Ashleigh VanHouten’s Muscle Maven Radio interview with Andy Galpin had a really useful tidbit that has changed my mental framework for approaching training and recovery.
I already knew that adaptation follows stress, but depends on recovery. What Galpin said that surprised me was: You need to ask, “Will spending more resources on recovery allow you to train more?”
I’d never thought of it that way before. I had generally focused on how to train more—how to find the time, how to find the motivation. But I have a history of “getting serious” about my running or my lifting and then getting injured, which clearly means that more and better recovery would be key to being more successful.
I have dealt with this in the past from the training side: figuring that I need to find the sweet spot where I’m training enough to stimulate an adaptation, but not so much that I injure myself. I have not previous tried to deal with it by figuring that I could devote more resources to recovery, and thereby enable doing the amount of training that I want to do.
Galpin mentions the various obvious things that help recovery—better sleep, better diet, massage, etc. but skims over them to emphasize what he thinks is the important thing: Down-regulating. “The folks who can down-regulate post-workout the fastest get the best adaptations.”
Again, I had not thought of it this way before, but this makes perfect sense. Your workout should be up-regulating—putting your nervous system strongly into a sympathetic (flight-or-flight) state. But remaining in a sympathetic state once the workout is over is doing you no favors. The sooner you can get yourself back into a parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) state, the sooner you can start your recovery.
This is potentially huge. Getting into a proper resting state right after your workout has the potential to add hours a day to your recovery time, compared with remaining in a highly sympathetic state until later.
Galpin mentions breathwork as the most effective tool for down-regulating, and he didn’t seem to think it made much difference what you did (what breathing patterns you used, etc.). Or maybe he just thought that once you started a breathwork practice you’d quickly learn what worked for you. He mentioned Brian MacKenzie as a good place to start for learning about breathwork. I poked around there and found this free introductory course to breath work, which I’ve started watching.
When I was a kid or a teenager, my skin would heal from minor scratches almost immediately. A scratch (like from walking through brambles, which I did all the time) would heal up in maybe a day and a half or two days. Then, sort of all at once, when I was about 24 or 25, suddenly it took twice as long. I noticed it when I was living in Utah and hiked a lot in the mountains and deserts, and would get similar scratches, which would now take three or four days to heal.
I figured I was just getting old, and it would just keep getting worse. But it did not. Instead, it stayed like that for thirty-five years. However, just in the past year or two—since I reached my 60s—I’ve observed a fresh doubling in wound-healing times. Now a minor scratch takes a week to heal.
The surprise here is not that the speed of healing declines as one gets older, but the weird stepwise nature of the change—stability for decades, and then an abrupt doubling in time to heal.
I don’t know if that will continue. Maybe I’ll continue to heal at this rate until I’m 105 or so?
I’ve documented this largely for my brother, who once expressed appreciation for the fact that having an older brother gave him a four-year heads-up for this sort of age-related change. (I’m not sure he appreciates it as much now as he did in his 30s and 40s.)
I looked for some research studies as to whether my observation points to a more general phenomenon, but wasn’t able to find much. My brother found a study, which says in part:
The rate of epithelialisation appears to be different in older persons, but the magnitude of the delay may not be clinically important.
THOMAS, D. R. Age-Related Changes in Wound Healing. Drugs & Aging, [s. l.], v. 18, n. 8, p. 607–620, 2001. DOI 10.2165/00002512-200118080-00005.
I guess, as long as you do eventually heal up, the length of time it takes is “not clinically important,” but it’s still kind of a drag to be wounded for week(s).
For some time now I’ve been groping toward more “functional” workouts, focused on developing actual useful capabilities—walking & running, crawling, lifting & carrying, balancing, climbing, jumping, throwing, catching, etc. (This in contrast to workouts that focus on capabilities that enable those things, such as pull-ups and dips which help enable climbing.)
This introduces certain complexities into my workouts. Skills-based activities need to be practiced at the start of a workout, when I’m fresh enough to do them with the sort of attention that lets me improve my skills. Likewise, any exercise that involves heavy weights, and any exercise that involves complex multi-joint motions, also needs to be done at the start, to minimize the risk of injury. That’s all well and good, but you can only put so much of a workout at the start before you inevitably find yourself in the middle. And then, what do you put at the end?
Well, one thing you can fairly safely put at the end is MetCon (metabolic conditioning) activity. Today I tried out such a MetCon circuit, with an eye toward doing something similar after my more skills-based workouts.
The workout was circuits of:
Kettlebell swings (53 lb) x 25 swings
Weighted jump rope (½ lb) x 60 jumps
Slamball slams (15 lb) x 15 slams
I’ve done something similar in the past with 45″ work followed by 15″ rest (and then 2–3 minutes rest between rounds). Today I didn’t feel like fiddling with the timer; I picked those rep counts to hit about the same 45″ duration for each set.
I repeated that circuit for 4 rounds, which took just over 22 minutes. I followed it up with a short suitcase carry of the kettlebell—just one circuit of my patio slab with the kettlebell on one side, and then again with the kettlebell on the other side.
It was a good workout.
Now the question is, can I first do a more skills-based workout and then follow it up with a MetCon circuit, without exhausting myself? If I can make that work, I’ll be a little closer to designing the functional training program that I’m working on.
I just wrote a post about “superhero” workouts, mentioning Anthony Arvanitakis’s Superhero Bodyweight Workout which I did last year. I plan to do it again this year, and this post is about a handful of specific issues I had with the plan last year, and how I’m planning to rejigger things to deal with them this year.
There were a few exercises that I couldn’t quite do—not because I lacked strength or endurance, but just because there was a skill component that I couldn’t master quickly enough to go full-power through the 8-week training program. Here are the specific exercises I identified as ones I had trouble with:
Prone angels with weights: I’d never done this exercise, and found it quite challenging. Now though, I’ve spent the winter doing it without weights as part of my morning exercises, and I’ve just in the past couple of weeks started adding in weights. I think I’ve got this one sorted.
Superhero (i.e. one-armed) planks: Similarly, I’d just never done one-armed planks, so I needed to develop a bit more core strength for anti-rotation to be able to 30-second holds on each side. (This one I haven’t been practicing all winter, but I’ve just now checked and managed 20-second holds on each side. I’m sure I can get to 30 seconds in short order.)
Pike push-ups: Another novel exercise for me, where most of the issue was just not knowing how to do it. I started doing it about once a week along about mid-winter, and I think I can do it okay now (although I should probably get Jackie to do a video of me doing it so I can look and make sure I’m doing it right).
Jumping lunges: This one I can’t do at all. For some reason, lunges were just not one of the moves I learned as a child. (Maybe my Phys Ed teacher thought they were bad for your knees or something.) Anyway, I’ve been trying to learn how to do lunges literally for years now, and have just barely gotten to where I can sort of do a wobbly lunge. I tried last week to do a jumping lunge (where you drop into a lunge and then jump into the air and switch your legs around so that you land in a lunge position with the opposite feet forward and back). It wasn’t as bad as a near-death experience, but it was not a success either. Fortunately, this exercise is always offered as an alternative to uphill sprints (preferred), box jumps, or burpees, so I can just pick one of those.
Besides those specific exercises, there are two other issues I had trouble with last time:
Supersets of pull ups and inverted rows. There’s a logistical complexity here because (if you’re doing them with rings) you have to adjust the ring height very quickly. (Otherwise it won’t be a superset, but just two regular sets.) I’m trying to come up with a plan to address that either by getting more practiced at quickly adjusting the ring height, or else by finding a workout location with a bar at either pull-up or inverted-row height (so I can just set up my rings at the right height for the other exercise and switch between stations).
Pyramids (both dip/push up and pull up/row). The first few times I do a pyramid (or ladder) workout, I find it pretty easy to misjudge where I’m going to reach failure, and the exercise is more effective if you don’t unexpectedly hit failure halfway through an early set—something that happened to me several times. This year before I start I want to do enough sets of these to get a good sense of what the right rep count is going to be, so that I know what I need to do to hit failure only during the last set.
Last year I started in late May (when Anthony released his latest version for the program and led the program). That was fine, but this year I think I’d like to start earlier in the spring—just as soon as we get reliably nice-enough weather for me to have some confidence I can put my rings up nearly every day.
It’s an eight-week program, so it would be nice to start around the first or second week of April. Then I’ll have my superhero body by the beginning of June.
There are two, or maybe three, genres of “superhero” workout. There’s the aesthetic workout plan, which aims to make you look like a superhero, and then there’s the practical workout plan, which aims to enable you to function like a superhero.
The latter category is not at all common, because everybody knows it’s impossible—superheros are fictional characters—but The Bioneer still comes up with these sorts of plans because he’s all about producing a highly functional mind and body, and even if actual superhero-level performance is impossible, it’s still something he wants to strive toward. I respect that.
The former category can be divided into two parts, which is why I say “maybe three” genres. Most of the category is filled with workout plans supposedly followed by this or that actor getting into shape to look like a superhero for a role in a movie—except most of those are not actually a plan at all, just a single workout that some celebrity trainer came up with that includes some elements of what the actor did to produce the aesthetics that were wanted for the film. (Some years ago, Nerd Fitness wrote a great takedown of these sorts of “plans,” pointing out that what you really needed to do was choose your parents well to get the genes that would enable the physique you want, and then have a job that provided both lots of free time (for exercising) and lots of money (for hiring trainers, chefs, etc.).)
What I prefer, and what I found a specific useful instance of, is an actual workout plan (not just an individual workout) for producing the physique of a superhero, while allowing for your body type, and starting with your current physique: Anthony Arvanitakis’s Superhero Bodyweight Workout.
I followed that workout plan last year, and am planning to do it again this year (although then I’ll proceed directly to a Bioneer-style superfunctional workout plan). My success last year was limited by a few specific issues, and my next post is about my plan for addressing them this year.
I have always resisted driving places to get exercise. I do it, to spend time at cool outdoor (and even indoor) places, but each time I have to get over thinking, “But I could just run/walk/whatever right here and not have to drive at all!”
I think I’m over it. Post-pandemic I’m going to be a lot more willing to drive someplace just to walk or run on a trail.
Fasting is very much in the forefront of the kooky part of the health/wellness/fitness world that has me snake-fascinated. I’m convinced by the basic logic that our physiology functions best when we alternate between fed and fasted states, and functions poorly when we are always in a fed state.
As I write this, I’m approaching the end of a three-day fast. I did similar fasts in 2018 and 2019. This is actually my 2020 fast, slipped to early 2021 because I’d hesitated to do a fast during a pandemic. The pandemic isn’t over, but with 11 months of experience at dealing with it, I knew I could just arrange my schedule such that I had virtually no contact with other people for these three days.
Kinds of fasting
There are a lot of ways to do a fast, differing primarily in how long one fasts, and also in what one consumes during the fast.
At one end of the spectrum there’s just not eating for the period between supper and breakfast, which pretty easily stretches to 12 hours for anyone who can forego a bedtime or midnight snack. That period can be extended moderately—there are people who chose to fast for 13 to 16 hours per day—or it can be extended by somewhat more—some people choose to fast for a whole day. At the other end of the spectrum there’s prolonged fasting, where people fast for multiple days.
There are names for these various protocols. Some people practice what’s called 16:8 fasting, where they fast for 16 hours out of the day and consume all the food they eat within an 8 hour window (perhaps 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM, or noon to 8:00 PM). Another is called 5:2 fasting, where people fast on two days out of a week, eating as they like on the other five.
People seem to use the term “time-restricted eating” (or time-restricted feeding, if you’re talking about lab animals) to refer to fasting protocols where the fasting/eating windows are measured in hours. There is also the term “intermittent fasting” which some people just use as a generic term to refer to fasting protocols where the fasting window is not much more than a full day. (If you fast on alternate days you’ll typically end up with 36-hour fasts, assuming that you start your fast after supper on day 1, fast on day 2, and then break your fast with breakfast on day 3.)
Beyond the numerous periods of intermittent fasting, there’s the broad category of “prolonged fasting,” which can be anything from 48 hours out to 30 days or more, although fasting for longer than a week is rarely done for health reasons, except for people who are morbidly obese.
I’ve become convinced that some amount of fasting is not only healthy, it is important for health. Very briefly, there’s a finely balanced system inside of each cell that monitors available energy and available amino acids. If those things are present, the cell switches into a growth pathway, and starts making proteins and organelles (whatever the cell needs at the time). If the cell is short of either energy or amino acids, it switches over into what’s called autophagy, and instead of making proteins starts breaking them down.
For many people in the modern world it has become ordinary to eat frequently enough that one rarely goes even as long as 12 hours without eating. In that circumstance, cells rarely ever switch out of the growth pathway. Autophagy never happens, and old proteins never get broken down. This leads to all sorts of problems. Clearing out those damaged proteins (and damaged organelles) is important—they’re implicated in virtually all the diseases of aging from cancer to Alzheimer’s.
The cell seems to preferentially break down damaged, mis-folded proteins and damaged organelles. (See Selective degradation of mitochondria by mitophagy.) In any case, it’s going to replace them with whatever proteins and organelles you need most at the current moment. The process will end up improving both the quality and appropriateness of your cellular machinery.
I do a version of intermittent fasting all the time. Jackie and I eat breakfast fairly early in the morning, but then we just have one main meal of the day, usually around 2:00 PM. We got started on that because I found that eating close to bedtime was interfering with my sleep, and Jackie got frustrated that moving supper as early as I wanted meant that there was barely enough time between lunch and supper to clean up the kitchen and then prepare another meal. My proposal to just combine the two meals was met with some initial skepticism, but it has turned out to suit us very well.
In one sense, I’m doing a version of a 16:8 fast, because I fast from 3:00 PM or so until 7:00 AM the next morning. It’s not a strict fast though. I typically have cocktail hour at 4:00 PM, and I nearly always have cream in my coffee first thing when I get up in the morning. That shrinks the window in which I’m strictly fasting, but probably does it in a way that doesn’t much reduce the benefits of the fast. (For details see Fast This Way, by Dave Asprey the guy who invented Bulletproof coffee.)
Once a year though, I do a prolonged fast of at least three days. Although the research is preliminary, there’s some evidence that after three days the body goes beyond just autophagy, and starts clearing out senescent cells. That’s great, if it’s true; there’s very good evidence that clearing out senescent cells substantially improves healthspan and lifespan.
Except that I have a big cup of green tea in the morning (mainly to support my caffeine habit, also because green tea boosts autophagy and ketone production), I’m doing a water-only fast.
It hasn’t been hard. I was a little hungry the first day, felt great the second, and am now rather looking forward to breaking my fast in a few hours. But if there were some reason to extend my fast I could do it easily enough.
I made a point of getting in a hard lifting session on day two, just to let my body know that I was most definitely using those muscles, and that those proteins should be used to repair muscle and not be metabolized for energy.