(Written 21-23 December 2014)
Hey, this is long. At 10,300 words this is damn long for a blog post. Normally I might fashion this into a short e-book but it’s too darned informal. I’m kinda just getting a lot out at once.
Yeah, I talk a ton about myself in this. Maybe that isn’t so sexy- I don’t know. As always, though, the point is to show you what is possible, to see how my experiences might be generalized, and for us both to wonder what more is possible. This ain’t just some journal, baby.
The basic points of this piece are: there are always better way to do things and you must experiment to find out; efficiency is key to a good life and synergizes with purpose; efficiency is largely about simplification and focus; the healthier your diet is the broader your sensible calorie range is; two equally-effective approaches to diet change are gradual and quick (depending on your needs); eating slower and appreciating your food can help with portion control; inspiration and efficiency can complement rather than degrade one another; true efficiency is an act of self-love rather than punishment or mere discipline; and forget what the majority is (are?) doing because it’s probably suboptimal.
This is a compilation of many thoughts regarding physical health that have been floating around in me for a while, particularly in regards to my own health. Primarily I discuss diet and endurance training, in addition to sleep, cold and heat tolerance, fasting, and more general exercise and recreation.
Sections: Efficiency in Physical Training - Optimization and Being a Nutcase (sort of) - More on Food (and Performance) - Just Food Now - But What the Heck is Health Anyway? - Beyond the Physical in Physical Health - Efficiency and Fundamentals - Efficiency, Simplification, and Meaning - Ending: The Beauty of Efficiency
in Physical Training
A substantial force behind efficiency is motivation. When I’m in a sleep-orientation and don’t want to go out and live how do you expect me to take faster showers, for instance?
It seems to me that movement and being outside first thing in the morning can make you feel stronger for the rest of the day. Rather than fearing cold and life and effort you have already faced these things for the day, and you know they are not at all as scary as they may seem. They are friendly, in fact.
In about a month I will be embracing movement, nature, and cold weather at a 100 mile race- specifically, the Beast of Burden in Lockport, New York. Several months ago I told myself I probably wasn’t going to do it. I lied. They’ve already taken my money—that means there’s no escape now.
I like to run as recreation, yet the exercise component of it consists in my needing to be prepared for a 100 mile race. Thus I cannot simply dilly dally- instead, I must do my best to be efficient.
I think I will consult my Summer training logs, considering that I had about 40 days to train for 100K (62.1 miles) and I now, from yesterday, have about 35 days to train for Beast. Of course, that’s almost a week less and 38 miles more, so efficiency is key.
I suspect efficiency principles can most easily be used at the gym. What body composition do I need and how can I get there most efficiently? The distance and snow mean that ankle strength is of incredible importance. I already have an ankle-strength routine which I know to be quick yet highly effective, so I will simply have to attend to this on a near-daily basis. Perhaps I will see what additions or variations I can make on it.
How about calves- do I want big calves? What I do know is that I need muscles that last. Does this mean I should aim for more reps? I felt that lifting relatively-heavy over the Summer was quite helpful to my ends- particularly running up hills. Quad strengthening does magic for running uphill. I don’t have any hills in this race and I know that may alter my needs considerably.
I’m not sure whether I want massive legs. I suspect that my play with explosive power the last week of school was highly effective at increasing muscle mass in a short period of time. This is likely because I do not exercise explosive power such often; for much of my life I’ve focused on endurance. It’s only been in about the last year that I’ve begun to emphasize strength more. I suppose that was a huge benefit of my injury last year: I came to love the gym much more, and it has done wonders for me.
I suspect one easy thing I can do which may yield greater effects than I currently realize is sitting less. Perhaps ideally I would be running every instance that I can reasonably do so (i.e. without doing more damage than good to myself), but I don’t think I’ll be doing that.
Certainly when I do sit I can stop myself from crossing my legs- which is tempting due to the warmth it creates. But how often should I stand? Should I stand during meals? Every second possible? I know it isn’t viable when I eat, based on the messiness of most of my meals. ;P
When I am doing something such as writing, perhaps I can place my laptop somewhere higher- such as my dresser- and stand to work. An issue with this is that my feet may hurt and legs get tight- this has been my experience so far today.
I think your exact positioning matters a lot, however, and I certainly wasn’t standing normally. A high desk at which the computer meets you at eye-level is likely ideal. “Desk” entails that the bottom is open, versus a dresser where the bottom is closed. A desk is almost all surface. I will have to test.
I think increased sunlight can do a lot for motivation and a sense of liveliness and strength. It’s funny that I write this on the shortest day of the year, though the sun is absolutely beaming through my window right now. Catching just a few minutes of sun on my near-6 hour run yesterday made me feel happy.
I know the 12-15 hours of darkness I will have to run through a month from today may prove to be more challenging than I expect. I’ve never run for more than about 2.5 hours of darkness. This is something I will have to prepare for (when I won’t get my ass kicked for it). However, running at night under a full moon is like a romantic night out to dinner and in bed for me, so I should be fine.
Just seeing the sun makes me want to go outside, which I am apt to soon do (unless I get caught up in ideas here).
In addition to optimizing my muscles for 100 straight miles of running I must get acclimatized to the cold. I expect to be subjected to temperatures in the range of -10 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and for all I know I will be blizzard-ed on for 30 consecutive hours.
I’ve been trying to think in the mindset of, If the majority do things like this, then how should I do things? The implication there, of course, is that I do things differently from the majority.
So for one thing the majority of people lock themselves inside for most of Winter with doors and windows shut and heat on. Maybe, then, I can keep my window open most of the time. I haven’t been as good with this lately as I used to, but what if instead of just cracking my window I open it as much as possible?
Another: most people go outside in Winter bundled up. So what if I go out in as little clothing as possible? What if I spend just 10-20 minutes outside each day in a T-shirt and shorts? I could arrive home from a run, strip, and take a lap around the block. Maybe I could even roll in the snow, too.
One of my biggest fears with cold-weather training is cold injury. As far as I’m aware, when a body part is afflicted with severe cold it becomes more susceptible to cold in the future. Yesterday the inner part of each knee was in pain- evidently from cold- when I got home, though I had no idea while I was running. If I had been out much longer, might I have taken significant damage in those areas?
It seems to me that acclimatizing to the heat is easier than doing so with cold, but maybe I am believing wrongly here. Just the thought of those Eskimos always amazes me. Clearly they know something I don’t.
Optimization and Being a Nutcase (sort of)
About 2 and a half years ago- the Summer before my junior year- I went running everyday almost as soon as I woke up. On many days I woke up between 11 and 1—this meant that I went running during the hottest part of the day. During that Cross Country season and Winter I felt that this hot-weather training did wonders not only for my heat tolerance but also for cold tolerance. It was also in my junior year that I made major dietary changes, and I felt this increased my tolerance both ways as well.
It was also in my junior year that I did my time with Ana, AKA anorexia nervosa. Believe me- Ana will change your experience not only of hunger, but also cold. This became most apparent to me at a Track meet that went long into the night, to the effect that I began the 3000 meter run at 11:30 P.M. It wasn’t my strongest effort but, man, there is nothing like running under a full moon. This is especially true when you’re half naked and it’s about 40 degrees out (possibly less). Oh, and don’t forget me being a skeleton, of course.
Anyway, what I experienced that night was that the cold plunges deeper into me now. As I sat on the bleachers shivering I knew that to shiver in itself is not to be cold. Shivering is just movement, and I can handle that. There’s no suffering in it. The prickle of cold on my skin- what of it? It’s just a feeling. But as the night wore on I felt the cold pierce into my bones. Now that was new to me. I certainly didn’t have severe frostbite- I think I would know if I did. But I think it was like my cold response was staggered and stunted. Instead of just feeling the cold on the outside of me and having a reaction shortly thereafter, it had to really hit home. That takes some time.
The best way I can explain it is to liken it to how I have come to experience hunger. Most people I know feel hungry a few hours (maybe 3-5) after that last ate and they say, “I’m so starving! If I don’t get food I’m gonna die!” My abnormal psychology professor said that “Most Americans know appetite but not hunger.” This response is characteristic of appetite, which we can perhaps call a simple desire for food. Maybe these people overreact to appetite for the very reason that they do not know hunger.
In contrast, since becoming friends with Ana exactly 2 years ago (heh heh, I just checked an old diary) I never say that words “I am hungry.” I don’t think I have once. Ever. I just haven’t felt that I can honestly say so.
You see, when Ana is your homegirl you know that if your just wait through the hunger pangs they go away. You don’t even have to wait that long: just a couple hours. Then as long as you keep busy enough you should basically feel fine for a while. You might even get a boost in mental clarity, depending on how long it’s been and what you’re doing. If you’re going to do something sedentary you’re best to lay down, to conserve energy. It seems harder to detect hunger when you lay down.
The more you practice this the better you get at it. This means that your body is better able to maintain itself in the face of fasting (i.e. you lose less weight less quickly). You can comfortably go longer without food for longer periods. As this practice wears on you become less and less sensitive to feelings of hunger. That sense of appetite a few hours after a meal means less to you. You know on a deep level that you don’t have to do much about it, and it doesn’t last as long.
To me the sense of appetite, like the typical sense of cold, is felt on the outside. My experience of cold and hunger instead happen deep down within me. Hunger isn’t something I just feel in my stomach—it’s all over me. At the same time, it’s a process happening in my core.
One way I typically experience hunger is the glow. This was a near-constant when I was friends (well, best friends, at least) with Ana. Nowadays I feel it in night class when I haven’t eaten in 8-10 hours or when I have eaten little in about that timeframe. It doesn’t always come up, however. I think the glow is just blood rushing through my head—I really don’t have scientific terminology for it right now. But it isn’t quite what most people call “light-headed,” which entails feeling weak and disoriented.
I call it the glow because Ana made me think that through being her friend I was growing spiritually. I thought a holy light was shining around my head, similar to a halo. I thought that by denying myself Earthly pleasures I was turning into a saint. Thus, we have the glow.
This was how I knew on my run yesterday when it was time to eat. I’ve heard that in cold conditions it’s more difficult to sense when you need to take in water and electrolytes. I’m not sure this is all that went into my experience, though. I suspect a semester of getting used to not eating for 8-12 hours on a daily basis and working out in that timeframe played a role in my fasting abilities improving. Normally I eat by the time I’ve been out for 4 hours, but yesterday I didn’t until 5 hours. I felt the glow shine through my back, and I could tell that it was not cold but rather an old friend. That’s when I figured I should stick half a Triscuit and a blueberry in my mouth. Within the next 45 minutes I was out I had another half-cracker and a blueberry, and that was all. I felt fine. I ran about 27.6 miles in that time, just to clarify.
While on the theme of going against the grain, I know the majority of runners eat much, much sooner into their run than 4-5 hours. This is one place where I differ. If I know I’ll be running less than 20 miles I don’t bother at all with food and water. Less than 30 and I still don’t care for water.
On race day these policies tend to change, in that I drink and eat a bit more a bit earlier. It’s tough to say because I’ve only raced one 100K (62.1 miles), and my next longest racing distance is 10 miles. Yup, I’ve got nothin’ for 52.1 miles. The folks at Green Lake enjoyed hearing that one J Still, if I’m not mistaken I took only a bit of food before mile 20 and very little water before mile 30 (i.e. about 2 sips).
I think my history of nutrient-deprivation has been helpful to my ultrarunning. I know that might sound disgusting to say, but it’s hard for me to not see a link between the two. Surely without Ana and my fasted, hot Summer-afternoon runs I wouldn’t last as long as I do without nutrition. Depriving yourself of nutrients makes you better at depriving yourself of nutrients.
Perhaps that predisposed me to becoming friends with Ana, even, though I’m more skeptical of this. It certainly made our friendship easier. Most runners I know who are mutual friends of Ana have passed out after only a short distance. I, on the other hand, enjoyed a handful of 12 mile runs with Ana by my side- no sweat. I have never passed out in my life.
I know, I know, I might be sounding creepy here. But what if we look at this from another angle? I’m not doing as well socially as I am athletically, but I have a nice, solid history of relative solitude for pretty much my whole life. Sometimes when I talk to people (particularly those I don’t live with) I leave them with a sense of catharsis (relief) and comfort. It’s a nice warm, fuzzy feeling. I’ve only started to notice it the last few months. Particularly with beautiful women (sorry, I must be biased) I highly value conversation- even if it doesn’t happen incredibly often.
This might be easier to understand on a smaller time-scale. Whenever I go on a long run I inevitably go at least a few miles- sometimes even hours- at a stretch without seeing people. Yes, this includes cars (though not houses). The result? When I do see another person- particularly one who is not in a vehicle-, I immediately get excited and think, “Holy shrimp! A person! This is amazing!!!”
Relief is the word I feel describes this. When you run for a couple hours in the woods and through fields and are then met by a small crowd cheering you on, you can’t help but think, Whoa. I think this rocks.
It’s simple contrast, folks. Whether you wish to call it suffering or living near the relative-extremes, deprivation has endowed me with ability and appreciation. How do you think Victor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning and did such an excellent job with it? He lived for years in a place where meaning was both twisted (by his Nazi overlords) and barren. It was through these infringements on meaning that he was better able to not only value it, but develop a whole method of therapy centered on it (this is called logotherapy if you’re interested).
More on Food (and Performance)
Unfortunately, since Ana and I have parted ways I’ve developed the opposite problem, and now have difficulty keeping myself from eating excessively. This problem was most potent about 11 months ago, when I had a swollen ankle and couldn’t run at all—I think I overate out of general sadness and lack of fulfillment. Instead of having running to excite me I guess I had food. I’ve put on 18 pounds since my days with Ana and weigh about 9 more than I did before we became friends.
I will admit that I seem to have trapped myself in a cycle of sorts. I think I go so long between meals most of the time that my body freaks out at feeding-time and doesn’t want to stop once it starts. This is classic of starvation mode.
Maybe past experience has ingrained fear into me. During my anorexia days I would eat a ton at dinnertime- I would eat until my back hurt (that hasn’t happened at all since then, thank God)- yet I gained no weight. I didn’t think of myself as anorexic because of this massive dinner.
For the typical American I don’t think protein deficiency is a problem- I think we tend to blow up the protein issue (ahem, vegetarians)- but for myself I was convinced this was the case. If I remember correctly most of that “massive dinner” was me spoon-feeding myself peanut butter, along with a banana. I think I ate a lot but it was not nutritionally sound. That might have just been dinner, though: the rest of the day (again, if my memory isn’t shot) was wheat-based cereal, a few blueberries, a slice of bread, some lettuce, and some peppers. Maybe there was an apple and some granola in there too.
Believe me- you can eat and eat and eat and never feel full. That’s why I ate until the point of intense pain.
This is why the “calories in, calories out” idea does not work (I discuss this more below). Sometimes when I snack on crackers or chips immediately following a meal the feeling of fullness in me disappears. I think nutritionally I’m better off with whatever was on my plate, perhaps unless I ran quite a ways that day.
I suspect this to be the trouble of many Americans, both overweight and underweight: they eat a lot, but they are hardly nourishing themselves. Without thinking, then, they just keep shoving it in.
I must clarify that my overeating doesn’t consist at all of calories that Americans generally consider bad—sometimes when I tell people about this problem they imagine me having a cheeseburger and candy fest. I must also clarify that I am 5’ 2” and weigh 105 pounds, so I’m not exactly overweight.
In about the last year I’ve fluctuated between 101 and 105 pounds, but it doesn’t matter- I know that overeating still cannot be good for me. Even if I don’t actually eat that much in a day the amount I take in at one time may be highly unhealthy, and it would be better spread out throughout the day to reduce the stress on my body. That, or I could just have my first meal later, which I tend to do on non-school days. I have no trouble with this and it typically works out well. Problem solved?
On the upside of things, you can see my abs now! J
I do think there’s a general idea that weight is everything, though this is not the case. In my younger years my friends used to encourage me to eat junk food because, according to them, I “needed it” to put on weight. I used to be much thinner than I am now, in part due to a lack of exercise (no muscles). I can tell you, however, that I was not healthy at all: I had just enough health to scrape by unnoticed. And thankfully so, or else I may have been drugged.
Likewise, some of my friends think that running gives them permission to eat as much as and whatever they want. One such friend is a national cross country championship runner-up and has a rock hard 6-pack of abs—I don’t really know what to say about that. The others vary in talent. I know plenty of people who are faster than me and plenty who probably never will be. Most- nearly all- of my female friends have never run farther than a half marathon (13.1), and the dudes never farther than a marathon (26.2 miles). But maybe they just plain don’t want to run farther, so that may not speak to performance.
I’m not sure how much of an effect diet has on performance. You would think it’s massive, but in my personal observations it almost seems negligible. I know that sounds ridiculous but as far as I can tell most of my peers have terrible diets, yet some fare just fine on the field or the track or wherever they are. Likewise, my fastest days on the track coincided with my eating processed meats, refined grains, and unforgiving desserts.
Now that I’ve banished all those foods completely, well, I’m not exactly faster. I like to think, however, they help me with ultrarunning. My motivation for overhauling my diet was to alleviate gastrointestinal (GI) pain, which I struggled with immensely for the first 16 years of my life (yes, even as a baby!). GI distress can be a massive problem in ultrarunning, and I thankfully have more or less evaded it up to this point. That’s a far cry from moaning with pain after racing 3000 meters (1.87 miles).
Of course, plenty of ultrarunners eat like shit, just like my teenage peers do. You wouldn’t believe the amount of soda the race-workers brought to the 100K—I was amazed and disgusted. Perhaps the idea is that it doesn’t matter what calories you put in your body as long as you get the calories. Strangely enough, the conventional health-thought in America says the same: calories in should equal calories out. If you put more in than you put out you’ll get fat, and that’s that.
There seems to be a shift now toward the idea of good calories and bad calories. Perhaps I’ve only noticed it as I’ve made the shift myself in these last two years (or maybe that’s just reality changing! Ooh). I think my diet would be considered healthy by the mass of people, but I don’t really feel like it is. Maybe I’m being hard on myself but I know I can do better.
I think my biggest problem is how much I eat at one time- my resulting lack of mental clarity alerts me to that- but I’ll say more on that in a minute. The content of my food also bothers me, primarily in regards to carbohydrates. On a typical day the only simple carbohydrates I consume are from fruit (yes, there is not a drop of added sugar in my diet), but combined with the amount of complex carbohydrates I eat I can’t help but feel that I eat too many carbs.
I only eat wheat in the form of two slices of bread each day and maybe 3 servings of pasta each week, but it still seems like too much. I just can’t get the idea out of my head that gluten is killing my brain and stomach. I just can’t reject the idea that most of my diet should be composed of fats. Logically and emotionally it makes too much sense to me.
I will tell you that I am an almost-vegan. This means that I eat one serving of organic, grass-fed meat each month, one egg per week, and about one serving of yogurt every 2-3 months. Those numbers have been coming down very steadily in about the last 8 months.
This is in stark contrast to the sudden purge of added sugars from my diet almost 2 years ago, though I will say both the quick and the gradual approach have worked out nicely for me. The quick change was excellent for eliminating the stuff that did nothing but bad for me. The gradual change is nice for phasing out food which isn’t explicitly bad for me but I’d prefer not to eat for other reasons (e.g. environmental).
It’s in the realm of saturated fats, then, that I experience cognitive dissonance. I know they’re good for me but I don’t want to eat the things they came from.
Still, that’s no excuse for unsaturated fats. I’ve got peanut butter, sunflower seed butter, sunflower seeds, nuts (including peanuts), ground chia and flax seeds, and canola oil on my side, but is it enough? Now that I write that out it doesn’t sound so lacking, but I think it’s just the act of eating grains in itself that’s bothering me. Aside from the protein and caloric contributions I’m not sure whether it’s exactly good for me.
To drive the fat-idea and make the previous section sound less crazy, efficiency in eating is absolutely crucial to elite ultrarunners. Eating may even be what determines who beats who at the front of the pack. This is best exemplified by the runner Zachary Bitter, who restricts carbohydrates and instead focuses on eating a high-fat diet. There’s more complexity to his diet than this (it’s really interesting, by the way!), but this alone certainly departs from the stereotypical carbo-loading pasta fest, thought maybe it’s just those silly marathoners who do that (sorry guys).
Whatever the case, the man certainly is on to something. Zach claims that because of his diet he doesn’t have to eat as much as other people during races. He eats more carbs than usual when he races, but between events he can return to his normal low-carb diet without issue. Zach, by the way, is just some weirdo who happens to hold the world record for the longest distance run in 12 hours (101.7 miles), and the previous holder of that record was some other weirdo named Yiannis Kouros, who was not at all significant. ;)
The most certain thing I can say about fasting and running is that, if you run first thing in the morning, it is ideal to finish your last meal of the day about 12 hours before you plan on leaving. To go roughly this time in between meals- particularly with most of that time take up by sleep- is known (I believe) as intermittent fasting.
It seems to me that finishing dinner earlier helps me to wake up earlier, too, and feel more refreshed. Sometimes when I finish dinner at 10 P.M. (or later!) I wake up at 8:30 A.M. (late for Kim!) feeling like a train-wreck, though that may just be the result of community college. Heheheh.
To be blunt, I’ve noticed (and potentially made up) a phenomenon I call the “12-hour poop.” Seriously, it just happens right on schedule. If you get that out before you go you will have a fantastic run. If you need convincing this is exactly what I did before I ran 100K- which began at 6 A.M.- and I had absolutely no G.I. issues. Not one. I barely even had to go during the race. Simply put, to not have to poop during a run- a 62.1 mile run no less- is a beautiful thing.
Just Food Now
Sorry about mixing the food conversation with poop. Heh. Anyway, I’ve often wondered if a high fat diet is more efficient than one higher in carbs. A diet of high-quality fats, it would seem, would require you to eat less because each gram of food is more nutritionally-packed. As it ties in with Zach’s story, this makes sense. As for myself, I don’t know. It’s hard not to spoon-feed myself a lot of peanut butter, but maybe it’s not the best I can do in high-quality. That, or I just eat out of discomfort.
At the same time I wonder whether raw veganism may be ideal for me: many of their calories, I presume, must be derived from nuts and seeds, which are high in fat. At the same time, they dodge cooked foods yet may benefit from preparing their foods in other ways. Their diets are high in vegetables and they still get to enjoy fruits. In addition, they avoid animal products as well as grains. As long as they get enough calories, vitamins, and minerals, I can’t imagine that being so bad- no?
I’ve heard several near-Paleo dieters say that the removal of fruit is no issue. I’ve also heard of people who feel like Jesus once they go fruitarian, ultrarunners included. How the heck does this work? It’s easiest to conclude what Victor Frankl said in Man’s Search for Meaning: Man can get used to anything, but I do not know how. Take that from the man who survived a Holocaust concentration camp.
Anyway, I think the almost-vegan is at least halfway decent in regards to nutrition. I still get those boosts of vitamins and minerals harder to find in plants (iron, magnesium, B12) without the potential drawbacks of consuming animal products. As far as I know I’ve never been deficient in anything, except maybe calories and protein when I was friends with Ana.
I’m aware that most of the problems regarding animal products are related to modern agriculture and food-processing, as well as the fact that we simply eat too much.
On that note I want to return to calories. We all know that beyond a point calories do more harm to us than good- even though we need them. I’ve heard multiple times that restricting calories is correlated with longevity (which entails reduced metabolic diseases, such as heart disease and stroke) as well as fewer calories burned. Basically, this means that someone who consumes less energy uses less energy. I should know from my own calorie-restricting days.
If the food we eat is healthy, does that give us permission to eat more, or does that mean we can get away with eating less? It may be both. Through my own trials and tribulations I’ve observed the latter: when I made quick changes in my diet I believed it was okay for me to eat less due to increased overall nutrition. I also had the sense that I could sleep less with fewer sanctions because the increased nutrition made up for the sleep deficit.
On the contrary, during my biphasic sleep trial I wondered whether I slept more on the days when I ate less (this was during healthy eating days). Also contrary to my thought is a post by Steve Pavlina some time ago, in which he said that he could eat more calories as his diet improved without weight gain. However, I am starting to see that our ideas do not have to conflict. In addition, I have no idea what he might think now. The healthier your diet is, the larger your sensible calorie range is. I like the sound of that! J
You know how I said I’ve heard of studies which show that calorie restriction is related to longevity? Well, I’ve also heard of a study in which a high percentage of those calories were sugar, and that relationship was not observed. This suggests, basically, that sugar does not serve us well. I know studies are sensitive, tricky stuff, but that certainly ties into the healthy-calories idea I’m having here.
If we should eat fewer calories, then what the heck makes us crave more and more food? Why are so many Americans dying from conditions related to eating too many calories? Might it be the type of calories they’re consuming? I think that is a massive part of it, but it’s hard to say precisely what calories are the problem.
Many will point to grains and sugars—I definitely agree on sugar. But conventional thought points to fat, and Kim points to those snarky food additives (think MSG, preservatives, and other crazy stuff you can’t pronounce) for a lot of our problems, as well as drugs. Still others wonder about exposure to excessive hormones (particularly estrogen) and other environmental toxins, such as heavy metals and the nitrates and phosphates in synthetic farm fertilizers.
In a profit-focused society of millions of people who subsist on mass industrial agriculture, there is so much that can go wrong. It’s the kind of thing most people don’t really want to think about, so they don’t.
But What the Heck is Health Anyway?
There are many, many metrics by which you can measure physical health. You can look at weight, fat percentage, body mass index (BMI), calorie intake, calories burned, resting heartrate, heartrate variability, bone density, and the endless possibilities from blood tests, such as levels of different hormones and minerals. You can go even simpler and base your judgments on how you look and feel.
The field of nutrition science is in such disarray that it’s pretty much fair and open game for everyone. I suggest you take a look at different metrics for yourself and weigh them against your overall quality of living.
In other words, how well do these measures of physical health match up to how you feel? Are you capable of running 100 miles despite weighing over 200 pounds? In that case weight may not be the most important metric in your life. Or, do you weigh 110 pounds but can’t run 100 miles? In that case your endurance abilities (at least, on their own) might not speak much to your health.
I’m aware of the thought that lengthy aerobic exercise isn’t good for you. I know that running long and hard can stretch your cardiac tissue and create undesirable heart conditions which I’ve forgotten the names of. I know that being able to run 62+ miles in one day doesn’t on its own mean that I’m healthy. In fact, it might just be a sign of me doing unnecessary damage to myself. But can’t this speak for something? And if it doesn’t, it at least adds life to my years. I know that.
What I really want to ask in this section is Who the hell defines health? Science regarding humans, if I am correct, usually tries to gauge off the majority of people. But who the hell is in the majority? Am I? Are you? Is my mom? Dr. Phil? Tim Ferriss? Your grandpa? As far as I’m concerned, “the majority” is just an idea. I can’t see them. Yeah, I know it’s 51% of the population, but that population is but a thought in my mind. It’s just another aspect of consciousness.
How can we have any idea if any of us are healthy at all? We’re so far removed from our ancestors, and health for them was probably just surviving. How can we be sure that we ought to emulate them, at least as far as diet goes? How can we even know that they were healthy? What if we’re all way below the potential of maximum health, and we just look okay? Somehow I suspect this to be the case.
What determines the line between healthy and unhealthy calorie restriction? How can people all over the world live undernourished for years, while I near death over the course of just 3-6 months of calorie restriction? Hell, even in my anorexia days I probably still ate more than 50% of the world does. How come American athletes (such as myself) feel deprived if they only eat 2/3 of the usual one day, while most people around the world eat half (or less) of what that athlete usually does? And less nutritionally, at that?
Just to clarify, I didn’t mean to paint too rosy a picture of my friendship with Ana earlier in this piece. If you’ve read my About page you know that I went to bed each night of that relationship feeling my heartbeat flutter and wondering if she was going to kill me. I certainly experienced some of the ecstasy that comes with starvation, but most of those months were filled with me hoping for nothing but my next meal.
If you start playing with diet and fasting and notice yourself getting a little too skinny, please stop and take care of yourself. Don’t beat yourself up about “doing it wrong”- the experiment is not worth your life. Trust me- you know when skinny is too skinny. Just as being too big messes with your heart, so does being too small. When that starts to get affected- and you will feel it when it does- it is time to stop depriving yourself.
Anyway, you must understand that while comparisons can provoke thought they speak little to possibility and true quality. My diet’s being supposedly “better” than that of most people I know wins me no prize. I don’t get to check out of the health game just because I play it better than most. In sports the top competitors go as long as their bodies will allow them to, trying to improve themselves as much as they can. It doesn’t matter that only a handful of people in the whole world match up: it’s about becoming the best they can be. Mastering life has little to do with mastering others.
Perhaps looking at health more holistically will help us to
understand physical health.
Beyond the Physical in Physical Health
If you’ve read my other work you may know by now that I don’t like to look outside myself too long to find a place for blame. In spite of all these issues of the modern world I believe each one of us is still responsible for our individual health.
When I’m up against a physically-based problem for long I usually throw out all the physical stuff and focus on the deeper meaning. Certainly there are others who think that the general theme of disconnection of modern America contributes to our health problems. If consciousness is primary then surely it plays the biggest role in our physical health.
For instance, when I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning I don’t first look to whether I slept enough, but rather whether I have a sufficient sense of purpose for this day. Have I planned activities for myself which make sense to me, or are my hours going to be squandered doing things that don’t matter?
Believe me- when I have a fun night out with my friends and have more fun to look to the next day 4-5 hours sleep does me justice. The first and only night I spent with a woman I had no desire to sleep. 3 hours was more than enough (sadly this was not so for her). 18 hours without food was absolutely nothing. I didn’t need the food.
Food is comforting. If people are unfulfilled and are dragging around a lot of emotional baggage, doesn’t it make sense for them to turn to food if they don’t know where else to turn? It’s a quick, stimulating fix. Sadly, though, this is a positive feedback loop. As people become more attached to their vices they become more detached from life. Yeah, this includes their devices as well. Sorry folks.
Thus, I like to think that the overall quality of your life is more important to your health than focusing on your physical health in itself. You absolutely should still focus on your physical health. Don’t ever say I don’t think that’s important. You’re talking to the girl who hasn’t had a drop of ice cream in almost 2 years and needs fresh air to stay sane (well, relatively).
You must bring the mental and emotional aspects to your diet, too. I think another issue experienced by the mass of Americans is that they eat so damn quick. They eat while driving and in a rush to move on to the next thing—how can you even enjoy what you’re eating?
I think the reason some people eat so much is that they don’t really get to enjoy the experience of eating, so they eat more and more to compensate. Slow down and be grateful for the amount of food on your plate- however much it may be. Sometimes I have a hard time with this, worried that there isn’t enough, but I know there’s no need to feel that way. Use foresight (to see through fear and shame) and love (gratitude) to help you here.
As far as more emotional approaches go, a key to portion control is to love yourself. When you use eating as a way to check out or numb out of life for a while you are saying that you aren’t good enough for this life. As I wrote in How Do You Shine?, you aren’t just some suction cup meant to consume things here. You are a creative being worthy of and able to live a beautiful life.
When you take your seat at the table, have integrity. Keep your consciousness about you—this isn’t an excuse to nod off and daydream with your face in a place. This food is a privilege meant to fuel your creative endeavors, and this privilege should not be abused. Don’t beat yourself up if you do—pretty much all of us have in some form. Just resolve to do better next time.
You aren’t some scrappy, bottom-of-the-food-chain kid who should feel guilty about getting to eat—guilt and shame might just make portion control even harder. Rather, see the food as a gift which, in the right amounts (which is ultimately up to you to figure out) will serve you well.
You must know that physical health is not everything. The first 13 years of my life it was probably the biggest thing I could have used to improve my quality of life. Embracing it did indeed improve the quality of my life. But when I was ready to be dead, I wasn’t eating ice cream then, either. I had also won two league championship titles in track a few days before wishing for death, so, you know. Just something to keep in mind.
Even so, exploring physical health can be incredibly fun. Really that’s why we’re here in this physical reality: to grow through the challenges it poses. We can be very serious in these explorations, but at the same time understand that these challenges are ultimately here to help us. J
Efficiency and Fundamentals
Man, lately my attempts at journaling keep turning into articles. Though it’s less focused on me- which the point of journaling is- I get to serve people and resolve the issue I started writing for. Woohoo! J
That ties write into the theme of efficiency I started this piece with. I’m killin’ two birds with one stone here. That arguably is what my whole [emerging] business model is based on: serve myself, serve others. Develop myself, help others to develop. Enjoy myself, help others to enjoy themselves. All in one. Ain’t that magical? This exemplifies the work-play overlap I discussed in Work, Play, and Purpose.
I suspect that efficiency involves embracing a few fundamentals, both of the task at hand and efficiency itself. Whenever you’re lacking somewhere I’d like to think you can almost always water the problem down to basics.
If I may promote myself, for instance, if your life feels “off” you can look to the principles of Honesty, Openness, Adventure, Foresight, and Love. Is there something you aren’t being upfront about, whether to yourself or other people? Are you rejecting a possibility, or something that is already here? Are your days too monotonous, predictable, and lacking in growth? Is your thinking inaccurate or narrow? Are you withdrawn from life? There are other questions you could ask regarding these principles, but these alone might serve you well.
To look at something more concrete, Tim Ferris (who inspired this piece, by the way) says there are roughly 1000 Japanese characters you can learn to be able to understand the language sufficiently. Even simpler than that is, for most languages, you can get major leverage out of learning the auxiliary verbs, such as, “I like,” “I want,” “I need,” “I have.” Based on those you are apt to learn hundreds of more words. I apologize if I’m inaccurate in this report since I haven’t toyed with other languages much these last few years, but ain’t that cool?
Even if I’m not totally right, I know that at essence the 80-20 principle works here. What’s the least you can learn to get the most results? That’s the point of learning the particular characters and verbs.
They’re like keystone habits, which I maybe-not-sure made reference to in Loving the Behavioral Perspective. By taking on one new habit other aspects of your life improve. This is seen most potently with exercise: coincidentally, as you habitualize exercise your diet improves as do sleep and general productivity, and you spend less time sitting around staring and screens (like you are right now). Don’t even remind me of my elementary school, TV-watching, junk food-eating, constantly-sick, couch potato days. Yuck. Bad times.
As I stated at the beginning of this piece, emotional state is crucial to efficiency. By this I mean how you feel- happy, sad, angry, etc.- and basically whether and how well the task resonates with you.
For instance, it seems to me that going to sleep feeling well is much more efficient that going to sleep to escape for a while because your mind feels like a wreck, which is the state I go to bed in half the time. When you go to sleep in a good mood you are more likely to wake up earlier and feeling refreshed. You’re more ready to take on the day.
On the other hand, when you go to bed feeling badly it’s harder to get out of bed. As a rule of thumb I’d say you typically wake up feeling as you did when you went to bed. I’ve experienced this more profoundly when undergoing surgery that requires that I get knocked out, but it seems to hold for sleep, too.
This rule may also hold more strongly for biphasic rather than monophasic sleep, but sadly I cannot recall too well right now. From a quick look at my biphasic sleep log it appears that I slept most soundly and woke up around an ideal time (before about 5:45) when I meditated before sleep and either fell asleep during it or felt well during it. Near the end of the trial I wrote, “Basically slept through the whole recording so getting to sleep afterward was no problem. Sleeping during meditation is so light- I awaken feeling refreshed, not heavy.”
Efficiency, Simplification, and Meaning
A massive part of efficiency is simplification: get rid of what you don’t need. In any variation on polyphasic sleep (including biphasic sleep) you should only lay down, for instance, when you are ready to sleep. During my biphasic sleep trial I would sometimes lay down 20-30 minutes earlier than intended (goal sleep time was midnight) to meditate or read, but the aim of those was to help me sleep better, and they usually were at least fairly effective.
In business focus is incredibly important. Take too much time to attending to the things that generate the least results for you and you will fail. Constantly look to what you could do right now that would generate the highest quality results.
Perhaps this is similar to stripping away meaning, as I discussed in The Search for Meaning. Get rid of all the interpretations that don’t serve you and don’t really make sense to you. Being in touch with what it meaningful to you is key to maintaining efficiency. In this way you can easily get rid of all the objects that are really just clutter (taking up space) and stop doing things that aren’t important. What is important is up to you.
As for ultramarathon training, it’s tough to say. At first thought it seems that no amount of preparation is too much. I recently read a race report by a woman who competed in the Beast of Burden 100 miler (as I soon will be) and she registered only 5 days before the race; she claims to have been running 40 miles a week before that point. For comparison, in my 13 weeks of Summer training leading up to the 100K, about 10 were over 40. The log is lost on me right now, but at least 4 were over 60 (and 2 were over 80).
It would, of course, help to know her training better detail, but hey, maybe 40 miles a week really is all you need to run 100 miles. For myself I feel, looking back, that I trained just the right amount for 100K, but could I have gotten away with less? Probably.
But when it comes to tasks that have a lot of ambiguity in how you can approach them, purpose becomes important. My training was just right for me because it challenged me consistently, and at the same time it was highly gratifying. It developed me in just the ways I didn’t know I wanted it to.
Through my training I was able to practice general efficiency (since the runs were lengthy and the sleep and food crucial), explore altered states of consciousness- namely my unbreakable belief in my abilities- and forge a better relationship with myself and with this planet. Through this process I became more understanding of and kinder to myself, and I was also able to see that this world is much gentler and more beautiful than I before was able to comprehend.
By “kinder to myself” I don’t mean that I turned into a pussy and shielded myself from all possible woes: rather, I would acknowledge my pain and fears when they came up rather than beat myself up about them and try to accept how I was feeling.
You absolutely need to stay relaxed when you are running long distances, both during the run and between runs. The point is not to avoid all potentially stressful stimuli, but rather to do your best from within to keep yourself feeling well emotionally. Most important to this is purging your mind of meanings and stories which don’t serve you, as these are the most plentiful sources of anxiety. Remember that anxiety comes from “in here,” more so than “out there.”
When ultrarunning you need efficiency in thought: only think those thoughts which serve you or which you absolutely must. Don’t turn yourself into a mindless drooling running-zombie, but don’t egg on your mind to race senselessly if you have no need for it. Your mental and emotional processes during a run can be absolutely detrimental: it is when you run with fear that your body falls apart. This is why I was in such pain last week after only a 10 mile run.
I’m wondering if a substantial part of all this lengthy training is just easing yourself into the right mindset. That was my experience on my long run a few days ago: As the run progressed my mind steadily became quieter and I was able to communicate with myself more kindly. I know I can do better at this still, as have in the past.
In contrast, on the preceding 10 mile run I tried to strip my mind of meaning immediately, and I panicked at the premise of aimlessness. I was not ready to jump into the correct mindset- I’ve been away from it for too long, and must now get back in touch.
Maybe I didn’t need to run as much as I did to finish the race, but that in itself wasn’t what I was after. I was, of course, in pursuit of my own growth. I did it to become a better version of myself—not just to win some cool stuff (which I do value as well, by the way). I did it because I knew I could and I knew I would bring out unused strengths in the process. Between my present abilities, what I wanted to experience, and how I could grow, it was the perfect challenge. It was definitely aligned with Openness, Adventure, Foresight, and Love, and I certainly had my practice with Honesty (possibly my biggest challenge!), too.
Allow me to note quickly that when I said I struggle with honesty I don’t mean that I lie off my ass to people. That probably wouldn’t be good for business. Rather, I mean that I tend not to reveal the whole truth, particularly about how I’m feeling and what I want. But I’ll spare you all that jazz for now.
Anyway, my overall state of consciousness began to change almost as soon as I resolved to run the race, and the same is happening now with 100 miles. I already feel compelled to simplify my life by getting rid of things I don’t need (which is a lot), to live more efficiently, and to treat myself more kindly.
When I wrote in Cynicism that you should set a big goal which creates changes in you, this is what I meant. The mere act of setting a goal sets you down the path to becoming a better person. It is those types of goals that you just can’t turn down, no matter what opposing forces may pull at you. That resistance just doesn’t have as much of a hold on you anymore. Not when you have drive.
That is the power of purpose.
It is tough to say how you might go against the grain in ultramarathon training because to simply participate in one of these makes you a weirdo, so as far as I’m aware there aren’t many pre-packaged training plans. I don’t know what’s typical aside from running a lot.
I know the likes of Tim Ferriss train as little as possible, but part of the reason that works for him is that he hates running. There may not be much in it for him but experiment and sharing the results of that experiment. I do not mean to undermine his purpose- I think it’s awesome, in fact- but for many who attempt the ultradistance there is much more desired than physical results.
Two days ago I went on a 27.5 mile run, and darn I have been sore. That was my first run over 12 miles since I ran 100K (almost 4 months ago). I’m considering keeping up this trend and basing my training off 1-2 25+ mile runs a week, with some shorter (maybe 5-15 miles) runs here and there mainly to stay on my feet. I would probably increase the length of the long run each week.
I’ll just run long, get sore, then run even longer once I feel well enough. I like to think I could get away with (unless my desire to run more takes over, which is likely) 10 hours per week for training, with at least 4 of those hours piled into one run. Over the Summer Friday was my focus day, usually at 20-24 miles, and then on Saturday I would run about 10-16. The point of these back-to-back long runs was to challenge myself to keep going in spite of some fatigue.
My current potential approach doesn’t ask for back-to-backs, but rather just one long day with a couple solid trips to the gym (to lift) each week. Whether this will be viable I shall find out.
The main point of endurance training, perhaps, is to carefully and continuously place strain on the legs, as this is basically what happens during the race. As for this training plan, it may not be sustainable or even useful, and it may also not be quite what I need, but maybe I’ll give it a go. We’ll see. :)
Ending: The Beauty of Efficiency
In Eat and Run Scott Jurek (perhaps another notable nutcase) wrote that the secret of the Tarahumara- a Native American tribe known for breeding incredible ultrarunners- is efficiency. Out of touch with modern civilization they are lacking in things they don’t need. This includes those darned, good-for-nothing running shoes.
As a result, they run with wonderfully efficient form. They nearly float when they run. Perhaps they have kept in better touch with who they are than most of us in modern America has, and maybe that is key to efficiency. They know precisely what they must do, because they have fewer blocks to their connections with themselves and thus to their clarity (yes, I am merely speculating. I know the Tarahumara don’t lead perfect lives and do have their own share of difficulties).
Efficiency may seem like something reserved for robots, but really adopting it is one of the kindest things you can do for yourself. What’s so heartless about attending only to the things that matter most to you? When our time here is limited, isn’t that precisely what you should be doing?
Trust me- inspiration does not suffocate by the hands of efficiency. Instead, they build off and maybe even facilitate one another. Both like speed and both like you to be aligned with purpose. Inspiration is most likely to come to you when you are already doing what you should be- including acting on inspiration- and it thus requires efficiency. When you slog from one unimportant task from the next the universe sees little use in sending inspiration your way—clearly you will not do well with it.
Don’t ever ever ever feel badly about not living up to someone else’s agenda for you when it doesn’t match your own. Squandering your time checking e-mail is a huge example of this: that’s precisely what those darned senders want you to do—stare at the e-mails they wrote! Unless this means life and death- and by that I mean you’re stuck in a Nazi concentration camp- just don’t do it. What the hell for, to please people? To slip by under the radar, hoping not to cause too much of a ruckus?
Sorry, but true efficiency may just require that you look like a nut sometimes. Or a lot of the time. Doing what everyone else is doing is, in many cases, a waste of time. Don’t feel guilt about standing up for something different. Chances are that if you really care about it, it is probably awesome (or at least has the potential to be). In addition, the more you care about it, the more efficiently with which you will approach not only it, but your life in general. Life gets speedy when you’re aligned with purpose, and consequently you pick up the slack, too.
Whatever the case of your life may be, just make sure you’re an efficient nut—kay? :)
P.S. If you think this article is an act of hypocrisy because it’s about efficiency yet it’s so long, well… I would have written a shorter article but I ran out of time. Sorry.
If nothing else, this is probably the fastest I've ever written this much. :)
For your enjoyment, here's a list of notable nutcases who I mentioned in this article.
Zachary Bitter: website- http://zachbitterrunning.blogspot.com/
Tim Ferriss: website- http://fourhourworkweek.com/blog/ Book- The Four Hour Body
Scott Jurek: Book- Eat and Run
The Tarahumara: Discussed in Born to Run
Steve Pavlina: website- stevepavlina.com
Victor Frankl: Book- Man's Search for Meaning
Yiannis Kouros: Discussed in Eat and Run
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