Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Parasympathetic Life: a combined theory of everything that really matters

There is one particular principle that has helped me understand what's going on with my life and health more than any other, and that's the notion of the sympathetic-parasympathetic spectrum. This one organizing principle can help you understand everything you need to know about how to live a healthy life.

Your body is an amazingly complex system of interconnected processes, chemical, neurological, and mechanical, that can all shift in different directions. Thousands of hormones, nervous systems, and other biological happenings that can be turned up or down in an overwhelming array of combinations.

However, very few of these systems are really independent. You can get a rise in, for example, insulin, by tasting some sugar. But that rise in insulin will never come by itself. That insulin surge will affect many other systems in your body in many complex ways.

You could spend a lifetime trying to unpack all these connections, and that would be interesting, but you might not have time or energy or aptitude for doing so. Luckily, a lot of these systems are organized in some ways that are not terribly difficult to grasp.

Now of course everything in this post is going to be a simplification. But it's a useful simplification, and most of the time most of these systems behave more or less the way I'm going to describe. So while this way of thinking about your body won't capture every possible condition or disease state, it will provide a really great beginning to understanding how your body works.

Instead of trying to figure out the ins and outs of every single hormone and biomarker separately, we're going to put them in two rough categories: sympathetic and parasympathetic.

Put simply, the sympathetic system is the one that gets activated in fight-or-flight situations. When you're anxious, under stress, or under threat, a whole bunch of neurological and hormonal things happen to help you survive the immediate danger. They're all complex and unique flowers, but for the sake of this post we're going to lump them together.

The parasympathetic a system is the other side of the coin. It's the set of hormones and nervous impulses that are firing and elevated when you're relaxed and safe.

It's not a case of all one or all the other. Your adrenaline levels don't drop to zero when you're relaxed, for example. Think of these things as lying on a spectrum. At any given point in time you're either towards the parasympathetic (relaxed and happy) end OR towards the sympathetic (scared and anxious) end or somewhere in the middle. No single hormone or organ is going to give a complete picture of how sympathetic or parasympathetic you are, so we're going to be using some inexact language to describe this spectrum.

It's not a case where you're supposed to be always on one end of that spectrum or the other. It's normal and healthy to get sympathetic sometimes. But, and this is NOT an idea original to me, we evolved to spend most of our time on the parasympathetic end (chillin'), and dip into the sympathetic end only for brief (and probably intense) periods when we were in danger - for example, when being chased by a wild animal. The sympathetic state isn't exactly bad for you, but it's all about sacrificing long term well being for short term survival capacity. In fact, the only way to increase your overall capacity - to get stronger and more fit - is really to push yourself into sympathetic states for controlled periods of time.

The danger comes when we spend too much of our lives in a chronic sympathetic state. When you're stressed all the time there aren't enough chances for your body to recover and rebuild and heal, and that's bad in all sorts of ways.

Here's a second part of this principle that is really, really important: the way your body puts you towards sympathetic or parasympathetic is dumb. REALLY DUMB. As in not sensitive to context AT ALL.

What I mean is, your body tends to lump all the inputs and outputs of these systems together. So, for example, having high blood sugar (sympathetic response) is a GOOD response to suddenly seeing a hungry bear (a sympathetic stimulus), because you want a lot of glucose swarming around for you to use while running from the bear. But it's a TERRIBLE response to seeing your angry boss - there's nothing useful about that glucose in that situation unless you're inclined to get into a fistfight with your boss. And that extra sugar could be doing all kinds of damage, especially if your boss is always angry with you and your blood sugar is regularly elevated.

So if we want to maximize health and well being we have to manipulate our body's response. Simply put: your body, left on its own, is remarkable, but in many ways does not handle modern life very well.

In order to do that, we have to be aware of what makes us more sympathetic, what makes us more parasympathetic, and when we want them.

What pushes us towards the sympathetic state?

This is an incomplete list, but a lot of things can push us towards either end of the spectrum. I don't think any of these will be surprising, but there's something I find very interesting about putting the list together and looking at the whole thing.
  • Stress - anxiety about life, jobs, relationships, hardship, and also any kind of life change (good or bad), worrying about one's responsibilities.
  • Intense exercise (The more intense, and longer the duration, the deeper into sympathetic state it drives you).
  • Sleep deprivation (and possibly getting too much sleep).
  • Sleeping at the wrong time (sleep/wake cycles out of sync with the sun, like night shift workers).
  • Caloric deprivation (not eating enough) or nutritional deficiencies (not eating enough of something in particular).
  • Pain (for example, from some chronic injury, like a bad back).
  • Social isolation (no friends).
  • Infection/illness.
  • Excessive stimulant consumption (caffeine, crystal meth, etc.)
  • Certain kinds of music (think speed metal).

What pushes us towards the parasympathetic state?

  • Socializing.
  • Meditation.
  • Sufficient food/nutrient intake.
  • Low level physical activity - stretching, long slow walks, especially in nature.
  • Laughter.
  • Moderate intellectual stimulation.
  • Low to moderate alcohol consumption.
  • Sufficient rest.
  • Other kinds of music (whatever they play in elevators).
These are not complete lists, obviously, and the impact of each of these is probably going to vary from person to person. Some people turn into happy noodles after an hour of yoga, others just feel uncomfortable. You have to figure out for yourself which activities work best for pushing you in one direction or the other if you want to control your own parasympathetic state.

Why is it important to be more or less parasympathetic? Well....

What are the effects of being more sympathetic?

  • Higher heart rate.
  • Higher performance (run faster, jump higher).
  • Higher blood sugar; poor blood sugar regulation.
  • Compromised immunity (don't fight infections well).
  • Poor recovery from workouts.
  • Fat accumulation and systemic inflammation.
  • Better concentration.
  • Less creativity/ poor higher level thinking.
  • Poor digestion.
  • Stimulate adaptions (muscle growth, increases in endurance, etc.).
  • More regular heart beat (more like a metronome).

What are the effects of being more parasympathetic?

  • Lower heart rate.
  • Better recovery from workouts.
  • Improved blood sugar control and resistance to fat accumulation/ease of losing fat.
  • Improved digestion.
  • Reduced physical performance (not as strong, fast, explosive).
  • More creativity.
  • Better healing.
  • Adapt, assuming there has been a stimulus (see the section above).
  • Less regular heartbeat (less like a metronome).

Let me sum up:

It's good to be deeply parasympathetic, most of the time. It's good to be deeply sympathetic ONLY for brief periods of time - long enough to stimulate the adaptions that make you more fit. It's bad to be sympathetic all the time.

What does this have to do with fat loss?

Fat loss is one (not the only) example of an arena where the importance of understanding the sympathetic-parasympathetic axis is important.

First, think about the things that we 'know' contribute to fat loss. Lots of exercise, stimulant consumption, caloric deprivation, fasting. These things are not really controversial on their own.
Now look at which 'way' along the sympathetic spectrum those things push us. All towards the sympathetic side of the spectrum. Now look at the effects of being chronically sympathetic.

Funny, huh?

Most of the things that contribute to fat loss also tend to push us into a sympathetic state, which itself has many effects which prevent fat loss.

Read that again. Caloric deprivation and high intensity exercise will help you create a caloric deficit and burn fat, but also contribute to pushing you into a sympathetic state where inflammation goes up, insulin regulation gets worse, and fat loss is slowed.

Is the point that fat loss is impossible? Of course not. But if you're already on the sympathetic side of the spectrum, if you're already stressed, tired, drinking too much, socializing too little, and not managing personal stress, and you ADD fasting and high intensity interval training to the mix, you MIGHT not get the fat loss results you think you will. 

On the other hand, if you're young (relatively few responsibilities/stresses), healthy, with a rich social life, you're probably deep into the parasympathetic end of things. Then, if you want to get in shape, and you add Crossfit and intermittent fasting and low carb, you might end up getting great results. You might become a personal trainer, showing off your six pack abs, and whipping your forty year old clients to feel crappy about themselves for not being as successful as you are. The fact is, though, that they're probably not lazy or cheating on their diets - they might be stricter than you are. But their lives leave them less capacity to absorb stressors without tumbling into the sympathetic end of the physiological spectrum and destroying any chance they have of making progress.

Bottom line here: Sometimes more is less. If you're already stressed, you might have more success on your 'diet' by making sure you start getting more sleep and having a good laugh every day and meditating, instead of just doing more exercise and cutting out more calories.

Can we measure, with an actual number, how sympathetic we are?

Yes, we can.

You probably already have a pretty good idea where you are on the spectrum. If you want something to quantify it, use your heart rate variability (HRV). This isn't the same as saying your heart rate is high or low - HRV is a measure of how much the beats of your heart vary. The more sympathetic you are, the more regular (less variation) there will be in the time between your heart beats.

You can measure HRV in a number of ways. including BioForce and the S Health app on a Samsung phone.

What's important isn't so much having a good score as learning what makes your score get better (less stressed) or worse (more stressed) and learning how to change your lifestyle accordingly. Some people get driven way sympathetic by a little alcohol consumption; others don't.

Get a BioForce and start tracking your HRV. See what kinds of things make it go up and down. If you can, make adjustments so your score gets higher. You'll be healthier and fitter for it!

What's the real take home here?

There's a couple of key points lurking in this.

First, understanding where you stand on the sympathetic -parasympathetic spectrum might really help you understand why you're not recovering from workouts, getting sick, or losing weight the way you think you should be.

Second, understanding this spectrum might help you pick lifestyle changes that will help you achieve your goals but might not have seemed intuitive. When people aren't recovering from workouts, they might think to try to eat more protein or stretch more. They might not realize that going out with friends or meditating might do just as much to improve their ability to recover (by pushing them towards the parasympathetic).

Meditation just might do just as much for your physical abilities as another workout.

Aim for a parasympathetic life (punctuated by short, intense, sympathetic bursts). You'll be healthier, happier, and a better karateka.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

SVT FAQ: common questions about aerobic base buildling

The title of this post is a lie; I haven't gotten any questions about SVT, but these are questions I think people might have after reading that post.

Is SVT enough to meet all my endurance training needs?

No! Sadly, low intensity work like SVT by itself won't make you fighting fit. It will contribute to a small degree to your fighting fitness (your ability to do higher intensity work) without wrecking you, and it will make you more fit for everyday life (push you into a more parasympathetic state). By itself it won't be enough to get you through a vigorous sparring session. For that you need to add in some high intensity work of some sort (like, for example, sparring session!).

How do I know if I need more SVT (if I need to build my 'aerobic base')?

Joel Jameson recommends tracking your resting heart rate (RHR) to see how much SVT type training you need and can benefit from. Roughly speaking, take your heart rate while relaxed, preferably lying down, and totally calm. If you hit a number below 60 you're probably good. If you can get it lower, that's great (there's probably a minimum value that provides benefits - I don't know what that number is; I'd guess that if you get below 50 there's no value in trying to get it lower). 

If your RHR is over 70 you can definitely benefit from more SVT. More importantly, do whatever you can fit in, and once your RHR stops dropping, see how much you can back off while maintaining that lower number. 

How much SVT can I do per week?

Unlike higher intensity training you should be able to do SVT pretty often. When I do the interval style training (squat kicks and so forth) I get some delayed onset muscle soreness, enough that I can't do those sessions more than every other day, but I'll fit in sessions on the treadmill in between them. I've done 2 sessions per day (50+ minutes each) and not wrecked myself. I'd say that available time is a bigger obstacle than neurological limitations - much different than high intensity work, where (especially if you're older) you probably can't do Tabata style HIIT every day even if you have the time to do so without wrecking your nervous system and making yourself useless.

Can I fit SVT into a martial arts class?

I think you could. I imagine a scenario where everybody straps on a heart rate monitor for class just as casually as they would their gi or obi, then follows a customized program depending on their intensity goals for the session.

It would be relatively easy to structure a skills based class (where you're focusing on learning new patterns, sharpening techniques, maybe doing some low impact self defense work) to keep people's heart rates in the target zone. Maybe give each student the freedom to drop down and knock out a set of pushups or squats whenever their heart rate dips too low.

Having said that, I have never heard of a traditional martial arts class working like that. Maybe one day!

Will SVT get me shredded?


Look, you'll burn calories doing SVT. I suspect (not sure) that a lot of SVT will actually help certain people lose some bodyfat - specifically people who are overly stressed, inflamed from elevated systemic cortisol levels, and in need of something to relax them. It's the same principle as people losing bodyfat while on vacation or on a cruise despite eating more calories - the shift towards a parasympathetic state reduces inflammation and can help drop some pounds. 

But over the long term working at a heart rate of 120-140 is simply not going to burn as many calories as higher intensity workouts.

SVT does have the advantage of being easy to do for longer periods of time. I can't do high intensity work for an hour a day, but I can do SVT for that long. So you can get some extra fat burning in with SVT above your higher intensity work.

Who would benefit most from SVT?

I suspect I'm in the target group of people who get the most out of this type of training - I tend to be very sedentary, but when I work out at all, I work pretty hard (high intensity). As a result, I've always had a relatively high resting heart rate, even though I can push my max heart rate really high. I've always been the kind of person who is regularly tired and lower in energy but fairly capable of handling a hard martial arts class or a lot of high intensity sparring.

If you tend to do a lot of lower intensity sports type stuff - if you're the type who spends significant time each week casually riding a bike, playing some recreational sport, or taking the occasional easier martial arts class - you might already have a sufficiently developed stroke volume to the point where SVT just won't help you (it still probably won't hurt!)

Looking over my own life I almost never get my heart rate elevated but not too elevated. SVT seems to have really helped me. 

What are the disadvantages of doing SVT?

Well, that's the great part - there aren't many. Work in this intensity range just won't cut into your reserves all that much.

Now, if you only have a few hours a week for exercise, SVT might not give you the most bang for your buck. If your RHR is around 60 you'll probably get more out of working harder than out of doing SVT. But if your RHR is above 70 and you're tired all the time, try SVT and see if it helps.

I suspect it will.

Do you have any more fun acronyms to share?

I do! I have a weakness for acronyms. They're coming.

Haven't you said before that lower intensity training was useless?

Yes, I have! I was wrong.

This is a journey. I'm trying to figure out the smartest way to train for a traditional amateur martial artist . I don't know everything. I've made tons of mistakes. I might come back 6 months or a year from now and say that SVT is a bad (or just less than optimal) because I will have learned something new about some aspect of adaptions to training. But then I'll write another blog post and explain the process that got me there.

In conclusion...

If you have any questions, please ask. If you have any experiences to share, please do! But remember, the best workout is the one you'll do. If you try some style of training and hate it, try something different. Your best chance for long term progress is doing something you enjoy.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

SVT: Stroke Volume Training (endurance training basics)

I am not one to talk about training and diet plans as if they're going to revolutionize your life. A lot of adherents of various plans (paleo, HIIT, whatever) will claim that if you stick to their scheme, you'll feel better, have tons of energy, etc. If you look through my posts you're not going to see many of those claims, because, frankly, I've never really felt that any workout plans made my everyday energy levels increase or improved my at-rest well being.

Until now.

A short history of endurance training (please skip if you don't care about fitness history)

Not too long ago it was conventional wisdom that if one wanted to have great endurance (or 'cardio' in the bronacular) in most sports the thing to do was a lot of long, steady, low intensity exercise. Think of boxers going out for long steady jogs (aka road work) or field sport athletes taking endless laps around the field.

Then came poor Professor Tabata, author of some widely misunderstood and misinterpreted papers on high intensity interval training and the man who unwittingly lent his name to a workout protocol that has often been hailed as the be-all and end-all of endurance training.

Basically, Tabata showed that by working very, very hard (much harder than they could keep up for even a minute), cyclists could make the same improvements to VO2 Max by working 4 minutes a day (8 sets of 20 seconds of work, with 10 second breaks in between) as cyclists doing much more traditional training (30+ minutes at a time of lower intensity but constant work).

The fitness community jumped all over this notion. The idea that you could work harder, but shorter, seemed both like cheating and was hugely attractive to our "suffering brings results" gym culture. 'Tabata' intervals are hard. And they really do work, especially over a short period of time. The fact that the first burst of improvement tapered off after a couple of months, and that high intensity training was hugely stressful to the body, was largely ignored. In fact, in some ways the entire Crossfit industry became a system of increasing intensity at the cost of all else.

For a long while a lot of fitness enthusiasts and strength coaches thought that anybody other than an endurance athlete doing slow, steady cardio was hindering their athletic performance.

Then came the great Joel Jamieson (whose work I highly recommend). Joel, basing his training philosophy on studies imported from former Eastern Block countries, pointed out that many athletes do, in fact, need some steady state, low intensity training to maximize their cardiovascular endurance. Road work was back!

Theory (of an Aerobic Base)

I intend to, at some point, write at greater length about energy systems. I won't do that here.

Put simply, you have 3 energy systems, and of those, the aerobic system provides energy at the slowest rate but for the longest time. That is, you can get a lot more energy much more quickly out of the anaerobic alactic system, but it runs out in 10 seconds. You can get less, but still a ton of energy in a hurry out of your lactic system, but it runs out in a minute or so. Your aerobic system is slow (low power) but lasts much, much longer.

Which means that if your sport lasts only 10 seconds or less, you can work on just your anaerobic alactic energy system. But very few sports last only 10 seconds - even those that seem to often call for repeated bursts of 10 second outputs. American football is a great example - plays usually last 10 seconds or less, but over a game many players have to repeat that performance dozens or scores of times.

And how does the anaerobic alactic (or lactic) systems get recharged after a bout of exertion? That's right, aerobic energy!

Now a lot of different things go into developing your aerobic system fully, but one of them that is pretty important is cardiac output.

Cadiac output is simply how much blood your heart can pump through your body in any unit of time. Oxygen is carried through the blood; the more blood your heart can move, the more fit you'll be.

What determines your cardiac output? Well, without getting too math-ey you can think of it as two things: 1) how much blood your heart pumps with each beat, or stroke volume, times; 2) how fast your heart can beat. Get a heart that moves move blood with each beat, get greater output. Get a heart that beats faster, get greater output. So there are 2 limiting factors: Stroke Volume and Maximum Heart Rate.

So far that's fairly uncontroversial. The next part is a little more... theoretical, or at least less well documented in the literature. To increase your aerobic fitness you'd like to be able to, among some other things, increase both Stroke Volume and Maximum Heart Rate. That would maximize the ability of your body to deliver blood (and oxygen) to working tissues.

Maximum Heart Rate seems to be helped along by working at higher intensities. You're not gong to get a heart that can pump at 190 bpm for long periods of time by taking leisurely strolls on the beach.

What Jamieson and Soviet researchers assert (but which isn't treated as common knowledge in the Western medical community as far as I can find) is that Stroke Volume can be increased with training, but only when the training is done in a very narrow and specific range of heart rates.

Basically, the heart has to be stressed (forced to beat faster than it would while you, say, sit on the couch, or go for a leisurely walk), but if it beats too fast (like it does in high intensity training), then it doesn't fill fully and have a chance to stretch and increase its volume.

Put simply: to increase Stroke Volume, you have to work for a substantial period of time (more than 45 minutes) while keep your heart rate between 120 and 140 beats per minute. This is NOT what you get from High Intensity Interval Training - that protocol either keeps your heart rate above the top of that range for most of the time or brings it above, then drops it below, and so forth and so on.

We're not looking for an average between 120 and 140, we're looking to stay within 120 and 140 for extended periods of time.

Practice (of building your Stroke Volume)

What You'll Need

1. A Heart Rate Monitor. There is simply no way to do this right without constant monitoring. Ball parking your heart rate is simply not going to keep it in the range you need (which is really pretty narrow).

I highly, highly recommend something that gives you a continual readout of your heart rate, not the kind of setup where you can hold your finger(s) over a sensor or button for several seconds and get a reading. That's simply not efficient. I like this one very much, it's what I use and it certainly does the job without being too pricey, but there may be better ones available.

Total cost: $75.

2. A Timer of some sort. This is sort of optional - you could estimate the time, but I find this much easier to do if I have something that counts down intervals and either flashes or dings or something when it hits a predetermined time. I generally do this in front of a computer and use this free webpage as my timer.

Total cost: $0

3. [OPTIONAL} Resistance: some bands or very light dumbells. I like using 1 lb. dumbells for this workout (yes, I'm serious). As long as you can work hard enough to get your heart rate into the target zone you don't necessarily need equipment. You can get these at a store like Five Below, Amazon, or really any Target or sporting good store.

Total cost: $5.

What are the Options

The typical way to get your Stroke Volume work in (or, as it is typically called, building your aerobic base), is to do something of fairly constant intensity for a long time. Jogging is the classic example (though jogging only 'works' if you're reasonably fit - if you're out of shape, even an easy jog will jump your heart rate well over 140 and prevent it from being effective as Stroke Volume Training).

I will sometimes hop on a treadmill and walk at an incline for my SVT. You would have to wear a heart rate monitor and find the right speed/ incline combination to get the heart rate you want. DO NOT aim for 140; aim for 130, and try to keep it around the middle of the range. More is not better. Staying in the higher range will not make this more effective.

What I like to do instead, in my ever present desire to kill as many birds with one stone as possible, is to do a kind of interval training that keeps my heart rate in the target range. And since I'm working at a fairly low intensity, the work doesn't get too fatiguing (no burning in the muscles) and I can stay reasonably fresh throughout. That means I can practice actual kicks and punches instead of, say, burpees. The work just isn't hard enough to bring me to the point where the techniques start getting slow or sloppy. There's no 'burn' to ruin performance.

How To Do Interval SVT

1. Set your timer to count down 15 seconds and repeat.
2. Do a brief stretching/warmup routine.
3. Strap on your heart rate monitor.
4. Do your 'work set'. Once you've been working for at least 2 minutes (8 sets total) check your heart rate. If it's below 120, plan do a more intense work set next time. If it's above 140, plan do an easier work set next time.
5. Repeat for at least 50 minutes (for some reason 50 minutes 'works' for me - I get to shower after and still total under an hour of time, and 50 minutes works out to 200 reps, which resonates with me because I'm a very digital person. By all means do more if you want). Make small adjustments to your work set every 15 to 30 seconds to keep your heart rate between 120 and 140.

What's the Work Set?

Here's the tricky part: you need a few options to layer so you can get your heart rate up and down as needed. Do some sort of movement and some sort of technique or techniques. The work SHOULD NOT take up all 15 seconds of your interval. Your aim is to do some hard, snappy work, maybe 3-5 seconds worth, then have time to stand still, catch your breath, check your heart rate, and wait for the timer to go off again. Then repeat. 200 times. I watch Netflix while doing this.

I like to layer things like this:

1. Every rep I do some sort of squat kick. I usually do these very wide - I step out to the side in a very wide horse stance, then pop back up as explosively as I can and throw a kick (usually mae geri or mawashi geri) with the trailing leg. So I might step to the right, pop up and throw a left kick, then a single punch with the left hand. Next rep I step the other way and kick and punch with the other hand. If I'm feeling stiff I'll start with 4-12 'sets' of knee kicks, building up range as I go, instead of trying a max height roundhouse kick right away.

2. I find mawashi geri brings my heart rate up, mae geri brings it slightly down, so I'll mix in sets of one or the other if my heart rate is creeping up on 140 or down below 125.

3. I often need a little extra to get my heart rate up, so I'll add in a jab - cross punch combination after each kick. If my heart rate creeps up towards 140 I'll stop these, then add them back in as it drops.

4. I do all my punches with a 1 lb dumbbells in each hand. The use of weighted implements is controversial, and worth discussing in another post, but I believe it's good for my technique. Feel free to skip them. I DO NOT recommend going very heavy with the dumbbells for reasons I'll discuss another time.

5. I'll switch out hooks and uppercuts for the jab-cross as I feel like it, for added variety.

If a squat/front kick/punch gets your heart rate too high, skip the punch. If the squat/kick gets your heart rate too high, just step to the side and kick, or just squat, or alternate those two. If the squat/kick/punch/extra punches repeated every 15 seconds isn't enough to get your heart rate above 120, make sure you're really putting power and speed into every technique. If your'e really working as intensely as you can with each rep, you can try bringing the rest down (so repeat your work set every 10 or 12 seconds).

If you'd rather focus on forwards movement instead of lateral, do a forward/backward lunge instead of a sidestep as your movement base.

The important part is to learn, via constant feedback from your heart rate monitor, which combinations push your heart rate higher and which get them lower, and have a few options in mind with each round.

My Hypothesis

I have never had a workout seem to improve my overall well being as much as this one. I mean, I've been in decent shape, where I was able to spar without getting slow or tired, do lots of kata, etc., but this workout has me needing less sleep and feeling fresher when I'm NOT working out, and that's unusual for me.

My hypothesis is this: the SVT is actually improving the stroke volume of my heart, or at least improving the efficiency of my cardiovascular system in some way. That means that when I'm at rest, and my oxygen demands are fairly stable, my heart doesn't have to work as hard (beat as fast) to supply the blood I need.

Where before SVT every time my oxygen demands rose my heart rate had to go up quite a bit to fulfill them, now my heart rate doesn't have to rise as high. That means that all the hormonal and nervous systems that raise heart rate when its needed don't have to work as hard or excite my system as much. My sympathetic nervous system isn't firing as intensely to keep me alive. And that is effectively reducing my physiological stress.

My hypothesis might be wrong, of course. Regardless, I'm getting in some quality reps of my techniques, and I feel good during and after the workout. Unlike Tabata style HIIT this won't leave you feeling wrecked and shattered afterwards.

Please give this a try and let me know what you think in comments!


Sunday, May 1, 2016

Goin' to Go En

My style (Seido Karate) turns 40 this year(!), and they're throwing a huge event to celebrate. Huge as in 7 days of tournaments, workshops, demonstrations, and more than a little socializing as people from all over the world gather. [Quick reminder: I do not speak for the style; anything expressed in this blog is my opinion and not necessarily representative of the style in any way]

As is the pattern in my life I haven't been training much - I've been splitting my time between two states, and between the travel and the irregular schedule it's very hard to commit to taking any classes (let alone teaching!) If I know I can only make 2 classes in a two month session, plunking down $100 to register is a bitter pill to swallow. Also, I'm probably a little lazy.

Anyway, I was very reluctant to go to the celebration. There are expenses involved, both financial and temporal. Also, frankly, I'm somewhat embarrassed by my level of skill and knowledge at this point (after not practicing kata for almost a year I can barely remember the patterns - they'll come back more quickly than learning them the first time, but if you ran me through my nidan syllabus right now you'd think I had barely ever trained).

So I was at an impromptu meeting with local black belts and much of the talk was about Go En (the official name of the anniversary event). Ironically, the deadline for registering was the next day. And I realized that I was actually going to be in the right state to go, and that I have enough vacation time to take a couple of days off for the event and not jeopardize my ability to see my kids this summer.

I was still reluctant, then my good friend Sensei Scott said something very wise, something I've said myself (in different words) but that I apparently need to be reminded of periodically. I'm paraphrasing, but he basically said that events like these (also promotions, tournaments, demos) are how we stay enthusiastic for karate.

I'm sure it will be a blast, and I'm sure that any embarrassment I feel over forgetting something basic is going to be vastly overshadowed by the joy at seeing old (sometimes very old, I've been involved in Seido off and on since 1988) friends. And much like the last event I went to, a summer camp, I have a feeling I'll remember it more than fondly for years to come.

I could look at this event as a chance to take some classes, do some training, attend some workshops, and improve my karate. And I'm sure some of that will happen. But seeing people, and seeing historic events unfold, are far more valuable than any sparring tip I'm going to pick up in a workshop.

Two bottom lines here:

First, try to remember that karate is in large part a social endeavor. Those after-training bar crawls your dojo mates go through are part of karate, not extras. Those things will enhance your life (and health) just as much as getting fit or mastering a complex sequence of movements or learning to defend yourself. You can progress in skill by training in isolation, but you'll be missing out on a vital component of your training.

Second, if you're at Go En, look me up, say hi and pick an argument about something (or agree with me about something, surprise me!) I'll be the guy who looks like the photos I post occasionally in this blog.


Sunday, December 27, 2015

Karatekas: What is your 'event'?

I have to admit that I have some envy toward people who train athletes for competitive sports. In most cases, sports entail some kind of event, with fairly specific and easily measurable physical demands. In light of those demands it's relatively easy to develop a training program to prepare an athlete.

Take a sprinter - say, someone who runs the 100m sprint. What kind of training do they need? It's fairly simple - they need to train to be faster at running 100m. And, to be honest, they have a pretty good idea of how many times in a day or weekend they'd have to run it. Nobody is asking these guys to run 100m fast every 5 minutes for a few hours. If you're a sprint coach, you have a very good idea how many races would be asked for, with how much rest, and how many repetitions per day.

Some sports are more complicated. I know that the energy demands of, say, high level soccer are at least slightly controversial, but modern coaches have strapped gps devices to their athletes and have a really good idea of how much running their athletes have to do, at what intensities, with how much rest, and over what period of time.

American football is another interesting example. The demands vary by position. Offensive lineman don't do the same things as wide receivers. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what players at each position have to be able to do, and it's not terribly hard to design a training program to enhance those qualities.

[Quick note; there will always be controversy and change in the details of these programs, I'm not pretending that every strength and conditioning coach does exactly the same things. I'm merely pointing out that the training for offensive lineman will be roughly similar to the way any other offensive lineman changes, and drastically different from the way the team's wide receiver trains, and even more different, in predictable ways, from the way someone preparing to run a marathon would train.]

When training a soccer player, you have to prepare them for the demands of a soccer game (or match or whatever they call it). Training a UFC fighter, you'd have to prepare them for some combination of striking and grappling spread out over a series of five minute rounds. Training a kickboxer requires preparing an athlete to spar for three minute rounds, with no grappling at all. Figuring out the specifics for each training scenario isn't always easy, but the goal is fairly clear.

What, then, is the equivalent training goal for the karateka? What's our event?

There is no obvious single answer. There is no single physical event that is to the karateka what a football game is to a football player.

For sport karate, where you train primarily to compete in organized events, be it kumite, kata, or tameshiwari, I imagine things are simpler. In those cases you can pick your event(s) and figure out what your body needs to be able to do.

But what about those of us who aren't particularly interested in competition? How should we train?

My early inclination was to say that a karateka should train for a streetfight, or for a self defense scenario. From my understanding, most 'real' (not sport) fights are fairly quick and fairly intense. Proper training for a situation like that would be primarily anaerobic, probably anaerobic alactic (i.e. very short bursts of energy), a lot more like an Olympic weightlifter or a powerlifter or a 100 m sprinter than like an mma fighter.

After all, if you're in a real, honest to goodness fight, would you rather be the guy who is faster, stronger, more explosive, yet out of breath after a few minutes, or the guy who is weaker and slower but can continue for hours? Endurance doesn't do you much good when you're knocked unconscious in the first 10 seconds of a fight, and all the evidence says that 'real' fights almost never last much longer than that. Five minute long knock down, drag out fights happen in movies or in rings, not in the street.

The problem with this way of thinking (and, I have to admit, this was MY way of thinking for a long time), is that it overlooks the central component of karate training: skill acquisition.

The entire point of karate is not to simply become stronger and more explosive as a way to handle self defense situations. The point of karate, in fact the very essence of karate, is to develop a set of skills to handle a self defense or combat situation as effectively as possible.

Nobody who just lifts weights and does pushups and pistols (one legged squats) without ever practicing punches, kicks, blocks, and movement would call themselves a karateka. The 'karate' part isn't the pushups, its the skills you learn - the technique, the timing, and the applications of those techniques. I mean, you might disagree with another karate style about which techniques are best, or the proper way to execute them, but I have never heard of a karate dojo that skipped all technique practice completely.

How does one develop that set of advanced skills that make up karate? There we get to the core problem with training for a fight: learning the skills that it takes to fight requires many hours of practice.  From a motor learning perspective we know that this practice must happen when the nervous system and muscular system is relatively free of fatigue (you can't get better at skills when you're quivering and drained). So if you're tired after five minutes of skills practice, the rest of your practice time is largely wasted.

So how do we get the hundreds or thousands of hours of practice needed to master the skillset that makes up karate? In an ideal world perhaps we could train in short bursts, many times a day, to match the demands of an actual fight. But that's wildly impractical for pretty much everybody.

In reality, we all have to train in longer stretches. Depending on your school your classes might be one or two hours long, and while some of that is lower intensity work, some substantial portion of it is going to be pretty intense.

If we train just to withstand the metabolic demands of a streetfight, and no more than that, we won't be adequately prepared to withstand the demands of the training that we need to do to learn the skills we need to survive a streetfight.

I can be slightly more specific: Train to meet the metabolic and physical demands of your class or your training session.

If your instructor makes you do 200 pushups and 200 squat kicks at the start of every class, you'd better be able to knock those out without being so exhausted and winded that you're not fresh for the skills practice that comes afterwards (which, by the way, is why starting class with 200 pushups and 200 squat kicks is probably a bad move, but that's a different blog post).

If you're an anaerobic alactic powerhouse, capable of enormous force output and amazingly explosive for about 12 seconds before gassing out, you might be physically prepared for a fight but you'll never be able to survive learning the skills it takes to be a karateka.

So when you do your strength and conditioning program design, your first goal should be to build the general physical preparedness it takes to survive your karate training sessions with enough in the tank to get good motor learning of the techniques. Only once you're fit enough to handle the training sessions should you progress to increasing your ability to function in actual combat situations.

But above all else, the best program is the one you'll actually do, so make sure to pick exercises that you enjoy and that motivate you. If you like being jacked, build some muscle. If you like going all day without being tired, add endurance work.


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Thoughts on Ronda Rousey

So Ronda Rousey just lost her UFC championship belt to Holly Holm. I have thoughts.

1. I think Holly Holms just cost Cyborg Santos (with whom she is reportedly friends) a fortune. A Cyborg - Rousey fight, as long as Rousey stayed undefeated, would have made a ton of money. Cyborg in the UFC against anybody else will never be as compelling.

2. Holms was an awful style matchup for Rousey. The surprise was how well she dealt with the handful of clinch opportunities that Rousey got. None of the analysts expected the standup to go any different than it did; what people didn't anticipate was that Holms, by keeping her hips low and her elbow in, would be skilled enough to negate Rousey's hip tosses. Watch this for a great breakdown.

3. It's hard to imagine that Rousey wasn't distracted by outside the cage issues. She's become exponentially more popular during this prefight period, and facing distractions - Travis Browne's issues and her mom's comments about her coach - that she hasn't dealt with before.

4. Rousey has been learning to throw punches, and she's good at that, but seems to have developed none of the other skills related to boxing. She can't move her head, doesn't defend much, can't cut off a ring (she moves straight in, winging punches, until she can get the clinch, in every fight). The questions at hand are, will she find a coach who can teach her these things? And is she still teachable or is she too full of herself to learn a new skillset?

5. Lube. I'm not even going to make the joke, it's too easy.

6. Holm was unbelievably well coached and unbelievably mentally strong. Her movement was no surprise, but to avoid panic while in the clinch with Rousey? Nobody else has done that. I suspect that her relative experience (lots of boxing) made a big difference. Very few female MMA fighters have a lot of fights under their belts (the sport is fairly new). Holm has lots of experience on a pro stage getting punched and rocked and coming back from it. That's rate.

7. I can't decide if this is good or bad for women's MMA. Rousey brought tons of interest to the sport, and we have no reason to think Holm can duplicate that. But from a sport perspective Holm's win opens up the division - now we have tons of interesting matchups to see, whereas before the UFC seemed desperate to find anybody who could make a worthwhile fight against Rousey.

8. I think we're going to see a lot of casual fans being introduced to the concept of MMA Math. Basically, lots of people will probably expect Holm to completely dominate every female fighter out there - after all, she dominated Rousey, who had dominated everybody else. But styles make fights and she might not turn out to be as dominant as we thought.

9. I wonder if Holm will be willing to move up in weight to fight Cyborg.

10. Most fight fans think Rousey should switch coaches at this point - her coach does not have a good track record with other fighters, and Rousey's skillset does not seem to have developed under him, and his between-round advice was horrifically awful. So, does she find a better coach? Or is loyalty more important? I'm inclined to say she should move on. I wonder if there will be any backlash among fans if she ditches the guy who brought her to this point. (I actually think there won't be).

If you haven't watched the fight, you should. It was a lovely display of technical mastery.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

When to try a 'fad' and when to scoff

[Alternate title: The Epistemology of Biohacks]

We live in an era where many or most lay people (i.e. not medical professionals or professional scientists) are somewhat distrustful of the medical orthodoxy in a variety of ways. The reasons for this are complex - some of it is a lack of scientific literacy, but I think more of it has to do with two things:

  1. Parts of the medical community has been very glib about lying to us, or at least grossly exaggerating how certain they were about various recommendations, for at least the past 50 years, and have gotten caught, and publicly caught. People are keenly aware about reversals regarding issues like the health risks of dietary cholesterol, the relative value of breast milk vs. formula, and other things, to the point where people are no longer comfortable trusting the recommendations of the medical community. Add to that the rise in obesity and immune disorders (like asthma) over the past 5 decades and it sometimes seems like the medical community doesn't know what it's doing.
  2. The internet has massively increased our exposure to 'information' and suggestions that run counter to the medical orthodoxy, some of which have merit while others don't. When I was a kid there were a handful of news channels, a handful of newspapers and magazines, and books you could buy in a bookstore. If you were going to hear from someone who opposes vaccines you had to go looking for it. Today those people, with often very convincing (to a layperson) arguments, pop up in your facebook feed whether you like it or not.
Now if you are even remotely logical and scientifically literate it's clear that the medical community is absolutely excellent at dealing with many issues. Know anybody with polio? Know anybody who has broken a bone, say in a fall, and then had the limb amputated? 

But there are clearly areas where things aren't working as well. Obesity is a huge problem in this country (I refuse to provide a reference for that), and it is pretty clear that your doctor does not have a 'cure' for obesity that is healthy AND works most or all of the time AND that most people are capable of following. And it seems like the more Americans as a whole have followed the general guidelines put forth by the medical community (reducing saturated fat and total fat intake, reducing dietary cholesterol) over the years, the worse things have gotten.

The result? We, as a country, have grown susceptible to the fad diet. Get a physician, or even just a well read blogger, to propose some dietary adjustment that promises to cure our obesity or asthma or arthritis or whatever, and whereas people might have once scoffed, today we are generally much more willing to give these notions a try.

And while I'm very sympathetic to the Paleo Diet, and a gluten free regimen, and the Mediterranean Diet, those live side by side with some horrible stuff, like the maple syrup cleanse (and cleanses in general).

It's not just dietary advice. In some ways the anti-vaccine movement is similar - people don't trust the medical community, they believe whatever alternative they year. Homeopathy, 'alternative' cancer treatments, and cleanses (again) are taken seriously as medical procedures by a large segment of the population.

Then, naturally, there is a backlash. For every Paleo Diet evangelist there are those who sneer at the gluten free aisle at the supermarket and rub their hands with glee whenever a new 'study' is published showing that gluten (or meat, or wine, or whatever) isn't really the culprit.

[I'm not going to debunk those studies today - it's easy to do, and others have done it. I've written about my own feelings about gluten in other places.]

You are probably well aware that I'm not going to recommend that you sit tight and eat the standard american diet until the medical community gets its act together and comes up with a unified set of recommendations based on solid, double blind studies that tell you the right way to eat and live your life for optimum health. First of all, you'll be dead of old age centuries before that happens. Second of all, even if your doctor isn't corrupt, the government boards that make these recommendations are clearly influenced by politics as much as by science, and politicians are clearly being bought and sold by major corporations all the time. The traditional food pyramid had as much (or more) to do with the needs of agricultural big business as it ever did with nutritional science.

So... what should we do?

My first inclination when dealing with any of these schemes (dietary or otherwise) is to look at the evidence. Now evidence is itself tricky - do we mean wait for double blind studies showing the efficacy of a scheme? That's not going to happen. I graduated to saying, 'wait for a plausible mechanism.' In other words, try some intervention only if there is at least a plausible explanation for how it might work, one that's consistent with physiological principles as we know them. That's not a bad idea, but it might prevent us from trying interventions that work for us. Just because we don't know why something works does not mean it doesn't work.

So, try everything? That seems dangerous and problematic. And it's not what I'm suggesting.

Instead of starting your analysis with the evidence or with the science, start by analyzing the cost.

The cost can come in several varieties:
  • Does this intervention cost money? Supplements, herbs, cleanses, seeing a practitioner (acupuncture, massage, whatever) all cost money. Some cost more than others. A gluten free diet doesn't necessarily cost more - replacing your bread with white potatoes is not going to bust your budget - but it might depending on how you implement it.
  • Determine the social cost. Skipping breakfast is unlikely to cost you a ton of friends, but skipping dinner is tough. Adding or subtracting alcohol might impinge on your social activities. Being gluten free or low carb isn't too hard if you eat at nicer restaurants, but it is if your friends do a lot of pizza and burgers.
  • If you're removing something from your diet, think of the possible health consequences. This can be very tricky. Giving up wheat? Sounds like a problem, but there aren't any nutrients that we know of that are present in wheat that you can't find in abundance in cheap, easy to find non-wheat foods (potatoes, corn, etc.) Refusing vaccines? I don't think I have to answer that. The potential health consequences of not vaccinating your kids are devastating. Going very low carb? That's tough. You certainly don't NEED dietary carbs to sustain life, but the long term consequences of depriving your gut bacteria of fermentable carbohydrates are an open question. In the end, you have to do your best to make educated guesses. Giving up your chemo for a homeopathic cancer treatment? Please put me in your will. On the other hand, giving up diet soda (in favor of, say, plain water) is clearly going to be at worst just fine - there's nothing good in diet soda, even if the stuff in there turns out to not be harmful (that is, the jury might be out on whether aspartame is harmful, but there is certainly no reason to think it's helpful).
  • If you're adding a lot of something to your diet, think of the possible health consequences. This is somewhat guesswork as well, but there are guidelines you can use. More fresh vegetables? Probably fine. More fruit? Probably fine, but there might be an upper limit to how much fructose you should be shoving into your piehole. Fruit juice? Drinking a lot of fruit juice dramatically increases the amount of fructose you can get in... which probably isn't good. 
  • Think of the psychological consequences. How much do you love the thing you're adding or removing from your lifestyle? Keep in mind that sometimes there's a short adjustment period, after which you won't miss the thing you're abstaining from. That was my experience with wheat (the first few days were awful, now it's easy). I had the opposite reaction to diet soda. I've managed to cut back slightly, but I just can't give it up.
When you start taking a nuanced and comprehensive look at the 'costs' side of the analysis, I think a pattern starts to emerge. Very low cost interventions probably shouldn't be looked at too critically. I've been eating baked potatoes instead of rice - even if that turns out to have no benefit, it certainly isn't going to be detrimental. Why be overly skeptical of the science behind the idea? On the other hand, skipping your kids' measles shots is very different.

The second part of the analysis, as you can probably guess, is to analyze the benefits of the intervention in question. And that's where people typically go wrong.

If someone is evaluating a 'cure' for cancer, and they think that the intervention will, in fact, cure their cancer, that's an enormous benefit (saving your life in the presence of a terminal illness is pretty much as big as a benefit can get). So if we presume a very, very high value of the benefit, then when compared to almost any cost, the treatment seems worth it.

And that is where you have to add in consideration of how confident you are in your evaluation. How confident are you that the treatment will cure your cancer? What are the costs?

It is a horrible tragedy when somebody stops their chemo treatments because they think they have found a miracle cure. Or when somebody spends large sums of money on snake oil. We are right to scoff at those people.

But does that mean we should scoff at somebody who, to overuse my example, gives up wheat while undergoing cancer treatment? The difference in cost is enormous. Will giving up wheat improve that person's chance of surviving cancer? Probably not. The science certainly isn't there to support it. But - and this is the important question - is there much risk or cost associated with that choice? Obviously not.

I'm certainly not arguing that going wheat free will cure your cancer. And it would be massively irresponsible to suggest that going wheat free is so sure to cure your cancer that you can skip traditional medical treatments. But in addition to regular treatment? Why should we be any more than slightly skeptical?

I try fads and so-called hacks all the time. Some make a noticeable difference in my quality of life; most do not. It can get difficult to evaluate them - if some intervention is supposed to help you sleep, that's easy to evaluate, but if it's supposed to improve bone density, that's much harder to measure without expensive tests and a lot of time.

My latest is replacing my starch sources with potatoes that have been cooked and allowed to cool. The cost is very low - I like potatoes, they're cheap, the prep time is relatively low, and they're nutritionally equal to or better than the foods I'm replacing. Will it make a significant difference to my waistline or general health? We'll see. But the lack of rigorous scientific support for this intervention should not be a good enough reason to not try it (especially when there are reasonable arguments as to why it should work, ones that I find plausible, which I'll share at some other time).

So if something is a 'fad' diet or whatever, and you want to try it, carefully evaluate the cost. If the cost is really low, why not give it a month or two and see how you're doing? And if the cost is moderate or high, spend a lot more time evaluating the supporting evidence before you commit yourself.