Your weight is junk data, your mirror is unreliable, and your feelings are fake news

Feeling fat, looking fat, and being fat are three separate things. You can “feel fat” without looking or being fat. I’ll hazard a guess that it’s mostly emotional, but even when you’re not being particularly neurotic, you can feel fatter or leaner depending on the fit of your clothes and your posture.

You can also look leaner or chubbier from day to day, just based on factors other than bodyfat. Posture is a big one. So is lighting. And biggest of all are the ebbs and flows of hydration and muscle glycogen. Do you ever glimpse yourself in the bathroom mirror and look surprisingly lean? Well unless little elves came during the night and gave you liposuction, you just happened to eat a combination of things that inadvertently flushed out subcutaneous water without depleting muscle glycogen. On that particular day, your skin happens to be at its thinnest and your muscles right at their fullest. Result: you look a little ripped, at least for a couple of hours. 

If you track your bodyfat every day, you find that there’s less correlation than you thought among your weight, your bodyfat level, and your appearance. Right now I weigh a lot, a level that was only normal when I was a powerlifter eating like an ox. And I don’t look very lean either: I’m waterlogged, with thick skin and blurry abs. And subjectively I feel a little chubby: I’m wearing the big-waisted jeans that I keep in storage for the occasional squatting cycle, when I bloat into a stout, gluteal Michelin Man, and if I strip off my shirt at yoga these days I look like a tanned marshmallow with a rubber band around its middle. And yet to my amazement, when I run the numbers, I find I’ve got way more lean body mass with just the same amount of fat as last summer, when I had a nice, wasp waist. Strange as it seems, even though I feel bloated and look pretty “blah” in my shaving mirror, I’ve got maybe the best body composition of my life right now.

So why the difference? It’s that I’m holding way more water too. Yes, I’ll have to change some things if I’m suddenly offered a photo shoot as a middle-aged underwear model. But for now, since no one has recognized my potential—give me a chance, Madison Avenue! I could be great!—I shouldn’t change a thing. 

I’m glad I know that, because now I won’t mess with success. But I want to underscore that the only reason I know it, despite cockeyed subjective impressions, is that I’ve got an objective measure in the Tanita scale. 

So here’s today’s takeaway for everyday lean, solid dogs:

  1. Your regular bathroom scale only gives you junk data, your mirror is unreliable, and how lean or fat you feel is fake news. 
  2. If you’re going to track something, make it something objective and reliable. Spend $40 for a Tanita scale. Track your actual bodyfat percentage. Everything else is evanescent, subjective, or both.
  3. Try out the many successful, easy approaches for leaning out, and (here’s my $.02 for the menfolk), once you get to 12%, just hold steady there. I’m not alone in thinking that that’s a sweet spot: easy to reach, easy to maintain, and makes you fit and healthy and mobile and trim without being onerous.

Forty-Mile Ruck: Lessons Learned

To prep for the (in)famous Star Course, I tried a 42-mile ruck march.

I’d read one man’s AAR suggesting that in training you aim for 40 miles (64km) in something close to 10 hours, and on paper that sounded almost reasonable. It’s only 15 minutes per mile, right? Heck, I’ve motored along at that speed in perfect contentment for plenty of 12-mile marches with a 30# pack. So with just 20# dry (not even 10kg), wouldn’t I cover at least the first half of my journey at that pace? And if I allowed myself a full 12 hours, plus an extra hour for lunch, that would be almost leisurely! Right?

That was HUBRIS, and I got punished! Instead of treading a merry 13 hours, I slogged out a tough 15½ hours, and rather than a carefree and gay picnic walk, at times it felt like a death march.

This was a major lesson in all the factors that can slow a march down. Let me count the ways!

What I Did Badly

Feeling so sluggish, I sensed I was in for a long day. But I had no idea just how long.

First was my own poor condition. I’d been training hard, demanding a lot of my foot muscles (which work overtime in yoga and kettlebell lifting too), and the day before my ruck romp, I’d had a small migraine that I tried to cure by testing my rep max in the kettlebell snatch. (That worked pretty well, by the way.) Coupled with a 4am wakeup, it’s little surprise that I felt like hell when I started my walk, and it slowed me down. By mid-morning I was already an hour behind schedule. And that was before other adverse conditions started piling up.

I am blessed to live out in the country. Only problem is, my body thinks it belongs in a different country.

What other adverse conditions? Next was the heat, which is my personal kryptonite. I’m stocky and descended entirely from Northern European bog dwellers. Even in modest heat, a full sun clobbers me like an axe.

I made some poor nutrition choices too. Normally in these long events, I thrive on a scant 25g of carbs per hour and, being keto-adapted, I draw the rest of my calories from body fat. It’s a trick I got from ultra champ Zach Bitter and it makes me immune to the usual nausea and GI trouble of endurance events. But on this morning I treated myself to a big, sugary frozen mocha, and it was way too much carbs and gook. I’ll spare you, gentle reader, an account of the results and just summarize them as “sub-optimal.” Lesson: Just 25g of carbs per hour.

If you want to geek out on this stuff, read the work of Mike Prevost.

By my choice of routes, I also gave myself a (poorly timed) lesson in how much you can be slowed by terrain. The Army has researched rucking speed and found that, even more than pack weight, you’re slowed by factors as mundane as the ground’s surface. And elevation gain is another biggie. When climbing a 10% grade, you cut your speed in half. (EDIT: Researcher Adam Scott finds that it’s only a one-third reduction.)So on one steep 4-mile stretch, I climbed for almost two hours.

Nor did I factor in stream crossings. Foot care guru John Vonhof insists that you remove shoes and socks at streams, carry them across, and dry your feet before putting them on again. I did this each time, dutifully but grudgingly, but I ate up nearly an hour and disliked feeling my way painfully across the stream bottom in sore, bare feet. Lesson: Bring water shoes and a microfiber hand towel. On trips where I’ll recross the stream at the same point, I can even stash them near the crossing to wait for my return trip.

Finally, maybe it wasn’t the best idea to wear brand-new boots. Though they didn’t need much breaking in, they still required time-consuming experimentation on the trail, trying different combinations of socks, liner socks, and lacing.

Ridiculous math like this is an example of why the metric Mondopoint system is so great. You measure your feet in millimeters. That’s your size. Simple.

However, there was one thing about these boots that was a godsend: they’re actually big enough! My toes have never been so free. I owe this too to John Vonhof, whose simple trick is to remove the insoles from your shoes, set them on the ground, and stand on them. If your feet lap over the insoles at any point, or even touch the edge, the shoes are too small. That’s how I went from a size 9.5 to a 10.5 Wide!

What Went Great

Aerobic base: Aerobically this trip posed little challenge. As in all my training, I throttled back enough to stay within my “MAF” heart rate (“max aerobic function”). And even on such a long ruck, I found, as long as I stay within my MAF heart rate, I can put my legs on cruise control and motor along indefinitely. My feet might get sore, but my heart and lungs can hack it just fine.

Our Lady of Electrolytes and Mr. Delirium

Electrolytes: At long last, I didn’t cramp! I can’t take credit for this. The unsurpassable Lean Solid Girl met me at my turnaround point with a princely feast of burritos, trail mix, cold drinks, and (best of all) electrolytes.

Blisters: I only got one blister, on my heel. Zero blisters would be better, but I’ll take this as a victory considering this was a distance PR in boots that were new out of the box.

The Great Takeaway

The home stretch. From this bridge, it’s 3 miles to my door. The last time I passed it feeling this tired was only a few months ago. That night I was doing my first 12-miler, but now that’s just a warmup. Reflecting on that was a real morale boost. #cookiejar

I didn’t quit. That’s the great takeaway. At 5:30am, only 5 minutes into the day, I still had a lingering headache from the day before, felt like hell, and had no spring in my step, and I thought, “I picked an awful day to do this. It will be amazing if I actually finish 40 miles today.” And I was right on both counts: it was terrible timing–WTH kind of plan is “be sick all day, then max out on snatches, and then do 40 miles the next day?!”–and it’s amazing to me that I finished it. I should have rescheduled–stupid stuff is stupid, and it would have required effort to choose a worse day for this. But once I (foolishly) committed to it and decided to stick with the (dumb) plan, it was almost a certainty that I’d finish–eventually–as long as I didn’t quit.

Rucking up at Mile 23. Don’t believe the smile, it’s a lie. I’m feeling pretty sorry for myself here. Out of the frame, milady’s Prius is whispering, “Give up! I’ll take you home right now. How about some air conditioning?”

And that, friends, is the big lesson. (Cue the “rousing emotional crescendo music!”) It seems that in an event like this–a low-intensity slog played out over a very long time–there’s almost no way to suck so much that you can’t finish. There’s no opponent to KO you, pin you, or steal the ball, and you need zero coordination or athletic talent–it’s just walking. Physically the demands aren’t even very intense or the perils great: you won’t get a concussion or cascade off the side of Mount Everest. You can suck as much as you want for as long as you want, but unless you decide to quit (or you get abducted off the road by a UFO), you are pretty much assured of succeeding eventually. As Goggins says, “No talent required.”

Gear Check

Final installment in my after-action report from the GORUCK D-Day Heavy Challenge.

The faithful, indomitable, light, nimble “Moose Head” rucksack. I love this thing. Made in the 1930s, it was intended by the Swedes as a cheap mass-production item for hurriedly equipping a big army that Germany would choose not to tangle with. Eighty years later, with just a little sewing, it’s my favorite pack.

What Worked Out Great

1. Webbing: I had about 6′ of webbing and it saved me twice. First we had to carry an insidiously-shaped rock a few miles uphill. I bound it up like a birthday gift and then some genius added D-rings and carabiners so that folks could hang it from their pack straps. The final effect was like a newborn boulder in a Babybjörn. It still sucked, but it substantially reduced the Suck Value. Second, I broke a pack strap at dawn, but it took all of 30 seconds to improvise a fix with the webbing. Without it, I would probably have washed out of the event over that petty equipment failure. So write this down, someone: webbing is the duct tape of rucking.

Weight: 40g. Not quitting the whole event over a busted pack strap or wasting everyone’s biceps cradling a f#&%ing rock: priceless.

2. Spare shoelace: Whipped this out to secure the flag to the pole better. Again, it nullified what could have been a huge pain in the butt for essentially zero added weight.

3. Rocky S2V boots: Thank you, Sgt. Šileika! The Rockies were champs. My search for the perfect all-round boot is over!

I’m blown away by the contrast to the Moab Ventilators that I wore last year. The point of the Ventilators is that, with their mesh sides, they let water and sweat flow out and let air rush in. It’s a great idea for running trails, but not for sloshing around in surf and sand because your shoes and socks fill with sediment. I got grit between my shoes and socks, between my socks and sock liners, and between the liners and my skin.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the other teammate who wore Rockies completed a “Heavy-Tough-Light” (i.e. he is a freak who did three events back-to-back over 48 hours, totaling well over 70 miles). And the teammate who wore Ventilators got a silver dollar-sized blood blister so heinous and unearthly that I expected an alien to spawn from his heel. (Amazingly, he just cheerfully popped it, dressed it, and walked on it for the next 12 hours without grimacing. People are freaks, and this guy must have the pain tolerance of a barn animal.)

4. Synthetic fabrics: Impressed by Lean Solid Girl’s successes, I left behind most of my old-school cotton, wool, and hair shirts and wore so much stretchy space-age fabric that I felt like Spider Man. And it worked great: I stayed warm, dry, windproof, and free of chafing.

It was only at midday that I wore a cotton shirt (one of the dozen awesome $4 Bundeswehr quarter-zips that I stash everywhere–#notaffiliatedIjustlovethem). But as soon as we got wet, I changed back to polypro gratefully.

5. Tights: Goofy yoga shorts are still great, but in water and wind, I was even happier with running tights. Even better, mine had built-in knee pads.

6. Categorized bags: Since my old-fashioned ruck only has one big compartment, I sorted gear into four marked bags: Food, Shirt, Jacket, and Head & Foot Stuff (hat, headlamp, sunglasses, socks, and foot care supplies). It worked great. Next time, I’ll color code the bags too.

7. More sock changes than a Madonna concert: I brought two extra pairs of socks and sock liners, and I rotated through all of them. Again, cheap insurance. I’ve had great success with the combination of Finnish M05 “liner socks” (which are socks unto themselves here in temperate climes) and FoxRiver liners, so I won’t mess with success.

8. Tailwind and GU: Here too, I owe Lean Solid Girl, who’s a past (and future?) runner, for initiating me into the secrets of distance athletes.

9. My hydration bladder: Our team had at least two burst hydration bladders, which did not enhance their owners’ lives. Usually I’m the first person to cheap out and get suckered by a false economy, but I’ve never encountered this problem even after hundreds of miles, so I’ll keep using Hommitt.

Dumb Ideas

1. Powerlifting knee sleeve: It’s stupid to change your game plan at the last minute, and that includes switching to gear you haven’t tested. I grabbed a squatting knee sleeve on the way out the door because I worried about padding my sore knee. It guarded my knee from abrasion, alright, but over 40 miles it knotted up some soft tissue behind my knee from the pressure.

2. Leaving my electrolytes to chance: I prepared for pushups poorly enough. I didn’t need cramped arms on top of that, but I chose to trust that I’d get all my electrolytes from the Tailwind. Dumb. Electrolytes are cheap insurance, just like webbing or an extra shoelace. Without Mike the Forester’s generosity, I’d have been in trouble. Next time I’m bringing extra electrolytes.

3. Poorly secured pill bottle: To help with pain, I cleverly brought some CBD, ibuprofen, and caffeine pills, but I foolishly hung the bottle from a carabiner with my gloves, and within an hour it was lost.

Aryan Invasion

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My house has been invaded by yogis! It’s great!

Everywhere you go, you stumble over someone pacing and chanting silently, hunkered down translating Bengali hagiographies on an iMac, or playing ragas on a guitar in the garden. These guys all trail the scent of sandalwood around the house, they keep the kitchen always smelling of warm cauliflower and turmeric, and in various places they have white dhotis laid out to dry and little pots of paste for painting the tilaka on their foreheads.

Imagine you are a teenage heavy metal fan and then Black Sabbath descends on your house and throws a week-long rager. Only now imagine that instead of stone-cold rockers they’re yogis, and their idea of a tear-the-walls-down-to-the-studs party is to smile a lot, be fairly quiet, and laugh frequently. It’s just like that.

Everyone should have a yogic bliss squad of Hindu mendicants who takes their home over twice a year and rejuvenates the place. Haribol! (Don’t tell the Buddha I said that. I’ll get in trouble. Seriously.)

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Junkyard Orthopedics

A mentor of mine says, “A piece of exercise equipment is valuable in inverse proportion to its cost.” Meaning that if you spend $5000 on a Bowflex machine, you will receive no benefit from it, but an implement you make for $1 will be almost invaluable.

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Like Excalibur, this piece of equipment, fit for a hero, cost its user $0.00.

By that measure, this is my pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

With a few days before The Great Ruck-Off to rehab dinged up joints, I reached into my disused bag of powerlifting tricks and pulled out the grand old Tire Sled. The most important tool for powerlifters after a barbell, the sled mends broken bodies by pumping blood and synovial fluid through overstressed joints with moderate work and light poundages. And just like yoga, it wakes up the  stabilizing muscles of the thorax, elbows and knees, and shoulder and hip girdles and teaches them to coordinate in funky, unaccustomed combinations.

To accomplish that, you just pull the sled up and down the block in every conceivable way: forward, back, sidestepping, cross-stepping, bent over double, one-handed or two-, hands overhead or thrust out front or behind your back or between your legs, rowing, pressing, extending, curling, whatever. The sled is to the horizontal plane what the kettlebell is to the vertical plane: endlessly versatile and wonderfully therapeutic. To paraphrase what powerlifting great Donny Thompson says about kettlebells, the sled works the tissues without killing them.

There is nothing to count here: no sets, reps, or poundages. This is just active recovery. You pull it, work up a lather, get pleasantly tired, and then go happily about the rest of your day.

Torpid Taper

By the week before a competition, you’ve accumulated fatigue and it’s time to refill your tank with a week’s layoff. That means going easy and limiting yourself to foam rolling and active recovery (spelled “yoga”).

Everyone I know tries to screw this up. You’re resting and supercompensating from training stress and your body is gathering a huge charge of energy like a battery. You’re crackling with electricity and dying to discharge it, and even though your job is to restrain yourself and save your spunk for game day, you start to rationalize one more “moderate” workout … which itself is probably a bad idea and often morphs into a near-max effort. Or you get bored and monkey with your diet or embark on some other dumb eleventh-hour self-experimentation. Because you’re so restless and keyed up.

Molly - Jan 31 2017
Even the irrepressible Molly is infected by my lassitude.

But this week I feel none of that. I feel tired, sore, dinged up, and LAZY. Yesterday I napped for two hours and today I’d still like to camp on the couch. I’m worried I won’t get my mojo back and that Friday after dark, when it’s time to ruck til dawn, I’m going to want chamomile tea and a bedtime story.

“Sky’s Out, Thighs Out”

20180802_1021401Maybe I’ll just never wear pants again. That’s how awesome it is to ditch hiking in 2-lb. pants and a pinchy belt for the sublime freedom of the Silly Yoga Shorts.

I took advantage of cold weather today to simulate the much lower temperatures at GoRuck (55-60°F), and I learned a couple things. First, nothing beats short shorts! Second,  not only won’t I mind a heavy, long-sleeved military shirt in cold weather, I will positively need one (and a hat, and gloves) so I don’t get scratched up by log carries.

This was such a fine, fine, fine morning to be alive and healthy.

Lazy Fitness

If you are a Lean, Solid Dog, you need a lot of rest.

By a quirk of history, Americans took much of what we “know” about fitness from a terrible source, bodybuilders. Why terrible? Because since the Seventies, bodybuilding has been transformed a few times over by steroids, and if you are training with “Vitamin S,” then you are operating with a whole different physiology than the rest of us. Therefore you don’t have much training advice that can apply to people not using mind-blowing “Russian supplements.” * Think of drug-assisted athletes (and they are now the norm) as almost a different species from yourself, and taking your ideas about training from them is like following the nutrition plan of a zebra.

It is from bodybuilding that Americans got most of our counterproductive “no pain, no gain” illusions about fitness. If you were juicing, you could get some use from that approach, just like the Incredible Hulk can perform great even without a rubdown and a nap. But you, dear friend, unless you are a professional hardman hardperson, you probably don’t need more than one challenging strength and aerobic session every week or so. What you do need a lot of is “active recovery.”

Clarence Bass by Guy Appelman age 50
Clarence Bass, father of the “ripped” look, does strength and cardio once every 5-10 days. The other days he just walks in the hills. (Apparently in bikini briefs.)

It’s a cliché of training that “You don’t get fitter from exercise, you get fitter by recovering from exercise.” And it’s a cliché because it’s true. Your muscles don’t grow while lifting weights, for example. They grow afterward by taking in nutrition and thickening in case they get worked hard again.

That is how steroids work too. They are not exactly performance-enhancing drugs, they are recovery-enhancing drugs. They make you bounce back from training faster and higher, and that’s how they improve your performance indirectly.

For a lazy person like me, it’s wonderful to know that I can limit serious exertion to one or two weekly bouts and then use the rest of my “training” time on rest and recovery. Yes, it’s true that we really should get exercise every day. But what we’re looking for is “active recovery.”

You rest better and quicker through active recovery than passive recovery, i.e. sitting on the couch. You just do light activity that makes you breathe a little harder and get some blood and endorphins flowing, but that’s all! As a rule of thumb, you are doing it right if you are breathing a little more deeply but you could hold a conversation or sing a song without feeling short of breath. This could be just walking or riding your bike for transportation. Similarly for light (!) hiking.

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The late mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev was way ahead of his time in the West about preaching active over passive recovery. Here as in so much of exercise science, the former Communist bloc really had the edge over us.

For fairly serious athletes in any discipline, I think the king of active recovery is yoga. You go for the active recovery and in the bargain you also get invaluable prehab and rehab, which no one gets enough of, in an environment that is also a huge serotonin factory AND full of lithe, beaming people.

 

* Note: I don’t necessarily poo-poo drug-assisted training as morally inferior or easier. On the first point, I exercise because it makes me so happy, not so I can imagine myself as someone else’s better (as if anyone cares anyway). Second, drugs don’t exactly make training easier. If you think that, start squatting under a bar that’s 200# heavier than you use now—do it however you have to, I don’t care—and then get in touch to tell me about how easy your training has become.

Steamy Yoga

Hot yoga, very hot. At the front of the room, someone gets so into the distinctive, raspy throat breathing that he sounds like he’s, um, with someone very special to him. With this door opened, the rest of the room gets equally disinhibited until it sounds like we’re at an orgy on Fire Island. Or an after-party at the Modern Language Association.