Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Wacky Wednesday- WTC Generosity?

The WTC is the World Triathlon Corporation. It is a for-profit company that holds the brand name Ironman to its chest like a treasured childhood toy. In the triathlon world, just the mere mention of the WTC sparks as many emotions as as dudes arguing over the best baseball team of all time. Typically everyone is right, regardless of their opinions.

One specific complaint by many revolves around the 140.6 triathlon. Any 140.6 race that consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and a 26.2 mile run is typically called an Ironman. People that complete the race in the obligatory 17 hour timetable are also called Ironman. But, the title Ironman only applies to blokes that complete a WTC sponsored event. Should another, competing company host a 140.6, you do not have the right to be officially called an Ironman. This doesn't make you any less awesome. A rose by any other name is still an Ironman.

To further enragen the blood, the WTC started calling its half distance events "Ironman." Their website lists the 70.3 Ironman series. Now triathlon purists (I am one, I think) would never call these things Ironman. They are Half-Ironman events.

However, I concede the point. The WTC hosts the events, has paid money for the rights and privileges, and (quite honestly) they put on really good races. Do they hand out lots of swag? Nope. Do they offer benefits to people that race in their events? Not likely. Do they overcharge? Probably. Remember, they are a for-profit company. It's their job to make money. Will I be signing up for more of their events? Most definitely.

This year, I raced in 2 "Ironman" events, Ironman Lake Placid (a true Iron event) and the Ironman Syracuse (a fraudulent Half-Iron event). I thought I had been given everything that was coming to me within 15 minutes of crossing the finish line (a bottle of water, a finisher's medal, and a couple of cookies). I concluded my season and went on with the rest of my life.

Recently, the WTC sent me a package.

Sorry, I don't know how the girls on the internet take self portraits with amazing accuracy. Wrong shot. Let's try again.

I like the shirt. It is a comfy, technical material. It is a neutral gray. I could go without the orange fonts but since Syracuse University is an orange laden campus, it's not that bad. The problem is that I already have an (Half) Ironman t-shirt.

That's the original. The color is white. It is the same comfy, technical material. It has the exact same picture. Same fonts. Same orange. Same date. What gives? They didn't send along any reason for the additional fabric.

My original hypotheses went as follows:
-The WTC had too much profit from the race and decided to share the benefits.
-The WTC had found an extra box of unopened shirts and sent them out.
The WTC really prefers gray to white and, since we are all ambassadors of the sport, wanted us to advertise their preference.

Then, someone told me to look a little closer at the original. For your viewing pleasure, I have zoomed in on the main graphic.
See it yet? Don't worry, it too me a while too. Let me zoom in a little closer.
 In the original event, apparently we swam 1.2 miles, biked 56, and then again swam 13.1 miles. The infamous Swim, Bike, Swim. It all makes sense now... A half-marathon swim would better explain my performance in that race.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Weight Solution- Data

With Xmas officially over, the next annual benchmark in New Year's, or Resolution Season. The most popular New Year's Resolution? Start reading Tri-Banter more often. Lose Weight. If you read my weight loss series, you'd know that there are way too many unknowns for the average person to accurately know anything about their weight. But, you are not the average person. You read Tri-Banter. And with that literacy habit, I will now tell you how to drop the fat. Please note, this will take longer than the average infomercial.

Show Me the Data
One of the ladies that I coach, or used to as she has developed some sort of injury (which was not my fault, I swear), had just successfully finished her season. She was ready to move on to something new. I sat down with her, as I do all of my athletes, and discussed her schedule including what went well and what didn't. Then we talked about her next season and what she wanted to accomplish. She simply said, "I want to lose weight."

"Are you sure you want me involved in this goal?" I asked. She said yes. She and I both know that I would get her to where she wanted to be. "You know that this means that you will weigh your self daily and report to me your numbers. I will want you to..." She stopped me. As I predicted, she was already uncomfortable giving me these numbers. Maybe it was a girl/ guy thing. But, the moment she refused to share with me her data was the moment I told her to pick a new goal.

As in any form of goal setting, data should drive you and help you make decisions. I, as a teacher, know this all too well. Who will I ever know if my students are progressing towards their goals if I never measure, record, and analyze anything? Data helps me make informed, intelligent decisions. The same goes for my athletes. When we set goals, we need to collect progress reports in the form of numbers. And, the data needs to be related to the goals. The cartoon shows what happens when you collect too much data. For example, when I coach the weight loss lady above in her last season, she had a distance goal of finishing a 13.1 mile race. When I wrote her workouts, they were flexible and distance based. She had to report back to me how far she actually ran, when she ran, and how it felt. Speed was not important.

Here's step one in your weight loss venture: You have to collect weight data. Use your bathroom scale. Yes, I understand that this is contradictory to a former post. Your bathroom scale is completely unreliable in telling you how much you weigh. But, it is not unreliable in helping you gauge weight loss when you use it correctly. Most people jump on the scale, look and the number, react to the number, and jump off. This is not a very good way to go about things. Where's the objectivity? (I'm not referring to your waist line.) 

We need to record at the same time on a daily basis and chart it. We also need to refrain from making hasty conclusions on the data. Suppose you went running one day and had a crappy run. In 1 hour you managed only 5 miles even though you felt like you were pushing hard. Your HR was in Z4 the whole time. Last week, you did that same run in under 50 minutes with your HR in Z3. Would you conclude that you have gotten slower because of that one crappy run? Doubtful. You just had a bad run, for whatever reason. Now, if you repeated this over the course of a month, 5 times a week. The conclusion that you were a 5 mph runner would be much more accurate. Same goes for your weight. Don't focus on one individual number. Don't compare yesterday to today. Focus on the trend over the course of a long period of time.

The best time to gather your data is first thing in the morning. Wake up. Pee. Get on the scale. If you were really serious, you'd get on the scale naked. Your clothing is not necessary in this venture and possibly counter productive. You must jump on the scale, look at the number, NOT react to the number, jump off, and write it down. I record mine in Excel, but I am thinking on moving my weight loss numbers over to Garmin. The website were I record my workout numbers also allows my to record my weight. Garmin has even gone so far as to develop a scale that will record your weight and send it to the website wirelessly, for those too lazy to click the buttons yourself (which may also be at the root of weight loss problems). 

Now, and this is the toughest part of all but vital enough to repeat: Once you have recorded it, completely forget about the number. It is not at all important. It is just a number and not your real weight anyway. You need much more data before you can do anything with it. Again, physically write down the number in a place that you remember and leave it there. Do this again and again for a minimum of 2 weeks. In reality, you should keep recording the data until you no longer wish to have a weight loss goal.

How's Your Slope?
Once you have at least 14 data points, make a graph. Garmin will do this for you. So will Excel if you ask it nicely. Here's my graph starting from the day after Thanksgiving Break. I was, most likely, at my fattest.

Please notice how the numbers go up and down. Also notice that there is some missing data. I was not a good student last week. It was a recovery week in my training which almost always means that eating habits are steady with extra sleep thrown in. Extra sleep means extra rushing in the morning and I did not record. Bad Banter.

If you look at the slope, the line is obviously lower on the right than on the left. This is what the math geeks refer to as a negative slope, which is exactly what the line should look like if you want to drop weight. I do not expect your line to look like this. I honestly don't care what your line looks like at this time. It's just data. And, I've already started implementing the next few stages of weight loss. The slope of the line is really the only thing that matters. We need to know if you are gaining weight (positive slope), losing weight (see above), or holding steady (flatline). My guess is that a majority of people are actually flatlining. Careful as flatlining might mean you are dead. If that is true, you can stop reading now. You'll likely be losing weight in the very near future.

You are not done. You need to continue doing this daily. There may become a time in the future, when you no longer have weight loss goals, when you can stop. Until then, you need to weigh and record. It seems like a lot of work because it is. If your are like me (and I think you are), you'll take short cuts. Most of the shortcuts involve eating less and making smarter food decisions/ substitutions. If you start losing weight over the long term, as identified in your charting, there's a good chance that your changes are positive. If you are maintaining or gaining weight, there's a good chance a more invasive approach is needed. I'll tell you more about that in the near future.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wacky Wednesday- Triathlete's Xmas Cards

I am a lazy, lazy man. For one, I refuse to spell out the word Christmas preferring to use the ubiquitous Xmas abbreviation. I'm not even sure why the 24th letter of the alphabet is an acceptable replacement for Christ. It just seems easier to write. Thank X for that.

For 2, I haven't sent out a single Xmas card in years. I did buy an entire box, count 20, a few years back and made a concerted effort to send them out to all of my friends. I still have 17 left in the box. It wasn't my most intelligent purchase.

If I ever did change my humbug ways, or went out and got some friends, I might be inclined to purchase some of these. 

These and many fine other triathlon related paper products can be found here. A very Merry Xmas, or whatever you happen to celebrate, to you.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Weight Problem- Part 5

It's here: the last installment of the "Why am I so Fat? Series. That could only mean one thing, I am eventually going to tell you what it takes to start dropping pounds. But not today. I have to close the door on the problems before I get to the solutions.

Despite the fact that we want to lose weight, we know next to nothing about it. We don't know what our actual weight is, we don't know how many calories we are eating, we don't know how many calories we are burning, and we don't even know how many calories we actually need. When it comes to the Calories In: Calories Out, those problems are academic. The last big problem is the real reason we put on excess pounds more efficiently than take them off.

Your Body Actually Wants You to Put On Weight
The fourth big problem on the list to the BIL, but the 5th and final in the series, is that it is significantly easier to consume an excess number of calories to induce weight gain than it is to shed the equal number of calories for weight loss. One pound is roughly 3500 calories. If your daily calorie intake is 2000 calories (which you can't know anyway), it is much more comfortable to eat 2500 calories a day resulting in dietary satiety. However, put yourself at 1500 calories for an entire week and your body rebels. Your stomach growls. You get headaches. Your energy wanes. If you eat, you feel better. A 500 calorie reduction will inevitably result in binge eating.

Here's the thing: your DNA has evolved safety switches to protect itself against perils. Pain is your body's way of telling you that something on the inside isn't working. Hunger is your body's way of telling you that something on the inside is empty. Life for Homo sapiens hasn't always been kind as it is today. Food was hard to come by. Animals were reluctant to be eaten by weird looking bipeds who were slow runners and smelled funny. As you probably know from experience, most plants out there are not as delicious as the vegetarians would have you believe. Mind you, there are a lot of delicious plants. Its just that they are less plentiful than the non-delicious ones. So when people found themselves in a situation that allowed for gluttony, they took full advantage. Their bodies, just like yours, had a system to storing excess energy as fat because that food wasn't going to stay around forever. 

Then, about 10,000 years ago, people decided to stop chasing animals and developed agriculture. 10K in years isn't that long to a strand of DNA. Some hypothesize that our DNA hasn't changed much since then. The abundance of food has changed dramatically. We are surrounded by ample supplies of high energy morsels of goodness that has made us picky beyond belief. You and I have both done the look-into-a-fridge-full-of-food thing only to announce that we 'have nothing to eat'. The reality is that we are spoiled rotten little brats when it comes to nutrition.

However, the abundance of food hasn't changed how our body responds. You eat. You are sated. You wait for a couple of hours while your innards breakdown, rearrange, distribute and store the excess. Once space opens up in the warehouse, your stomach sends a signal to your brain that says, "Feed me" and it's off to the grazing lot known as your kitchen. Your brain isn't wired to recognize IF the entire system actually needs the calories. It only obeys the chemical messages sent and responds by reverting all attention to finding food. It still believes that there is an inevitable famine heading our way and wants to prepare. Bam, you and I get fat.

Here's where the Calories In: Calories Out formula comes back to haunt you. It is way easier to tip the scale to the left hand side of the formula. You can trump the CO side by thousands of calories on a regular basis without consequence (well, except for the rise in blood pressure, risk of diabetes, risk of pancreatic cancer, and the like, but those don't count right now). You body accepts an excess of additional calories with open, and sometimes pudgy, arms. The exact moment you try and decrease your CI, or even increase your CO, even by just a little bit, your body starts up the Emergency Preparedness Plan. 

Warning alarms sound. This is not a drill. Button down the hatches and damn the torpedoes. And, seriously, somebody get me a sandwich. And a donut. No, I do not want an apple nor a salad. I want pizza. Your body sends out different chemical signals when eating high energy 'comfort foods' than when eating intelligent 'nutritious foods'. High fat and high carb meals send signals of satiety. Mmm, crisis averted. Aside: I have always found it astonishing that our systems have no alerts for vitamin and mineral deficiencies yet the lack of calories sonar comes through loud and clear. End Aside.

The result is that we put on pounds much easier than we take them off. Your body does not have an upper limit as to how much fat it is willing to accept. Plus, the change is normally slow enough that we don't see it on a daily basis. We follow our survival instincts, which means that we eat when food is plentiful. But, when food is always plentiful, there's no off-switch for the hunger. Eating begets more eating. Our stomachs are willing to expand to match our growing waistline and most people don't even know it is happening. 

So there you have it. Taking off weight is seriously hard. The odds are stacked in favor of packing on the jiggle. All hope is not lost. In my next post, I'll start sharing how to bring yourself down (to a better weight, I mean).

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wacky Wednesday- Ode to Recent Movies

As training gets into the full swing of things, I have been spending a lot more time in the basement. As a longtime member of Netflix, I am allowed to stream unlimited numbers of bad movies via my Apple TV. It's a great relationship until, for some reason, the streaming stops working. Not to worry, I have a few DVDs in reserve. And I stress FEW. I have all 6 Star Wars, of which 3 are mostly ignored. I have the Princess Bride. I have the first 6 seasons of the Simpsons (only 14 season to go to make the series complete for any would-be Santa's out there). That's it.

A friend of mine sent me this link: which contains witty satire in the form of science, mathematics, and geeky kind of stuff. Translation, I'm a fan. How's this relate to the sparse DVD collection? Well, the xkcd people have taken it upon themselves to mock my movies. Jerks.

For those of you who haven't seen the Bride, here's a summary:

Here's some mocking of Star Wars:

Here's a take on the relationship between technology and my chosen profession:

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Weight Problem- Part 4

I'm roughly 80% of the way through this series. I firmly understand why fat gain is more the norm than fat loss. There are so many problems on the way down. Whereas most people understand the concept that an excess of calories yields an overall bulge in your midsection, the actual measurement of said calories is seriously complicated. We can't really know how many calories go in nor can we accurately figure out how many calories come out. Now, I'm going to add one more layer of complication to the Calories In: Calories Out Equation.

How Many Calories Do You Need?
The fourth big problem (this was originally 3rd on the list to the BIL) is that few of us know how many calories we need to survive without gaining or losing weight. There is something very real called our "basal metabolism rate". This is basically the number of calories you need to consume for normal, everyday life without wasting away. See, your body has some basic functions which require energy. Maintaining a constant body heat of nearly 100º is one of your biggest calorie burns. Brain activity is another. You want your heart to keep pumping and your lungs to keep breathing, right? These things take energy.

Once you have met your BMR needs, the other stuff that happens in your life, such as exercise, starts to use up your calories. But, do understand, the number of calories you burn during the rest of your life pales in comparison to your BMR calories. For example, if you burned 2000 calories total today (which, of course, you don't know so please ignore that fact for now), about 1500 of that was most likely from your BMR, maybe 300 from your exercise (again, you don't know this either but this is a hypothetical situation so relax, ok), and 200 from the other crap that you do (such as work and reading boring, nonsensical blogs). If you really wanted to lose weight, you would start by satisfying your BMR needs via food, the tack on a few extra calories for the crap, and hold out on the rest. The pounds will just melt away.

But, do you know how many calories your body requires to do these most basic aspects of life? Nope. Me neither. There's a very high probability that less than 1% of the population (and I'm estimating high) has the means and knowledge to calculate their real BMR. This is most unfortunate as your BMR is the single highest user of your calories. The energies that go into maintaining homeostasis are very high, using more than 60% of your daily energy usage. The number may be as high as 75%. However, in terms of the actual number of calories being burned, well that number is as elusive as the Banter putting forth a decent Ironman marathon run.

Further, there is no good way to physically measure your BMR. That sucks. There are a few estimate charts out there but they are as reliable as the 220-(your age) for calculating heart zones- completely unreliable. Just to prove the point, I calculated my BMR using a few of the online calculators. Most of the calculators follow the same principle. They have a formula developed by some scientist that includes a multiple number of variables. Apparently, the most important aspects of BMR are your gender, current weight (which is impossible for you to know anyway), height (a little easier to know), and age (which you should hopefully know). The formulae are complicated. They multiple those numbers by some constants, such as how many hairs you have growing on your left arm, and added them to some other constants, such as how many viable sperm or ova that currently reside in your body (It's amazing what scientists can glean from minuscule bits of info). I plugged in the exact same numbers in each situation. Here are the results:

Bachelorette #1 tells me my BMR is a third of the way through the 1700 calorie arena.  Bachelorette #2 tells me I need to consume 200 calories less than #1. Almost as if she was listening to the whole conversation and really wanted the date, Bachelorette #3 decided to take the middle ground. At least #3 admits that this is only a best guess.

Do you see why this whole weight loss embarkation is so challenging? When it comes to the important information required to intelligently make decisions about how much goes into and out of our bodies, we are completely clueless. Don't worry, I do plan on helping out. If you can make it through the week, I promise we'll start working on a solution for you and get you on the road to meeting your weight loss goals. Hang in there.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Wacky Wednesday- No More Penalty Cards

The sport of triathlon has adopted some annoying rules. Okay, it's not the rules, it's the enforcement. Almost all of the rule violations/ enforcements happen during the bike leg. USAT officials strap themselves to the back of a motorcycle and peruse the bike course. They bike up and down the route with their little clipboards and evil eyes blaring. Should they find a would be perpetrator, they flash out the yellow card, much like a foul in soccer. Break the rules more often, the produce a red card, much like a foul in soccer. Well, it seems like soccer is considering changing the yellow card/ red card system. Will triathlon soon follow suit? See how the soccer players react before you cast your vote.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Weight Problem- Part 3

In my original message to the BIL, this problem was the fifth big problem is calculating exercise calories. However, in the progression of the Weight Loss Series, it made more sense to bump this one up to 3rd place. I've already told you that your bathroom scale is not all that reliable. Whereas I'm pretty sure that the Calories In: Calories Out Theory of Weight Loss is just about perfect, there is no way to accurately figure out how many calories went in. Don't worry, the other half of the equation is just as unhelpful as the former. So much for perfection.

Helmet hair?
Calories Out Sucks Too
Let's forget for a moment that calories are a unit of heat. That's right, heat. Not mass. A semi-famous man named Albert Einstein (whom I'm pretty sure was a triathlete and I'll tell you about his SBR adventures in a future post) postulated that there is a direct relationship between mass and energy in his formula E=mc^2. Whereas his formula only loosely applies here, the concept that energy and mass are linked remains. Your body studied Einstein since long before you can remember and is rather adept at using the heat stored in food, AKA calories, as an energy reserve stored as mass, AKA you.

According to a lot of resources (which I am inclined to believe), one mile on your feet at just about any pace is about 100 calories =/- 25. You burn the same number of calories whether you walk a mile or run a mile. That's at least a 25% margin of error. Are you closer to the 75 mark or the 125 mark? I have no idea and neither do you. 

No pedaling= No calories
Trying to estimate your calorie burn on the bike is even worse. There are so many variables that affect biking to a greater extent than running. The wind and the terrain are at the top of the list. You probably burn the same number of calories at any effort per mile on the bike. The problem arises when you start coasting. How much you did NOT pedal becomes an important aspect in calorie estimation. Bikes are nice in that if you stop pedaling, your forward momentum keeps you moving. Coasting on the bike is equivalent to stopping on the run. You burn no calories but you still are working towards your distance goal. It's win-win, except if you are actually trying to burn those calories. 

Swimming is horrid. Calorie burn is mainly dependent on water temperature and stroke efficiency. The first is relatively easy to measure (if you are not sure how to find water temperature, please stop reading and go back to elementary school science). Cooler temperatures, to a certain degree (pun intended), are inversely proportional to the number of calories you burn. You body burns calories to cool you down via the sweat process. In cooler temperatures, your body doesn't have to expend as much energy on your air conditioning. Still, we don't know how much cooling you need nor how well your body runs the AC. All of this holds true as long as you keep swimming. Stop for a minute and the system shuts down, then reverses to a warming system. Seem complicated? That's because it is. The second variable, efficiency, is harder to define and impossible to measure.

We Can't Really Measure Calories
The biggest issue with measuring your calorie output in terms of weight loss is that we have no real convenient way to measure how many calories we burn during exercise. The most efficient way to measure calories in an object is through calorimetry. During calorimetry, an object is placed in a well insulated, sealed chamber and subsequently incinerated. The amount of heat released during incineration is used to calculate the amount of calories stored in the object because heat is conserved. In practice, scientists have found very few athletes who are willing to discover their calorie information via calorimetry, thus the sample set for this data is quite small. There are other less-efficient ways to measure your calories but these methods are expensive and can require the subject to be placed under excruciating conditions.

Indirect methods are needed and even they aren't that accurate. Many of you have seen the calorie burning charts on the treadmill at gym. You try to hit the cardio zone or the fat burning zone. How in the world does the machine know this? The calorie burning system varies from one individual to the next. Some of you out there may have a device commonly called a heart rate monitor that will give you a calorie estimation. The problem is that the makers of these devices have never met you nor calibrated their system to meet your specific output. These devices use an algorithm based on the preconceived average of the people that they have data on. None of them are you. Look at the chart above, using HR to calculate your calorie burn is at best 20% inaccurate.

So we have this genius of a formula- Calories In: Calories which will accurately predict if you lose weight. Burn more calories than you consume, viola! weight loss. Again, you and I have absolutely no idea how many calories go in to our bodies nor how many go out. Maybe I'll change my opinion on the formula from 'genius' to 'crappy'. How good is a formula that is 100% right but completely inapplicable to everyone in all aspects? How can we be expected to lose weight under these conditions? Why am I so fat?

In the next post, I'll tell you even more reasons why the weight loss gods are out to get you. When I am done with the series, I'll start a new series to show you how to actually lose weight. If you actually listen is up to you. It'll get worse before it gets better. Stick around.