Posts Tagged ‘Mental Toughness’

It has been nearly four months of pretty much inactivity.

Well, not really inactivity, per se, but definitely nothing resembling itself as “training”.  I have been swimming, riding my bike for fun and even hitting the weights from time to time, albeit not with any sense of urgency or dedicated frequency.

In fact, if I had to use a word to describe my current fitness regimen it would be “mixed”, as in ‘Sweet & Sour Mix’, ‘Soft & Chewy Mix, ‘Chicago Mix’, etc., and so forth.

And, of course, I also love beer and I’ve been indulging again because, yeah, first it’s the lighter, flavorful, fruity Summer saisons and then it’s Autumn IPA’s and Harvest Ales and now it’s the dark Winter stouts and porters and, yeah … you see what I mean?

Who has time for workouts?

Anyway, as has been the custom, I’ve usually drifted back into some sort of structured workout schedule by now and, of course, that schedule is preceded by the obligatory “Looking Ahead” blog post – this post – so here it is.

Truth is, I haven’t really felt the urge to train yet.

In fact, it’s been quite the opposite.

I’ve felt the need to be lazy.

And, so far, I have been ‘okay’ with that.

It’s not my being “unmotivated” so much (remember the Ironfunk?), as it is my confidently reading my body as needing a prolonged break from any hard, dedicated training program – such as it has been for the past three years.

Instead, I wanted to have fun, go slow, sleep in in the morning, explore new roads with Hailey, relax in the water and casually work on my stroke development, catch-up with all the friends I didn’t have the time for while training, end rides with a drink at the local Brewery … that sort of thing.

I might have even done some yard work at some point.

(Crazy, I know!)

And I have done all these things and it’s been absolutely glorious.

Believe me.

I’ve enjoyed the time off one hundred and ten percent; no guilt whatsoever.

However …

make_the_donuts

Yup.

It’s time again to begin think about shifting gears back into some sort of well-thought out, established training program.  Having said that, seeing as how I’m not returning to long distance Ironman racing next summer, what does that new training program even look like?

Hmm.

That’s interesting.

I’ve become something of a “long distance guy” if you will – short course racing was for pussies.  And now here it is, it’s no longer “go longer”, it’s “go faster”.

That’s one serious paradigm shift.

ya-feel-me-nigga

By now, I’d already be thinking in terms of distance and time spent doing stuff (such as distance), specifically running and particularly on the weekends.

Currently though, I haven’t so much as even run outside since my July 7th Ironman (click HERE).

I could, sure, I’ve just chosen not to.

So, before I get into anything resembling “training”, I first have to reinitiate the “train to train” program; preparing my body for the stressful rigors that will more come in the new  year.  That gives me two more months of strength building, core routines, and shorter more intense workouts as opposed to those long weekend grinds and slogs.

And, yes, that means more “Booty Camps”.

Oh, and fuck … I guess that means I have to give up the mixes in favor of healthier snack fare.

I’m not giving up my beer though … yet.

This post then I suppose, is my way of working out and formalizing my fitness goals going forward over the next few months leading to another off season (and, hopefully, injury free) training program.  The current plan for next summer is to return to short course racing (Sprints and Olympics) with the longest event potentially being the Rose City Long Course Triathlon in June.

So, yeah, the old fat guy has to now learn how to go fast.

No problem, right?

Priority #1 then has to be (as it always is I might add) to lose weight.

Ultimately, what I would like to do is to replace my newly acquired post-Ironman beer belly* with strong, explosive muscle.

This has never been an easy task for me.

The muscle building part, sure, I can do that … looking forward to it actually.

The dieting part, however … not so much.

Particularly given that I’m not giving up my craft beer.

Regardless, beginning Monday I am going to kickstart a regular strength program; namely, by revitalizing my currently lingering “Core Project” or my even worse off home yoga practice.  Rather, the goal is to simply accomplish five days’ worth of on the mat functional strength and core exercises, whether in the mornings before work or prior to other workouts in the evenings after work.  Likewise, I’d like to accomplish two days of strong muscle building – one session being a hot “Me on Me” session with the heavy iron, the other an instructor lead circuit training or boot camp style training class; or something that also starts to rebuild my mental toughness and aerobic conditioning as well.

Ideally, this portion of the plan would take approximately 3-4 hours of my overall week, perhaps more if the motivation moves me.

To track this overall “fat to fit” progress, I am going to start tracking my weight each morning and set for myself a target goal to lose 1 lb. of fat per week.

Currently, I am weighing in at a humbling and husky 224 lbs.

Ideally, I’d like to be down to around 185 lbs. by springtime (June).

40-ish lbs is ambitious, I realize.

But “go hard or go home”, amiright?

Priority #2, as much as it pains to say (type) it, is to begin running again.

tenor

Yes.

Run.

Sadly, the time has come once again to lace up the sneakers and pound the pavement.

In the last few months, I’ve only managed a single short treadmill run and one easy(ish) track session; definitely nothing too strenuous.  Eventually, I will need to transition into more interval based fartleks and speed workouts (which, honestly, I might even consider doing on a treadmill this winter) and, yes, even start up a weekend “long distance” run program once again.

The good news in all this is twofold: 1) none if it needs to be too lengthy right now seeing as how I will likely be doing nothing more than 15k to, maybe, a half marathon to keep things interesting and, 2) seeing as how I am also concentrating on building strength, I can focus (in part or in full) on completing portions of my runs aimed at completing running drills and plyometrics which, truthfully, might even be fun seeing as how it’s going to be so new and different.

Perhaps it will be my new mechanism for escaping reality’s chronic Shit Show, who knows?

Whatever it happens to be, the focus then in these early stages will remain more on establishing form, strength, weight loss and general fitness as opposed to distance and endurance.

Part and parcel with this new run program will be my also breaking out the ‘Ready to Run: Unlocking Your Potential to Run Naturally’ book by Dr. Kelly Starrett and once again start developing good running habits and practices; namely proper warm-up and cool down practices as well as successful pre- and post workout fueling.

Lord knows when I’m going to actually run, but I’m figuring I’m going to have to make peace with running once or twice a week in the dark, whether it be early morning or in the evening.

giphy

I guess the good news in all this is that I get to grow my winter beard once again.

Whoo-ha!

Ideally, I’d like to run three times a week; one for easy distance with some plyometric’s and drills thrown in for good measure, one faster paced interval workout whether it be outside, or on the treadmill or track, and one run with no solid plan whatsoever other than the expressed purpose of, say, getting outside and getting some fresh air while burning some calories.  If I feel like doing more in the moment on these easy unstructured runs, I  will, or maybe I might just say ‘fuck it’ altogether and make snow angels instead … who knows?

I’ll probably hate it regardless because, well, running … but I’m trying to remain positive in the meantime.

Of course, I will apply more structure come the New Year but for the time being, I just need to begin getting ‘ol Thunder n’ Lightning back in the game somewhat by getting them used to turning over once again after a near four month furlough; maybe 2-3 hours a week.

As far as swimming goes, I have some new drills I have been working on recently and for the time being, I am going to remain focused on my form and stroke development as well as doing lots of paddle work to continue building that swim-specific muscle memory I have become obsessed with.

To this end, I am also going to begin initiating my favorite workout (click HERE) every once and awhile on the weekend, specifically in lieu of an exciting announcement I’ll be making in the near future.  It may not have to be every weekend, of course, but it is a perfect way to fit in some nice easy kilometers on the bike while I can still ride outside comfortably and, well, I did say before that I find it fun right?

As far as the bike goes, I’m still backing off the bike for a bit and keeping my cycle program to just getting out whenever I can, whether it be a simple quickie on my classic steel with Hailey or another riding buddy, or maybe on my mountain bike just for a change of pace.  I needn’t be doing a lot of cycle training yet that I won’t already also be doing as part of my strength building plan so I’m not giving myself any real “goal hours” to accomplish weekly in the saddle.  For the time being, I’ll just keep pedaling whenever I feel fit and inspired to do so, knowing only too well that those sweaty, sucky indoor hill and time trial efforts will begin with the New Year as well.

Worse comes to worse, when the shitty weather really takes affect outside I will consider doing short spins in the morning (instead of the erg as is currently my habit) at the gym where I can just plug into some tunes and turn my brain off for 45 minutes or so.  Again, nothing needs be too crazy with my cycling at the moment so I’m not going to stress about it; I’ll take that stress out on the participants of my Monday evening Masters spin class.

In total, in some form or fashion, I’d be very happy if I can successfully clock around 8-10 hours weekly on rebuilding my triathlon specific conditioning.

I recognize that this might not happen each and every week as there are still family things that will take priority from time to time and, hey, fine craft beer doesn’t drink itself does it?  Shit, perhaps some weeks I might even go over my weekly goal and that’d be great n’ all, but I’m not going to start counting the hours just yet, rather keep myself on being more active now on a regular daily basis and maybe, just maybe, I could even substitute the odd side of French fries for a house salad.

Baby steps, ya know?

*It’s true, I’ve gotten chubby again.  Everyone thinks so.  And by “everyone”, I mean all of my different personalities and my three cats.

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It has become one of my habits now to set a few goals through the off-season to work towards and which, ultimately, serve as benchmarks leading up to the accomplishment of the master plan being Ironman.  One of these regular goals is the completion of the Frank & Friends 10k Swim for Strong Kids at my local YMCA.

This has been my fifth year participating in and completing this charity swim and it has become the hallmark of my off-season training program; not to mention my motivation for getting my ass out of a warm bed at 5:00am on cold winter mornings.

Here are the particulars of my 2017 swim plan to date:

  • 182,025m covered in total (2,500m more than last year)
  • That’s an average of 14,205m per week for an average of 4 hours and 33 minutes (per week)
  • Which equates to 61 hours and 34 minutes spent in the pool
  • Over 47 different workouts

That’s not too shabby if I do say so myself.

17952595_10158536214270113_3324792525232267637_nI was particularly motivated this year as I was sharing the task with a friend and past training partner Steve, whom I met back in the early days of my triathlon quest.  I don’t necessarily remember how this partnership came about but I know there was definitely a beer in hand at a Christmas party where he actually committed to do the swim with me.  How many were consumed by that point is anyone’s guess but, true to his word, Steve took up the gauntlet and launched into his own preparation for this year’s event (click HERE for a little deeper insight into Steve’s rather “unique” training plan).

Besides getting to share this experience with someone it also meant that I wouldn’t have to deal with the hardest part of long distance swimming as far as I’m concerned:

B-O-R-E-D-O-M.

Seriously, when you’re spending the better part of three hours staring at the little hairs floating on the bottom of the pool, your brain tends to liquefy and slowly drain out your ears.

Let’s just say that it becomes very tedious indeed simply watching the black line endlessly pass underneath you and there’s a reason why I use this event to build up my overall “mental toughness”.

Believe me.

Usually, the last hour or so is just me – alone – simply trying not to go crazy.  So having someone to keep me company and share in the tediousness and general pacing was a huge benefit and I couldn’t really have been luckier in who offered to join me.

In past years, my 10k swims have clocked overall times of 3:22:50 (2016), 3:11:05 (2015) and 3:11:57 (2014), and 3:16:31 (2013) respectively.

Clearly, last year was a real struggle.

This year: 3:00:40.

That’s a difference of 11 minutes and 25 seconds over my best time.

Boo-yah!

Different from past years where I went it alone, Steve and I stopped every 500m  for a sip of water and a quick glance at one another before pushing off the wall again.  All in all, each break was only 4-5 seconds each.  Over the course of three hours, we only spend 4 minutes and 59 seconds resting and refueling.  Again, this represents a huge improvement over the 10 minutes or so between longer intervals in previous years so this plan seemed to work out much better.

Likewise, since we were splitting the pacing duties out front every 1,000m we managed a better average pace of 1:49min/100m and, really, it was only in the last 2,000-3,000m or so that our pace began to fade.

Some other interesting statistics for those of you who care:

  • I covered the distance in exactly 4,302 strokes
  • For an average of 23 strokes/minute
  • Burning exactly 2,400 calories in doing so

So what now?

Well, from here I begin pulling back on the distance and begin focusing more on speed and tempo work at the 4,000m  distance given my next swim goal is directly aimed at being among the first few out of the water at Hudson Valley (click HERE).  I will also be doing the Lake Okanagan Swim with HRH on July 15th (2,000m) – but that’s more of a fun bonding thing than it is any significant challenge.

Steve, however, is going to continue with the distance with – hopefully – designs on competing in a few open water events around Ontario meaning, of course, that we can both continue to motivate and train together in the open water come next month.

Well, that and getting rid of the pull buoy.

(Sorry Steve, couldn’t resist)

Anyway, seeing as how the Frank & Friends swim has now been reassigned to November we might even be doing this same swim again sooner than anticipated so there’s always that motivation to keep going as well.

“Won’t you step into the freezer
Tease her with a tweezer
It’s gonna be cold, cold, cold, cold, cold…”

It’s been almost two years since I last stepped back into the Brock University Kinesiology Department headed by Dr. Stephen Cheung.  I figured that either they didn’t have anything particularly interesting going on since my last trip into the over (click HERE) or they had simply run out of ideas on how to adequately make my life mentally and physically miserable.

Well, for whatever time it is that I’m spending in the lab anyway.

But as it turns out, they were apparently biding their time in a two year brainstorming session on the next best way to torture me and, boy, did they come up with a doozy this time.

This time around the oven is being converted into a meat locker, so instead of being roasted alive, I’m going to be turned into a human Popsicle in the latest and greatest “Effects of Hyperpoxia on Exercise Performance in the Cold” study.

Sounds like fun right?

The study is aimed at determining whether or not Hyperpoxia can improve exercise performance in the cold.  And seeing as how I typically do the bulk of my long distance Ironman training in the winter, hey, this might be a great learning opportunity (as I’m choosing to tell myself anyway).    At the very least I figured, “hey, I already run in -stupid° temperatures until I can’t feel my feet, face, or hands, so how bad could this really be?”  Not that it ever takes me any time at all to decide whether or not to volunteer for these crazy experiments but, honestly, in this case, I actually begged to be a part of it.

Once again, my lunacy knows no bounds.

Anyway, to begin with, let’s first review what in the sweet Sam Hell this “Hyperpoxia” beast is.

Hyperoxia occurs when the body’s tissues and organs are exposed to an excess supply of oxygen (O2) or higher than normal partial pressure of oxygen.  In medicine, it refers to excess oxygen in the lungs or other body tissues, which can be caused by breathing air or oxygen at pressures greater than normal atmospheric pressure. This kind of hyperoxia can lead to oxygen toxicity, caused from the harmful effects of breathing molecular oxygen at elevated partial pressures.  Hyperoxia differs from hypoxia in that hyperoxia refers to a state in which oxygen supply is too much, whereas hypoxia refers to the state in which oxygen supply is insufficient (a feeling of which I am very familiar with from swimming endless laps in the pool).  In a properly regulated doses however, that extra oxygen in the blood can give the body that extra ‘umpf’ in performance (ie. blood doping in cycling).

Now, in the extreme cold it has been proved that the body’s blood flow is significantly decelerated in its ability to feed oxygen rich blood to the muscles to sustain performance; hence the overall performance declines.  Makes sense right?  Anyone who’s ever tried to run in polar vortex temperatures, such as I have, will already know that it’s a significantly harder effort.  But what would happen if you “super-oxygenate” that blood beforehand?  In other words, what if what little blood – decelerated in delivery as it is – was enhanced with above normal oxygen levels to fuel the muscles once it got there.  Would that then counter-effect that decrease in performance?  While this super-oxygenating blood to improve performance has been widely known in the sporting world already resulting in some pretty clever scandals to cheat the odds, no one has thus far attempted this same principle in an extremely cold environment where the blood flow has also been slowed down.

Enter yours truly (along with a few other willing “suffer bunnies”); let the chips fall where they may.

Session 1: VO2-Max and Familiarization

As I have come to learn and understand, before I can look at the bike I have to first run the gauntlet of having my fatness measured, scrutinized, and recorded.  It’s not a very dignified process, believe me.

Here’s how the consent form describes the process:

“Body fat testing will be performed using skinfold calipers, which might cause a slight pinching sensation.”

Slight?

Ha! 

It was like being goosed over and over again by a giant mechanical lobster.

Let it be known now that Steve, the new Principle Student Investigator (PSI), has absolutely no caliper skills whatsoever.   Sorry, buddy, I still love you and all but you definitely need some practice; not that grabbing ahold of and pinching another man’s body fat ranks up there on your resume of skills, I get it, but still…

Ouch!

aMaybe there is something to say about having a few cute female undergrads girls do it like a few years ago.  Whatever the case, if I had any misgivings about it before, I’m definitely not cut out for the hardcore S&M lifestyle.

Fortunately, after a minutes of poking, pulling and pinching, not to mention not much eye contact, it was all over with and we could hook me up to the censors and move into the chamber to get down to business beginning with the dreaded V02-max test to determine my overall level of aerobic fitness.  And considering that I have been spending ample time on the bike doing some tempo and interval workouts, I was hoping for something a bit better than the ‘Good’ status I received last time.

Seriously, it is worthy pausing here to note that had I not fared better this time around with my V02-max, I likely would have thrown the Velotron bike through the wall of the Kinesiology lab in a fit of anger that would have made Bruce Banner cower in the corner like a little nancy girl.

Seriously.

Anyway, on goes the silicon mask to measure my peak oxygen consumption (VO2peak) and immediately I feel like this:

bane

So, you think the bike is your friend?

Of course, I didn’t look quite so badass.

self-portrait

The test began shortly afterwards where I am required to warm up at 100 watts for 5 minutes before 25 watts were added each minute until the point of total burnout.  Everything felt pretty good for the first 11 or 12 minutes or so, as I have been training at this 80-85% threshold level for some weeks now.  I was feeling strong and confident.  But once that over all fatigue begins to set in, boy, it’s a quickly spiraling slope downward into total agony.  But by the 13 minute mark (350 watts) I was suffering and this is where I tapped out last time.  Damned if I was going to give in at this point this time around, so I synched up the apple sack and made it another minute or so more well into the 375 watt mark and then ‘ol Thunder n’ Lightning imploded in on themselves and I slouch over the handlebars wheezing into the silicon mask like an asthmatic orangutan.

Thank Christ.

Here’s what all this data looks like on the screen:

img_1459

Of course, this could be the EKG results performed on a rutabaga for all I know, but here is what all those squiggly lines and graphs really boil down to:

results

So these results can be broken out into the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The obvious good news – scratch that, make it GREAT news – is that my relative VO2peak improved to 61 ml/kg/min, representing a 19 ml/kg/min  improvement over my last crack at the bad two years ago.  This places me squarely – FINALLY I might add – in the “Superior” classification for my age group.  In fact, I tested as “Superior” for a male in the 19-25 age range.  So I am extremely happy with this.

The bad news is that I’m only marginally lighter than I was at this time two years ago, weighing in at 96.06kg  which is only 0.3kg  lighter.  It’s not a lot, but I’ll take it.  I’m chalking this up to all my newfound core muscles and recent weight training.  After all, muscle is heavier than fat but, regardless, that’s what I’m choosing to roll (no pun intended) with.

The ugly news is that my body fat percentage rose to 26.2%, an increase of 4.2% over two years ago meaning I’m lighter, but also flabbier.

The fuck?

bApparently, fat is my new secret weapon as it would seem on paper that the larger I get the fitter I become, so it’s ‘Goodbye kale salads, Hello bacon double cheeseburgers!’

How or why this is beats the living shit out of me as I’ve been working hard on my core (click HERE) daily, and doing lots of tempo and hill intervals on the bike in recent weeks.  How I got bigger when I feel that I’ve actually been losing weight absolutely baffles me.  I’m counting this up to Steve being a little overly aggressive into digging those calipers into my body fat.

Thanks Steve.

Regardless, the bottom line is that I’m stronger so that’s the ultimate positive here in all this kerfuffle.  Maybe all those weekend pints courtesy of my sponsor Brimstone Brewery (click HERE) have given me some kind of super powers?

Who knows.

Onto Phase 2, the familiarization time trial.

After being allowed to spin idly for another few minutes, be began the official 15k time trail that I will have to perform at the end of each protocol in the following weeks, complete with silicon mask just to simulate what it will be like in the actual protocol sessions.  This familiarization is more of a formality really as I’ve done this in the lab on numerous occasions already but, hey, how often do you get to time trial on a real Velotron so, yeah, strap me in boys let’s go for it; 13 minutes or so of blocking out all the weeks worth of media bullshit on Lady Gaga’s belly fat and whatever the hell it is that Donald Trump is currently waging a Twitter war against and simply…giv ‘er.

Basically, I’m wired up and hooked into to a computer which displays a virtual me as it tracks my effort and progress through a virtual 15k course.  The computer tracks all the important details of my time trial performance including my gear setting, speed, heart rate, average wattage, peak wattage, RPM, average RPM and, apparently, that I am a pink-clad female cyclist.

img_1477

WTF?

Luckily, I have no gender status issues so I’m terribly bothered as long as I’m still kicking ass and taking names.  The only distraction is to provide the PSI with 2.5k with my perceived ‘Rate of Exertion’ (RPE) as represented on a traditional Borg scale, as well as my ‘Thermal Comfort’ (otherwise known as a Bedford Scale) and ‘Thermal Sensation’.   So, essentially, there you are wallowing in your self-induced pain cave as you focus on applying power to the pedals at pretty much your 90% threshold until the time trial is complete.

Here’s but a small sample of it:

When it was all said and done, I covered the distance in 25:39 with an average wattage of 235 and at an average speed of just over 35kpm.

Not bad for a fat chick, eh?

Of course, this was all completed in a neutral temperature with normal doses of precious oxygen and lots of encouragement.

In other words, this was about as easy as it was ever going to get.

Session 2 – Exercise Protocol

By the time a week had rolled by, I had more or less racked myself into quite a fright about this whole cold thing.  I mean, when I first started doing these testing protocols at Brock years ago I had no idea what I was getting into so I really had no expectations about how bad it would suck.

I was ignorant.

But now that I have a reference point or benchmark on how bad things can really get, well, you begin to wonder “will this be as bad as that?”  Sure this study is is different in that I’m not begin roasted alive but that doesn’t exactly mean it’s going to be any less tedious.  And truthfully, I’d rather shit in my hands and clap than have to ever endure that firefighters protocol again (click HERE for a little reminder on how bad that was).

However, this time around I was to be sitting in a cooler at exactly 0° until my core temperature had dropped exactly 0.5°, or essentially, had gone hypothermic. 

Ever been hypothermic before?

Me neither.

Basically, I was going from this:

hot

An oldie but a goodie

To this:

freezer2

See why I was a bit worried?

Upon arriving in the lab I have to run the gauntlet of getting prepared by having my urine tested for adequate hydration levels and then getting hooked up to a whole battery or wires, sensors, electrodes and, oh yes, let’s not forget:

It’s real glamorous business this suffer bunny stuff.

Everything is being 100% monitored, my hear rate, my rectal temperature, my skin temperature/heat flow, the amount of oxygen in my blood and even my brain activity through a near infrared spectroscopy sensor (NIRS), so that by the time I was done having all these instruments successfully fished through my cycle attire and  attached to my body you kind of begin to feel a bit like this:

borg_2366

And only marginally less menacing.

img_1516

See how happy I look?

img_1518

Just ecstatic I tells ya.

Anyway, from there it’s onto business and you couldn’t help but notice a slight chill in the air as Steve the lab guy begins to describe exactly what’s about to go down.

To begin with, I’m to get cozy in the freezer where they already have a nice, comfy lawn chair already set up for me and it’s a few minutes before all my sensors are then fed through a small hole in the freezer wall to the outside and hooked up to all that fancy shit outside so they can get their accurate reads on my suffering inside.

When they’re finished, they take a blood lactate sample with a lancet device (which, fortunately, looks nothing like the huge ass sword variety) from my ear lobe to get a base read of my lactate concentration prior to the anticipated madness.  Immediately after that, I am asked to sit quietly with no stimulus (music, talking, etc.) so they can get another base read on all my internal systems before they officially open the Gates to Hell.

Usually when they begin the actual protocol you begin doing something.  Cycling, running, walking, whatever.

But not this time.

Nope.

This time I’m simply sitting in a lawn chair connected to about a thousand wires and seated across from me is a guy (Gary) in a snow suit.

And it begins to get cold.

Very fucking cold.

Almost immediately I began to shiver as the fan in the freezer pumps in air at around -4° to get the temperature to drop to the required 0° as quickly as possible before it stabilizes. It was clear from the get go that this was going to be a completely different kind of suffering.  On my previous trips into the “oven” my butt crack more or less turned into Splash Mountain for all the sweat that began to pour, now you couldn’t slide a credit card between my ass cheeks if you had to for all the clenching that was going on thanks to the cold.

Keeping in mind, they were anticipating my having to be in here for anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes in order for my core temperature to drop to the necessary 0.5°, yup, this was going to sure suck.

Prior to beginning this whole freezing thing, I chatted with Gary (the guy in the snow suit) who has had the fortunate – or unfortunate, depending on how you want to look at it – task of keeping all the study volunteers such as myself company through this freezing protocol.  He mentioned that what he really found interesting was how each test subject dealt with their suffering.  Some plugged into their music on their iPod’s, or played on their cell phones in an effort to forget the fact that their bodies were being frozen into Popcicles, while others simply zoned out and willed themselves through it.  Others still spewed out random obscenities and pithy expletives for the entire duration as a way of coping with the stress.

Me?

Figuring that given my 26.2% body fat that I was going to be in this for the long haul, well, let’s just say I came prepared to stay a while.  I brought a book, my iPod with a per-established playlist of “hot” themed tracks, a notebook to record my thoughts; everything but a picnic basket, a collection of the New York Times crosswords and the entire 8 seasons worth of Dexter  really.  So once the shivering began I plugged into my playlist, cracked my book and….

Nope!

That wasn’t going to work.

Apparently, I needed to forget that I was there altogether and reading simply wasn’t going to do it.  And, honestly, my body was shivering so badly that even had I wanted to, the book which I had resting in my lap was shaking so bad that it probably could have phased right through my body altogether and into the chair had I allowed it.

Snoop Dogg had nothing on me what he says he’s “chillun'”, believe me.

So, instead, I struck up a conversation with Gary and talked about, geez, everything under the stars really.  Anything and everything was on the conversational menu; work, travel; politics and, yes, at times even the current situation.  What I can assure you though is that despite my efforts to block out the cold, it absolutely sucked and I was shivering like a chihuahua at the Arctic Circle.

Shivering is your bodies unconscious way of fending off the cold and trying to keep itself warm  and, apparently, my body was putting in some serious overtime.  In fact, at exactly the 30 minute mark my core temperature had actually risen by 1° as this process was taking place.

Not that I ever felt warm or comfortable mind you.  This simply not the case.  On the outside you’re fucking cold but, inside, your body is working hard to protect itself by regulating it’s temperature and therefore protecting you from serious harm, despite how you feel on the outside.  Gary assured me that this increase in core temperature was normal and that all the other test subjects had experienced the same thing.

At the 60 minute mark my core temperature had rose another 2°, or 3° over in total from my normal body temperature.

Fuck.

It’s a curious thing to actually want your body to fail.  Under any other “normal” (and I use that word loosely) circumstances, you want your body to endure, to overcome and to triumph.  In all the other research experiments I have been a part of this was certainly the case; how long can I go?  Now, here I was in the rather unique situation where I was actually wanted my body to pack it in, throw in the towel and traipse off gaily into the light at the end of the tunnel!

“Go into the light, dammit!”

The quicker my body started to fail, the quicker my core temperature would drop, and the quicker I could get on the bike to begin the time trail and to generate some heat.

But, NOOOOOOOOOOO!

Not my body.

Apparently, my body is extremely good at regulating it’s internal temperature – too good in fact.

So there I sat…shivering…suffering.

img_1532

Not exactly a relaxing day at the beach is it?

By the 90 minute mark (the longest point at which any other test subjects had taken), my core temperature was back to 0°, or where I had originally started from exactly 1 hour and 30 minutes ago meaning all this suffering and freezing had simply gotten me back to the starting point again.

Do you have any idea how defeating that feels?

A lot.

I was determined to make this work.  I mean, after you have suffered for that long why not go whole hog and see it through to the end.  Such is the life of a “suffer bunny” after all, right?   Gary had also mentioned at some point as well that once the body begins to actually drop it’s core temperature, it’s typically a gradual slide downward so, yeah, maybe I just had to hang on a  little longer.

Again, remember, I am actually willing myself to fail  here as I am pretty miserable by this point.

The real question now was, how much longer was this whole failing process going to take?

At 100 minutes, my core temperature had only dropped a mere 0.1°.

Big fucking deal.

By 120 minutes (2 hours) it as the same, so the decision was ultimately made to pull the plug altogether and get me out of there. What it really came down to to the lab guys was how long can you ethically let someone suffer, knowing you have no idea what the end point is going to be?  What’s an acceptable amount of time you can let somebody sit in a 0° environment?  1 hour?  2 hours?  3 hours?  What?

img_1533By now, I had endured exactly 30 minutes longer than the next longest sucker test subject in the freezer and, I can assure you, it was awful.

I mean, sure, “Yay me!”, but still, it totally sucked.

Would I have stayed longer?  Absolutely.  If the last ‘Effects of Mental Skills Training on Endurance Performance and Cognitive Function in the Heat’ (click HERE) study had taught me anything, it’s that I can be one tough bastard when I need to be.

And, yes, I definitely used my mental skills training here as well.

Thanks Phil!

But as a safety precaution, a 2 hour suffering time limit had been predetermined for the study so, yeah, I never even made it to the bike.

Needless to say, I was disappointed; disappointed that I had failed at having successfully failed.

What?

It just is what it is.

Having said all this, when the guys started to help out of the chair, I realized that just about everything had locked up in the cold; my back, my legs, my knees, everything.  The chances are that even had I made it to the 15k time trial, I wouldn’t have been able to do little more than simply over the pedals, much less time trial.

Furthermore, the skin on my forearms had freezer burn (which ultimately wouldn’t go away for another three days) and my pecker had done it’s best Punxsutawny Phil impression by burying itself in my abdomen, and considering the size of my abdomen these days, I likely wouldn’t see it again for another six weeks either.

In a picture, I felt like this:

o-frozen-meat-facebook

The other thing to consider is, let’s say that my core temperature finally did drop the required 0.5° and I did make to the bike to complete the time trial – shitty as it would likely have been.  That means I would then have had to endure that same 2-3 hours once more for the second protocol, and it I was nervous before, I would definitely have not been looking forward to doing it all over again.

img_1535

Don’t let the smile fool you, inside those mittens I’m really giving Gary the finger.

It was another 20 minutes or so outside the freezer sporting a full winter jacket before the shivering finally subsided. And, truth me, you will never appreciate just how warm room temperature is until you sat in 0° temperatures for two fucking hours.

Finally I was able to remove all the sensors and, yes, the probe which, honestly, made me feel a bit like this:

popsicle

Oh, and I also had the longest and most enjoyable hot shower I have ever had.

After each of these studies I ultimately try to find the learning lesson in for me.  How does this translate to the outside world and, hopefully, provide me with a little added value.  The results of the ‘Mental Skills Training on Endurance Performance‘ study taught me how to improve my performance through positive mental conditioning and the firefighter study taught me that’s no way in fucking hell I’d ever want to be a firefighter.  But what did this teach me exactly?

After two hours of suffering you’d think there would be some sore of profound “Ah ha!” moment, right?

But here I was at a bit of a loss.

Sure, if I happen to wander out of a bar in the middle of winter with an unseasonably fashionable jacket and end up passing out in a forest somewhere, the chances are good that I will survive for at least 2-3 hours.

But is that what I was meant to learn?

Doubtful.

Maybe there wasn’t a learning lesson here beyond knowing that my body is very good at regulating it’s internal temperature.  Maybe this is a result of all my cold weather training and conditioning, or maybe my body is just retarded in that it just doesn’t know when to say “I quit”.

Who knows?

What I do know for sure is that there are definitely better ways to spend a Wednesday evening.

Hopefully though, I will get some sort of honorable mention or maybe a footnote somewhere in the final paper about being the tough bastard (idiot?) who sat for two hours in a freezer with a probe up his ass.

(Note:  You might remember when I alluded to another experiment in order to test the results that we determined during the fight-fighting testing I was a part of (click HERE).  The premise being that if overall improvement in extremely hot and shitty environments is more a mental thing than it is physical, how do you improve someone’s mental ability exactly?  This is that experiment.)

For the past two years, I’ve had the fortunate – or ‘unfortunate’, depending on how you want to look at it – opportunity to participate as a research volunteer at the Brock University Kinesiology Department.  This department, headed by Dr. Stephen Cheung, also just happens to be on the cutting edge of sporting science, so getting to be a test monkey as part of something with that scope of importance is a real privilege in my opinion.

Anyway, as such, I’ve undergone some pretty intense experiments in the past, both physically and mentally, in order to improve our understanding of human performance and the limits of our endurance.  I’ve had various sharp pointy things inserted into my arm, had my body scrutinized and measured for all posterity, seen my precious life fluids including blood and sweat (and tears for that matter) vacated forcibly from my body, and been subjected to insane heat and humidity in that god forsaken oven (click HERE  for a lengthy recap).  Basically I’ve stoically suffered whatever tortures and indignities that were deemed as either important or necessary to the project, and probably some that weren’t but only served to further humor my tormentors.

Just kidding, of course, they’re really nice guys…I think.

Oh, and let’s not forget the probe.

So when I got the message from Phil, the Principle Student Investigator (PSI), asking me to undergo yet another run of the gauntlet, it was with mixed emotions that I accepted the invite.  Shit, after that last firefighters test, surely, I can endure anything  (nearly a year later, it’s not uncommon to wake up in the middle of the night with nightmares of being cooked alive).  I’m not really sure what it says about me as a person that I like, no love, being a part of scientific testing that is in part geared towards breaking you down physically and mentally in order to see what makes you tick.  Truthfully, I think I may be developing some bizarre case of sado-masochistic pleasure from performing as a lab rat and I’m sure there will be some professional counseling in my near future.

All that aside, I agreed to participate in the latest (and greatest) ‘Effects of Mental Skills Training on Endurance Performance and Cognitive Function in the Heat’  study.

Doesn’t that sound like a real page turner?

In a nutshell, the test is designed to determine whether or not a psychological intervention can improve endurance performance and cognitive function in the heat.  Oh goodie.  I’m good with my limited athletic prowess being exposed but, well, let’s just say that what lies between these two ears may not exactly paint a pretty picture.  In other words, I’m hoping that this research doesn’t also expose me as being a total and complete moron.

What have I gotten myself into?

Day 1: Anthropometric Measurements, Cognitive Tests and Maximal Aerobic Capacity Testing

This is sure going to suck to get off

This is sure going to suck to get off

Similar to the other studies I’ve been part of, it’s necessary to get a baseline of my physiology and athletic ability.  What this really means is that they’re going to poke and prod my body fat and then subject me to approximately 15 minutes of torture on a bike.

Yay.

The differences this time around is that 1) there were no cute female PhD students to do the actual poking and prodding of fat folds (thank GOD!), and 2) I also had to complete an initial assessment of my cognitive abilities by answering a questionnaire and then work on what’s known as a “Purdue Pegboard”.

Sadly, it has nothing to do with pirates.

The first “anthropometric measurements” step is no big deal as this certainly isn’t my first rodeo when it comes to having my fat marked up with a Crayola marker and then being pinched with cold metal instruments; no sweat.  The second step with the “Purdue Pegboard” was certainly more entertaining though.

Now, if you consult the Interweb thingee you will learn:

“The Purdue Pegboard is a neuropsychological test of manual dexterity and bimanual coordination created by Dr. Joseph Tiffin, an Industrial Psychologist at Purdue University, designed the test in 1948.”

Now that’s all well and good but, really, what it is?  Well, what it really means is that I have to build little “castles” out of little metal pieces (“pins”, “collars” and “washers”) to test the gross movements of my arms, hands, and fingers, and my fine motor extremity, also called “fingerprint” dexterity.”  Poor Pegboard performance is a sign of deficits in complex, visually guided, or coordinated movements that are likely mediated by circuits involving the basal ganglia.  Yeah, yeah, I already hear you: “What’s ‘basal ganglia’ Terry”?

It sounds dirty, I know.

It’s not.

Basal ganglia are little nuclei in the brain that are strongly associated with a variety of functions including: control of voluntary motor movements, procedural learning, routine behaviors or “habits” such as bruxism (excessive grinding of the teeth and/or excessive clenching of the jaw), eye movements, cognition and emotion.

To start, I was given three attempts to build as many little metallic castles as I could within a 60 second period.  A castle consists of 4 parts, 1 pin, 1 collar, 2 washers for a total score of 4 points if completed successfully.  So, say, if six complete assemblies are made then your total score would be 24.  But if a castle is incomplete, then you only score 1 point for each part that was properly assembled.  If, say, only the 1 washer and pin on a seventh castle are properly placed you add each part separately (i.e. 24 plus 2, or 26 total); something like that anyway, I dunno. I’m no rocket scientist – clearly.  If you really want more information on how to score this damn thing click HERE, but all you really need to know is that in three attempts my best score on the pegboard was 34, which probably puts me somewhere between a coconut and a chimpanzee.

Whoopee.

Pass the banana.

Anyway, time for the main attraction.

Bring on the oven.

I’ve been through this same test once before coming off my Ironman peak in 2013, and given (I feel) that my fitness hasn’t been particularly on point since that time, I was little apprehensive about what today’s results were going to say about my current fitness.  I’ve spent considerable time in the pool in the past six months and my run fitness is just  beginning to come back after last year’s total and complete breakdown at the Incredoubleman Triathlon but I haven’t really spent any considerable time on the bike.  I spin 2-3 times a week with one session being a tough 90 minute Master’s class but, aside from that that, I haven’t focused too much on it instead preferring to wait for the nicer weather before amping up my cycling program.  So, yeah, what my fitness level is going to be as a result of being on the Velotron bike is anybody’s guess.

Remember then that the entire point of this test is to have my level of aerobic fitness determined through an actual scientific means.  To do that I am fixed with a soft silicone face mask to breathe through to the point of exhaustion in order to obtain my peak oxygen consumption (VO2peak) and maximum heart rate.   The improvement this time around is that the lab has been reequipped with a fancier and better fitting mask that wasn’t quite so uncomfortable or difficult to breathe in.

Check it out.

1

Am I beautiful or what?

Once the test began, I was required to warm up at 100 watts on the Velotron for 3 minutes before 25 watts were added each minute until the point of total burnout.  Everything felt pretty good for the first 11 or 12 minutes or so, as what time I do spend on the bike I train at my 75-80% threshold level.  But by the 13 minute mark (350 watts) I was clearly suffering and shortly after passing the 14 minute mark (375 watts), I tapped out.

Here are the results:

V02-Max Results

This result is, well, as odd as it was unexpected.  After analyzing the data, it was determined that my Absolute VO2 equated to 3.10 l/min, which represents a HUGE improvement of 0.93 l/min  over my last test. My relative VO2peak , however, only improved by a minimal amount to 41.9 ml/kg/min (rounded to 42.0 ml/kg/min).

Why you ask?

The short answer is because I’m fat; nearly 22 lbs worth.

Now, had I maintained my Ironman weight from just over three years ago, theoretically speaking, my VO2peak  would have been approximately 46 ml/kg/min, or in the “Superior” classification as opposed to today’s meager “Good” effort.  Or would it?

There is also the theory that by losing too much weight I will also lose some of the strength I’ve acquired; what to do…what to do.

So, yeah, basically, the official result is that I’m fatter but fitter.  Go figure.  This is definitely going to factor in later this year when I begin to strategize about what my “ideal” race weight should be.  Do I focus on dropping weight and therefore roll the dice in regards to maintaining my current level of fitness, or do I focus more on improving my fitness at (or around) my current level of fatness?

Decisions, decisions…

To summarize, I now have lots of motivation to improve this result through the quickly approaching coming season as I start to build into more speed/pace based workouts.  I may never be up there with the greats (click HERE), but in my own mind I’m already becoming a legend.

Chimps beware!

Day 2: Familiarization Testing

Its one week later and I’m back in the lab ready for the first familiarization session.  The thing is that this time around I’m also playing Dad as I have HRH  in tow because, hey, what 10-year-old girl doesn’t love watching her half naked step dad being fixed up with wires and electrodes prior to being tortured in a meat locker?   It may not exactly be a picnic lunch at the zoo but, still, good times.

The real crazy thing is that she was actually looking forward to seeing me “suffer” and had been talking about for days in advance.  I’m not sure what I’ve done as a parent to warrant this kind of excitement but, whatever, she’s along for the ride today.

According to the Consent Form:

“A familiarization trial will be scheduled prior to the commencement of the two experimental sessions to ensure that you are able to fulfill the requirements of the exercise protocol.”

It get's a wee bit humid.

It get’s a wee bit humid.

You can basically interpret this as a “Hey, this is how bad it’s going to suck. Think you can handle it tough guy?”  type of statement.

The session is intended to be identical to the actual experimental session to follow in a few weeks.  The environmental chamber (aka “the oven”) will be set to 35°C with 50% relative humidity, which may not seem like a lot but, believe me, it is.

To begin with, there’s the usual “preparation” routine that I’ve been through before on the other two testing sessions.  This process involves having all my baseline measurements done and providing a urine sample to record my over all body euhydration (normal state of body water content), not to mention getting all fixed up to a bevy of instruments including skin temperature/heat flow censors and, yes, there is that rectal probe to deal with as well (Oh, and for the record I didn’t exactly let HRH  in on the probe thing as, well, it didn’t seem like it was something appropriate to “bond” over).  Fortunately though, this whole probe business is old hat by this point.

Okay, maybe not quite like that.

No, I won’t say it’s like being reunited with an old friend but, well, let’s just say that if this whole lab rat thing doesn’t work out I definitely have a promising future as a drug mule.

Once I was all connected up, I also needed to establish a baseline for my overall mood using a Brunel Mood Scale (BRUMS) Questionnaire.  The BRUMS is a 24-item questionnaire of simple mood descriptors such as angry, nervous, unhappy, and energetic.  It has six subscales, with each of the subscales containing four mood descriptors including anger, confusion, depression, fatigue, tension, and vigor.  For the record, my mood was pretty good. Again what this says about me as a person in that I enjoy being experimented on I’m not really sure.  But I digress.

Groton maze testing

Groton maze testing

Following the questionnaire, I was required to work through a Cognitive Test Battery (CTB) on a computer tablet to assess my cognitive abilities.  These tests (designed by Cogstate Research) consist of what’s known as a ‘Groton Maze Learning Task’, a ‘Detection Task’,  and a ‘Two Back Task’.

The ‘Groton Maze Learning Task’ (actually a series of two tests, ‘Maze Learning’ and ‘Set Shifting Task’) tests my executive functions which include working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving abilities.  The ‘Detection Task’ which, easily enough, required me to hit a single key on the keyboard whenever the Joker on a deck of cards appears on the desktop (Disclaimer: it appears every time), tests my reaction time, while the ‘Two Back Task’ tests my working memory and attention skills.

Now, given my current lacking of technical prowess given I don’t owe a cell phone so I don’t text or play video games, etc., these tablet tests – while still basic – took some time general getting used to. I’m sure for HRH  it must have been like watching the monkey’s with the obelisk in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.   Basically, I felt like whatever banana I had earned with the Purdue Pegboard on my last visit to the lab was just taken away from me.  I hate computers and computer testing at the best of times and I wasn’t terribly confident in how I performed and, in my mind, I think I might have even heard monkeys laughing at me.

Purdue Peg Board

Purdue Peg Board

Computers just arn’t my jam.

Anyway, after the cognitive tests were complete (20 minutes or so) it was time to get in the oven; time to suffer.

Suffer I can do.

The trial protocol consisted of two exercise bouts, and two identical rest periods during which I would do more cognitive testing.  Throughout the protocol I had to wear the same soft-silicon mask that I wore during the V02-Max test to continue to monitor my ventilation and metabolic data throughout the two exercise rounds.  And, not to jump too far ahead, but this would inevitably be the worst part when the heat and humidity began to kick in.

The first exercise protocol consisted of a 5 minute cycling warm up at 100 watts followed by 25 minutes set to 60% of my “Peak Performance Output” (PPO) that we determined during the VO2-Max test last week (210 watts). Compared to my past runs in the oven, this particular session didn’t hold a candle “suffer-wise”.  That’s not to say however that is was “easy” either. No, spinning in that kind of hot and humid environment while wearing and breathing through a silicon tube is never fun and soon enough the sweat began to pour.

And let me tell you when all you have it this to focus on:

4

Time grinds down to an absolute haul, let me tell you.  My only reprieve from the whole thing was seeing HRH’s face appear periodically in the oven’s window as she peeked in to monitor my “suffering”.  So after 30 minutes of spinning, sweating and playing peek-a-boo, I was removed from the bike, weighed, and draped in a bright yellow rain poncho to preserve my core temperature as much as possible.

Goodie.

If I wasn’t sweating before, I sure as shit was now!

I felt like a BBQ-ed steak that had been left out to rest.

Oven selfie

Oven selfie

During this rest period (30 minutes) I wasn’t allowed to leave the oven, but asked to perform the same mood (BRUMS) and cognitive (CTB) tests as before.  From what I recall, neither my mood or cognitive abilities with the tests changed much; I was still happy and dumb as mud.

Yay me!

The second exercise bout was intended to be a “Time to Exhaustion (TTE)” test performed at 80% of my PPO (280 watts) after an initial 5 minute warm up at 125 watts.  The premise is very easy: cycle your ass off until you drop.  Yup, this was definitely going to suck.

Basically, it works like this: exercise (i.e. my suffering) would only stop due to volitional fatigue, if my cadence should drop below 60 rpm  for more than 5 seconds, or my core temperature reaches 40°C for 1 minute (talk about “hot shit”!), or my heart rate exceeded 95% of my maximum for 3 minutes.  So basically, anything that indicates you’re mere seconds away from death itself would count as viable grounds for stoppage.  Awesome!  Furthermore, there was to be no motivation queues provided aside from being asked for my RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) on the Borg Scale (taped to the wall in front of me) every 2 minutes.

Making matters worse, is that the whole thing was being filmed.

But that will have to wait for another post.

>>wink<<

Suffering

Suffering

I had assumed at the time that the best strategy was to begin spinning slowly at approximately 65-70 rpm  figuring that I could maintain that particular cadence for a while.  The problem being (or so I learned anyway), was that once I began to fade there really wasn’t much wiggle room in regards to lowering my cadence any, which is exactly what happened.

Everything went fine initially and I felt pretty good, despite the conditions and mask and stuff, but when I began to struggle cardio-wise, it was quick, slippery slope into painful torment.  Part of the problem is that as a requirement of the test, I wasn’t able to stand up at any point.  Usually, on the road when you climb in a heavy gear you can give yourself a quick break by shifting the primary working muscle group by standing up and then being seated again.  Here, there was none of that; it was ass in the saddle all the way.  So when my working muscles started to go, they went…fast.

Now I have no idea how long I lasted, but I’m estimating approximately 10-12 minutes including the warm up based on how many times my RPE were requested.  Of course, it might have been 30 seconds…who knows.  In essence, though, it went something like this:

12.

12.

15.

18.

Tap Out.

Just like that.

Die I did, much to HRH’s enjoyment.

I will admit, I was a bit disappointed with myself and I made a mental plan to last longer by incorporating a quicker cadence to start off with and then gradually wind ‘er down when the legs begin to fail afterwards; more on that strategy to come.

Anyway, immediately following this, it was time to don the poncho and complete another round of mood and cognitive testing.  This time, however, it was significantly more difficult I can assure you. In fact, the ‘Two Back Test’  pretty much kicked my ass and I was more or less just tapping at the keyboard with reckless abandon.  I was hot, uncomfortable, and didn’t really give a shit if the card was a Queen, Jack, or 10 of Spades.  I simply didn’t give a shit, nor could I if I wanted to.  However, I think I did make the ‘Groton Maze Learning Test’ my bitch.  Again…go figure.

Only time will tell I suppose.

Day 3: Experimental Session #1

Now that the preliminary VO2peak  and familiarization sessions are over with, it’s time to get on with the real festivities; the actual exercise protocols themselves.   Yup, it’s time to get medieval, time to officially put my suffering in the books, it’s go time, or whatever other popular euphemism you wish to use to associate with the underlying message of “time to put or shut up”.

Needless to say, everything else up to this point was just for shits n’ giggles.

Anyway, by now the whole pee, probe and final shuffle of shame are just part of the ordinary “business as usual” drill, every bit as routine as brushing your teeth in the morning.  Of course, I’m not shoving flexible core thermometers up my ass most mornings, but I digress.

testing

All bid’ness.

There is very little else to describe at this point that I haven’t already haven’t discussed in the previous familiarization session; 30 minutes set to 60% of my “Peak Performance Output” (210 watts) and a balls-to-the-wall “Time to Exhaustion (TTE)” test performed at 80% of my PPO (280 watts). Before, between and after each exercise protocol there is also the series of cognitive tests that I’ve described already as well.  Oh, and let’s not forget the yellow poncho to keep me as uncomfortable as possible – you know, just because.  Seriously, you’d think these lab nerds lay awake at night under their Star Wars bed sheets conjuring up ways to torture me.  Sometimes, I think this is all part of some elaborate ruse and at the bottom of some resume somewhere, there’s “making Terry suffer”  listed underneath the heading ‘Interests and Hobbies’.  Of course, I still willfully participate as a volunteer and no one is holding a gun to my head but when the going certainly turns shitty, well, let’s just say that sometimes I wonder.

As per usual, the only stimulus I am ever afforded are the three charts in front of me with which to gauge my RPE and overall discomfort.  There’s no encouragement (visual or otherwise), no chuckles, no giggles…no nothing.

It’s all bid’ness.

How’s that for “comforting”, right?

move over chimps

Move over chimps.

Same as the previous familiarization session, the first 30 minutes are boring as all fuck; total bag of dicks where I sit pedaling aimlessly, breathing into my mask in the hot and humid environment and trying not to think about how incredibly boring and shitty it is.  Basically, I just try to visualize my inner happy place from underneath my silicon mask which, for the record, just happens to be a nice pub in a remote countryside somewhere that serves decent beer, a complimentary bowl of nuts and an amazing cheeseburger.   Just sayin’.  Then I do some more cognitive testing on the tablet, sit around for a bit in the heat n’ shit and, finally, jump back on the bike for the eventual opening of the Gates of Hell.

Good times indeed.

I’d like to think I did a bit better this time around then I did in my familiarization session, but I had no real way to know for sure. All I know is that it sucked equally and unequivocally; ‘suck’ is the only constant variable in these types of tests.  In fact, I tried a bit of a different approach to my TTE in that I periodically spun my cadence up a bit from time to time to try and take advantage of the momentum generated in the pedals (not that there’s much momentum on a Velotron bike, mind you) to rest a bit but, honestly, what little rest there was inconsequential to the constant punishment being inflicted on my quads and I eventually tapped out – as I do – thoroughly broken and exhausted.

Yay me!

Mental note to self: the worst part of the testing (inserting the probe) also turns out to be the best part when you get to remove it later. The lesson here though is to avoid any bowel movements prior to inserting for at least an hour or so before testing, otherwise you end up extracting something from your ass that looks like this:

Isolated corn dog on a stick

Sorry…I couldn’t resist.

 

So here’s where the interesting part comes in.

Following this first exercise protocol, participants are then randomly divided into two categories.  For the Control group, nothing changes and in two weeks’ time they return to the oven to complete their second protocol just as before.  The second Test group, of which I was selected, will have some additional homework to do in the days (week) before showing up to complete the second protocol.

That’s right – homework.

The premise goes along the lines that scientific studies have already proven that individuals tend to perform better when they feel confident and motivated during high-energy activity.  They feel better about themselves and consequentially try harder and keep going when that going gets difficult.

I know, I know…”but everyone knows that already, Terry”.  And I agree.  But I think most often, people will tend to associate this type of motivational affirmation in this kind of light:

I know I did, or used to anyway.

But, in reality, it’s much more challenging than that.

Thinking happy thoughts

Thinking happy thoughts

For me, this whole “positive self-talk” has proven to be a very difficult, particularly given some of the setbacks I’ve experienced lately.  By comparison, I used to be able to tackle extremely difficult workouts prior to Ironman Wales simply by positively willing myself through them, but since then, I tend to beat myself up more with negativity; negativity regarding my not being able to perform at the same level, for not being in the same peak fitness, etc.  You could say that my confidence has been rattled and while I accept that as part of the current path I’m on and, hopefully, my confidence will return at some point, in the meantime…I continue to struggle.  I still persevere and do my best through all my prescribed workouts, but I’m not rocking them as I used to.  I suspect that this negativity has a lot to do with it.

Lest we forget: click HERE.

So, consequentially, these negative thoughts are really doing me no favors…and Lord knows I have a lot of them.  I am my own worst enemy in this regard.  In fact, any negative thought I might have associated with the difficulty of the task, any unpleasant sensation that I might be experiencing or the level of effort and motivation towards the end goal during any moderate and high-intensity activities tend only to interfere with the optimal performance of the task.  And God knows that cycling in that god forsaken oven would definitely qualify in all those categories.

So, I have now been officially tasked in identifying these negative thoughts and record them in what I am now referring to as my ‘Big Book of Suck’, and then counteract them with more beneficial motivational “self-talk” statements that will ultimately help maintain or improve my level of effort and coordinate my performance towards achieving the best possible performance; namely, surviving a single minute (or more) longer in the oven when the Gates of Hell are opened and the Suck begins to pile up.

On a personal note, the implications of this study are huge, as if I can determine what my “limiters” are motivation-wise through this exercise and then be able to counteract them with more positive inspirational self-talk, then I might be able to get myself back on my way to acquiring that same level of confidence that I had once before.

In this ‘Big Book of Suck’ there are some activities to help me craft my own unique motivation self-talk statements to use in the oven during both my exercise protocols, as well as my cognitive testing, when those other nasty negative comments begin to rear their ugly head and bubble to the surface.

The first thing to do is to identify examples of negative comments that cross my mind while I’m in the oven.  Now, I told you before that when it comes to elf-depreciation, I am an absolutely black belt, so listing every negative thought that goes through my head during those 45 minutes or so in the oven was fairly easy.  Likewise, there’s not enough bandwidth on these blog pages to list them all so I’ve captured a few of the more popular one’s for you:

  1. You’re out of shape
  2. What’s wrong with you?
  3. This sucks.
  4. I’m not good enough to be here.
  5. You’re a loser.

And the ever popular…

  1. I bet I look fat in these bib shorts.

When it came to the cognitive testing, the negativity was condensed into a single phrase: “You’re an idiot.”

It’s true.  When it comes to beating myself up I’m a true artist; I’m the Rembrandt of self-depreciation.  Negative commentary is just the primary tool with which I paint the wretched canvass of my soul.

Too much?

You get the idea though right?

Anyway, the next activity in the booklet challenged me to come up with some more positive phrases that I could use instead of those common negative statements, like “hang in there”, “dig deep”, or “you’re a winner!”   Sounds easy enough, right?  Well, as it turns out, it’s not as easy as you might think given I am not accustomed to pumping myself up regularly with “you’re a winner”, so I found coming up with statements particularly tailored to my own motivational drive challenging indeed.  But after considerable thought I came up with a few statements that I felt would be positive motivational when the wheels inevitably start to fall off.

The challenge now is to use, assess and then retool my suggested statements over the following week during 3 workouts, and then practice them to be as beneficial as possible come time to get back in the oven.

Here’s what I came up with for the exercise protocols:

  1. You can do this!
  2. Relax, focus and breathe
  3. Get tough!
  4. Just be calm and push on

Not exactly Shakespeare I agree, but they’ll do.

For the cognitive testing, I have two other statements:

  1. Just relax and focus
  2. Pass the banana

Okay, I’m totally kidding on the last one but, again, you get the idea.

Positive Phrasing Test #1:

Four days later I had my first trial of my motivational self-talk statements during a long 90 minute interval run.  I haven’t really acquired my running legs yet so these long runs tend to be an exercise in pain and total self-depreciation which, fortunately, gives me the perfect chance to practice my positive phrasing.

The idea is to also detail when these negative statements begin to occur in the workout which, in this case, was about 30 nanoseconds into the run immediately following my stepping off the front porch:

“Oh God, this is going to suck”.

Shit!

Okay, think positive statements:

“Just be calm and push on”.

It totally worked and I felt better.

Good.

Then another negative comment hit me again a minute later:

“Shit, that was only 5 minutes and you’re already winded? What the fuck?”

Dammit!

“Relax, focus and breathe”.

Okay, good.

Then again:

“You’re so slow you fat fuck”.

Jesus. Again?

Okay, “Just be calm and push on…relax, focus and breathe….”

And so the internal dialogue went for the next 85 minutes.  I know I’m a glutton for punishment, but I’m actually amazed at how often my thoughts turned negative during the 90 minute period.  I figure I was probably beating myself up with negativity approximately 8,897,798,990 times.  Wow.  It was being riddled with bullets from a Tommy gun.

The good news was that each time I became aware of that negativity, either of those planned motivational statements ended up bringing me back down to earth so that I was able to push through some intervals at both my half-marathon pace (5:30min/km) as well as my 5k pace (sub 5:00min/km).  Truth be told, the positive “self-talk” seemed to be helping.

Positive Phrasing Test #2:

The next morning I was in the pool for a muscular endurance workout which involved some faster sprint pace intervals which, given I am currently building for a 10k swim in two more weeks, is not a regular feature of my swim workouts.

I’m a little more confident in my abilities in the pool so I wasn’t hit quite as soon or as often with the negativity as I was the day before on my long run, but when I started sprinting they sure started up in earnest. Two or three intervals in the first negative comment reared its ugly head:

“You’re tired. Maybe you should use the pull buoy instead”.

Ah ha!

I see you, you sneaker fucker!

“Just be calm and push on….”

Nothing.

“Relax, focus, and……”

Shit.

Shit, I couldn’t even remember what my second positive motivational phrase even given as I was too busy, you know, breathing.  After all, staying alive is my top priority in the pool.

Neither statement seemed to be working. So I had to switch gears a bit and went with “You can do this!”, and “Just keep going!”   These statements seemed to work a little better as they were more direct and easy to recall once my mind began to race and the negative commentary started to bombard my lizard brain.

Positive Phrasing Test #3:

Two days later and I’m in San Antonio, Texas and it’s hot as all fuck outside meaning my speed workout around Woodlawn Lake wasn’t going to be much more fun than the oven itself.  Perfect testing ground for my next exercise protocol, wouldn’t you say?

Once I started off it was a bit difficult going in the early stages as I warmed up – literally and figuratively – as my lungs took some time to adjust to the heat and humidity and, for whatever reason, my legs felt weary after 48 hours of traveling. However, when the negativity started to hit I was well prepared:

“Just be calm and push on”.

“Relax, focus and breathe.”

Boo-yah!

Success!

Gettin er done.

Gettin er done.

Once I started with the actual speed intervals (8 x 400m), however, not so much.  I ended up having to revert back to using the more direct statements just as I had in the pool.  “You can do this!”  still worked like a charm but, “Just keep going”, however, did not.  It only made me want to check out my Garmin to see how far I’d gone and then when I realized I had only gone a certain distance, the negative commentary started back up with a vengeance.  Instead, I retooled this last statement into “Get tough!”  as I began each interval and that seemed to work a bit better.  I continued to use “You can do this!”  to see each interval through to the end.

An honorary mention also has to be made for: “Just get through this and you can have a cheeseburger”, but I decided that that’s probably not going to fly in the oven next week so it was left off the list.

So, in short, my plan of action come next Wednesday during my last exercise protocol is to use “Just be calm and push on”  and “Relax, focus and breathe”  to push through the first 30 minutes of the warm up to cope with the boredom and tediousness, then revert to the more direct and engaging “You can do this!”  and “Get tough!”  when my heart rate begins to elevate and the imminent shittiness begins to mount up during the last TTE.

As far as the cognitive testing goes, I am sticking with “Just relax and focus”; simple and elegant as it is.

Wish me luck.

God help me.

Day 3: Experimental Session #4

Not much about the whole lead into and set up for my second (and last) exercise protocol is different from the others with one notable exception: I brought the wrong cycling shoes.

Shit.

Yup, upon pulling out of my parking lot at work, I realized that I had mistakenly brought the wrong cleats meaning I couldn’t use them with the pedals on the Velotron.  In short, I was fucked and I started panic as I hated the thought of letting down the lab gurus by not being able to complete my second test protocol as planned; especially given all the work I’d done in crafting out my motivational statements.

But after a second or so of “oh shit!”, “how could you have fucked up like this?”  and, of course, the ever popular “you’re a fucking idiot”  running through my mind, I decided to take a different approach.

“Relax, focus and breathe”

Seconds later, I had pulled a U-turn into the parking lot of In.Cep.tion cycles, picked up an extra set of SPD pedal clips to match my misbegotten cleats and, Bob’s your uncle!, we’re back in business; In.Cep.tion with the save.

Thanks Brandon!

Hey, maybe this whole motivation self-talk might actually work.

Huh.

Upon arriving, I ran the pee, probe and shuffle gauntlet, got weighed, got affixed with the usual heat sensors and electrode thingee’s, completed both my BRUMS questionnaire and base cognitive testing on the tablet (which, I am fairly confident went very well when I applied my positive self-talk statements) and minutes later I was in the oven ready to go.

I’m also noting here for the record that I was adequately hydrated for this particular session as, two weeks before, for whatever reason, my hydration was pretty poor.  In fact, my urine sample resembled the liquid version of Charlie’s Golden Ticket, so I was conscientious to hydrate today like a mofo to avoid that from happening again.

sweat

Gettin’ sweaty…

The goal today was to be cognizant of all my negative thoughts and, instead, use the motivational selftalk phrases I’ve been working on for the past week.  The idea is to see what difference (if any) that provides to both my exercise sessions as well as my cognitive testing immediately following them.  In other words, shit was about to get real and I was focused on proving that they worked as I generally believe they would.

It has to be said that the first 30 minutes at 60% (210 watts) of my PPO is the most tedious.   I can deal with the 35°C temperature and 50% relative humidity, but it’s boring as all get out and very shortly into it the negativity started to creep in.

“This sucks”, “this is boring”, and “How much longer?”

No problem, I was prepared.

“Just relax, focus and breathe…just keep calm and push on…”

Worked like a charm.

One problem though.  A piece of surgical tape used to secure my probe to the sumo sling I use to keep it, well, wedged up in my ass, had begun to rub under my Charlie Brown’s.  Not pleasant.  So with every pedal stroke there was this uncomfortable scratching going on under my nut sack.  Yeah.

And let me tell you, trying to stay positive and think happy thoughts while your choda is being treated like a Lotto scratch ticket is not easy, like, at all.  Lord knows I tried.  Ultimately, I knew, boring as it was, I could do the first 30 minutes fairly easily so all I had to do was make it through that and then I could try and “readjust” myself afterwards prior to having to get back on the bike.

suck

This is the face one makes when their scrotum is being rubbed raw.

However, despite my attempt to exist in my “happy place”, it was all pretty much in vain.  After all, my happy place in that country pub does not include something coarse and scratchy down my pants.  But I made the first 30 minutes successfully and, yes, I used my self-talk statements as much as possible.

When I dismounted the bike to don my rain poncho and complete my cognitive testing I tried my best to fix the issue.  In the rare few moments I am actually alone in the oven I had both hands burrowed deep into my bib shorts and ferreting around like a squirrel digging for acorns, but to no avail.

FML.

The first round of cognitive testing I think went very, very well.  In fact, I think it’s safe to say that I made the tests my bitch, particularly the “Two Back”  and “Groton Maze Learning”  tasks.  I’m not surprised really as I was very dialed in and focused using my “Just relax and focus”  statement.  For the rest of the 30 minute cool down (and I use that term loosely), I put my feet up and tried not to focus on the chafing beginning to happen under my balls.

I figured I could manage one last TTE but, then again, what choice did I really have?

Eventually, I mounted the bike for the last time and had the mask affixed to my head and I braced myself for the eventual suck to follow.  I immediately reverted to my more calming and passive motivational statements to “get in the zone”, per se. I knew it was going to difficult (isn’t it always?) but I really wanted to do better and by “better”, that inevitably means “suffer”.  It’s just the nature of the beast I’m afraid.

Finally the first 5 minute warm up at 125 watts began, and as soon as it did it started:

“God, my balls are on fire!”

“Just relax, breathe and focus…”

Nope.

“Just be calm and push on…”

Nope.  Still on fire.

“Get tough.”

Okay, that worked…a bit.

Finally, the official TTE at 80% (280 watts) began in earnest and it was on.

Again with the negativity.

Ho-lee shit”, “My legs hurt”, “My balls are burning” (not to be confused with the popular 80’s song ‘Beds Are Burning’ by Australian rockers Midnight Oil)…it was a total cacophony of self pity, remorse and intense bitchiness.

Fueled by “Get tough”  and “You can do this!”, I did my best to block it all out and started with my first spin-up and then remained focused on holding that cadence for as long as it felt “comfortable” to do so.  It hurt, but I did it.

“Well, that sucked”, was the immediate response in my brain.

Fuck you negativity, “You can do this!”…and I did it again…and again…

…and again.

I concentrated on putting power into the pedals more than I have ever done before, even when it felt like my lungs were going to explode and my nuts were going to rupture.  In fact, I became a bit worried at one point that I might have some unfortunate scaring going on in places I didn’t even want to think about but, still, I focused on power.

“More power!”, actually became a new motivation self-talk statement at one point.  I know it wasn’t part of the original plan but I was certainly willing to go with whatever it was that worked in the moment, and in that precise moment, “More power!”  is exactly  what I needed to hear.

I continued to spin up an hold as best as I could and the last 2 or 3 “sprints” were every bit as agonizing as the sensations going on in my shorts, let me tell you.

I had no concept of time.  I know that the research guy in the oven with me (Phil) comes around every two minutes to get my RPE and Thermal Sensation and Discomfort readings so I should be able to keep an approximate track of how much time has passed but, truthfully, after the first two or so and it’s really beginning to get shitty, they all feel like the first.

Eventually, I couldn’t take any more and immediately following my last spin up I quit.  Now, whether I 100% gave up or whether my cadence dropped below the pre-established 60rpm for 5 seconds signaling the finish, I’m not really sure.  What I do know is that I was 100% spent and feeling rather disappointed with myself (as I’m sure was reflected in the subsequent BRUMS scale I completing immediately after getting off the bike).

A picture is worth a thousand words:

3

I figured that while I had put more effort into the pedals, the eventual cost was in not being able to go for as long as I would have liked.  Plus, I hated the feeling of having to “quit” (whether or not that actually happened, is moot).  On the plus side, I think my cognitive testing afterwards (once my heart rate came back down of course) went very well, just as it had the first time.  In that regard I was definitely happy.

In the first exercise protocol I managed to last 12 whole minutes at my 80% and today, using motivational self-talk, I was able to last 13 minutes representing an improvement of 9% overall.  So, despite how I felt about the second TTE, that positive phrasing definitely seemed to work.  But here’s the part I’m really pleased with:

During the first session, I managed 10 or so spin up’s to approximately 90 rpm before dropping back down to an average of approximately 77 rpm.  This time around, I managed 12 spin up’s overall at over 100 rpm  which I was able to sustain for up to 40-45 seconds at a time before returning to an approximate average of 80 rpm.  That means that my ride on that particular day was a lot less variable in my being able to maintain a steady cadence and power outage.

I guess I can live with that.

Where positive self-talking definitely helps with athletic performance (which is awesome), even in extreme hot and humid conditions (even more awesome), it also works very well in positively improving cognitive ability as well and that’s particularly some pretty awesome shit.

I will include all the actual results in the follow-up Part 2 to this post in the near future so, until then, hang tight, for that awesome shit is about to get real.

My official results:  TN-Handout

You might remember that one year ago that I was participating as a guinea pig (I prefer the term “suffer Bunny”) in an Effects of Cranial Cooling on Temperature, Ventilatory, and Perceptual Responses to Exercise in Fire Protective Ensemble’ series of testing at the Brock University kinesiology lab (click HERE).

Basically, I allowed myself to be heated up like a baked potato in their “oven” while clad in full on fire-fighters gear and then ran the gauntlet to see the effects of heat on my overall performance.  The theory being that if I were allowed to temporarily cool off between exercise protocols using a “cooling hood“ that my performance might improve, or in some way become easier.

It didn’t.

It sucked…each and every  time.

And that’s no exaggeration, believe me.

So as a result, nobody really paid this study any notice.

Maybe they should have published the study along with a sexy type calendar.  I mean, after all, who wouldn’t want to gaze on this at their cubicle wall?

Am I making you hot, baby?

Am I making you hot, baby?

Here's some more sexy shit.

Here’s some more sexy shit.

I mean, we didn’t really prove anything did we?   No.  This particularly sucks because I (we) suffered apparently to only prove what everybody already knows, that getting roasted alive is not fun. It’s torturous actually.  This is completely the opposite of the Separate and Combined Effects of Hydration Status and Thirst on Voluntary Exercise Capacity’  study (click HERE) I did the year before which ended up turning the athletic and endurance world on its ear in regard to its rethinking of popular hydration strategies.  Plus, I officially got referred to as an “athlete”.

THAT  was some cool shit.

This?

Not so much.

But, hey, ‘c’est la vie’.

Anyway, here we are a year later and the official paper has finally been published.  So did we actually learn anything from this experiment?  I mean, if I suffered like a champ for this, surely, something  had to come from it right?

Thankfully, something did.

It isn’t much, true, but it’s something  at least.

However, a little background first. Studies were conducted in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s that suggested that head cooling strategies were effective in improving performance in hot and humid conditions.  New evidence from 2008+ shows that if we wear a neck cooling collar we can exercise longer, harder, and to a higher core temperature.  Plus we ‘feel’ much cooler while using it. Such strategies include forearm immersion, facial misting (no, it’s nothing kinky I assure you) and neck cooling collars were all suggested and proven to be beneficial.  The problem is, for fire fighters anyway, is that for forearm immersion to take place one would have to remove their jacket which isn’t practical when fighting fires and facial misting is less effective in highly humid environments because of the decreased water vapor pressure gradient (meaning we lose the ability to evaporate the sweat and thus fail to cool ourselves).   So, would a “cooling hood”, which is easier to apply during a fire-fighters recovery period since it does not require one to remove their jacket, actually help? It makes sense given that there is lots of blood flow in the head. In fact, 25% of our metabolism is centered in the brain, even though it only weighs 2 lbs.. Furthermore, the blood flow is closer to the surface so its effect would be quicker to cool the blood and feel cooler, than say cooling the foot or arms…theoretically, of course.

And that’s where I come in.

Through this testing we (I mean the researchers, of course) were aiming to see if fire fighters could benefit from the cooling effect provided by the hood in “uncompensable” heat stress and, ultimately, perform better.  Specifically, would it:

  1. Drop the body’s core temperature?
  2. Allow them to last longer?
  3. Enable them to use less air, allowing them to perform longer?
  4. Allow them to feel better?

I know, I know, you’re on pins and needles here right?

Well, let me fill you in on the findings.

First, the cooling hood had absolutely no effect on the core temperature at all…like, none.

Core Temp

See? Nada.

And I can definitely vouch for this: it was fucking hot no matter what.  Even after resting for 20 minutes (the standard recovery period for active fire fighters) with the cooling head, my core temperature continued to climb into the second exercise protocol.  Okay, there was a marginal difference in temperature as the graph above shows but it was nothing to get excited about.

However, perception wise, the cooling hood did make me feel a bit cooler even though, physiologically, there was no difference in my core temperature whatsoever.  This was reflected in the ‘Perceived Thermal Stress’ (PTS) ranking where I was asked to give my perception on the heat stress I was enduring at time.

It is interesting to note afterwards, however, that while the perception of heat stress improved overall, the actual perception of the exercises difficulty did not as recorded in my ‘Rate of Perceived Exertion’ (RPE).

No sir.

It blew.

There’s a problem with this though in that both the PTS and RPE are highly subjective.  I mean, when all you have to look at and dwell on during the torture session are those two charts in front of you, you begin to consider your next answer long before the question is even asked.  So do I choose to appear as a tough guy and say it’s easier or less hot that it really is, or do I answer honestly in that it’s hotter than Hades and this is complete torture?

I dunno.

What I can tell you from my recollection is that during the first 4-8 minutes of the second protocol, everything felt…tolerable. But that quickly changed.  And after that initial period, once again, it was like leaping into an active volcano.

And this was for both the Passive recovery (the first session without the cooling hood) and the Active recovery (the second session with the cooling hood).

Seriously, can you tell which one looks like it might have felt better?

Phil runs the gauntlet.

Phil runs the gauntlet.

Fuck no.

So whether or not this total and complete feeling of HOT and SHITTY (think of that doomed marshmallow that falls into the bonfire kinda hot) both times is reflected accurately in my responses, I can’t say for sure.

Likewise, there was no major difference in my heart rate either.  During the second protocol, my heart rate only decreased by a mere 10 beats per minute which, in the grand scheme of things, is insignificant.

Lastly, there was no difference in the air intake whatsoever so, no, working for longer periods was not likely going to be an option either.

So what does this all mean then?

Well, the overall conclusion is that the cooling hood provided no physiological differences whatsoever.  However, perceptually, there was an improvement in our thermal perception even though there was no actual change in the perception of the exercise itself.  So while we might have felt  better, it did absolutely buckus to improve our overall performance.

What it all boils down to is that the test or, rather, the ability to endure the second protocol was unequivocally mental.   What else is there?  Hey, if there was no change in the core temperature, air consumption or heart rate, any differences to our protocol times really came down to our mental fortitude, or our ability to ultimately endure.  What else is there?  In essence, given the extreme difficulty of the task, how long were we willing  to allow ourselves to suffer?

And believe me again, we suffered.

Hence my preference for the term “Suffer Bunny”.

So if this is a mental thing, how do we improve that?  And that  very question is the premise for the next series of experimentation’s that I was involved in at the Brock lab later and which, as they say, is another story.

More to come on that in the very near future.

(If you wish read the full paper in all it’s scientific glory, you can click on the attachment below)

Wallace-et-al.-2015-Cranial-Head-Cooling-Firefighters

This past Saturday, I accomplished my first goal of the season by successfully completing the ‘Frank & Friends 10k Swim for Strong Kids’ for my third straight year. This event, while supporting a very noble local cause near and dear to my own heart, has become the annual benchmark of my swim training in the off season.  In short, while most of my peers are either primarily focused on their running or indoor trainers, I tend to place all my off-season eggs squarely in the swim basket by spending a stupid amount of time in the pool with this 10k swim being my ultimate ‘coup d’etat’.

Arriving on site

Arriving on site

The goal of this event is not a preconceived time or pace, per se, but simply to complete the distance and support a great cause. The personal benefit of such is twofold:

  1. A commit to ensure that my ass gets in the pool and thereby, establish a strong foundation for my triathlon training.
  2. Build mental toughness.

Now in regards to the second point, it’s true that you can build mental toughness on the bike or while running, there’s nothing quite like the tediousness and ultimate “aloneness” to build one’s mental fortitude. The truth of the matter is that despite this being my third year doing this event, it still scares the bejesus out of me; 10 kilometers (400 laps) is a long ass time to spend swimming laps.

My attempt at looking cool.

My attempt at looking cool for the press (pre-swim)

It’s already been documented that last year wasn’t exactly a primo year for me and in some regard I’m still dealing with those demons – fear of recouping after an injury; fear of losing my fitness; fear of failure.  In training for this event it was also a way of tackling those demons head on so but, while it’s ultimately only a charity event, this also represents my first ‘mano e’ mano’  showdown with these fears and personal insecurities.

Regardless of what it was, I was certainly better trained this year than I have been in past years.  For the past two months, I have been swimming anywhere between 14 and 18 kilometers a week for a whopping grand total of nearly 180k in 2015 alone – that’s 180,000m for God sakes!  Now, I know by marathon standards this I a mere drop in the bucket but for a guy who could barely swim five years ago (click HERE and HERE), is pretty damn good I think.  I’ve used paddles, learned how to use a snorkel to perfect my stroke as much as possible, and done so many drills than that I nearly cried pure chlorine.  I’ve gotten out of bed before the crack of dawn 3 times a week for months on end, suffered dry and pruny skin and now my hair now has the texture of straw.   So let it be known, I’ve put in my time.  I feel I’ve paid my dues.

Pre-swim

Pre-swim

But how does all this translate performance-wise?

A whole 27 whole seconds. That’s it.

Okay, well, maybe not exactly.

Last years’ 10k swim time was time 3 hours, 16 minutes and 51 seconds.  On top of that, there were at least 10 minutes of feeding stops, pee breaks, and a quick meet n’ greet with Frank (the man) himself.  This year, my cumulative  time over all was 3 hours, 16 minutes and 24 seconds.  Of that time, 3 hours, 11 minutes and 5 seconds were spent swimming; meaning I only stopped twice…and even then, only briefly.  The real accomplishment is that I felt infinitely more relaxed and less spent than I have been in the last two years.  In fact, it wasn’t quite so bad…like, at all.

Dare I say it: it was pretty easy?  Physically that is.

Mentally, there were times when it was a real grind.

Me and my pacers gettin' business done.

Me and my pacers gettin’ business done.

It all started off promptly at 1:00pm with me and exactly three other swimmers, HRH included.  Nowhere near the number of participants that have turned out in previous years, and the feeling like it was going to be a long day were already sinking into my brain.  If I’ve learned anything about long distance swimming its’ that it’s every bit as much a mental challenge as it is physical, more so actually. After all, for the entire time doing laps you’re looking at a long black line on the pool with little to no other stimulus whatsoever.  They don’t call it “Black Line Fever” for nothing.

I took my first short break at the 2500m mark (100 laps) when I felt Kelly tap my feet at the wall to remind me to take in some water.  By now, other swimmers had begun arriving so at least I had some company in the other lanes.  After a minute or so I pushed on with the intent of getting through another 100 laps or so.

I’m not sure how much longer after that, but I remember thinking ‘okay, this is getting boring’ and I started to mentally prepare myself for what I knew was only going to get worse, but as I began to mentally talk myself through those first few feelings of ‘aloneness’ , another swimmer appeared in my lane…and then another.

Still at it.

Still at it.

Two other swimmers and triathlon peers of mine, Jim Sunners and Michael Poulsen arrived to lend a hand in pacing me and, basically, just to keep me company.  Both Jim and Mike are extremely successful swimmers and triathletes in their own forthright and both have qualified for Kona this year (Jim has actually qualified and competed in Kona seven times and Mike has done so for the first time this year), so to have them think enough of my challenge to show up to support me as well the cause was – well, I’ll say it – very overwhelming and it certainly very appreciated.

Together the three of us formed a pace line and pushed on.

When I next felt the tap on my feet from Kelly to remind me to stop and drink, I quickly told her I was fine and carried on.  On a few occasions, I called for a piece of banana or a sip of water but I did so by flipping over on my back and continued stroking without stopping (a skill I’ve practices this season) as to not break our formation.  We kept this up straight through the half way point of the swim and by the time Jim pulled from the formation and called it a day at one end of the pool (he had to get to work) we were already at the 7500m mark (300 laps) – my longest consecutive swim to date.

At the finish.

At the finish.

Our pace may have not been anything to brag about and, truthfully, I know we could all have managed a much quicker pace fairly easily, it was still fun and I felt honored and privileged to be paced by guys to whom I look up to and I was just happy to sit on their feet and enjoy the moment…all 75 or so of them.

Mike and I pressed on for another 1000m or so before he too had to get to work, so with only 1500m to go and a couple honey dates in my belly, I pressed on once again…alone.  These next 60 laps were easily the most difficult of them all as by this time, I was pretty much the only one left in the pool.  I picked up the pace just a bit, so keep things interesting (and prove to myself I could do it) and to the encouragement of the amazing staff at the Port Colborne YMCA, I even sprinted the last 50m  to the end completing my third successful Frank & Friends swim.

The after effects.

The after effects.

Here are the final results (click HERE):

  • Total calories: 2,832
  • Total strokes: 4,776
  • strokes per minute: 24
  • strokes per length: 12
  • pace: 155 min/100m
  • Best pace: 0:45 min/100m

On the whole, amongst all the participants at our branch, we completed a total of 50k (2000 laps) while raising exactly $1400 for Strong Kids, both surpassing the goal that had initially been set.  I like to think Frank is proud.

As for me, I’ve already committed to next years’ swim and hope to even set a time goal of under three hours to boot; time to up the game a bit.

I’m three weeks into my recovery period and, truthfully, I’m driving myself crazy.  I think many triathletes may feel the same way.  We know it’s important to have this recovery time to heal and rejuvenate our bodies (or, in my case, knew it was important but never actually did anything about it) but suddenly, having all that time back in our week where we would usually be out training is hard to fill productively. It’s a double edged sword.  But after my recent revelation in regard to my current mental and emotional fatigue, I’m sticking to my guns and doing my very best to spend this time de-stressing and enjoying myself as much as possible. But that’s all easier said than done.

To do so, I’ve been trying to enjoy my downtime instructing spin classes at my local YMCA, indulging in some fancy meals while traveling, taking a few easy spins around my neighborhood to take in the Fall colors and smells, spending time in the pool playing with HRH, and watching a whole lotta Walking Dead.  So do I feel better? Well, that’s entirely debatable.

However, recently, I was also contacted by Agnes, an Etheric Health Practitioner and Reiki Master (ReHolistically Speaking) who just happens to be the wife of a training peer of mine, who volunteered to spend some time with me realigning the specific energy fields of my Endocrine System.

I know, ‘say what now?’  Hang in there.

Similar to my first massage experience (click HERE), the automatic skeptic in me started asking all the immediate questions: what do I need to wear?  Will there be chanting?  Is she going cast spells?  Will there be magic crystals?  Am I going to be offered the purple Kool-Aid?  Oh, and, yes, the ever-present ‘will I get a boner?’ crossed my mind too.  Hey, it’s an important question.

Thankfully, the answer is a resounding ‘No’ to all the above.

So what is it she’s attempting to do anyway?  It’s not like you have “energy rewiring” being advertised on every street corner it is? Nor is there any real hard information on this practice floating around out there.  You certainly can’t run to Chapters and pick up an ‘Etheric Health for Dummies’.

As I figured out (thanks Google), the Etheric Body gives vitality, health, life and organization to the Physical Body.  Think of it as the subtle level of the Physical Body, so healthy Etheric’s will inevitably lead to a healthy physical body; the two are intertwined in that regard.  Anyway, that still doesn’t explain what it was that Agnes was attempting to do so my inquisitive nature was spilling over with all the usual ‘why’s and ‘what’s.  I am game however to try just about anything once and, ultimately, I am interested to know if these ‘treatments’ will benefit me (if at all) so I took her up on her offer.

As she later explained to me (and after a considerable amount of research on my part), it’s possible that I am suffering from ‘Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome’.

fatiguedmanproppinguphisheadonacouch-653x0_q80_crop-smartI know, what the hell is that?  I had the same question.

Well, as I discovered, Adrenal fatigue is a collection of signs and symptoms that results when the adrenal glands function below the necessary levels. Some might refer to it as ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’ (CFS) which I’ve heard of before but I think what I have been experiencing is a bit, well, different.  However, the three main causes for the syndrome include: emotional stress, poor diet, and chronic inflammation of the body, of which, I’m guilty on all accounts. So maybe…

Strictly speaking, Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome is most commonly associated with intense or prolonged stress (yup, that’s definitely me).  As the name suggests, its paramount symptom is fatigue that is not relieved by sleep, yet it is not a readily identifiable entity like measles or a growth on the end of your finger so you’re not likely to hear anyone ever say to you: “Dude, what’s wrong? That looks like Adrenal Fatigue”.  In fact, you look and act relatively normal with adrenal fatigue and not display any obvious signs of physical illness, yet you still live with a general sense of unwellness (yup, me again), tiredness or “gray” feelings. People experiencing adrenal fatigue often have to use coffee, colas and other stimulants to get going in the morning and to prop themselves up during the day. Now, while I don’t necessarily think I ‘need’ extra caffeine every day I do recognize that I have been drinking more coffee in the morning and I can certainly identify with the whole “gray” feeling thing.

This syndrome has been known by many other names throughout the past century or so, such as non-Addison’s hypoadrenia, sub-clinical hypoadrenia, neurasthenia, adrenal neurasthenia, and adrenal apathy.  Whatever you choose to label it as, it apparently affects millions of people in North America and around the world, yet conventional medicine fails to recognize it as a distinct syndrome leading to the misguided belief that any treatment process – Etheric or otherwise – is more viewed as a practice in ‘hocus-pocus’ than it is of any valid scientific remedy.

Adrenal fatigue is produced when your adrenal glands cannot adequately meet the demands of stress – of which, I have a lot.  The adrenal glands, located at the top of your kidneys, mobilize your body’s responses to every kind of stress (whether it’s physical, emotional, or psychological) through hormones (including cortisol) that regulate energy production and storage, immune function, heart rate, muscle tone, and other processes that enable you to cope with the stress by initiating that ‘fight or flight’ response in your body as a way of increasing your pain threshold – a necessary evil for triathletes who constantly push their endurance limitations on a near daily basis; particularly those idiot ones who don’t follow a training plan such as myself.  Whether you have an emotional crisis such as the death of a loved one (sound familiar), a physical crisis such as major surgery, or any type of severe repeated or constant stress in your life (i.e. training), your adrenals have to respond to the stress and maintain homeostasis (the property of any bodily system in which variables are regulated so that internal conditions remain stable and relatively constant).  If their response is inadequate, you are likely to experience some degree of adrenal fatigue.

During adrenal fatigue your adrenal glands function, but not well enough to maintain optimal homeostasis because their output of regulatory hormones has been diminished – usually by over-stimulation.  Over-stimulation of your adrenals can be caused either by a very intense single stress as I mentioned, or by chronic or repeated stresses that have a cumulative effect.   Misdiagnosis is a serious concern since a patient could be suffering instead from a recognized adrenal disorder such as Cushing’s Syndrome (too much cortisol) or Addison’s Disease (too little cortisol, aldosterone and/or sex hormones), both of which can be treated with medication. I’m confident though that I don’t fall into either of these categories.

So what next?

Well, a quick and simple self-evaluation that you may be suffering from Adrenal fatigue might include asking yourself such questions as:

  1. You feel tired for no reason.
  2. You have trouble getting up in the morning, even when you go to bed at a reasonable hour.
  3. You are feeling rundown or overwhelmed.
  4. You have difficulty bouncing back from stress or illness.
  5. You crave salty and sweet snacks.
  6. You feel more awake, alert and energetic after 6PM than you do all day.

I can answer a resounding ‘Yes’ to all of these.  So perhaps these sessions are a step in the right direction.  They certainly aren’t going to hurt any are they?

Now, where I can’t say for certain what Agnes was doing during these sessions specifically as I tended to have my eyes closed and I’m about as close to sleep you can possibly get without completely going under, what I can relate to you is how I felt during and after the sessions.  I think I’ve already successfully documented how I feel now (i.e. before these sessions), however, just in case you’ve forgotten here’s a quick summary: I feel shitty.

But before I get into those results, it might help to try and explain the actual intent of these sessions; Lord knows I needed some help in understanding them myself.  In short here, the aim is to get the adrenals to stop running your body and rewire it “energetically” so that the pituitary gland runs the system as it is normally designed to do.  Likewise, she is working to restore the flow to my body’s energy system.  As it could be now, my adrenals might be permanently stuck in the ‘ON’ position leading to an unhealthy increase in cortisol (see my previous ‘Reset, Recharge, Replan’ post) with all the unfortunate consequences that go along with it (i.e. stress, fatigue, etc.).

So what is this “energy” she’s channeling exactly? Well, think of it this way…everything in the universe is comprised of energy and energy is all around us.  Agnes works with the energy field around the body and senses where it may be blocked or out of balance. In doing this work, she also takes into account the emotional state of the individual, as the emotions we feel in the body are “energy” as well and vibrate at certain frequencies.  Emotions such as anger, sadness, irritability are thicker, more dense vibrations are usually carried in the lower part of the body, making us feel burned out, run down, unmotivated.  Emotions such as happiness, joy, etc., consist of a higher frequency and leave you feeling “lighter”, whereby, you feel more “enlightened”, or peaceful and relaxed.  And who doesn’t like to feel like that? Surely, this is the entire point of a successful recovery period – something I have failed miserably at this year, hence, my plateau in training this year and my feeling the way I do now.  So what I’m really looking for then, is beginning to reconnecting more with those good, good, good, vibrations…

“…good vibrations, Oom bop bop.”

Sorry, couldn’t help myself there.  Anyway, back on track…

Think of it this way, your body is a river through which energy runs from head to toe and that energy is the veritable life force for each individual system that, together, regulate the body allowing it to function healthily.  If something should ever block that natural flow of healthy energy then everything begins to be negatively affected.  During my second session, Agnes reported that she ‘felt’ an overwhelming sense of sadness in my chest represented by a dense vibration which is not surprising seeing as what’s transpired over the past seven months.  So if that overwhelming sadness, or dense vibration, has been blocking the natural flow of positive energy through the rest of my body, then maybe that explains why I have been experiencing so many nagging injuries in my lower limbs lately.  I mean, shit, there’s no real ‘medical’ explanation yet why the soft issue of my right foot continues to ache after a month of relative non-activity, or why my left Achilles tendon is stiff in the morning despite my not having run for some time.  Maybe that part of my body is still laden with thick, unhealthy, negative vibration, or “energy”.  Any removal of dense vibrations or a “rewiring” of my body’s natural flow of positive energy should yield some positive results, right?  Go Agnes.

I mean, why not?

However, don’t go donning all your flowing robes just yet because, I admit to being more of a pragmatic type of person that needs to understand the specifics of what I’m dealing with.  But, sometimes in the absence of certainty and rationality, the irrational might just hold true.  Can you touch or directly detect your body’s ‘energy’ directly? Maybe not (maybe so), but you can definitely feel it so maybe that then becomes your ‘measure’ for improvement.  So the real evidence then that my rational mind might be craving should be based on how I feel as a result of these sessions and not the logistics of the actual session itself.  Follow me?

So the ultimate question then becomes: how do I feel afterwards?

Well, truthfully, after three sessions over a two week period I genuinely feel pretty damn good.  More correctly, I feel more relaxed; more so than I have felt in the past year or so since all the shit started being flung in my direction.  Am I healed?  No, probably not yet.  But in the past two weeks I have noticed a slight improvement in my lingering injuries (and anything is better than nothing), some improvement in my overall mood and, hell, even a sense of ‘calm’ that I hadn’t experienced in a very long time represented in the fact that I am sleeping much better these days.  Am I perfect?  Shit, no.  But I do believe I am getting back to feeling somewhat normal again and that definitely weighs very favorably in my conscious mind so, yeah, pass the flowing robes; there might just be something to this whole Etheric’s thing.

I am getting convinced now that there is more to this body then simply the muscle, bone and various tissues that make it up – it’s just not that black and white.  And my failure to initially recognize that just might – in itself – be the biggest mistake I’ve made all year; a mistake I don’t care to repeat thank you very much.  Any if you don’t learn from your mistakes and make efforts to correct them through whatever means necessary, well, I think that’s pretty sad – and I’m tired of being sad. So any effort, practice, or what have you, that helps me ultimately heal my mind, body and spirit, is gratefully appreciated and very welcome and maybe this needs to be a part of my regular recovery process.

Pass the Kool-Aid.