Off-Season Part II: What Does It Look Like?

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As I noted in my prior post, I’ve engaged in a lot of fun and challenging physical activities. Now it’s time to step back a bit and rest.

Effective training is made up of peaks and valleys. Training and rest are flip sides of the same coin. Rest must follow training in order for adaptations and progress to take place. The more extensive, prolonged and/or intense the training, the more rest is needed. Here’s an outline of how I plan to conduct my off-season.  (It’s not technically a full season, btw.)

Short-term plan

Week 1:

  • No running.  None.
  • Only easy bike rides: to/from work, maybe 1 or 2 easy road rides, no mountain biking
  • de-load week from lifting: This is week 4 of a 4-week block. I’ve been lifting 4 days/week; this week will probably be just 2 at the most. I’ll do some variations on the lifts I’ve been doing. Workouts will be short. Less will be more.
  • Prioritize sleep.

    Week 2:

  • To paraphrase a friend’s take on off-season: If I feel like it, I’ll do it. If I don’t feel like it, then I won’t.
  • “It” being anything from road/trail running to road/trail riding to hiking to whatever else there might be.
  • Start a new 4-week lifting block. This will involve hard work but since my riding and running will be reduced, I’ll still be resting to some degree.
  • Continue to prioritize sleep.
  • Weeks 3-4:

  • This will take me to the end of October.
  • Continue lifting
  • Some mountain biking
  • Some trail running
  • No real planned training beyond the lifting schedule
  • Ski season comes up soon.
  • Feasting/gluttony season is also waddling my way.

Beyond one month:

We have a big trip coming up the first week in December. It’s a scuba diving and other-fun-stuff trip to the Caribbean island of Dominica. Since it’ll be a beach gig, the wife and I want to look our best in swimsuits and such.

The real challenge is that my wife and I are in fairly good shape. We don’t need to lose much fat. Our big-picture eating habits are mostly very good. We exercise very regularly and we have a consistent, healthy sleep routine. There aren’t any big, bad habits we need to change. Thus it’s small details we need to mind. Here are some thoughts:

  • We’ve given up booze except for my birthday and Thanksgiving.
  • The only sweets we’ll have are following a significant (minimum 2-hr) physical effort such as a ride, run or strenuous hike.
  • It’s probably a good idea for me to give up peanut butter. It’s probably a little too easy to eat. Further, that it’s ground up makes the calories easier for my body to access than regular nuts.
  • Maybe consider giving up dairy?
  • As December approaches we will likely cut the carbs a good bit, and up the protein, fat and vegetables.
  • It’s very easy during this off-season situation for weight to creep up. With all the training I was doing this summer, I needed to eat a lot and I could eat a lot without any consequence. Now I plan to lower my activity level but my nervous system will still want to eat like I was during the summer. Thus…
  • I’m trying out the Eat This Much app to help me plan meals that correspond to my needs. This helps bring awareness to my current habits so I can tweak them in the right direction.
  • I need someone to take my body comp.
  • The current lifting scheme should help add muscle.
  • I’ll gradually resume significant endurance activity which should contribute to reduction in body fat.
  • Review my Precision Nutrition text to figure out else I need to do.

 

 

Off-Season Part I: Resting is Weird.

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I just finished a 10-mile trail race and I feel good. I’m pleased that my Achilles held up. It seems I took the right approach to addressing the pain in that are.

I am grateful and very happy to have had a lot of fun over the past few months in the great Colorado outdoors. This spring and summer were full of activities including the following:

Besides these events, I put in the time to train for all of them. I’ve also continued lifting though for most of these past few months it’s been at a minimal level, about twice a week though that has changed recently. It’s been a lot of fun and a lot of hard work, but now it’s definitely time to shift gears.

I’m feeling a bit tired and beat-up. I can say without hesitation that it’s time for some rest. Rest is an interesting concept. Most people probably get a little too much rest. Some of us find it difficult to take time off though. Strangely, it can be a challenge to time away from challenging physical work.

Saying, “It’s so difficult to take a break from all this grueling stuff,” sounds loaded with pretentious fake humility. I don’t say this to sound like some sort of supreme, tough-guy super-athlete. There is a strange type of mental state that many of us have that isn’t entirely rational, healthy or wise. Our love our chosen activity(-ies) can verge into irrational dependence and obsession.

Our running, riding, swimming, climbing, skiing, lifting, — our athletic achievements and work — define us. What are we without the sweat, toil and achievement?

We also start to think crazy thoughts. Take just 48-72 hours off from working out and many an exercise aficionado starts to go insane. We think things like,

“All my muscles have shriveled like prunes and I’ve gained 30 lbs of pure fat!”

“My lung capacity is probably that of an emphysema victim!”

I am nothing but crippled, human lard!

That’s just after a few days! Taking several weeks or a whole month away from training can be excruciating!

This is all nonsense crazy-talk. It’s foolish to think we can keep pushing and pushing to no end. Following a serious season of training and/or competition, rest is exactly the activity an athlete needs. It’s easy to accept this fact on an intellectual level. It’s more difficult to accept it emotionally.

Achilles Pain. Time to Take Action!

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I’ve had periodic issues with my left Achilles tendon. I’ve never had trouble with my right Achilles until just lately. I felt a bit of soreness one morning and found some swelling. I knew it probably wouldn’t “work itself out” (I sort of hate when someone says that about something. Nothing “works itself out.” Someone has to put in work in order to see progress.) The upside to having had this problem before is that I know how to address it now.

I believe my trouble may have started because of the long trail run/hike I did a couple of weekends ago in Telluride. It was about 12 miles which was a sizable jump from my prior long run of 7 miles. (Sometimes I’m not smart.)

I have attacked the injury with a fairly conventional strategy of slow and controlled heel raises. Here’s what it looks like:

I’m doing these exercises frequently throughout the day. If I can hit 15 reps then I add weight. Fifteen reps isn’t a magic number by the way. Most importantly I work to a high level of exertion, pretty much to failure.

I’ve run several times since feeling pain and doing the calf raises and I feel fine. That’s a good sign. I probably don’t need to take time off from running.

This exercise is boring and I hate doing it. (Sounds like what a lot of people say about going to the gym.) I have shown a propensity for weakness in my Achilles tendons in the past though. This is exactly the type of thing I need to do and I should be doing continually. It’s easy to skip this stuff because I don’t enjoy it. My body doesn’t  though even though there are potential negative consequences to this course of non-action.

There are lots of things in life like that.

Colfax Marathon & The Gathering Place: There’s Still Time to Donate

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The Colfax Marathon, marathon relay, half-marathon and 10-miler (my race) are all coming up this Sunday, May 15. I’m trained up and ready for a fun dash from Lakewood to beautiful Denver City Park. I’m feeling good, strong and injury-free. The weather should be cloudy and cool which is good for a 200 lb. runner such as myself.

I’ve been raising money for a great organization called The Gathering Place which is a drop-in day shelter for homeless women, kids and the transgender community. I’m very happy to be helping the TGP do their wonderful work and I’m grateful to everyone who has donated thus far. Thus far my friends and family have donated $2343.10. I would love to hit $2500 (or more) by Sunday. If you haven’t donated or if you’ve already donated and you still have some spare money sitting around, then you still have time. Follow this link if you’d like to donate.

My Chronic Injury is an Addict

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I'm getting off the wheel.

I’m getting off the wheel.

I’ve had recent discussions with two clients about lingering injuries. The talks brought to mind how my approach to my Achilles tendon pain. I think this new mindset will prove essential to my staying healthy and avoiding future Achilles problems. Maybe it’ll be useful to you.

To be clear, I don’t currently have any Achilles pain. I’m able to run long, sprint, and trail run consistently with no trouble. I want to keep it that way for the rest of eternity and that’s what brought up these thoughts.

Both my clients and I have battled aches and pains in particular regions that have come and gone… and come and gone again over the course of time. Our shared narratives go something like this:

I have pain. I see a physical therapist or chiropractor. He/She prescribes exercises that help. They help. I quit doing said exercises. (Those exercises are BORING as hell. They don’t feel like exercise. They don’t feel like they’re making me stronger, leaner, or more powerful.) Pain comes back at some point. Repeat the process.

Does this chain of events sound familiar?

My aches and pains have caused me to miss training, miss races and forced me out of some of the activities that I enjoy with passion. I’d like to avoid this process, thus I need to do something different from how I’ve done things in the past, otherwise I can expect the same result as before. (We all know about the definition of insanity right?)

I’ve decided that my Achilles tendon is… well… my Achilles heel. It’s my weak spot. For whatever reason, this part of my body is susceptible to problems. Therefore it needs special consideration and care. I’m now motivated to continually do the things that seem to strengthen my Achilles tendon. I want to turn that weak spot into a bulletproof, iron-clad appendage that’s nearly indestructible.

That means almost every day I’m doing standing heel raises. Some days I do high-reps/low-weight. Other days it’s heavy-weight/low-reps. I do bent-knee heel raises and straight-knee heel raises. I do heel raises with a straight foot and with my foot turned in and out. Some days I do lots of heel raises. Some days I do fewer.

My point has less to do with heel raises to cure Achilles problems and more with my behavior and thinking around the problem. The point is that I now constantly tend to this thing that has been a problem for me. I view it as an ongoing project that will never really be complete.

The analogy I’ll make is to that of an addict. Overcoming addiction is an ongoing process. An addict is either getting better or getting worse but he’s never treading water and staying put. An alcoholic/coke addict/sex addict/shopping addict/whatever-addict is an addict forever. Like an addict, it would probably be more enjoyable for me to quit doing my dinky, boring exercises and tell myself that I’m OK. I could easily do whats comfortable and easy.

I could say, “I’m fine. I’m cured. I don’t need to worry about this problem. It’s behind me forever now.”

If I take that tact though I should expect my problem to creep back in, and I hate that thought.

Losing the ability to run and jump is a powerful source of motivation for me. With proper motivation comes the ability to apply willpower to the problem. With this mindset, the boring and tedious exercises become easy. Doing them isn’t an issue at all now.

As with almost everything we do in fitness (and everything else in the world) the real target here is the brain, not the injured/painful area. If I want continued success and progress then I must decide to take the appropriate action. If I want a specific outcome (Achilles pain gone forever, weight loss, muscle mass, etc.) then I must adopt the behaviors that will get me there. I need to make new habits. That requires conscious thought and deliberate action. The work won’t do itself.

So there.

 

Achilles Tendonitis Progress

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My Achilles pain was getting better and then it flared up again recently and it has stayed flared for a while. This has been an ugly aggravation as it was a serious regression. Now, I’m very happy to report that my Achilles tendon irritation seems to be fading away. I’ve done three short-distance run/walks with no pain. (Will it stay gone is the real question.) What has helped?

Time off

Initially I thought that simply changing the way I ran would allow me to side-step whatever healing process that needed to take place. I revisited several technique changes that helped me overcome a past bout of Achilles pain. I discovered that there was no magic fix. Minding my technique is a good idea but it seems my tissues still needed time to heal.

Heel lift

I put a 1/4 inch heel lift in my shoe. The idea is to give a little bit of slack to the sore tendon.

To this point, I made sure not to do much in the way of stretching the tendon. It’s often a mistake to think that if it’s sore, it must need stretching. In fact, the damage to the Achilles may have been brought on by it’s being stretched too much and/or too fast.

Eccentric strength work

I’m continuing the work I wrote about in the last blog post. Runner’sConnect.net has a comprehensive guide to both Achilles pain rehab and prevention strategies. I won’t rehash it here.

Extensor hallucis brevis work

I think this has been a BIG ONE. I believe that part of my problem stems from my inability to adequately anchor to the ground the distal end of my first metatarsal, aka the ball of my big toe. How might that affect my Achilles tendon?

Too much of this may over-stress the Achilles and cause pain.

Too much of this may over-stress the Achilles and cause pain.

If I can’t secure that first met head to the ground then I have a weak foot tripod as the Gait Guys have described it.That means that my foot might pronate in an uncontrolled way which can result in something like the image to the right. Too much of that done too often and/or too fast could over-stress the Achilles causing damage and pain. To form a solid foot tripod, I need to be able to secure the center of my calcaneus (heel bone), first metatarsal head (ball of the big toe) and the fifth metatarsal head (ball of the little toe.)

(To be clear, I can’t say this is The Cause for anyone else’s Achilles problems. Someone else may be able to run with lots of pronation and feel fine.)

How did I know I had difficulty getting that met head to the ground? I’ve been videoed running and I could see this extended pronation occurring. I could feel it as I tried doing the exercise in the following video. This gets into what seems like some real minutiae. For me, it seems pretty important. Also, I don’t believe this movement is trained in the eccentric strength protocol I mentioned above.

Metronome running

I’ve read several discussions (here, herehere) on running cadence and loading rate as it pertains to injury risk. Essentially, by using a quicker cadence we should load the tissues of the foot for less time per foot fall thus resulting in less stress to those tissues. That’s exactly something I need.

I went back to using a metronome when I run so that I can make sure to keep a quick pace. I set the metronome from 170 to 180 bpm and matched my cadence to the beat. It’s definitely a quicker cadence than what I’m used to. Seems I’ve backslid some on minding my cadence. Going forward, I think it will be a good idea to periodically run with a metronome to ensure that I’m staying quick on my feet.

 

More Achilles Tendon-itis/-osis/-opathy (or Whatever It Is)

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About three weeks ago I went for a run in the snow. Part way through I felt some irritation in my left Achilles tendon. Like anyone who loves/needs to exercise, I kept running and I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t too bad, that it would probably go away soon or maybe if I changed my stride slightly it would resolve during the run.

I was wrong! I really irritated the thing and had to walk about a mile. This was the latest flare-up of a years-long lingering issue. (I’ve discussed the Achilles here and here, as well as left heel pain/plantar fasciitis hereherehere, here, here and probably in some other places… You’d think for someone who’s considered this issue so much that I wouldn’t have it anymore.)

Prior to this Achilles flare-up, I’d had some of some old familiar heel pain. It wasn’t debilitating but it was a signal that something wasn’t as it should be. Again, I ignored it to a large degree and figured it would resolve. I should’ve paid closer attention to it. Essentially, it wasn’t a problem until it was a problem. Time to get back to work on this thing.

Tendon injury: A complex issue

Why do we get injured? How do our tissues (like tendons) become damaged? If we administer the right amount of stress and then recover we get a positive adaptation–we get stronger. In contrast, if we administer too much stress and we don’t recover then we get some type of injury. Thus too much stress delivered too often and/or too fast has been my problem. I need to increase my tissue tolerance to the forces of running.

A recent article from Alex Hutchinson is titled Pro Tips on Treating Tendon Injuries. This article covers a debate among members of the Canadian Association of Sports and Exercise Medicine in Ottawa. Several top sports physicians and therapists were asked: Which therapy should the squash player try next? (I’m not a squash player but I have the injury they discussed.) If you’re dealing with this issue it’s definitely worth a read. It discusses several methods: eccentric strengthening, nitroglycerin patch, dry needling, cortisone, and platelet-rich plasma.

There wasn’t 100% agreement on anything much, but Hutchinson’s concluding statement was this (emphasis is mine):

“So what should the poor squash player do? In the question period following the debate, most participants conceded that strengthening exercises are the path to long-term health. Depending on the specifics of your tendon injury, other techniques may provide relief to allow you to exercise, but they’re not permanent cures.”

Cures I like. I have no interest in simply treating symptoms. Thus I decided it was time to implement something with which I’d been familiar but which I knew wouldn’t be very exciting at all: the eccentric strength protocol.

Eccentric strengthening

First, what does “eccentric” mean?An eccentric contraction is one in which the muscle is contracted but it’s also lengthening. Think of doing a bicep curl. You know the part where you yield to gravity and lower the weight? That’s the eccentric portion of the movement. (In contrast, the concentric portion is where you overcome gravity and bring up the weight.) For this particular protocol, we want to fight against the lowering action and lower very slowly.

I found a very thorough resource for this project from Jeff Gaudette at RunnersConnect.net. It’s titled The Ultimate Runner’s Guide to Achilles Tendon Injuries: The Scientific Signs, Symptoms, and Research Backed Treatment Options for Achilles Tendonitis and Insertional Achilles Tendinopathy. (The title of this thing just screams ACTION!! doesn’t it?) You can download both the Injury Treatment PDF and the Injury Prevention PDF. As the title suggests, this is a thoroughly researched guide to dealing with tendon injuries. I appreciate very much that there is both a treatment and prevention strategy. I won’t go into the whole thing but here are the basics:

The strength protocol consists of two exercises: a straight-kneed and a bent-kneed
eccentric heel drop. The protocol calls for three sets of fifteen heel drops, both bent- kneed and straight-kneed, twice a day for twelve weeks.

Standing on a step with your ankles plantarflexed (at the top of a “calf raise”), shift all of
your weight onto the injured leg. Slowly use your calf muscles to lower your body down,
dropping your heel beneath your forefoot. Use your uninjured leg to return to the “up”
position. Do not use the injured side to get back to the “up” position! The exercise is
designed to cause some pain, and you are encouraged to continue doing it even with
moderate discomfort. You should stop if the pain is excruciating, however.

Once you are able to do the heel drops without any pain, progressively add weight using a backpack. If you are unlucky enough to have Achilles tendon problems on both sides,
use a step to help you get back to the “up” position, using your quads instead of your
calves to return up.

The eccentric exercises are thought to selectively damage the Achilles tendon, stripping
away the misaligned tendon fibers and allowing the body to lay down new fibers that
are closer in alignment to the healthy collagen in the tendon. This is why moderate pain
during the exercises is a good thing, and why adding weight over time is necessary to
progressively strengthen the tendon.

You do these exercises for 3 sets of 15 reps, twice daily. There are photos showing these exercises including a modification if you have what’s known as insertional Achilles tendonitis. Again, read the whole thing if you want the full rundown of this protocol.

More thoughts

Part of why I haven’t done this in the past is that it is slow and tedious! Three sets of 15 slow reps makes time crawl like some sort of crippled tortoise. It ain’t fun! Plus I’ve never cared much for doing calf work. That said, I need to fix this problem. This process seems to be the best way to go about it, so I’m on board.

Something else I realize is that if I’m prone to this injury and I want to avoid it then I need to do the preventive work. That means setting aside time throughout the week and during my workouts to do some of this stuff.

I’ve been doing this work for about the past three weeks and I am getting better. I’ve done a couple of short run/walks and I’m not in the clear just yet. The only option I see is to continue doing what I’m doing.

Update

I just went on a run of a little over two miles and the Achilles feels fantastic. No pain! Felt like I could’ve run all day–which would’ve been stupid of me. This protocol is working for me right now.

Good Words from Steve Magness at Science of Running

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“Which brings me to the point.  You can’t force things. In life or in running. You’ve got to let them come to you.”

– Steve Magness, Science of Running

I’m a big fan of Steve Magness’ work. He is both a researcher and an in-the-trenches running coach. His site the Science of Running is full of excellent information. His book (also titled The Science of Running) is a must-read for running coaches and any serious runner.

Under pressure

I greatly appreciate his latest blog post titled New Year’s Reflections and Anti-resolutions. He discusses resolutions and the high failure rate experienced by those undertaking them. He observes that a lot of us feel forced to make decisions and when that happens, we make bad decisions. When we feel cornered and pressured to accomplish or achieve something then we often don’t get the results we want. He says:

“Today, with social media, an ability to instantly compare ourselves to any of our peers, and a high premium placed on accomplishments and ‘success’, it’s hard to escape the feeling that we have to do something. We have to accomplish some goal, take some job, marry some guy or gal, all on some set time line or else we’re perceived as a failure. Society and culture put us in a place of ‘forcing’ us to do something.”

I can definitely relate to this scenario. I sometimes feel pressure when I observe the accomplishments of others in my field, or when I look at the athletic feats of men my age. It’s easy to feel like I don’t measure up, that I’m not “enough.” Later in this post I’ll give some evidence that by letting my mind wander to others’ achievements, I’m probably undermining my contentment in life.

Here is more from Magness:

“Which brings me to the point.  You can’t force things. In life or in running. You’ve got to let them come to you.

In running, big breakthroughs occur when you let them happen. You’re more relaxed while still driven and focused during the race versus tense and pressing in which you are trying to force a new Personal Record.  Ask any sprint coach if people run faster relaxed versus tensed and you will find your answer to why forcing a race does not work.”

There is power in being mentally engaged in the here-and-now rather than longing for the end product. Most of us have probably experienced this when we try really hard at almost anything. From a golf swing to trying to impress a date or a boss, if we bear down too much and try to force it we rarely get the results we want.

Flow

In contrast to forcing things, we would ideally relax and perhaps just react to events. Psychology researcher Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this the “flow” state:

“These are moments in which your mind becomes entirely absorbed in the activity so that you ‘forget yourself’ and begin to act effortlessly, with a heightened sense of awareness of the here and now (athletes often describe this as ‘being in the zone’). You may be surprised to learn, however, that in recent years this experience has become the focus of much research by positive psychologists. Indeed, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has even given it a name for an objective condition — ‘flow.'”

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience flow on the ski slopes–though not nearly as often as I’d like! Everything works. I turn effortlessly. I’m in total control. I move but I’m not aware of how it’s happening. I often feel this way when I trail run, mountain bike, lift heavy weights or when reading a great book. Life is best when I feel this “flow.”

Process, oh how I love the!

I recall conversations about training I’ve had with a friend. Much of his life is devoted to triathlon specifically and intense physical activity generally. We both love physical exertion of a sometimes extreme degree, and we both agree that we dearly love the process. Lifting weights. A track workout. A long bike ride. Learning a new exercise. We love every step towards the end goal. We love the beginning when we feel good, the middle when we’re tired and questioning why we’re doing it, and the glorious end when we feel a sense of accomplishment. In loving the process the end goal comes to us.

Magness speaks to loving the process:

“The key though is not simply thinking ‘it will all work out’ but instead acknowledging the first portion which is if you work hard at things you enjoy, love the process, then eventually things will work out. Perhaps not always in the direction you want them to, but for the most part they will.”

(Additionally, it’s during intense training that we are wholly focused on the task at hand. More on that in a moment.)

Chasing a mirage

I like Magness’s analysis of being process-focused rather than outcome-focused:

“We get caught in the rat race of trying to chase success, satisfaction, happiness, and outcomes. The reality is that this is simply an evolutionary mechanism designed to keep us engaged. Researchers have found that it’s not the actual reward that gives us the most bang for our buck in terms of the wonderful feel good hormone of Dopamine. Instead, it’s the chase that gives us the huge bump in Dopamine.

We’re designed for the process, but we focus on the outcome. It’s this nice little trick of mother nature that makes us follow through and get things done. It’s why we suffer from this nice fallacy of ‘If only I had X, I’d be happy/satisfied/whatever…’ We then chase X, feeling pretty good about ourselves as we chase it, but then are torn down by the feeling of discontentment when we finally reached our goal and while the payoff was nice, it most certainly doesn’t meet pre-conceived expectations. So we are left with the inevitable ‘so what now…’ that predictably follows.”

He says, “If I only had X, I’d be happy…” I believe a lot of us go through life this way, basing our contentment on external things: a race outcome, a flat stomach, a girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse, money, a house in a certain neighborhood… In other words, we’re looking for the perfect circumstance when everything goes right–then we’ll be happy!

In this scenario, we’re looking outside ourselves for contentment, fulfillment and happiness. We’re looking for affirmation of ourselves via things that we may not control. Interestingly, when we achieve one of these things (say hitting a PR in the deadlift, taking 2 minutes off your marathon time or making X amount of money) have we actually found happiness? Maybe…. But often we’ve simply obtained one of these things and we’re not actually any happier, so we keep looking for the next magic thing that will fulfill us.

(In my experience, by chasing happiness that we believe lives outside us, we’re really chasing a mirage. The external thing that we covet so much rarely if ever lives up to expectations.)

Happiness through focus

A 2010 study called A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind seems relevant to some of these ideas. The research was done by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University. Here are some paragraphs that deserve consideration, starting with what I think is the big picture on wandering minds:

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Killingsworth and Gilbert write. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”

When are we happiest?

Killingsworth and Gilbert found that people were happiest when making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation. They were least happy when resting, working, or using a home computer.

(Hey! Wow! Exercise!)

Finally,

“Time-lag analyses conducted by the researchers suggested that their subjects’ mind-wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of their unhappiness.”

What am I saying?

I believe that I’m advocating for finding activities that demand our full mental engagement. The phrase “live in the moment,” seems appropriate (even though it sounds cliche and a bit too cute for my taste–it happens to encapsulate a great concept!) There is a subtle, sublime state of mind that can’t be found by multi-tasking (possibly the ultimate non-focused happiness killer) or keeping up with the Joneses. Further, the focus on the process keeps us “in the moment.” If we can find a love for the process–rather than a fixation on the outcome–then I believe we can find a healthy dose of happiness.

Breaking Plateaus: the MilitaryPress

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I’m a big fan of the military press (aka the press, the standing press, the overhead press). I like putting the weight overhead. It’s a challenging total-body exercise that in my mind probably delivers more useful strength and skill than something like a bench press. I’d like to press 200 lbs. which is my body weight. For that reason, I tend to lift heavy and I typically don’t go above five reps per set. My progress stalled for a while so I went on the hunt for ways to move it along. This led me to read up on all kinds of interesting ways to break through plateaus.  (Admittedly, a torn ACL didn’t help my pressing. My press was slowing down though prior to the tear.)

To get stronger we generally need to add weight to whatever it is that we’re lifting. This is the simplest, most obvious way to get stronger. It’s inevitable though that at some point our progress will slow and we’ll have to find other ways to move forward in our strength training. Here are a few methods I’ve used to improve my press:

  • Weight: A lot of people tend to lift in the same rep range. I often see people in commercial gyms lifting in the 10-15 rep neighborhood. A good way to make progress is to add weight and move down in reps. The 5-rep and below range is good for getting stronger. In contrast, if we’ve been lifting in the low-rep range, there might be a benefit to reducing weight and adding reps.
  • Speed: We can subtract weight and move faster. To get fast we need to move fast. If we reduce the weight (40%-60% of your 1-rep max) and move very fast then we get a very different type of powerful stimulus to the muscles. I’ll talk about this more below.
  • Different exercises and movement patterns: If progress stalls on the barbell military press then we might want to switch to an incline barbell press, or a dumbbell military press, or a seated military press, or a behind-the-neck press. You see my point? Choosing an exercise that’s the “same but different” can help us make progress in our main lift.
  • Bring up weak points: I’m not much of a fan of bodybuilding-type training in which individual muscles are emphasized. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for this approach. If we look at the particular muscles involved in a given lift then we might use exercises to isolate those muscles and make them stronger and/or add mass. For instance, we could use tricep extensions in order to strengthen that piece of our press. Similarly, we might look at supporting musculature–the upper back for instance–and target those muscles to a stronger foundation from which to press.

Here’s some more on my experience with dynamic effort, “same but different” and some bodybuilding work.

Dynamic Effort

Speed and strength live in the same house. They are very close acquaintances. They have a lot of physiological similarities. Training one tends to help the other. Fast twitch muscle fibers are our strong and fast fibers. They should be trained with heavy weights as well as high velocities.

As we add weight to the bar, the bar slows down. We create more force but we don’t create speed. If we want to train speed then we need to lighten the load considerably and move a lot faster. The Westside Conjugate Method addresses both strength and speed during the week. Max Effort (ME) day has lifters lifting very heavy weights and generating a lot of force but at a slow velocity. Dynamic Effort (DE) day has the lifter using much lighter loads moved at a high velocity. This creates explosion.

Incorporating a dynamic effort day into your lifting may help you break through any current plateaus you may be experiencing. If you’ve never employed the DE method, then you probably have a nice well of untapped potential and you’ll likely see impressive results fairly quickly.

I’ve from pressing 135 lbs. for 2 reps to 145 lbs. for 3 reps in about four weeks since incorporating the DE method. Cool! As advocated by Louie, the DE day came 72 hours after the ME day. I typically did 10 sets of 2 reps, adding 5 lbs. each week.

At no time did I become anything like exhausted by the DE work.  That isn’t the point. Speed is the point. If you get tired then you’ll slow down. Don’t expect to experience a typical workout feeling with DE work.

Louie wrote an article titled Westside Military Press Training for Mike Mahler’s Aggressive Strength site. Here are the tips:

  • Do the seated press with dumbbells. Choose three weights for example 100 lbs, 75 lbs, and 50 lbs. Work on setting a repetition record with one dumbbell weight. the reps should range from 10 to 25 reps.
  • Do dumbbell extensions or barbell extensions for special work along with rear, side and front raises.
  • Do barbell pressing in the following manner. Ten sets of three reps in a three- week wave. 70% the 1st week 75% the second week and 80% the third week. Pendulum back to 70% and start over. Second day 72 hours later do max effort work.
  • Use chains on the bar or JUMPSTRETCH bands to accommodate resistance. (Editor’s note: Usually as the bar gets close to lockout you will naturally slow the bar down. The bands keep the resistance on all the way to the end).
  • Work up to new PR in the incline press.
  • Do rack lockout work on the high pin where 10%-15% highest weight can be done.

Developing the Overhead Press is another good article on Mahler’s site. If you like to press then read it!

The Conjugate System can get a little complicated and hard to understand. For a very good and concise explanation of the system, check out Jordan Syatt’s article The Westside Conjugate System: A User’s Guide.

Other ways to train speed (either lower or upper body) include the following:

  • jumping
  • medicine ball throws
  • plyometric pushups
  • power pull-ups: Do these explosively for 1-3 reps.

Same but different

I’ve varied the way I press–but I’ve kept pressing. In the book Easy Strength, Pavel Tsatsouline talkes about the “same but different” concept. With this concept, we take the main lift we’re working on–the press–and find some way to change it just a little. We offer a little variety to the nervous system, we learn a slightly new skill, and we can improve our main lift.

A similar process is proposed by Bill Starr in the book the Strongest Shall Survive. This system employs a heavy/light/medium approach to lifting where the exercises are changed slightly between each workout. For example, the back squat is used on the heavy and medium days and the front squat is used on the light day. Presses alternate from the bench press to the military press to the behind-the-neck press. Read the book to learn more.

In my case, I’ve incorporated the standing behind-the-neck press as well as seated dumbbell or kettlebell presses in which I sit on the floor with my legs straight out in front. I do these for reps.
Here are some examples “same but different” changes we could incorporate into our press routine

  • military press to behind-the-neck press to incline press
  • standing press to seated press
  • handstand or incline pushups
  • dumbbells and/or kettlebells in place of the barbell

Other things

I’ve also incorporated back-off sets after my heavy pressing days. I reduce the weight considerably and press for 10-12 reps. I expect this to help build some mass.

I’ve used dumbbell rear delt flyes to help build my upper back. I do these for 8-15 reps typically and I vary the weight each workout. This is the type of bodybuilding isolation work that I haven’t done in years.

 Finally

I’ve just scratched the surface with this stuff so I anticipate continued progress. As my ACL heals I expect progress to accelerate quite a bit. This has been a very interesting process. I’ve enjoyed learning about and applying these concepts, particularly the dynamic effort work. I just recently started a little bit of jumping. I expect this to help my squat and deadlift. I plan to keep a speed day as part of my workout plans.

4/14/14 Workout

Standard

Easy/short one today.  Kettlebell/barbell class tomorrow.

  • jump rope and mobility work
  • Power clean: 115 lbs. x 5 – 135 lbs. x 5 – 145 lbs. x 5
  • Double kettlebell snatch: 12 kg x 20 – 16 kg x 20
  • Double kettlebell windmill: 16 kg x 5 reps x 2 sets
  • Jump rope intervals: 4 x 45 seconds

Done and Done.