Saturday, 19 October 2013

Watered down fitness advice

My new favourite lunchtime workout lately has been swimming in the river outside my office.  I used to occassionally swim at lunch at my old office (mostly to do with trying to pass random military swim tests), but it was a complicated affair of driving to the closest indoor city pool and then getting back in reasonable time.  At my new office, I step out the door and am faced with the glorious Ottawa River.  A few months ago, in the peak of summer, I couldn't resist any longer and decided to go for a dip.  Since then it's become a weekly habit to go at least once.  And despite the temperatures getting a bit cooler now, when I went last (earlier this week) the water was still quite pleasant.  

Each time is a little bit different.  There's a little rocky island about 150-200 metres offshore to which I often head.  There's nothing much on it but a few shrubs, seagull bones and shit.  There's a lot of wild purslane all over the place, which makes a nice lemony snack.  I usually am still fasting at that point in the day so it always feels like a treat.  I've even discovered two scraggly tomato plants, with some green tomatoes on them, which i can only figure grew from some seeds that wafted downstream in the breeze or from compost drifting ashore.  It doesn't look like another soul has been on the island for years, which is kind of nice because it gives a person that sort of Robinson Crusoe, 'undiscovered country' feeling when you step ashore, even though it's in the midst of the city.

Other times I just swim around randomly.  This past week, I swam out along some rocky bluffs that skirt the edge of the river and climbed up into some of the little overhangs and caverns that have been eroded by the river over the years.  Pretty neat area.  Even found some interesting patterns in the rocks that look like little fossilized worms or vegetation of some sort.  All in all much more interesting that a chlorinated indoor pool.

I have to admit I get some weird looks from passers-by on the shoreline.  There's a nice walking trail along the river so there's a lot of foot traffic during the lunch hour, especially on nice days.  I've never seen another person in the water here, or anywhere close by.  It strikes me as a bit strange. There's no beach or anything, but it's not like the water is hard to access.  It's rocky, yes, but you only have to get in about 10 feet or so and it drops off very deep and the water is clear and free from weeds.  I can't figure out what the reason is.  A lot of people I tell seem a bit shocked at first, i think because they think it must be dirty.  Admittedly, there have been a few cases where the city has allowed raw sewage to dump into the river during heavy storm overflows, but it doesn't seem to discourage people from the beaches in the summer.  And while I certainly would rather there was no untreated sewage going into the river ever, it's a big, deep river and I'm sure it's pretty diluted by the time it gets to me.  Besides, I fully agree with George Carlin's very Nietzschean bit about how swimming in raw sewage strengthens the immune system.  Same reason I get about 10-20% of my calories from food that's fallen on the ground (actually no, wait, that's because I have young kids).  Of course Carlin is dead....but so far I'm not. Part of me really wants to rebel against this whole notion that we can somehow wall ourselves off from pollution by avoiding the 'dirty' places.  If ecology teaches anything it's that there's no hope in that...everything is connected to everything else and the fences we try to put up just serve to make us feel better.  We need to take better care of the whole place, not just try to avoid the nasty stuff.  We're all downstream so to speak.

We're well into October now and I'm hoping I can at least make it into November.  I met a very cool Swedish guy when we were vacationing in Cuba last winter, and he was telling me about how he was on track to swim in the ocean every month of the year.  Now I think he was from the southern part of Sweden but that's still pretty bad-ass.  The river here freezes over by December/January so I think November is probably the best I can hope for, but you never know.

Speaking of Swedes, you know else was a fan of open water swimming - a dude named Beowulf:

Unferth spoke:  
"Are you that Beowulf
who struggled with Brecca
in the broad sea
in a swimming contest?
The one who, out of pride,
risked his life in the deep water
though both friends and enemies
told you it was too dangerous?
Are you the one who hugged
the sea, gliding through the boiling
waves of the winter's swell?
You and Brecca toiled
seven nights in the sea,
and he, with more strength,
overcame you."

Beowulf spoke:
"Well, my friend Unferth, you
have said a good many things
about Brecca and that trip,
drunk on beer as you are.
Truth to tell, I had more strength
but also more hardships in the waves.
He and I were both boys
and boasted out of our youth
that we two would risk
our lives in the sea.
And so we did.
With naked swords in hand,
to ward off whales,
we swam. Brecca could not
out-swim me, nor could I
out-distance him. And thus
we were, for five nights.
It was cold weather and
the waves surged, driving us
apart, and the North wind came
like a battle in the night.
Fierce were the waves
and the anger of the sea fish
stirred. My coat of mail,
adorned in gold
and locked hard by hand,
helped against those foes.
A hostile thing drew me
to the bottom in its grim grip,
but it was granted to me
to reach it with my sword's
point. The battle storm
destroyed that mighty
sea beast through my hand.
And on and on evil
things threatened me.
I served them with my sword
as it was right to do.
Those wicked things
had no joy of the feast,
did not sit at the sea's
bottom eating my bones."
(translation by D.Breeden)

Now that's some really bad-ass shit.  Dude swam for 5 days in a full suit of armour and a carrying a sword, and killed a bunch of sea monsters at the same time.  The least I can do is go for a little dip on my lunch break and carry back some tomatoes and fossils!

Another swimming contest I like to think about is the one from the movie Gattaca.  It's a great scene from an ever greater movie.  Serves as a good bit of admonition for those times when a person feels like they're a slave to their genetic limitations or that somehow other people have it easier.  Goes to show that it's most often the people that work the hardest and want it the baddest that succeed, not necessarily the ones with the most natural talent or advantages.  A good reminder at all times, especially for those of us in the fitness realm.  And swimming always makes me think of this scene, and the message therein - a good mnemonic kick in the ass!

Well, that got a little more philological and philosophical than intended.... 

All I'm really trying to say is that I'd encourage anyone who has access to a river to ignore the strange stares you might get and just use it.  Swimming is killer exercise.  I'm not even that great at it but it always leaves me feeling like I had a good workout, especially in open water with a decent current (this spot is downstream from some crazy rapids at Chaudierre Falls).  I'm always starving afterwards, which to me is a good sign that I worked hard.  Plus, I used to pay 5 bucks a shot to swim in the public pool, plus gas to get there.  This is free for the taking.
So dive in.  

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Benchmarking - Special Ops style

Some of the most useful free resources that I've found over the past few years have been a series of military fitness training manuals and guidelines.  The ones that I've found and used are Canadian, but I'm sure that there are also good examples from other countries' militaries. I don't think it could be argued against that military special forces personnel are among the very elite level athletes in the world.  In contrast to professional sports where a drop in physical performance might mean getting cut or traded, poor performance here could be the difference between life and death.  And while I might not necessarily agree in all cases with the ideology and politics behind the specific conflicts, I have a great deal of respect for the people who choose to put their lives at risk in this line of work.  I also think that at some point in every little boy's life (and no doubt some girls too), the dream arises of what it would be like to be a Navy Seal or Black Ops commando.  Carried forward into adulthood, I think there's a little part of everyone (certainly me at least) that likes to think of how they would stack up, on a purely physical level, against these elite role models.

The most valuable aspect of these resources, for me, has been the fitness check components, much more so than the actual training programs they prescribe.  I like to set my own training program and regimen, so I've never been very successful at just following programs dictated by others.  That's probably been a positive in terms of generally avoiding silly bodybuilding mag routines, but a negative in terms of not strictly following the programs set out by others who are much better or more experienced than I am.  What can I say, I just can't seem to do it.  That's not to say I don't use aspects of routines created by others (e.g. Starting Strength, Leangains RPT, Rookie Journal 8x3, etc.) - which I certainly have and still do - but I always seem to find a way to personalize them, adding and subtracting things as I see fit.  I find that I need to do this to take ownership of my actually motivate myself to continue with it.  The idea of taking a program or course of action verbatim from a trainer has always struck me as completely untenable, for better or worse.

But I am a huge fan of continuous and structured self-evaluation, and these manuals provide an easy way to do so.  Not to say they're the be-all end-all  of fitness - I don't even know who developed the specific fitness standards therein or any of the actual physiological underpinnings of the specific measures - but, regardless, they're a convenient way of quickly assessing one's overall state of athleticism and physical readiness.  I've kept a pretty meticulous training log, recording every rep of every workout, since I was about 17 years old. But sometimes I find that it's hard to measure broad-scale fitness over a longer time horizon.  Sure, it's not that difficult to track progress on poundages for key lifts...or capacity in bodyweight exercises like chin-ups, dips, muscle-ups and handstand push-ups.  Even times for key running distances aren't that hard to track.  But sometimes it's hard to see how all of those pieces fit together into a more comprehensive self-assessment of fitness, writ large.  For instance, maybe you're getting stronger in absolute terms but added bodyweight is hurting your aerobic capacity or bodyweight/gymnastic performance... or vice versa. These military testing protocols provide a convenient wage to gauge general fitness across a wide range of activities and components. 

The other advantage that they offer is the fact that most of the criteria are quite easy to test, with very little in the way of equipment, trainers/judges or specialized facilities.  This appeals to the whole essence of Hobofit.  In most cases, the testing components are things like push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups, and swimming and running over a few specified distances. 

For instance, the pre-selection testing for the Joint Task Force 2 is a combination of 5 components: a 1.5 mile run, push-ups, sit-ups, pullups and a 1-rep max in the bench press.  Of all of these, the only one that presents some difficulty in testing accurately is the 1RM Bench.  If you have the facilties and a good spotter, great!  For everyone else, it's still pretty easy to get an approximation of your 1RM by extrapolating another perhaps +5-10% from a 3-rep max or 5-rep max.  For the JTF2 test, performance in each of these components is rated on a points scale (11-30), with an aggregate score of 75 points needed.  Therefore (for non-assaulters...the slightly easier of two sub-groups), you'd need an average of 15 points in each category, which equates to a 1.5 mile run in under 10 minutes, and at least 48 continuous push-ups, 9 pullups, 48 sit-ups in a minute, and a 1RM bench of just under 200lbs.  Now, I've heard on good authority that 75 points is really the bare bare minimum and that most of the real guys are getting much higher than this.  However, for an aging armchair athlete, this seems to be a decent baseline.  What I like about it too is that it allows for some variation related to an individual's strengths and weaknesses, provided you meet the minimums in everything.  For instance,  I tend to get a lot of points in the Pullups, pushups and bench components, whereas I really need to bust my ass to meet even the 15 point levels for the 1.5 mile and the sit-ups.  Someone smaller than me might excel at the run but struggle with the bench press.

Another one I like to gauge myself against now and again is the SARTech pre-selection test, partly because it adds .  The Canadian Forces School of Search And Rescue (CFSSAR) SAR Tech pre-selection evaluation consists of:

To be completed in 16 minutes or less:
  • 1.5 mile / 2400m run in 10:15 or less;
  • 31 consecutive Push-ups;
  • 33 consecutive Sit-ups;
  • 8 consecutive Chin-ups;
  • 450 m shuttle run; and
To be completed following the above items:
  • 675 m swim in 20 minutes or less
The swim component takes a bit of organization but it's easy enough to just swim 27 lengths of any standard 25 metre pool for time.  The shuttle run is a bit hard to do on your own, so I usually skip that component.

I try to do both of these tests at least a few times every year, just to see where I'm at.  It's something I hope to do well into old age, as a way to ensure that I'm not suffering too much from age-related physical decline.  If it becomes the case that I start to struggle with one or more of the components, I'll take that as a sign of where to focus added training and attention.  Until then, it's a fun and cheap way to feel a little bit more GI Joe than Office Space.