For some time now I’ve been aiming to do my endurance training at my MAF heart rate. MAF stands for Maximum Aerobic Function, and it’s the heart rate where you’re producing the maximum output without having to use anaerobic systems. Although the MAF formula just produces an estimate, there’s quite a bit of data to back it up.

If you do almost all your training at MAF, you’ll get better (run faster) at that heart rate. The idea is that you first do that, and only when your performance plateaus do you need to start doing any sort of speed work (and then not much of it).

As I say, for some time I’ve been aiming to train at my MAF heart rate, but it’s a low enough level of intensity that I’ve persistently had trouble not running too fast. I have a heart rate monitor, but it’s not very useful during a run, because my heart rate is displayed on my phone, and I don’t want to run around carrying my phone where I can see the screen. The upshot has been that I’ve inadvertently done a great deal of my training somewhat above my MAF heart rate, which rather defeats the purpose.

To get a better grip on my MAF training, I finally broke down and bought another heart rate monitor, which displays my heart rate on my wrist so I can check it while I’m running. It also has an alert function, so I can set it to vibrate if my heart rate goes above some value. After looking around a bit, I settled on the Mi Band 4 (which is available for cheap because the Mi Band 5 is now out). It does the thing I want well enough. (It also does a bunch of other stuff that I don’t care about, and some things that I do care about (sleep tracking), but that I do some other way, such as with my Oura ring.)

After a shakedown run a few days ago, where I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to use the device the way I wanted, today I went out for a run where I tried to use it for some proper MAF training, and I think I was very successful. I probably only spent two or three minutes (out of a 51-minute run) with my heart rate above my target.

This very easy run was nice and gentle. Sitting here at my computer maybe an hour after I got home, my heart rate is already back down to just 64 bpm, which amounts to a surprisingly complete recover. After a run only a little bit faster, I’d expect to see my heart rate stuck in the 70s for several hours.

Now to see if regular training this way produces the speed gains it is reputed to.

I did an experiment a couple of days ago: I tested a combined workout that doubled up two pairs of exercises that I’d been doing separately. Up to now I’ve been doing four sessions each week: two where I do pull ups & pushups, and then two where I do dips & inverted rows. (Together with a leg exercise and a core exercise each workout.)

That was working very well, but it meant 4 upper-body strength sessions each week, which is a lot. Throw in a couple of lower-body strength sessions as well (such as hill sprints or kettlebell swings), plus a rest day, and I didn’t have a day to do anything else. This sort of volume has been well for me so far, but I think I may have reached a limit, and would benefit from a cycle of deeper recovery than just a week of lighter workouts: Except for “de-load” weeks in mid-March and mid-June, I’ve been averaging close to 5 workouts a week since the end of January. I’m thinking I want to take it down a notch.

With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about how I want to structure my training through the fall and winter. One obvious change was to go from four days of upper-body strength training per week to just three. The problem was that I didn’t see an easy way to evenly cover the range of pushing and pulling exercises at a reasonable volume with just three workouts a week, except by doing both pairs in each workout.

Hence my experiment, in which I did just that.

It was not a complete success. I managed to crank my way through the workout, but it was very long and tough. I don’t think I could keep it up three times a week for months.

Happily, while describing my difficulties to my friend Chuck, I had a brainstorm: I could do threes workouts per week—two of them just like what I’ve been doing (one with pull-ups & push-ups, and then another with inverted rows & dips), and then do just one combined workout. That keeps my workouts even, as far as covering all four exercises twice each week, without being quite so overwhelming as trying to do the combined workout three times a week.

With just three upper-body strength workouts per week, I have four days for other stuff, and I can mix and match as I choose. I can do the hill sprints that Anthony Arvanitakis recommends, or I can do kettlebell swings. (Either of those makes a good HIIT workout.) I can go for a run. I can go for a hike. I can do my animal moves. In particular, I can do two rest days, if that seems like a good idea. (Which I think it probably does. At least my Oura ring thinks so.)

This all got started back in February, when I figured out that I was lacking in consistency. (Previously I’d imagined that the problem was a lack of intensity.) Targeting 5 workouts a week has meant that, even when I miss one, I get in more than when I was targeting 3 workouts a week—even if I didn‘t miss one.

I don’t want to give up the consistency, I just want to take the volume down a notch. Hence the struggle. But I think now I’ve got a plan.

Jackie was fixing blue-corn pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast, and eating that many carbs first thing in the morning can be a problem for me. However, I have come up with a strategy for dealing with it: Getting in a pre-breakfast fasted workout. My theory is that by doing this I deplete my muscle glycogen, so that my muscles are primed to soak up all the carbs I eat, minimizing the degree to which the glucose spikes my blood sugar.

I have no data to show that this works, but anecdotally I can report that it seems to help.

I’ve been wanting to go for a run. I had planned to go for a run yesterday, but it ended up being rainy enough that I decided to postpone the run for a day. So I might have gone for a run for my pre-breakfast workout, but Jackie was hungry early, and I didn’t want to delay breakfast by an extra hour.

So, I did what’s becoming my standard HIIT workout: I warm up with 3×25 Hindu squats, and then I do 3×25 kettlebell swings with my 53 lb kettlebell. It’s a quick workout—it’s all done in 20 minutes, including some amount of pre-warmup warmup—and it’s of high enough intensity to burn off plenty of glucose.

After breakfast (and a bit of digesting) I went ahead and got out for my planned run. After the persistently sore foot I’ve been dealing with for months now simply refused to get better, I had taken a full month off from running to see if all I needed was plenty of rest to fully recover, and that may have done the trick—I went out for a 3.33-mile run, and I had no foot pain whatsoever.

I don’t wear my Oura ring for the kettlebell workouts (or other workouts where I have to grip something, because handles, bars, and (gymnastic) rings don’t play well with the Oura ring). However, my Polar heart rate monitor will tell Google Fit about my workout, and the phone app for the Oura ring will read that data and give me credit for what I did while the ring was off:

My peak heart rate during the kettlebell swings would have seen me to much higher activity levels than the just-barely “High” levels shown, but that’s because it’s an interval workout. A set of 25 swings takes me just about 50 seconds, and then it takes about 3 minutes for my HR to drop low enough that I can do another set. The software is averaging those periods together. Unless I’m doing sprints (which I didn’t today) a run is just a steady-state effort. I try to keep my HR down in the MAF range, but didn’t manage it today (because of the prior HIIT workout).

Looking at my “readiness” score for today I’m perhaps slightly less ready than I was five days ago, when I let my Oura ring mislead me into postponing a rest day in favor of some hill sprints.

In fact, I felt enormously better today, and my performance shows that. Today’s run was a bare one minute longer than my run at the beginning of the week, but I ran a full mile further:

I’m not sure there’s anything to learn from this. Maybe “don’t skip rest days” would be a good start. I’m sure “listen to your body” is always good advice. Whatever lame platitude you want to go with is fine with me. As for me, I’m just glad I got in a good run.

In other news, the replacement kettlebell for the one I ordered on July 1st, but which vanished into some black hole at FedEx’s Ellenwood, GA location, only to vanish itself in exactly the same way, seems to have been discovered, and is now supposed to be delivered next week! We shall see.

View from a run

My Oura ring produces a “readiness” score each day, and I’ve found it to be a pretty good indication as to whether or not I’m up for a long run or a hard workout. The times I’ve ignored it when it said I needed to take it easy, I’ve often found it was right and I was wrong. Today was a rare instance of the reverse.

According to my plan, today should have been a rest day. But I wanted to go for a run.

The ring gave me a readiness score of 88 (out of a possible 100), which is rather above my average (my average this month has been 80), and I took that as a license to go for the run I wanted, instead of taking the rest day my plan suggested.

Turns out—this time—my plan was right and my ring was wrong. I went for my run, but I felt tired and sluggish throughout.

It wasn’t a catastrophe. I didn’t hurt myself. I just don’t think I did myself much good. I ran to Colbert Park, did three hill sprints (in actuality, feeble jogs), and then ran home again. But I didn’t have any oomph behind the sprints, so I don’t expect they’ll have done their job in terms of boosting leg strength or aerobic capacity.

The Oura ring’s readiness score has been a very reliable indicator for me—which is why it helped me fool myself this time. So this is a good reminder to me to interrogate all of the factors that go into making a workout decision—my plan, my intuition, my ring, etc.

So one thing I’m doing is looking back at the factors that feed into the score, looking to see if there’s one that looked better than it really was.

Nothing really jumps out at me. Given the same information, I’d also figure that I was ready for a hard workout. (In fact, I had that information, plus my own sense that I felt ready for a hard workout. That’s exactly how I overrode my plan and went out for a tired, tiresome run.)

Oh, well. Insert your own pithy “live and learn” aphorism here.

For a couple of years now I’ve been experimenting with time-restricted eating.

I guess I really started about a year and a half ago, after I got my Oura ring. One of the first things I noticed was that the early hours of my sleep were disrupted unless I had finished dinner at least 4 hours before bedtime. (This in contrast to the “common wisdom” that you want at least three hours between the last thing you eat and bedtime.)

Once I notice that I started pushing Jackie to arrange things so that we could finish supper at least 4 hours before we went to bed. The issue here was that while working at the bakery Jackie had gotten into the habit of getting up at 4:00 AM—because that’s when she needed to get up if she was going to be able to have coffee, breakfast, dress for work, and then spend most of an hour walking to work. As she has been so far unable to break herself of that habit, she finds herself very sleepy starting at about 8:00 PM. If you work out the math, you can see that we need to finish supper no later than 4:00 PM.

Jackie found herself somewhat daunted by the prospect of having to prepare lunch at mid-day, clean up the kitchen, and then prepare supper to serve at 3:00 PM so we could be done by 4:00 PM.

We experimented with various lunch/supper timings with limited success. But back in December, when Steven brought Lucy and his boys to visit, we fell into the habit of just having two meals a day. I went to his hotel for the breakfast that the hotel served to guests (Jackie made her usual breakfast at home), and then one of us (often, but not always, Jackie) prepared our main meal of the day sometime in the afternoon.

This turned out to work great, and Jackie and I have continued the practice since Steven and family departed. Jackie gets up at 4:00 AM as usual. (I tend to sleep until closer to 6:00 AM.) We linger over coffee, then have breakfast at 7:00 AM or so. Whatever we hope to get done in the day happens between 8:00 AM and 2:00 PM, at which point we have “dinner” consisting of our main meal of the day. We finish it by 3:00 PM or so.

(In these pandemic days we follow that up with a virtual happy hour with Steven and Lucy via Zoom, so we’re still consuming cocktails until 4:30 PM or so, but I try to make sure to limit both the carbs and the calories that late in the day. I’m hoping that eventually we’ll be able to arrange things such that happy hour doesn’t extended until so close to bedtime.)

Jackie and I usually enjoy some video entertainment in the evening, and then retire to read for a bit before 8:00 PM and time to go to sleep.

I’m sure that’s way more detail than a stranger could be interested in, but the gist is that our eating window is compressed to just 9 hours a day or so (from 7:00 AM until 4:00 PM), putting us within striking distance of a 16:8 time-restricted eating window.

And I have to say, it’s working pretty well. Jackie especially appreciates not having to prepare both lunch and dinner every day. Keeping my weight stable has been especially easy—if I’m hungry in the morning I fix a bigger omelette, if I’m hungry at mid-day I take a bigger serving of whatever Jackie is fixing, or just have something more (peanut butter, cottage cheese, jerky, protein powder, whatever). And if I’m not extra hungry, I just eat a regular breakfast and a regular mid-day meal.

The result has been that I easily get enough food, don’t overeat, get done eating four hours before bedtime, and spend nearly 16 hours per day in a fasted state, with all the attendant benefits described in the post linked just above. And as a bonus, Jackie doesn’t have to prepare two meals after breakfast.

Time-restricted eating: Highly recommended.

I am a little too prone to use black humor to distance myself from the depressing effects of the long, cold darkness of winter, which sometimes leaves people worrying about me unnecessarily. So I thought I’d mention that despite a bit of anxiety over the inevitable turn of the seasons, my mood is currently pretty great.

Beyond just feeling good right now, I’m hopeful. Over the past decade I’ve been handling winters better and better.

The biggest factor, I think, is that I no longer have a job to lose, so I no longer get into the spiral where seasonal depression makes me less productive, making me anxious about losing my job, making me more depressed, making me even less productivity. Sadly, advising others to take advantage of this strategy is not very useful (although I do and will continue to support and advocate for either a citizen wage or a guaranteed job).

Putting early retirement aside as impractical for most people, I thought I’d briefly summarize my other current practices—mostly ordinary coping strategies—both as a reference for myself any time I start to feel my brain chemicals coming on, and perhaps as a resource for other people. Here’s what’s working for me:

  • Taking delight in things. In particular, I take delight in the opportunity to wear seasonally appropriate woollies. I also like to spend time in the Conservatory, go to art galleries or museums, listen to live music, and generally go on artist’s dates.
  • Getting plenty of exercise. Last winter I managed to get out for a run almost every week. As fall approaches I’m getting back to my lifting. (Here’s a great resource on the current science on using exercise to treat and prevent depression.)
  • Spending time in nature. I do that all summer, and it may be part of the reason that my mood is generally great in the summer. But I can do it in the winter too. (I don’t seem to have a post on this topic. I’ll be sure to write one this winter. In the meantime you can find various mentions by clicking on the vitamin N tag over on the sidebar.)
  • Light therapy. I’ve used my HappyLight™ for years, and it does seem to help. Getting outdoors anytime in the first couple of hours after dawn is probably even better—another thing I find easy to do in the summer that would probably help just as much in the winter.
  • Taking Vitamin D through the winter. The evidence for any benefit is scant, but even if it only helps through the placebo effect, it is at least a safe, cheap placebo. (There’s good evidence that people with high levels of vitamin D are healthier, but very little evidence that supplementing vitamin D makes people healthier. It could easily be purely associational—maybe more time spent outdoors both boosts vitamin D levels and makes people healthier and happier.)
  • Anything that boosts neurogenesis. That’s most of the things listed above, but lots of other things too, such as engaging in creative work. Also on the list are calorie restriction and adequate consumption of omega-3 fatty acids.

I have a few new possibilities up my sleeve:

  • There’s recent evidence that sauna bathing is dramatically effective at treating depression, probably through many mechanisms including the activation of heat-shock proteins. (One thing on my to-do list is finding a local fitness center or spa with a sauna and investigating the cost of a three or four month membership.)
  • Related to heat exposure is cold exposure, which activates many of the same protective proteins that heat exposure does. Cold exposure, of course, is trivially easy to achieve in the winter—just wear a coat or jacket one notch less warm than would be most comfortable.
  • Obviously sleep is very important, and with my Oura ring I’m tracking my own sleep carefully. This has already been helpful, and I’m hoping to be able to do more to improve my sleep (and thereby my mood) in the winter as well.

That’s what I’ve got at the moment, but I’m always on the lookout for things to alleviate seasonal depression.