Almost a year


It’s been almost a year. And though much has come and gone in the course of that year. I’ll keep the news update down to just two highlights.

First, the good news. I realized my longtime dream of walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I began in one of the most popular starting points, St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, and over the next month, made my way to Santiago, mostly by foot (I rented a bike for about 125 km, and took a train for another 80 km when I was behind schedule.) The Camino was an adventure of hiking across the Pyrenees, the long Meseta plateau, the Cantabrian mountains, of crossing dozens of rivers and streams and roads, of passing through more than a hundred cities, towns, villages, and hamlets, and of meeting some of the most wonderful people in the world. As many pilgrims do, after resting an extra day in Santiago, I went to Fisterra (Spanish Finisterra “World’s End”) to complete my Camino at edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

Much more can be said about it, but for now, I’ll leave the subject with the admonition that if you have a chance to do the Camino yourself, do it!

Now, the bad news. I have a broken foot. That’s putting it dramatically, but it’s technically true. I still have a bone chip from the broken toe that I mentioned in the “metatarsalgia” bit in my last post. (The doctor who informed me that I had broken a toe neglected to mention that I still had a bone chip trapped between my metatarsals.) He suggested rest as therapy.


Indeed, resting it was actually was helpful at first, and when I began Camino training, I discovered that toe socks seemed to be just what the doctor ordered for me to be able to hike well. Yep, I walked the Camino with a bone chip in my foot.

When I returned, all seemed well. I was in the fittest condition I’d been in since my late twenties. I starting training for another marathon, but trouble started showing up with toes in my left foot cramping towards the end of 13-, 10-, 8-, then even 5-kilometer runs. The trouble was undeniable when on a Labor Day 5k, I was on pace to PR (make a personal record) but had to walk (and limp) the entire last kilometer.

That led me to see a podiatrist. The first one I found was not very helpful, but now I am working with a different podiatrist, in whom I have much more confidence. However, neither have been keen on operating as ligament damage might not be as simple to repair as merely removing the chip.

So, not running for the last eight months has been a difficult challenge for me. I only started running for five years ago, and when I began, it was like I had been given a new lease on life. But during the winter, I found myself eating comfort food and gaining thirty pounds.

But things are changing. My diet is back on track, I’m losing weight slowly and carefully, and with my podiatrist, I’m exploring how best to rehabilitate my foot. (This weekend, I was able to walk fourteen kilometers.)

As I return to blogging, I’m reading and taking my own advice on the most essential skill: returning”

Why I chose P90X over Insanity

Although I once thought I would never be interested in a commercial workout program, I’ve decided to start P90X. The weight that I put on last year still remains, and I’m going to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (500 miles), and would really rather not be recognizable as an American by my weight alone. In addition, my running suffered this year due to an injury I sustained last year, so I had an additional motive to get into shape with something other than simply running. The testimonials of Insanity and P90X won me over, and I became eager to learn more.

Initially, I leaned more toward Shaun T.’s Insanity program. The program takes two months, and the results are comparable to P90X‘s, which takes three months. Also, no equipment is required at all for Insanity, while P90X requires dumbbells or resistance bands, and a chin-up bar. Insanity’s workout DVDs are usually shorter than P90X’s, and never go over an hour.

Once my copy of Insanity arrived in the mail, I was quickly discouraged. The program is heavy—very heavy—on plyometrics (fitness code for jumping). Jumping for forty minutes is all well and good, but I had some reservations:

  1. Metatarsalgia. I broke a toe about six months ago in a race. Ever since then, my third metatarsal has been finicky. I took a doctor’s advice to avoid putting weight on it for a few weeks, but the punishing jumps of Insanity seem like a recipe for immediate re-injury.
  2. Downstairs neighbor. I know I wouldn’t appreciate it if I had an overweight neighbor jumping up-and-down above me for the better part of an hour the first thing in the morning.
  3. 117-year-old floorboards.

I decided to look deeper into P90X, and chose to do it instead. What persuaded me?

  1. Greater variety. Plyometrics is but one of twelve different workouts, which run the gamut from strength training to power yoga to karate.
  2. Customizability. Whereas Insanity seemed like a one-size-fits-all-jump-around-with-Shaun approach, P90X not only has great variety of workouts, but three different versions of the entire workout plan as well: a “classic” version, a “doubles” version for elite athletes, and a “lean” version with greater emphasis on cardio. Any phase can be extended up to two weeks if you feel necessary, and yes, you can skip Plyo if you need to.
  3. Emphasis on safety. Tony Horton repeatedly urges the participants to recognize and respect their limits in the interest of safety. Not hearing any such caution from Shaun T; somehow, I get the feeling that Shaun T. isn’t expecting anyone in his program to be much older than he is. Tony Horton, on the other hand, is actually two years older than I am.
  4. Nutrition. Whereas the nutrition plan in Insanity is treated almost as an afterthought, the nutrition plan in P90X is a fully-developed, essential part of the program. It’s made clear that you are not doing P90X if you are not following the nutrition plan. A nice touch is that the plan changes as the program progresses. The first month is a fairly low-carb, Paleo-ish diet, which becomes increasingly carb-ful as the body adjusts to the amount of exercise and begins to build endurance, which sounds great to a runner like me.
  5. Workouts are not longer than Insanity. Although some of the P90X DVDs last 75 minutes, much of the time is spent in explanation and demonstration. Once you learn the exercises in a specific workout, it’s not necessary to do them with the DVD; you can simply refer to your log to do them at your own pace, unlike Insanity.

Yesterday I took the “Fit Test” for P90X, to see just how badly out-of-shape I’d become. The results for most of the tests were disappointing—I can’t do a single pull-up, I can only do ten bicep curls with 10 lbs, etc. But I excelled on the abdominal exercise, bringing my knees to my chest 176 times, when the baseline was just 25. In other words, I’ve got fantastic abs! You just can’t see them!

Tonight, I’m doing the first P90X workout.

Thrive, Paleo, or Other? Planning My Experiment

What’s the best whole-food diet?

A carefully-crafted plant-based diet emphasizing only nutritious, alkalizing, and energizing foods?
The Paleo diet, based on the eating patterns of humankind over the last two million or so years?
An omnivorous diet of whole foods with high-quality meat and dairy?

Which is best? Undoubtedly, that depends on the person. But it is possible to determine which is best for *me*. Next Friday, I’ll begin an experiment which could potentially take up to 39 weeks: a 12-week trial of three quality whole-food diets in turn, each beginning with a 1-week transition period.

Why? First, I need to lose weight. Although I’ve come a long way in the four years since I began running, I’m still overweight, and I want not to be. More than that, I want to be lean. Running lighter is simply more fun! Although these diets aren’t meant specifically for weight loss, I believe that Thrive’s nutritious vegan approach will very likely help me lose weight. Second, I need to find what best fuels my running. Although I’ve been a near-vegetarian for years, after reading sources for athletes that encourage a lot of protein, I began eating far more eggs over the last year. However, my results were mixed, and I want to investigate. Hence, my three-step experiment outlined below.

  • Diet I: Thrive-inspired plant-based whole-food diet

    I’ll largely be following the plan presented by Brendan Brazier in his wonderful book Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life. Thrive is much more strict than most vegans eat (there are lots of junk-food vegans out there). Thrive is concerned with eliminating dietary stressors, acid-forming foods, and non-nutritious foods. Thus, processed carbs, wheat, corn, and many forms of soy are out, as are high omega-6 vegetable oils, refined sugars, and coffee. Did I really say meat, dairy, eggs, wheat, corn, soy, cheap vegetable oils, sugar, and coffee? Isn’t that at least 90 percent of the Standard American Diet? It is, and Thrive is almost the antithesis of SAD.

    What’s left? Nearly all vegetables, all fresh or frozen fruits, most nuts and seeds, plus more exotic fare like sea vegetables, ancient grains and pseudo-grains. Special attention is given to the balance of Omega 3, 6, and 9 fats, and reducing inflammation. Strict as it is, Thrive is still less restrictive than some other diets like Timothy Ferris’s slow-carb diet which eschews all fruits and grains.

    However, its restrictions do concern me; sustainability is key for any long-term strategy, so I’m going to allow myself two mild “cheats” per week. These are not going to be a license to eat a pint of ice cream or a half chicken. These will be reasonable cheats, like a sushi lunch). And I’m not a fanatic—I won’t sweat it if I eat a wrap with mayo that might have a couple of grams of egg in it, or have something sweetened with honey instead of agave nectar. Beside the “vegan cheats,” I’ll also allow myself a few optional “Thrive cheats”–foods that, though vegan, fall outside of the Thrive world (white rice, some nachos, etc.)

    In spite of my premeditated cheating, I am really looking forward to this exciting approach to eating. Who can resist a recipe called “Wild Rice Yam Pancakes”?

  • Diet II: Paleo

    After I’ve given the Thrive diet a 12-week test, I’ll probably begin a test of the Paleo diet, Loren Cordain’s modern-day adaptation of humanity’s pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer diet. Paleo consists of meat, eggs (in moderation), vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds only). The condition is that if Thrive should feel so perfect that I can’t imagine eating any other way, screw it—I’ve found what’s right for me. However, if I’m still interested, Paleo is up next. Again, I’ll be emphasizing whole-foods, and will strive to eat the best, closest-to-wild meat, fish, and eggs possible during this time. Looking at Cordain’s recipes, they seem rather, um, mundane compared to Thrive’s, so I’ll likely continue my vegan meals as before, but will incorporate at least one animal-based meal a day, whether eggs or meat. I know some of you are wondering how could anyone have LESS that that, but for me, that will be a dramatic change.

    Note: I will not hesitate to end the experiment early if I feel a dramatic loss of energy, or any other strongly negative effects.

  • Diet III: Whole foods with dairy: omnivore or lacto-vegetarian

    Assuming I still haven’t been won over by Thrive or Paleo, I’ll try a third alternative, incorporating high-quality grass-fed dairy, and possibly eggs and meat, contingent on my experience of Paleo. Again, I might cut the experiment short based on my experience.

UPDATE, May 12, 2013
How did it go? Read about it.

How to Recover Quickly from a Running Injury

I was running in the Norfolk Freedom Half-Marathon. A few miles in, something felt wrong in my left knee, as though my left leg had suddenly grown a half-inch or so. Soon it became worse, with an internal “clicking” or “catching” sensation in my knee. By mile nine, I was reduced to mostly walking. I finished in pain, wishing I had been smarter and dropped out when I realized something was wrong.

The next day, I saw a sports physician who informed me I had a torn meniscus, cheerfully handing me a depressing pamphlet on meniscus surgery. He prescribed a painkiller and a month of physical therapy visits, and a follow-up visit for possible surgery. I had some dark thoughts before I was able to begin therapy … would I need surgery? would I be able to run again as well as I had before? Or would I become one of the many people I’ve met who shake their head sadly and say “Yeah, I used to run, but then my knees gave out…”

My fears were allayed as soon as I began therapy. My PT told me that he also has a torn meniscus, and that surgery didn’t help him but he was going to show me what did.

Over the next four weeks I had nine sessions of physical therapy, doing exercises designed to strengthen my muscles and align my joints properly. I learned a quad press to provide quick pain relief after the knee has been stretched. I learned the world’s greatest stretch for warming up which is widely known as—wait for it—“The World’s Greatest Stretch”. And I learned that I had to get out and start run/walking again with very gentle paces at first, gradually working up to my previous level.

The results were amazing. One month later, and I am back on my marathon training schedule. I’ve already nearly equaled my previous best Cooper test, and I’m doing speedwork better than ever before. I’ve also acquired valuable skill and knowledge in self-care and injury prevention and recovery.

What should you do if you become injured?

1. Don’t panic. Sports medicine has come a long, long way. Very few people should ever need to say goodbye to running due to knee injuries. Physical therapy can assist with a tremendously wide variety injuries, and when surgery is truly necessary, it can help in most other cases.

2. Get qualified help as soon as possible. Don’t wait, don’t be a “hero” (a fool) and continue to work out knowing that something is seriously wrong, without knowing what it is or how to cure it. Also be aware that sports injury and rehabilitation is not your family physician’s field of expertise. “Qualified help” in this case means an expert in the kind of injury you suffered.

3. Take charge of your recovery. “Hire” the therapist or other sports-injury expert to guide you in rebuilding your body to health and fitness. Many people take a passive role as “patient” in the healing process, and most health-care providers are accustomed to that. Don’t be passive. Break the pattern. Actively engage the expert you’ve hired in how to get back to doing what you want to be doing, as quickly and safely as possible.

4. Follow the treatment. Don’t slack. If you have a concern about the appropriateness of a specific movement or exercise, or if it causes unexpected pain, ask about it. But your recovery time is not “rest time,” but time to devote yourself fully to task of repairing your body.

5. Ask questions. Communicate. Ask your therapist for what exercises you can do at home to assist with the healing process. When is appropriate for you to begin training again, and at what level of intensity? Ask for what you can do after the therapy ends to continue to improve. Ask what exercises will help prevent future injuries.

6. Make the new routines part of your overall training. Some may be appropriate for warmup/cooldown exercises, while others might be better at other times. But the important thing is to continue with the exercises that help you as long as you benefit from them, which in some cases, may be the rest of your life.

7. Expect the best. Eat right. Gradually increase your activity level. Go forward, slowly and cautiously. Listen carefully to your recovering body.

Running and inner strength for life

Editor’s note:

This is a guest post from my ultrarunning friend, Jon Olszyk. Jon is a dedicated ultrarunner who has finished over 30 marathons and 15 ultra-marathons in the six years since he started running. He is without a doubt the most passionate runner I ever have had the pleasure to know personally. Jon lives in Virginia with his wife, Carrie.

I really don’t think of myself as any type of great runner at all. I tell people “I can’t go the furthest , nor do I go the fastest”. Most people tell me that they admire my mental toughness, strength and fortitude. I don’t know if I believe this is true either. I mean, am I mentally tougher than a Navy SEAL? No. Am I mentally tougher than a cancer patient undergoing chemo? No. There are probably thousands of other situations where I don’t feel like I mentally stronger than the people going thru them. I just know that in training and on race day, I am going to do whatever the hell I can to finish what I set out to do. If it means first, great. If it means last, great. Why? Because if you commit to something, you finish it!

How do I accomplish this?

  • I train in every condition imaginable. I am going to run in the heat, humidity, pouring down rain, freezing cold, windy and many other conditions. Why is this? I know that come race day, I am prepared for whatever comes at me. I love it when people are freaking out about the weather a week before race day. If it’s calling for rain, well, I know that I have trained in the rain. I know what it’s like to run with wet clothes, wet socks and heavy shoes. Do they? Or were they whining about how (insert weather condition here) it is outside so they didn’t run or did the treadmill?
  • If, and this is a big “if”, it’s bad enough to not go outside (I am not a fan of ice, sorry), then I use the treadmill. My treadmill is set up against two walls. No pictures, No windows, No TV, No music. Why? It’s me vs. my mind vs. the stop button. I am alone in my thoughts and when I’m hurting and tired, can I overcome the mental hurdle to hit the stop button? Knowing you can hit that button at any time is a blessing and a curse. I know that come race day, I cant just stop because I am hurting or tired.
  • Running is not easy. It’s hard, damn work. That’s the bottom line. Do I have my bad days? Yes. Do I have my days where I don’t want to run or a run just sucks? Yes. Those days were you get a mile or 2 miles into a run and say “this sucks, I am feeling miserable” are the days where you keep going and what make you, not as a runner, but in life in general. It’s easy to give up when times are tough. You may not realize it during that run (or situation in your life) but somewhere down the line you will use that experience to make yourself a better runner and person.

10 Myths about Running

“If one could run without getting tired, I don’t think one would often want to do anything else.”

In October 2009, I was an obese, 48-year-old couch potato who took a 30-minute walk with the goal of eventually running a marathon. I realized that goal this March, finishing the Shamrock Marathon. I’m now an avid road runner, and am training for my first ultramarathon, a 50K. In my first few months, however, I made almost every possible mistake with my training, and suffered the consequences. I resolved to learn from those mistakes, and learn everything I could about safe and productive training approaches.

  1. You should always stretch out before a run

    Many of the most respected runners and coaches advise against stretching before runs. Ultramarathoner Danny Dreyer allows post-run stretching but none before the run. Running author Jeff Galloway, endurance coach Philip Maffetone, and champion runner Stuart Mittleman, holder of the American 6-day run record, all advise that stretching makes you more likely to suffer injury, because you are moving your joints beyond their usual range of motion. What to do instead? Spend several minutes in warm-up / cool-down walks and jogs before every workout. These energize the specific muscles that you’ll be engaging most during a run, and with similar motion.

  2. You should “carbo-load” the night before a race

    Not if you’re interested in training your body to draw upon its vast fat reserves (and yes, even skinny people have them) instead of the skimpy carbohydrate reserves. And even if you do plan to run on carbs, carbo-loading is best done over the several days leading up to the race, not in one big pasta dinner the night before, which might well having you running to the bushes before you run across the finish line.

  3. You should get the most cushioned shoes you can

    Born to Run author Chris McDougall makes the case that over-built, over-cushioned running shoes have increased the rate of injury for runners. Unnecessary padding encourages harder heel strikes, which is bad for the knees, and sometimes even the back. Instead of buying the most cushioned shoe, look at the ones with the best fit, cushioned just enough to feel comfortable running on hard surfaces.

  4. You should always wear sunscreen

    Only if you are going to be out so long you are likely to burn. Sunshine is an excellent source of vitamin D. Also, it’s important to know that while sunscreens protect against the easily-treated basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, some kinds can actually increase the risk of the most dangerous skin cancer, malignant melanoma. According to Dr. Maffetone, a light tan is the best protection. For long runs in daylight, I use coconut oil as a light, natural protectant.

  5. You need to train fast to race fast

    Many runners make the mistake of always training hard. The sad fact is that overtraining cuts short many a runner’s racing career. Even fitness runners often run too fast, too often, and suffer unnecessary fatigue, injuries, and burnout. Optimal training is a balance of work and recovery. Train to race. Don’t race to train.

  6. No pain, no gain

    That is true (to an extent) in strength training. However, in running, pain is not generally a sign of gain, but of trouble. Ideally running should be pain-free, although at the end of long runs and races it is normal to feel minor “complaints” from the body for a short time. Ouchiness, however is not a good sign and should be addressed.

  7. You should run the same amount every week

    This is fine for running for basic fitness, but in preparation for races, a gradual build-up in duration and distance to the 2-3 weeks for the race (base-building) is better, followed by a sharp decrease in the week or two before the race (the taper).

  8. Your perceived exertion is a good guide to how hard you’re running

    Perceived exertion tends to rise and fall disproportionately after hard runs and soft runs. For instance, a day or two after a hard run, perceived exertion may high for even a gentle run, due to the body’s energy being used for recovery. And after rest days, perceived exertion may be lower for strong efforts. However, heart rate is a direct measure of actual work being done by the body. A heart-rate monitor can be an invaluable tool in monitoring the actual amount of work, and developing the aerobic system.

  9. You can’t drink too many fluids during a long run

    Yes, you can. Drinking too much can be as dangerous (or more) than dehydration. Hyponatremia is a dangerous depletion of sodium levels caused by the combination of sweating and excessive water intake. The important thing is to find the optimum amount of fluids for your body.

  10. Running is only for the young

    One of the finishers in the 2011 Virginia Warrior Dash, a grueling obstacle course, was an 86-year-old woman. There is no arbitrary age limit for running, or even beginning to run, if eased into intelligently and carefully. No one seemed a more unlikely runner than me the day I began. Now it’s a way of life for me, and I feel better than I did twenty years ago as a non-runner.

Note: Besides revisiting these topics in more depth in the blog, I am writing a book covering all this and much, much more, which will be available on this site in April 2012 (possibly earlier).