Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Countdown to Ironman, Week 17: How NOT To Train

I just had to post this today - what a total abomination of the word Ironman!! You can rest assured that I am NOT training this week by eating a TWO POUND cheeseburger. Blech! I'm guessing that the folks at the end of this "Ironman" finish line do not look much like the folks who will be crossing the line at Ironman Coeur d'Alene.

In other news, I am coming to the end of my twenty weeks of "Out Season" training with Endurance Nation, and it's still kicking my booty around. It's been great to have relatively short, very focused workouts through this winter's bad weather. Even on a run like last night where I headed out into 38 degrees of wind-blown sleet, having the sets of half-mile and mile repeats to focus on left me no time to contemplate my own misery.

Even better, I spent two hours last Friday on the Ironman Coeur-d'Alene bike course, courtesy of the Computrainer setup at The Multisport Advantage triathlon shop/training center. Even though I'm still riding the Power Cranks which makes the steeper hills a bit tough, it didn't seem too terribly bad. I guess that bodes well for June 24!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Baby Food... The New Paleo Gu??

Anyone who has done a serious distance event has probably suffered from Gel Overload: a syndrome in which you never want to look at a little foil packet of flavored sugary goop again. Ever. They fall into the category of a necessary evil, even for those of us who try to eat Paleo most of the time, there's no way to really get around the fact that our paleolithic ancestors did not go out and try to Swim, Bike, and Run for twelve straight hours at the outer limits of their stamina and abilities. Especially not in stupidly hot, windy, or miserable conditions. They would probably laugh at the notion. Get too hot? Sit down in the shade for awhile. Tired? Take a nap. Hungry? eat real food. Foolish endurance athletes.

But if you're going to subject your body to an Endurance Torture Session (aka Ironman), you have to replace the glycogen that you're burning with some very simple, easy-to-digest sugary crap. Even the Paleo Diet for Athletes says so. However, assuming that you're not training at quite the same intensity that you race at, there's no reason to use that nasty little packaged sugar glop for every training session. And as someone who would prefer to fuel up with real food, I'd rather turn elsewhere for my calories.

Enter baby food.

Say Whhhhaattttt? Well, good quality (organic) baby food is real food in its simplest and most digestible form, right? And now instead of being in those little glass jars (they are just SO 1960s), it comes in little foil squeezable pouches, just made for clumsy little toddler's hands (or the shaking hands of someone about to bonk on a long bike ride).

Don't get me wrong. I like being all Laura Ingalls Wilder. I like to crockpot up my own homemade applesauce as much as the next gingham-clad barefoot HouseFrau. But have you ever tried to take a mason jar of applesauce on a long bike ride? Not so easy to fit in your back jersey pocket, is it? So enter the squeezable baby food packet. Now I'm not talking about mashed peas and carrots, mind you. The good ones are like mango-apple-banana, or peach-apple. They're pretty yummy, very transportable, and they go down fast. Just like a Gu, but without that nasty sticky gross texture and flavor.

Of course, when it comes closer to racing, I'm going to put the fructose on the back shelf. Real fruit (mashed or otherwise) is simply harder on your digestive system and more difficult to digest and utilize than pure unadulterated sucrose, glucose, and dextrose. Yes, I'll be using the gels when it comes to race preparation and racing itself. But in the meantime, I can do my palate and my body a favor and fuel with real food. Conveniently packaged. Hey, at least it doesn't have round-faced Gerber babies on the packaging anymore, so us athletes can buy them without shame, even without a toddler in tow.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Countdown to Ironman, Week 18: Dancing on the Razor's Edge

To some extent, Ironman training is living on the ragged edge. You want to train as much as humanly possible, yet somehow manage to avoid overtraining and injury.Yesterday was a shining example of how not to go about this: Get up, down a ton of calories. Bike to the pool, swim 3500 yards. Focus on pacing for 200 repeats - 16 of them (some broken into smaller chunks, most straight). I'm happy that I kept mine in the 2:30 - 2:35 range, which bodes well for triathlon swim times this year. Bike to karate dojo, train with black belt partner. Bike home. Eat hundreds more calories. Robotics team arrives, we're in the middle of three straight days of work getting ready for the State Tournament. When they leave I hop on my bike on the trainer, knock out 1:20 with 8 sets of 2 minute ALL OUT intervals. Folllow that up with a Brick Run at an 8:23 pace. Cook homemade Chicken Pot Pies for dinner. Eat a whole one. Fall asleep watching old M*A*S*H* re-runs at 8:55 pm.

By my count, that's five hours of exercise for the day, but I woke up without feeling overly sore or tired. I am managing to sleep 7- 9 hours a night (good), eat mostly paleo with lots of fruits and veggies (good) and generally manage stress levels and other performance-wreckers with meditation when needed (good). I've only got three more weeks where the karate black belt confirmation training will overlap the Ironman training and then it's heads-down towards the Ironman all the way.

Here's to dancing on the razor's edge.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Timing Is Everything: Nail Your Kick Timing For a Better Distance Swim

Swim coaches love to talk about what your hips are doing in the water. They're under-rotating, over-rotating, sliding from side to side. Very few people talk about the timing of what your feet are doing, yet the timing of your kick drives your hip rotation and affects your entire stroke. Proper hip rotation and therefore proper core engagement and therefore proper power in the swim stroke are all connected to kick timing, and without it, no amount of isolated hip motion is going to help. Improper kick timing usually causes a visible over-rotation of the hips, and can really only be solved by correcting the kick timing.

If you contrast the photo of the swimmer above, taken from's excellent video with the photos below of swimmers I found on various underwater videos on Youtube, you'll see the difference that the correct kick timing makes on hip position and rotation. The swimmer above has timed the downbeat of her kick with the extension of her opposite arm. Her hips are stable in the water, with power clearly coming from the twisting of the torso. The swimmers below are timing their downbeat kick with the arm on the same side of their body, causing an over-rotation of the hips and hence an under-utilization of the power of the torso in their stroke.

Here's an example from another angle. In this photo, you see Olympic medalist Ian Thorpe, the downbeat of his left leg clearly corresponding with the extension of his right arm, his hips very stable and not over-rotating or dipping down in the water.

Versus this swimmer whose left kick is accompanying his left arm stroke instead, thus causing his left hip to dip way down and creating a situation where he can't use the rotation of his torso for power in his stroke.

Kick timing can also be diffficult to work on. Some people get it instinctively, but for others it takes a lot of work. Your timing is often indelibly stamped in your brain-muscle connections and it takes hard work to re-wire that.

For triathletes and lap swimmers trying to improve their body position, their core rotation, hip position, and the power of their stroke, kick timing is an essential skill to work on. I will try to explain proper kick timing here and how I go about helping people achieve it.

It will help if, as people read this, they go back and watch this video with the proper timing as that gives a visual reference to the whole thing:

First, some basics. There are three main types of kicks that we use in the crawl stroke.

#1: Two-beat kick: One beat for each arm stroke. This is used primarily for distance swimming and is the most effective kick you can use with the least amount of effort. A good two-beat kick will keep your hips up for good body position, and will drive the correct core rotation to engage your major core muscle groups to power your stroke. In a two-beat kick, the downward extension of the kicking leg corresponds to driving the gliding arm into its full extension. I like to think of it as drawing an "X" across my body, stabilizing my hips and preventing them from over-rotation. If done right, you will feel this downbeat of the kick powering your arm into that glide. Re-watch the video  and look at the pause-point where her leg is at full extension of the downstroke and the opposite arm is at full extension. Although the swimmer in the video is using a six-beat, not a two-beat kick, you can still see what I mean about the timing of the primary downbeat kick.

#2: Six-beat kick: Three beats for each arm stroke. You will still have the downbeat kick in exactly the same place as it was in the two-beat kick, which is to say powering the opposite arm into full extension. The other two beats come in between the downbeats. So it sounds a bit like a waltz, with a feeling of 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3. Again, the downbeat kick is the primary driver of the core rotation, and prevents over-rotation of the hips. The additional kicks are in there to provide power for swimming at faster speeds. As you pick up speed, the primary kick stays the same, but the secondary kicks pick up more and more power. Of course, with this power comes increased oxygen consumption, so by the time you reach a full-on six-beat kick, you're going to be sucking up more oxygen than you would want to for distance swimming. The swimmer in the video clip I posted is using a six-beat kick. Many distance swimmers use a modified six-beat kick with a heavy two-beat downstroke and very light secondary kicks.

#3: Kick like hell. This is what you do when you sprint. Unfortunately, all too many triathletes use this option for regular lap swimming, thus eating up their precious oxygen supply. If you are kicking more than 3 beats per arm stroke, you are kicking TOO MUCH. A video analysis will show you how many kicks you're getting in there. Many swimmers kick 4 beats per arm stroke (an 8-beat kick) which has the unfortunate side-effect of having the downbeat kick coincide with the opposite arm half the time (good) but with the same arm the other half of the time (bad). You can spot these swimmers a mile away by the drunken-sailor-like roll that they swim with. One hip consistently dips down while the other stays stable.


When I work with swimmers on kick timing, I usually have them start with a pull-buoy. The reason is that if I don't, their regular kicking pattern will quickly re-establish itself. Also, it removes the need to have to kick hard to keep the hips up. I will also note that it helps to have some good basic body-positioning stuff down in order to work on kick timing (head down instead of up, front arm gliding instead of pushing down on the water, kick is efficient without too much knee bend or "bicycling" of the legs).

With a pull buoy, you can start to work on the timing of the downbeat kick. You can work on just one leg at a time. Get a good pulling rhythm going with your arms, and then try to insert just a left leg downbeat kick to coincide with the right arm's extension. Then work on the right leg-left arm combination. Then you can work on both. Then work on eliminating the pull buoy. When the two-beat rhythm clicks, it should feel like each downbeat kick is driving your opposite arm into the glide. Once you get a two-beat kick down, it's not as hard to add in the other 4 kicks to make up a six-beat kick.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Countdown to Ironman, Week 19: Taking My Inspiration From Some Amazing Teens

Better than last week's picture of me in my neon yellow balloon shorts, circa 1989, this is triathlon, new millenium style. I just got my jersey from Endurance Nation, and gave it a test ride/run brick since we were having such a mild day outdoors. I'm enjoying pushing the workouts on the Power Cranks, and I promise some gear reviews (including the cranks) coming soon! Looking at this picture feels good - I feel STRONG this year, and I am looking forward to really competing this season. I can't believe I'm almost forty-six, I still feel like a kid inside (until I catch a glimpse of my grey hairs that is!)

In other news, my kids' FIRST Tech robotics team that I've been coaching (consisting of six middle- and high-school-aged kids) had a big tournament on Saturday at Oregon State University. Of course, this meant staying up until midnight on Friday night still tinkering with the robot and the programming, even though we had to get up at 5:00 Saturday morning for the competition. Yes, this is an actual photo of my living room at close to midnight. The reason there's a striped bowling ball in there is because one of the tasks that the robot has to be able to accomplish is to push a bowling ball up a ramp.

 In their usual, skin-of-the-teeth style, they staged a big comeback, from nearly last place after the first three rounds to making it into the finals, and eventually securing a trip to the State Championships in two weeks. Whew! I was a nervous wreck for the whole day. I swear, I could easily do an Ironman with less effort than it takes to sit back and chew my nails while they compete. It's intense. Yet I am immensely proud of them! They designed, built, and programmed a robot. One that can pick up crates with articulated arms, rotate the crate into position, fill it with raquetballs from the floor, lift it on top of a scissors lift, and push it into the air. Anyone who bemoans the youth of today just needs to meet one of these teams of incredible kids (the competition was full of them) and see what they can do. I tell you, it gives you hope for tomorrow. BTW, the small cutie on the left and the tall goofball on the right are both my kiddos.

While I am definitely enthusiastic for them, and will be so excited to see what they can accomplish at the State Tournament, I'm also itching to dive into triathlon season. The first spring races are now only a couple of months away, and I think I hadn't realized how much I missed competing last year. I know I filled my time with lots of cool stuff, but I do really love the arena of competition and how much it fires me up to do my very best. I feel like I have been very very effective at using my limited time this winter, and I'm going to come out of the gate running strong. Just like our robotics team, I hope that the goal of competition spurs me to do my very best, even more than I think I can accomplish. I also hope that I can compete with the good grace, good sportsmanship, and overall positive attitude that they display at their tournaments.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

A Week of Food, for a (mostly) Paleo Family of Four

Feeding a family healthily is not as easy as it sounds. There are time pressures, money pressures, and the constant pressure of being surrounded by infinite volumes of unhealthy non-food stuffs. A trip into the local grocery store is a minefield of sugar and processed grain products, and an evening out at many restaurants is no better.

So what does a primarily paleo family eat? How is it prepared, and how can you feed your family quickly, easily, and healthily? I thought I'd share our week of food here in hopes that it answers some of these questions for people trying to transition their family to better eating habits.

First of all, a disclaimer: You'll notice that we're not completely paleo. My kids do eat rice, including the boxes of crispy rice cereal and one bag of rice pasta a week. If I make a stir fry, or some Mexican or Indian food during the week, they'll often have rice with that as well. Depending on my training load and carbohydrate needs, I might also have some plain white rice with my meals. We don't eat other grains.

When I go to the grocery store for the week, the first aisle I hit is the fruit and vegetable section. My typical load for the week is something like:

2 onions
4 - 8 yams
5 small zucchini
20 medium carrots
3 stalks of celery
4 or 5 cucumbers
2 heads of lettuce
3 bunches of dark greens (kale, spinach, etc.)
3 peppers (red, yellow, green)
2 avocados
2 tomatoes
1 pound of mushrooms
Other snacking vegetables (snap peas, jicama, etc.)

5 pounds of oranges
5 pounds of apples
5 pounds of bananas
2 pounds of blueberries (frozen, from last summer)
1 pound strawberries (frozen, from last summer)
Seasonal fruit (melons, berries, etc.)

All of our milk (not pictured) comes in the form of raw goat's milk from a local farmer in 1/2 gallon glass jars. We pick up 3 gallons once a week and return last week's jars. I buy a pound of raw goat's milk cheese for the kids per week, and two quarts of goat's yogurt.

Our eggs come from our free-range chickens. We go through about 2 dozen a week.

Some of our meat is from the 1/4 cow and 1/3 pig we bought last year. Buying in bulk like that gives us local, pastured meat at about $3.50 per pound (including steaks and roasts). I usually pull out 2 - 3 pounds from the freezer each week. Some meat comes from our local store, where they sell local, grass-pastured beef, I typically buy 2 pounds of hamburger a week, plus 2 pounds of organic free-range chicken. At Trader Joes, I'll buy a pound of fish or shrimp per week.

Canned goods:
1 - 2 jars of organic pasta sauce
Canned tomato paste + sloppy joe mix
Enchilada sauce or curry mix

Nuts, seeds, and snacks: I typically buy:
2 pounds of nuts (we like the almond/macadamia/cranberry snack mix from Trader Joes)
2 bars per person (Lara bars or Kind bars) for out of the house snacking
A big box of natural fruit leather from Costco once a month
A big box of Seaweed snacks from Costco once a month
2 - 3 bags of jerky if we are going to be out of the house and need quick snacks
Fruit-flavored mineral water - one bottle per kid per week
2 bottles of Coconut water - I use for my workouts
Almond meal & coconut flour for making waffles or pancakes
3 bars of dark chocolate
1 -2 cans of full-fat coconut milk

I'll write more about meals later, but typical meals for the week include stir fries with rice, shrimp, and veggies, taco salad night, chicken with curry sauce and veggies, sloppy joes without the buns (the kids like to eat it from the bowl),  pasta (kids eat rice pasta, hubby and I will eat it over a riced cauliflower), pork chops with barbeque sauce, or paleo pizza with an almond-meal crust. Side dishes include yams, fresh veggies and dips like hummus, and sliced fruit.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Countdown to Ironman, Week 20: Gearing Up

It's getting to be that time in the training cycle: time to start thinking about gear for the race. For a sprint distance race, you can get away with wearing almost anything, eating almost anything, and drinking almost anything. I mean, how else can you explain this:

What was I thinking? Okay, to be fair, that was circa 1989. Everyone wore neon-colored balloon shorts. No, really. It sure makes you appreciate the tri suits of today, doesn't it?

But for an Iron distance race, every gear choice is important. The wrong socks can be 26.2 miles of blisters, the wrong drink mix can mean puking behind every porta-potty. The wrong saddle can mean a world of hurt in the nether regions for far-too-many hours.

So, it's time to start doing my training rides and runs with the clothing, gear, and nutrition that I'll be using on race day. In a couple of weeks I'm going to put a bunch of miles on my bike in what's known as a "big bike week". I'll be doing some comparisons between my favorite tri shorts to see which ones make the cut. One thing I discovered last time is that getting used to a thin pad instead of a traditional biking short with a thick pad makes life a whole lot easier in Iron land. For one thing, you don't have to change your shorts in T1, a feat which only people who have tried to pull on lycra over wet flesh with cold, shaking hands can truly appreciate. For another thing, I have learned that thicker pads don't really make for more comfort in the long haul, and in a day spent largely on the aerobars, a tri short is more comfortable for me. You'll be happy to know that nothing I am wearing will be in the color range of neon.

Next up on the agenda is to order some Infinit, an all-in-one nutrition solution that eliminates all of those messy gels from the bike. Last time I felt like I was carrying an entire garage sale in the back pockets of my jersey, and after hearing from numerous athletes who are Infinit fans, I am definitely willing to give it a try.

My biggest decision is probably going to be shoes. I've been doing all of my training runs so far in my Vibram Five Fingers, but do I want to go 26.2 miles on pavement in those? I'm not sure. My alternate shoes are Nike Frees, but now there are a lot more brands of minimalist running shoes out there. I'll have to go shoe shopping and see what looks like it will work best. I can always stick my Five Fingers in my Run Special Needs bag in case I need to go back to them.

I'm sure there's a million more details I'll need to work out in the coming months, but these are the ones to start with. Once I start thinking about all of this, it really brings home the sheer lunacy of the entire Ironman enterprise. All this gear, all these decisions, all this training, for one crazy idea. And yet, here I am, doing it again. Sometimes I don't understand myself, yet when I'm out there training I can tell you one thing: I love it. I ran to work today, and ran home, and it felt so darned good. I was just loving the pure feeling of running. And the feeling of the sweat running off of my body today on the bike trainer, where it's just you and the interval timer and the pain of it all. When you're done, it feels like nothing else. I know what it will feel like to finish the Ironman, and I can't wait.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Whole30 Paleo: My January Experience

This year's holidays were a big difference from the past. A year of living mostly Paleo meant that I no longer even wanted to eat anything with gluten in it (bye bye bread, rolls, cookies, cakes), and I didn't even really overeat on sugar much. When it came to holiday meals, my body knew what "enough" felt like, and that generally meant stopping well before that holiday over-full sensation that many of us know all too well. I like that I feel so in tune with my body, and am inclined to choose healthy foods because that's what makes me feel best, not because I feel like I "should" or would feel guilty for eating otherwise.

Still, I had been indulging the sweet tooth a bit much, and January is a good time to re-boot healthy habits, so I decided to take the Whole30 Challenge and go thirty days on a strict Paleo regime. I also thought it would be a good opportunity to see if removing the smallish amounts of raw dairy that I normally eat would produce any notable benefits, and whether or not I could train at a high intensity on a strictly Paleo diet.

I have to admit that the first week was consumed with chocolate withdrawals. It's my last indulgence and a hard one to give up. I usually have a couple squares of good dark chocolate every day, and I realize that it makes a difference in my mood. To call me "cranky" in the first week of January would've been an understatement. The second week felt pretty great, but by the third week I felt frantically under-carbed after a lot of workouts. I felt like I just could not get enough carbs into my body and it made me appreciate the necessity of fueling workouts with a proper amount of glycogen. I ate a ridiculous amount of dried fruit (which had the predictable digestive effects), plus bananas and yams until I was sick of them.

There was one occasion on which I blew the Whole30 protocol, and it was definitely tied to glycogen depletion. After a hard swim workout followed by a tough interval run, I came home and prowled around the kitchen like a crazed beast. I ate some nuts, ate a banana, followed it with some dried mango, then opened the cupboard and poured myself a big bowl of organic rice krispies. Aaaaahhhhhh. All of a sudden, equilibrium was restored. So that was a clue to me that perhaps 100% Paleo is not going to be the way I eat for the remainder of my Ironman training.

After a month of eating 100% Paleo (except for one bowl of rice krispies), I have reached the following conclusions:

1. I need to fuel tough workouts with simple sugars. Sometimes I can get away with fruit leathers and bananas, but using drink mixes, gels, and bars gets to be increasingly crucial as you dial up the intensity and duration. I'm going to go back to following the recommendations in The Paleo Diet for Athletes for fueling my training sessions.

2. I didn't notice a difference between having some dairy in the form of raw goat's milk and giving it up on the Whole30. So I'm going back to milk in my tea and smoothies. Especially smoothies, I found that coconut milk and almond milk messed with my stomach and didn't give me the protein boost that using milk does.

3. Although I proved I can do without for a month without a great deal of difficulty (barring the first few days), I'm definitely going back to a couple squares of chocolate a day. Just for my mental health.

4. I'm not opposed to adding in "safe starches" (rice and potatoes) when necessary, especially if I feel like my glycogen is getting depleted. But being on the Whole30 made me more conscious of where I use these as filler, and what I can use as alternatives (like cauliflower for dishes with sauces).

All in all, I think the Whole30 is a worthwhile thing to do. It makes you rethink your approach to food and to try new meals. I used a lot of new recipes, and the ones that I liked will get included in my regular repertoire. It's a great way to reset yourself and to find out which parts of your diet are working for you and which are not. I'm not enough of a Paleo Purist to eat like this all the time, but it's a useful tool in finding the optimal diet for each of us.