Wednesday, 24 August 2011

#23: All Things Must Pass

So it's been awhile since I wrote anything of importance or interest on my blog and unfortunately that isn't about to change here today. I fully intend to resume my writing on relevant and controversial health and fitness topics shortly, but lately I just haven't had the time or energy to do so. As I mentioned before, I was stuck in a bit of a running rut and was putting a lot of pressure on myself to get out of it. Running was becoming a bit too consuming and obsessive and so I needed to step back and think critically about what it was I was doing and also why?

I mean let's face it... I am not a pro or elite athlete and never will be. I train ridiculously hard and often... for what? A finisher's medal, a top 10, 15, 20 finish (depending on who shows up); perhaps an age group prize and running room gift certificate! It's quite silly when you really think about it. 6, sometimes 7, days a weeks, 10+ hours and 100+km of running, sometimes hard, fast and outright uncomfortable! And all for... not much!

Okay, okay, hold on. There's much more to it than this. If it was such a raw deal, why would I be doing it? Certainly there are reasons. Most importantly, is simply that I love to run! Nothing in life (that I have discovered so far) feels quite as good and satisfying as getting out and running. It adds value and meaning to my life. I am doing something that I truly love and wouldn't give it up for the world. It provides me with a sense of accomplishment, it challenges me to be better than I was the day before, it makes me feel good and alive. It gets me outdoors, it keeps me in great shape (VO2max of 75!), allows me to meet other like-minded people and create friendships and share experiences. It keeps me slim and trim, fit and fast. Running is a part of who I am, who I've become and also who I intend to be. It's my past, present and future. For me, running is a way of life.

That said, I am still in my running funk but feel I am on the way out. I competed in the Simcoe Shores Relay this past weekend and despite not running as fast or as far as I had hoped, I still had an unbelievable experience in which I got to hang out with 7 other exceptionally awesome guys as well as countless others. Our team (Longboat Lightning) ended up coming in second place by only 4 and a half minutes after a grueling 16hr and 24min race over 245km! Despite this fact, the whole team was extremely happy with our effort and weren't bothered in the least my the result. We ran hard and had fun; what could be better?!

The weekend took a lot out of me (and everyone for that matter) and so this week is set to be an easy one with plenty of rest and recovery. I went out on Tuesday feeling good and did an easy 10k (I wore my new Puma Faas 400's and felt great in them) and then managed to survive a V02max test as part of a friend's research study. My result of 75ml/kg/min puts me well above average in the 90th percentile, right up there with some elite athletes and runners. The number came as a bit of a surprise which at first was welcomed, but now I feel that it adds a bit of pressure and expectation to succeed. Perhaps in time, my running will live up to the hype of that number.

For now, it continues to be smart and sensible training for the upcoming marathon. Scotiabank is now less than 8 weeks away and there is still plenty of work to be done. The next weeks will require some final mileage building and perhaps a few 36km+ long runs, plenty of tempo (marathon pace) running and also some fine-tuning to nutrition and fuelling strategies. This will be followed by a 2-3 week taper. This week on the other hand will feature some more easy/recovery runs and moderate mileage and will conclude Sunday with my local hometown 10k race in Ingersoll, ON (the Ingersoll Harvest Run). Rather than go out and race it (and end up being disappointed), I intend to pace the 10k and use this as a good tempo training session that will teach important lessons on sticking to a game-plan, not going out too fast, and pacing myself in a race environment. I also look forward to (finally) beating my younger brothers at a running race, which to this point, has (surprisingly) never occurred.

In other news, my best friend Andrew, has left Toronto for the East coast to pursue his medical degree at Dalhousie (but in New Brunswick) and I wish him nothing but success as he begins his journey to becoming an MD. Watching AD while eating ice cream sandwiches and French Toast will be sorely missed! I'd also like to offer my profound appreciation and condolences for the late Jack Layton: a natural leader, honest politician and overall great personality. Our country has lost so much more than a political leader.

I apologize for the lack of pictures and useful (or at least controversial) information in this posting. I didn't think they were warranted but promise they will return shortly.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

#21: A Hard Day's Night

Running in Circles

After running a sub-standard mile (5:10) last Wednesday at the 'Longboat Mile on the Track' and then coming almost a minute short of my goal of a sub-sixty (minute) 10-miler on Sunday, I feel that I'm firmly stuck in a bit of a running rut. Workouts have been feeling harder, I've been more anxious and fatigued than normal, I am sleeping either too much or too little, and my legs just don't seem to want to move as fast as I know they should. It’s a classic case of burnout or ‘staleness’ caused primarily by a high training load and volume with additional pressure to perform.

I believe that part of this 'problem' is simply that marathon training has beaten up my body and the high mileage (120+kms per week) combined with limited rest and recovery is taking a new toll of which my body has never felt before. Moreover, it is foolish to expect that faster running times should come 'easy' in the midst of ‘base-building’ and marathon training in which speed work and tempo running is generally less intense and frequent. It's frustrating to feel I'm not getting any faster (and thus fitter), but important to remember that running the marathon is not about speed (per se) but about endurance. There are also other factors such as novelty and lack of experience which made way for complacency and a lack of confidence (regarding the mile). The 10-miler should have been better considering I felt really good and have run a number of races where my pace was actually much faster (Mississauga Half in 3:42/k) than my Sunday effort and thus I know I am capable of running the distance in the time I had expected. The day was rather humid and I went out far too fast, but I am still unsure why my legs just wouldn't move any faster and how I felt so bad so early into the race. I guess I faired “better” than both Megan Brown, a favourite among the female contenders who dropped out at about 4k; as well as Rob Watson, a speedriver guy whose blog I find thoroughly enjoyable and would highly recommend (, who also dropped out around 6k. A huge congrats to the top three guys, Reid Coolsaet, Eric Gillis and Matt Loiselle, who all ran under 50min and are looking good heading towards the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon.

I have since taken two full days to recover and it will essentially be 3 days since my last run (Sunday evening) when I lace up to run with the group this evening. During this time I have at times felt a strong compulsive urge to get out there and run, but am also concerned with my absolute acceptance and compliance of not running and lack of desire to hit the pavement. After retiring my Orange Asics on Sunday, I’ll be looking forward to testing out my new Asics (Gel-Blur 33's, which are also partly orange) training shoes and hope to break them. I also purchased a pair of Puma Faas 400's which are a performance shoes (and also orange!) which I intend to use specifically for speed work and racing. While it's mostly me that's broken; new shoes can't hurt. New shoes, new attitude!

The old, the new and the speedy (from top to bottom)!

This weekend will be another opportunity to test my racing legs, when Longboat heads north to compete in the Simcoe Shores Relay, a 245km relay from Barrie to Collingwood. Our strong team of 8 Longboaters (Captain Cambell, Coach Moss, Metz, Gerardo, Tom Hesch, the Belgian, Doyle and myself) will start late Saturday morning and should finish mid Sunday morning. We'll each run 3 legs of the race at approximately 10km per leg. It should prove to be a great deal of fun and will be a unique opportunity to compete and perform in a friendly team environment. Due to the nature of running 3 legs within a short period of time, the strategy used to do each leg will vary but I will certainly hope to hammer each leg in approximately 3:45/k pace. If I don’t manage that, I’ll be officially in panic mode...

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

#20: Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!

A confession.

My true thoughts on exercise and the relentless pursuit of health.

I will begin my saying that what I do as a runner, I do not classify as exercise. I am an athlete who trains and competes. Thus running to me is a sport, a way of life, and something from which I gain considerable rewards both personal (self-actualization, -expression, -gratification, -conception, -enrichment) and social (social attraction and group accomplishment).

Exercise is defined as any planned, purposeful, structured and repetitive engagement of physical activity with the aim of improving or maintaining physical fitness which encompasses a number of components such as body composition, cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength and endurance (Caspersen, Powell & Christenson 1985).

When I think about this definition I see people exercising for the sole purpose of getting in better 'shape' or attaining improved health and fitness. While this purpose is surely important to me and is definitely used to motivate my continued (exercise) behaviours; it is NOT the primary reason that I run. Rather I run for the pure enjoyment of the activity, the pursuit of athletic achievement and success (which is highly personal), the competition, and the continuous goal to always improve myself upon past performance. I would continue to run even if I knew it would decrease my lifespan, even if it meant I would compromise my health, even if it led to financial ruin, perhaps even if it led to personal self-destruction and death!

But I am not like most people. Most people who run, or walk, or work out, or whatever are doing it for a very specific reason (albeit far from the only one). They do it because 'we' (government, media, the industry) tell them it is good for them: that exercise will increase their fitness, decrease their weight and improve their overall well-being. That it will make them live longer and have a better life. We tell them that it will make them happier and 'healthier!' And perhaps it will... in fact, I would argue that it often will!

But why is this so important? That is the fundamental question. Why are we telling people to be healthier. Moreover what does health even mean? Can it be defined? Certainly not in simple terms.

Health is a multidimensional phenomenon. It involves physical, mental and social determinants which all play a unique role in establishing an individual’s well-being (Lox, Martin Ginis & Petruzzello, 2006). Health is "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." (World Health organization, 1946). I have no interest in defining health or arguing over what it means. For me, health is a highly personal concept that above all else means being physically functional and capable, socially fulfilled and emotionally happy and content with the person you are each and every day.

I'm sure that I've shocked many people at this point. I mean, aren't I the guy who goes around pushing physical activity on everyone and shaming and blaming those who are fat and lazy. Well yes, I am.

For me, physical activity, exercise, sport...whatever you want to call it, has brought me a plethora of benefits and rewards and has enhanced my life in numerous ways. Therefore, I personally have nothing but wonderful things to say about it and highly recommend it. But I also know that this isn't likely to be the case for many, perhaps most, others. Exercise is physically exerting, it's time-consuming, and it's even becoming expensive...

So going back to the big question: Why is physical activity, exercise, sport (and ultimately health) so important and why do we feel we need to force it on everyone?

Well here are some possibilities:

1. We have too! As a semi-socialist and democratic country, we have to at least pretend to care about our citizens and thus there is an obligation to take care of our people. Elected officials must appear to look out for the best interests of their voters, and thus make it seem as they are doing good for all people.

2. Our health care system. Isn't it great that we don't have to pay for health care?! Well no actually, because we do pay for it...and we pay a lot, with our taxes. Health care spending is becoming hugely expensive and will continue to do so. The demand for health care is also increasing and this is directly related to the deteriorating 'health' of our population. Heart disease, diabetes and cancer continue to become more prevalent. These conditions also just happen to be closely correlated with obesity...which can be prevented (in part) by physical activity. In theory, getting people more fit and less fat will reduce health care theory.

3. Capitalism. Isn't it funny how almost every problem with current society comes down to this little gem. Not only has the health and fitness industry become hugely commercialized within the past decades (think sports equipment, gyms and fitness centres, do it yourself exercise machinery, fitness apparel, books, videos, websites, personal trainers, coaching, etc. etc.), but the whole concept of being fit and healthy is inherently tied to increased productivity and thus financial gain. Paradoxically, by stressing personal health and fitness within this commercial environment, the industries actually make more profit due to failure than to success. The diet and food industries rack up billions each year and yet we continue to get more fat and less fit.

4. Social norms/ideals. How many people do you know that look like the guys and girls on the covers of Men's and Women's Health (magazine)?! Probably no one! And yet, these images are the ones we continuously consider to be the most ideal and strive toward (thin and slender females, muscular and mesomorphic males). Not only are these images entirely fake and unrealistic, but they also happen to be physically unattainable for the average person consuming them. It is no wonder that we as a society have failed to attain this ideal, and yet we continue to use it as a something to aim towards.

5. Human nature. The human body is a mortal and vulnerable object and everyone has a personal responsibility to themselves to care of it. We are told that exercise is a way in which to do this as evolutionary it has enabled the survival and success of our species. Moreover, it is natural that we want to take care of each other and look out for one another.

6. Elitism. We feel better about ourselves when we are able to do what others can not. Exercise has become an activity of the upper classes who feel a need to educate and improve the less fortunate social groups.

7. The betterment of society?! I often have a hard time believing this one although some people do consider it a realistic goal. Some people believe that an all-round 'healthier' society is also a better one.

To summarize:

Physical activity, exercise and sport can and should be used to enhance and add value to one's life. They have numerous physical, psychological and social benefits that are generally available to those who consume them. These benefits might contribute to overall 'health' which is a term that epitomizes ambiguity. For these and a number of other reasons, exercise and PA are considered valuable and important. But why do we push physical activity and exercise on our entire population? Why is it so important? Is being 'healthy' important? Is living a long time important? Would the world be a better place if everyone was fit and healthy?

If you think 'yes,' then I must ask: "why?"

Thursday, 4 August 2011

#18: In Spite of All the Danger

A number of interesting articles in the Globe and Mail recently that I feel a need to comment on. I sum them up and put in my own two cents.

First up: "Want to live to 100? A healthy lifestyle won't help, study finds"

Summary: Eating poorly, not exercising, being overweight, drinking and smoking may not decrease one's lifespan to the extent that most people believe. Rather, living long may be more about getting a lucky set of genes.

So what: Research and articles like this one are highly problematic in that they provide evidence and excuses for people to ignore good health advice, justify unhealthy lifestyles/behaviour and divert responsibility away from themselves to something obscure and beyond their control (genetics). There is an overwhelming amount of high-quality, thorough scientific evidence that supports the notion that eating healthy, getting regular physical activity/exercise, not smoking, drinking only moderately and maintaining a healthy body weight are associated with improved quality and quantity of life and well-being. Individual studies such as this one, which represent a small but boisterous minority using a very specific population (~500 Ashkenazi Jews), should not be used to divert attention away from that vast majority of research on the importance of a healthy lifestyle. Do genetics play a role in longevity? No doubt about it! But while you can’t change the genes you were given, the environment in which you live (your lifestyle/behaviours) can be an equally, if not more, important player in optimizing longevity (called epigenetics).

Want to live longer? Eat a healthy, balanced diet; don't smoke; exercise/be physically active every day; drink moderately (and socially) and maintain a "healthy" body weight. Moreover, surround yourself with friends, family and loved ones; be thankful, optimistic and open-minded, and finally, remember to look both ways and always wash your hands.

Another interesting article: "The ‘McRunner’ diet: How much does nutrition matter?

The jist: You must have seen this one. Similar to the potato and Twinkie "diets" of 2010, some guy decided to eat only* McDonald's for the month prior to running a marathon and then went out and ran a PB of 2:36 something (ie he did it really well!). The question becomes: how important is diet for physically active individuals?

The simple answer: Diet and nutrition are extremely important for EVERYONE! This article is but another example of poor journalism that propagates confusing messages which confound and mislead the general population. The McRunner ran an average of 160km a week and trained extremely hard for many months prior to eating this “diet”! Very few runners ever train at this intensity and even those who do aren't guaranteed similar results. This guy also obviously has a good genetic endowment that makes him able to train hard and get good results which again is very unique and rare (Playing the genetics card can go both ways). It's also important to note that he kept his energy intake consistent around 3200 calories per day which is actually at the lower end for a 6 foot ~140lb guy like this (I eat about the same amount and run 50km less!). It is also essential to note that his non-McD's foods included water, energy gels and multivitamins. This might be the most important info that is largely ignored in the article. The multivitamins specifically were likely essential to his maintained health and vigour as I doubt that any combination of McDonald’s food can provide all the vitamins and minerals needed or would they provide optimal training fuel. And because the "diet" only lasted 30 days, it is also important to consider how he would have faired if he continued for 2 months, 4, 6, a year?! I would wager that we would be presented with a much different story...perhaps an obituary!

The point here is that individual examples almost always make for very poor generalizations. This is exactly what the McRunner article and the previous longevity study have done: taken highly specific samples and put forth their unique circumstances as general fact. This is also unfortunately among my own personal biases and perhaps may be a fundamental human trait. We see that something works for one person and then assume it should work for all (making the false assumption that the world is somehow fair). This sadly, isn't true and can apply to most situations. In fact a lot of the criticism I receive pertaining to my criticisms of overweight/obese individuals is largely misplaced due to this fact. I am criticised for assuming that by eating less and moving more, weight can be lost and obesity eliminated! Obviously, this isn't the case and I admit will not work for everyone (although it should work for most). There are many good individual examples of overweight people who eat well and exercise regularly and whose weight will not change a bit. It is thus highly unfair to lump them in with the (many?) "others" who we assume eat too much, exercise too little, have no willpower or control, are slovenly, lazy and personally irresponsible (stereotypes are generally true!). So just like the BMI does a poor job of ascribing health in individual persons, it is generally accepted and accurate for determining trends at the level of large populations. Likewise, obesity is largely a social problem (and yes, it is a problem) at the level of large populations (2/3 of Canadians!) that is all too often suggested as an individual personal problem. Its resolution is thus more likely to come by changing the society/environment in which populations live rather than all the individual persons. How we begin to do this is a topic for another day…

Getting back on track: There is no right way to eat or a perfect diet to follow. The McRunner is a good example of someone who can do something that most others could (and should) not attempt. Athletes are a good example of this. We can eat far more food in general and considerably more "junk" or "unhealthy" foods and seemingly get away with it. Others might have a "fast" metabolism and never put on weight. A further problem here is determining one's perceived level of "healthiness" by their appearance or weight. There are plenty of skinny and thin people out there that represent a ticking time-bomb of ill health; while many slightly overweight people are in pristine condition.

Increased physical activity does not provide a free pass to consume as much and more of whatever foods we desire. Rather, it requires more careful and thoughtful consideration to the types and amounts of fuel needed to maintain a healthy and functional body. The long term implications of consuming large quantities of poor quality, highly processed, artificial foods is still largely unknown and so while there may be no apparent acute or short-term negative effects, the lasting and long-term effects may be severe and life-threatening.

Finally, we need to stop thinking about population sized problems (poor nutrition/diet, increased rates of overweight/obesity and decreased physical activity levels) by focusing on individual examples, persons and samples. It just doesn’t work. That said, there is also a time and a place for gross generalizations (especially if they are true) rather than select, context-specific examples that don't really hold true across multiple contexts. The long and the short of it I guess is that putting forth individual examples as fact/truth is highly problematic and should generally be avoided. Oversimplified, sweeping and generalized statements like these are much preferred:

Most people who smoke, drink heavily, eat poorly, are overweight and don't exercise will NOT live longer than those who adopt healthy lifestyles and behaviours.

Genetics DO play a major role in every aspect of our lives and who we are but they are NOT the be all and end all and should not be used as an excuse for helplessness.

Most people (including athletes) should NOT eat McDonald's everyday (or even for 30 days) but some could and would even survive and be in good health.

Most people who are overweight DO eat too much and move too little and for most of these people eating LESS and exercising MORE will lead to decreased weight and overall better health.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

#17: Come and Get It

In the few weeks that I've been blogging which just happen to coincide with the time I've been on Twitter, I've realized a few things...

1) A lot of people like to run
2) Many of these people write blogs or tweet about their own experiences with running
3) Lots of people like to consider themselves experts on giving running-related advice and yet...
4) Most of these people suck at running!

Okay, okay, they don't suck at it; I didn't mean to say that. What I meant was that they are all really proud of their running and training and their results which they write about thoroughly and passionately and yet comparably (to myself, most runners I know, and certainly the elites), they are pretty damn mediocre and unimpressive! Now obviously I'm not the best runner and I'm not saying that other people shouldn't be proud of their running-related accomplishments, but I do find it problematic to glamourize and celebrate mediocrity...not even mediocrity; sub-parity/ below averageness!

Therefore I think it is necessary to have standards by which all runners should compare themselves to see where they stand up to the crowd. And when we talk about standards in the world of running, that means one and only one thing: race times. The only way to see where you stand and to evaluate your training is in a race...and if you don't race, what the fuck are you running for?! Seriously! Every runner must stand on the starting line at some point and step up to the challenge. Whether it's a 5k or the full marathon, we runners are measured by our race results and nothing else matters.

So let's briefly recap my own personal opinions on what "real" runners should be capable of so you know exactly what I'm talking about. These numbers are not average times...because let's face it, the average runner is entirely sub-standard as most runners nowadays represent the new running/fitness boom that has been happening over the past two decades. This running craze has seen the sky rocketing popularity of run/walk programs, 10 and 1's, race walking and other legitimate forms of exercise that are all well and good, but are NOT running. So these values are not average finishing times to determine the above- from the below-average runner. Rather, these values represent my own personal evaluation of what I am certain all runners are capable of with a bit of training, hard work and dedication. So... In order to be considered a true runner you must complete a race in the following times (for males M, and females F, respectively):

5k: M sub 20 (4:00/k); F sub 25 (5:00/k)
10k M sub 42:30 (4:15/k); F sub 55 (5:30/k)
Half: M sub 1:35; F sub 2:00
Marathon: M sub 3:30; F sub 4:00

Most true runners will almost certainly agree with me on this; those who disagree are probably either new to running or those who can't be bothered to put in the necessary training to get good results. If your times are close to these but still above them, consider putting in a bit more time, energy and work and I'm sure you can bring those times down. For those who simply don't come close to these times but have honestly and earnestly trained hard to get there (a small minority I am certain); I'm afraid your genetic blueprint has let you down.

To compare, I am happy to provide my own personal best times which I have honestly had to work very hard for over a 2+ year span. I am not a born runner but adopted the sport as a way to get in better shape and have since taken my training and commitment to running to another level. Most of these times I am rather impressed with, while others are relatively disappointing; you can try to figure out which is which. All of these times are temporary and all will be reduced in the next few years when I can find ideal conditions/timing to make them lower...

Dan Way PB's

5k: 16:50 (3:22/k)
10k: 35:56 (3:35/k)
15k: 55:56 (3:43/k)
Half: 1:18:20 (3:42/k)
30k: 1:54:57 (3:49/k)
Marathon: TBD (on October 16th at STWM)

In sum:

The real deal of running (elites, pros, East Africans!):

Myself (an amateur but committed runner):

And finally, today's average runner: