpower from the psychological and neuroscience perspective to try to see what best practices are being developed.  It is a fascinating and useful field.

Will Running a Marathon Make You Skinny? A Surprising Answer is Not Necessarily

The marathon is the iconic distance shrouded in mystery, and crowned with glamor. Just finishing it is considered an accomplishment.  At one time it was widely believed that just running a marathon would make you immune from a heart attack, and this belief was widely held until running evangelist Jim Fixx, and best selling author of The Complete Book of Running, died of a heart attack – while running:

Fixx often quoted California pathologist Tom Bassler who stated that any nonsmoker who could run a marathon in under four hours would never die from a heart attack.

www.villages-news.com/remembering-running-guru-jim-fixx/

So, can people run marathons without necessarily losing weight?  The study is small, the exact implications are not clear, but fitness researcher Mary Kennedy of the Harvard Medical School was surprised to find  that for whatever reason some people who run marathons will not necessarily loose. weight. There are many breathless iterations of this story on the web, and I have not been able to find the original research, but New York Magazine’s “The Science of Us” web page carried the most reasonable version of the story stripped of the sensationalism. Here is a quote from that story:

She conducted a small, simple pilot study, limited to her group of 64 charity runners, comparing their weight before starting the training program to their weight after completing it. About 11 percent of them did lose weight, but just as many gained weight (and of those who gained, 86 percent were women). But for the remaining 78 percent, their weight stayed almost exactly the same, even after three months of running four days a week.

This summer Runners World ran a remarkable article about Mirna Valerio who is a 250 lb, and they actually use the term, “obese runner.”  She is a distance runner who also runs the occasional marathon.  You can read the story here:  http://www.runnersworld.com/runners-stories/ultra  and I urge you to visit her  interesting blog Fat Girl Running.

So now we know that running marathons does not guarantee that you will not have a heart attack, and there continues to be reports of runners who look fit, but who die while running like my friend and mentor Arne Richards, of whom Joe Henderson has written so movingly.

We need to understand that being thin, my friend Arne was very thin with practically no body fat when he died while running at age 42, does not guarantee being physically fit or healthy. Same thing applied to Jim Fixx.  Conversely, we need to understand that running long distances is no guarantee of shedding pounds.  It is more complicated than that.

A life of holistic moderation lived mindfully is the target that I am aiming for.  That includes a good diet, adequate sleep, reducing stress, and an exercise regime that is backed by empirical evidence rather than wishful, and simplistic, thinking.  All of these things work together.  I will close now by referring you to an article in Women’s Running by Rachel Cosgrove which is simply outstanding.  It is entitled Weight Loss Fact and Fiction.  Please read it.

How to Solve Your Sock Problem for $20 or Less

Well, maybe you don’t have a sock problem but let me describe mine.  Or rather, the one I used to have before I found a solution.  You might find something useful in this post yet.  First  a disclaimer.  I do not have a foot fetish, or at least I do not think I do, but I have written a lot about shoes, and foot related issues. Why?  Runners, and walkers depend on healthy, relatively pain free feet, in order to do what they do.

I had two problems with socks. The first problem I had was five years ago when I started walking and did some modest running to get into shape.  I ended up with blisters so bad I did not think I could keep doing either one.  A little research on the internet was all it took to discover that although my feet still probably needed to get used to the regime, the main culprit was that I was wearing cotton socks. I switched to all synthetic socks that wicked the moisture away and that solved the problem.

My socks - all black all the time.

My socks – all black all the time.

The second problem was spending so much time and energy on trying to sort, and match socks.  As everyone knows eventually you end up with a pile of socks with no matches. Finally, a solution came to me.  I would switch to all black socks made of nylon.  I hardly ever wore any other color, and most definitely knew that I could live, doing everything I needed to do,  with just black socks.

So I went shopping and found And1 brand socks for ten pair per package for ten dollars.  I purchased one bag of regular length, and another ankle length for working out.  I threw out the socks that had no match, and donated  the rest to Goodwill.

The new socks wear like iron, don’t shrink, and there are no problems with blisters.  I am wearing a pair now. Below is what my sock drawer looks like today.  I wish i had a picture of what it used to look like before I wised up.

My sock drawer.  No more sorting - simple.

My sock drawer. No more sorting – simple.

At 58 I want to simplify my life as much as possible.  I want things that work and do not get in the way of living.  And here is a reminder to all of us, runners as well as other fitness enthusiast):  running is a means to an end and not an end to itself.  I have discussed the topic of minimalism in some earlier posts.

Galloway’s 5K and 10K Running – A Review

Jeff Galloway promotes the run-walk-run method of training, and he has written about it extensively in other books. Jeff Galloway competed in the 1972 Olympics in the 10,000 meters, and has been a runner for over fifty years. As an authoritative figure in the running and fitness world he is somebody you want to listen to.*  In this book Jeff Galloway applies the run-walk-run method specifically to training for a 5k and 10k run.  It is an intriguing idea that taking walking breaks systematically throughout your run can decrease recovery time between runs, decrease injuries,  and actually improve average time over a given distance.

5k/10 Running by Jeff Galloway

5k/10 Running by Jeff Galloway

So far I have only experimented with the Galloway method, but it is something I plan on implementing this spring. The one barrier to me has been psychological.  Having been conditioned to see walking as cheating or showing weakness, walking in a race, or a training run, doesn’t feel right.   Back when I was running a 5k at the 12 minute per mile, or slower, pace I would regularly be passed by people who took turns alternating between walking and running. I would pass them while they walked and then they would fly by me when they ran. I hated them.  I was delighted that not all of them beat me. At the time I was vaguely familiar with Galloway’s theory, and wondered if there was something to it. It was that interest that eventually brought me to read this book several years later.  However several years later, this past season, when I was running between 8 and 9 minutes per mile nobody using run-walk-run method finished ahead of me.  I am not sure why. Maybe there is a sweet spot for this method with diminishing returns as your speed improves, or it  could be this method is counterproductive for the competitive runner.  Or, just as  likely, it could be that as runners improve their speed over distance they are more reluctant to slow down. I know I am. I also suppose there is a very slight chance that this method might not have the benefits of sustained running, but I seriously doubt that.

At the start of this review I noted that he has written other books.  Well, he has written a lot of them, and there is a lot of overlap in their content, but also something for just about everyone. This just happened to be the first book of his I have had the pleasure to read.  Before buying this book, or any of his other books, I would recommend looking at his titles and finding those that appeal the most to you.  For example, he has a book for women, for walkers, and even for people who are trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon.  He also has a specific book on the run-walk-run method.

The final word? I think this is an outstanding book for beginning runners who want to compete in a 5k or a 10k for the first time, and helpful to those who want to improve their times at those distances. It provides structure, and a plan, from an experienced coach. Personally, I am interested in the run-walk-run approach that Jeff Galloway advocates, particularly as I get older, if it will make me more durable, and allows me to run longer.  I am more interested in running for my own pleasure,  to keep the weight off, and stay fit.  I compete for fun.  I do recommend this book, but also recommend checking his other titles to see if there is something that might be a better fit for your particular situation. In addition to his books, Jeff Galloway’s  web site, www.jeffgalloway.com, is worth visiting.

I would also like to see research comparing this and other training philosophies. What works, and under what circumstances?  From time to time future posts will be dealing with what I call data driven fitness, powered by best practices.  That is, using data to track fitness, and being guided by empirical evidence as to what works and what doesn’t. There is a lot of good research out there we should all be aware of.

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*I am not alone in that opinion. Joe Henderson, a former columnist and editor for Runners World, and best selling running author himself,  is another person I have the utmost respect for (he also knew my late friend the legendary distance runner Arne Richards), and he thinks very highly of Jeff.  Not only as a coach, and runner, but especially as  a person.  See Going Far:  Reflecting on the years when running grew up, and a writing career took off,  pages 117-120.