It’s a bit harder to put this past year in a tidy descriptive box than it has been the past few years. Probably the simplest description would be: The same, but less so.

Last year I did a great job of leaning into exercise as a way to cope with the pandemic. This year started with me feeling like I could imagine that the pandemic would end, and I was focusing of all the new things I could do, once I could spend time with other people—rock climbing, parkour, fencing, historical European martial arts (i.e. sword fighting), etc.

Except then the pandemic didn’t end, and I was left to carry on as best I could with last year’s exercises. I did okay, but not as well as I had done.

In fact, I’m perfectly pleased with the way I maintained my capabilities. Late last year I checked and documented that I’d pretty much accomplished the baseline goals that I’d set for myself (see Five years of parkour strength training). I just checked again, and I’ve not backslid on those.

Last year I didn’t even think about setting new baseline goals, because my plan had been to move on from these solo training goals to training with other actual people. This year I’ve felt like I needed to at least think about it, but so far I’m not feeling it. I do want to recover the ability to do a few pull ups (again!), but that’s about the only physical benchmark of that sort where I feel like I want or need specific improvement.

It’s not that I’m a perfect physical specimen; it’s just that I don’t have much attachment to being able to squat this much weight or deadlift that much. I want to be strong enough to pick up something heavy and carry it a reasonable distance, but I don’t feel much need to put specific numbers on that weight or that distance.

I wrote a day or two ago about how I gradually shifted to more running and less lifting, which has been great. But in the middle of the year I spent some months doing less of everything—I had a minor medical issue in the spring, then we took a vacation, then I went to visit my dad, then Jackie had her hip replacement (meaning that I had to pretty much take over running the household for a few weeks). I did okay in terms of not backsliding too much, but I didn’t make much forward progress, and it has only been in the last six weeks or so that I’m really getting back to doing what I want to do.

So, where to go from here? I guess I want to:

  • Continue to emphasize running, moving from two runs a week to three.
  • Let the lifting sessions settle in at just two a week, but amp up the intensity.
  • Get back to including a HIIT session every week.
  • Take Jackie for a walk or hike every single time she wants to go, even if it means delaying or canceling a workout.

I’ll aim to do something just like that in January and February. Along about March or April I will want to do the Superhero workout that I couldn’t do last year—that’ll be a brief interruption in my shift back to more running and less lifting, but just for eight or nine weeks. In mid-summer we have a plan for a hiking vacation in North Carolina, so in May and June we’ll want to gradually boost the amount and speed of our walks, and be sure to include plenty of hikes on trails, and to get in as much elevation change as possible in Central Illinois. I’ve got a couple more trips planned for late summer (assuming the pandemic allows), including attending WorldCon, but it’s only the hiking trip that will have much influence on my movement strategy.

So, I guess I have a plan.

My workout was a medium-length run of 3.97 miles which I ran in 1:06:45, but that was not my only activity. Besides that, I also hiked a similar-length trail at Homer Lake with Jackie.

The walk was especially nice, and we’re very pleased that (with her new bionic hip) Jackie is once again able to walk reasonable distances. We walked about 2.72 miles in 1:24. There were some very nice views of Homer Lake, as well as some deer, some blue jays, and a handsome snek that I failed to get a decent picture of.

I did get a decent picture of Jackie:

Besides the pictures from Homer Lake, I also got a picture of a handsome Red-tailed Hawk while I was out running, taken quite close to home. (See at the top of this post.) He was still there as I returned home.

I should mention that the run was actually quite a bit longer than my exercise-tracking app gave me credit for. (Google Fit estimates the distance at 4.46 miles.)

You can get an idea of just how much my exercise-tracking app shorted me from this map, if you know that I ran around the lake at the north end of of my run (and not as the map suggests, through it), and that I generally followed roads and paths (without cutting nearly as many corners as the map suggests).

I want to reassure people that I will not be posting all of my workouts going forward. I just wanted to post a representative strength training session and run, so that I’d have then here as examples.

Jackie is scheduled for a hip replacement next month. To prepare for that, her surgeon wants her to target a fairly high level of protein consumption. To be sure she’s hitting it, Jackie has been tracking her protein consumption, and as long as Jackie was doing so, it was easy for me to do so as well. The results have been kind of interesting.

I did a bit of quick research, and determined that 0.7 g of protein per pound of bodyweight (1.54 g per kg of bodyweight) was a reasonable target. I got that figure from How to Build Strong & Lean Bodyweight Muscle by Anthony Arvanitakis, but I cross-checked that with the latest scientific, evidence-based recommendations, which say:

For building muscle mass and for maintaining muscle mass through a positive muscle protein balance, an overall daily protein intake in the range of 1.4–2.0 g protein/kg body weight/day (g/kg/d) is sufficient for most exercising individuals, a value that falls in line within the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range published by the Institute of Medicine for protein.

International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise

I had not been tracking my protein previously. Instead, after I started lifting pretty seriously 18 months ago, I had simply added a protein shake with around 25 g of protein after my workouts. My thinking was something along the lines of, “I’m healthy, so I must be eating enough protein, so adding 25 g after each workout will surely add up to enough protein to build some muscle.”

I’ve been kind of frustrated for pretty much that whole 18 months that, although I increased my strength a good bit, I did not actually build any muscle to speak of. And yet, until Jackie’s surgeon suggested that she increase her protein consumption, I hadn’t gone to the trouble of tracking my own. So, I was surprised to find that I wasn’t getting as much protein as I’d assumed.

By the formula, I ought to aim to consume right around 100 g of protein.

The first day I actually did the tracking, I only ate 88 g, even though I included a 25 g protein shake and 10 g of essential amino acids from another workout beverage, a discovery that was kind of daunting. It meant that on non-workout days I was probably only consuming 55–60 g of protein. Enough for basic health (almost exactly the RDA for protein for a sedentary person of my weight), but clearly not enough to build muscle.

So, I stepped up my protein consumption.

Hitting my target generally required:

  1. A somewhat more protein rich breakfast—either adding some meat to my usual 2-egg-plus-cheese omelet, or else eating a couple of big bowls of Magic Spoon cereal (not an affiliate link—I don’t eat nearly enough cereal to qualify for their affiliates program),
  2. My protein shake,
  3. A main meal of the day with lots of meat or lots of salmon,
  4. And then some extra peanut butter or cottage cheese, or something.

Doing that I found it easy enough to hit about 96–97 g of protein per day, although I actually only hit my 100 g target when my main meal included a larger-than-usual serving of meat or salmon.

That much food—enough to get close to 100 g of protein from actual food—ends up being really, really filling. I was probably only getting 55–60 g of protein per day from actual food. Now that I’m adding some extra peanut butter and cottage cheese, I’m probably hitting 75–80 g, but I can’t see hitting 100 without including that protein shake.

Getting a quarter of my protein from industrially produced edible substances (aka my protein shake) rather goes against my dietary rule number 1 (eat food), but I’m willing to let that rule slide with regard to a quarter of my protein as an experiment.

And as an experiment, as I say, it’s been kind of interesting.

The first interesting thing, as I’ve just described was how much I was falling short of my target, even adding a protein supplement.

The second interesting thing is how much better I’ve felt since upping my protein consumption by 15% or so. (That is, by 15% on days that I workout, when I was already drinking my protein shake. On days that I didn’t workout, and hence didn’t drink a protein shake, I wasn’t getting much more than 55–60 g of protein, so hitting 100 g on those days amounts to a 60–70% increase.)

After just a few days I noticed that I was feeling better, that I was recovering better from workouts (requiring fewer rest days), and that I seemed to be mentally sharper. Of course any of those things could be just the placebo effect, and in any case this is just an anecdotal report. But, since it is my anecdotal report, I’m taking it seriously, and am continuing to try to hit my 100 g per day.

All of which brings me to the title of this post.

If you’re familiar with bodybuilding, you’re aware that bodybuilders go through alternate phases of “bulking,” where they eat a caloric surplus to support building muscle, followed by “cutting,” where they eat a caloric deficit to lose fat and reveal the muscle they’ve built. This has always seemed unwise to me. Given my history of excess weight, I’m never going to do this on purpose. But getting 100 g of protein has proven to be quite difficult to do without eating a caloric surplus.

Because I track my weight as well, I’m able to look back over the past 19 days and see that my weight gain implies a daily surplus of 302 calories. That’s not untenable in the short term, but it’s not something I’m going to be willing to tolerate for long. It is, however, right in line with the bro-science recommendations for how to do a “clean bulk” (where you aim for just barely enough extra calories to build muscle.)

Still, it does give me an opportunity for some other experiments. My LDL cholesterol was a bit high at my recent physical, and I’m sure I could get it down by eating less fat. But since I was already limiting my carbs for other reasons, cutting fat as well would have put me into a caloric deficit. But now, with all this extra protein, maybe I can make modest cuts to my fat consumption, and bring my total calories into balance with neither excess carbs nor excess fat. In fact, I’m sure I could do that; the question is whether I can do that and still eat food (rather than industrially produced food-like edible substances).

I’m something of a tracker by nature, always interested in tracking and optimizing everything that I do. But even for me this seems rather a lot. I don’t think I can face actually trying to get the math right, to hit my protein target, keep my carbs low, and cut my fat enough to bring my calorie consumption in at a level that maintains my weight where I want it to be, all while eating food.

Currently I’m hoping that, if I keep eating lots of protein, and then try to limit my fats just a bit, I’ll get lucky and it’ll all just work out.

I’ll keep you posted.

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.

Autophagy

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.

My fasting

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.

Glass of water, big cup of green tea

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.

Slamball and kettlebell
Slamball and kettlebell

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.