Monday, February 17, 2014

The Winter Olympics? Totally inspirational.

I love sports -- playing them, watching them, all of the above. But, as I've certainly made clear here previously, I get tired of the me-first attitude of so many athletes in the "big" professional sports. So I've always had a real affinity for the games where that ego-driven stuff is minimized.

Back in the pre-cable/satellite-TV days as a kid, ABC's Wide World of Sports would bring what we'll call The Weird Sports into the lives of us suburban kids. One day we'd be playing good ol' American football in the neighborhood, and the next we'd be trying to replicate something freaky like Irish hurling (by and large a poor idea, I'll have you know), that we'd seen on Wide World of Sports, or we'd stage our own decathlon, heaving sticks (javelin) and rocks (shot put), and running all over hell and back (all the other events) through the neighbors' yards.

But, with the limitations of climate (where I grew up in suburban Philadelphia just wasn't all that consistently cold), some sports were too weird even for us to try and imitate.

We called those the Winter Olympics.

God, I love the Winter Olympics. To this day, they leave me giddy with anticipation in the weeks leading up to them, and full of joy for the two weeks that they are around every four years.

The winter games are packed solid with sports that kids would invent if they: (1) lived in a very cold place, (2) owned sleds, skis, snowboards and target guns, and (3) were concerned with only one thing: unremitting fun.

They are also the last bastion of awesomely weird in the sports world.

And I realize that my perspective on this topic is shaped considerably by the fact that, as an American, it seems that only one sport that's in the winter games is regularly on television here -- men's hockey. There's may be a country where you can watch the Curling Super Bowl (I think that country is probably called Canada). Somewhere, undoubtedly, the World Series of Biathlon is big stuff, and cross-country-ski racing is all the rage, but not here.

Here are the sports being contested at the Sochi games:

--Alpine skiing
--Cross-country skiing
--Figure skating
--Freestyle skiing
--Ice hockey
--Nordic combined
--Short-track speed skating
--Ski jumping
--Speed skating

Take alpine skiing and men's hockey off the list, for the moment. They are great sports, and in the case of NHL hockey, it's truly one of my favorites, but the American Olympic competitors in those sports are pros who are generally not scraping by on ramen noodles. (And take figure skating off the list because… I hate it, and I'm sure that's my fault and not theirs, but blech…).

What's left, from an American perspective, is a complete freak scene. A glorious, wonderful I-just-want-to-hang-out-with-them-all freak scene, full of wacky sports with athletes who have to balance hardcore training with scraping together enough in the way of sponsorships that, if they are lucky, they don't have to work 9-to-5 day jobs while doing that training. It's also seemingly loaded with folks who are in this thing for the simple reason that they love it.

I'm a sucker for a great back-story, and, just as I enjoy a band more when I not only dig their music, but think they are great people as well, I want to really like an athlete as a person. The Winter Olympics are as full of great human-interest back-stories and wonderful people as they are loaded with mindbending thrill rides.

Where else would the guy who was about to win the gold medal in slopestyle snowboarding tweet: "Whoa how random is this[?] I made finals at the Olympics!!" And judging by the reaction of his fellow competitors, they all were "stoked" for Sage Kotsenburg, not self-absorbed in their own losses. In the women's halfpipe, you could watch Kaitlyn Farrington, in her first games, have to ride all day, because she missed the easy ticket to the finals, and then turn around and tenaciously win the gold medal over vets like Torah Bright, Kelly Clark and Hannah Teter -- all while the four of them looked like they were just there to have a good time.

And then there's Bode Miller. I used to think of him years ago as a bit of a brash, cocky skier who maybe needed to tone down his ego. Now he's the quiet, reserved, 36-year-old bronze medalist in super-G who was skiing with the heavy burden of the memory of his recently-deceased brother. It was amazing to watch him overcome all of that with patience, reserve and grace. He was pure class.

And mine wasn't the only heart that was breaking for John Daly, the 28-year-old slider whose skeleton sled popped out of the groove just into the start of what might have been his bronze medal run -- a sadness mitigated only by the fact that it cleared the way for his teammate, Matt Antoine, to hold onto that bronze.

The stories go on and on. Every day I run into another one that moves me to pay a little extra attention to an event and to one or more of the competitors.

But if one Olympic athlete's saga has stood out just a little more than the others, it's been the tale of 29-year-old skeleton athlete Katie Uhlaender. Last Thursday, I just happened to be tuning in when the women were taking their first of two skeleton runs that morning. Skeleton is a crazy sport to begin with. It's essentially headfirst luge -- something I saw way back when on Wide World of Sports at the old Cresta run in St. Moritz -- precisely the sort of controlled/chaotic blend that attracts me to the winter games in the first place. (In the early 1980s, I was so intrigued by luge that I almost went to a luge training camp… really. And my crappy car at the time was the only thing that stopped me, but I digress...).  I heard Katie Uhlaender's name announced, and, as NBC started one of those "up close and personal" video histories of her, I realized why her last name sounded so incredibly familiar. Her dad, Ted, played on the 1972 Cincinnati Reds. I was a kid back then, but I remember it well: that Big Red Machine team was a legend, and the '72 league-championship series with the Pirates was a down-to-the-last-game nail-biter. Ted Uhlaender's daughter, sporting a glorious shock of red hair, and a determined look, was about to make her first skeleton run of the 2014 games.

Well, I quickly learned from NBC how deep-seated her determination was. It turns out that Ted Uhlaender died of cancer in 2009, and Katie took his death hard -- really hard. After a sixth-place finish in Turin in 2006, she was hoping for great things at Vancouver in 2010, but Ted's death wrecked her, and she had a disappointing finish in those games. Thereafter, there were successes -- a couple of world cup championships -- but also a concussion just this past October. Slowly, Katie Uhlaender got it all together again, with the help of people as diverse as Picabo Street and Charlie Manuel (and really, if there's a better, more decent human being in baseball than Charlie, I haven't heard of him, but that's another digression as well.). She even took over the operations at Ted's farm, a 700+-acre spread in northwestern Kansas that Katie once professed she just didn't understand, but now it was home, and a place to rekindle all the good thoughts about her dad. As of Thursday morning, Katie Uhlaender stood on the brink of a serious punk-rock/hell-yeah/phoenix-from-the-ashes comeback, and, just barely into the NBC video of her struggles, I was completely hooked on the whole damn story -- zero-to-60 mph fandom in about three seconds. "Go!!!!!" I yelled at the TV on her first run. And then, by the time run #2 had ended, she was in fourth place, poised on the edge of a bronze-medal-winning position. Nice.

I noted that the final two runs were the next day, checked out when they'd be aired, and made plans to watch. I even did a little more research on the subject of my my newfound fandom -- reading some stuff about her dad that took me right back to my baseball-heavy childhood, noticing a pic of Katie Uhlaender on her Twitter feed in a squat rack with 300 pounds on her back, and soon learning that she is an aspiring weightlifter, hoping to make the 2016 U.S. team for the Rio Summer Olympics. (Yes, really. I thought the same thing: "Are you kidding me? She's a weightlifter too?!")

I would love to tell you about the amazing happy ending in Sochi, about how Katie Uhlaender shed every last bit of both the doldrums of 2009 and her concussion of 2013, and won an Olympic medal. Instead, it all came down to being on the wrong side of 0.04 seconds. Despite having her best run of the competition on the fourth and final slide, and her main opponent, Elena Nikitina, having an awful last run, Uhlaender nevertheless was bested by Nikitina for the bronze medal -- by 0.04 seconds.

0.04 seconds is less than time than you can consciously do anything. Losing by that little is truly the harsh randomness of the universe slapping you upside the head. And this is where my admiration for this woman, and her amazing back-story, just got greater. She could have acted like she got robbed, like there was funny business going on with the timing, like all the spoiled-brat "professional"athletes of our day might. Instead, she was sad -- who wouldn't be? -- but her grace in defeat, which changed after not very long to talk of the next winter games, in Korea in 2018, was inspiring. She was on television in the ensuing days with her silver-medal-winning teammate Noelle Pikus-Pace, and there wasn't a hint of envy in Katie Uhlaender's voice, just praise for her friend (who had another of the many great back-stories at these games as well), and the determination to get even better results in the future.

And what you could hear in Katie Uhlaender's responses in all those post-race interviews was an unstated truth: Sad stuff happens, but life eventually goes on. Judging by the way she's handled adversity so far these last few years, I think Korea 2018's going to be epic for Katie Uhlaender.**

I already know it's going to be epic for me, because, man... I love the Winter Olympics. More amazing back-stories, please?


**Seriously, with her work ethic, she could overcome the considerable hurdles to make the summer games in Rio as a weightlifter. I've seen the American Weightlifting movie that Greg Everett released last year. (And so should you, by the way). Making the Olympics is a long hard slog in that sport, but Katie Uhlaender has that inner strength that's needed to make a good run at it. (And if not, good lord, she'd be a good CrossFit Games athlete once Korea 2018 is over…. )

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Monday, February 10, 2014

Modifying your CrossFit workout to fit your goals, or: When to tell your ego to get f*%$ed

I love CrossFit. You may have heard that here before.

But CrossFit isn't a "one size fits all" program. It's pretty likely that you have heard someone from CF HQ expounding upon the "scalability" of all things CrossFit. It truly is one of the assets of the CF system. But I bet you think about one thing when you hear talk of "scaling" a workout:

"Scaling is for newbies."

I don't mean to imply that you have a sneer of superiority on your face when you say that. (I'll assume you don't). One of the purposes of scaling a workout is certainly that, yeah, maybe sometimes someone shows up at the local box for the first time and he or she is in better shape for beer pong than for the workout of the day. Too many years on the couch, and pullups aren't going to happen right off the bat. Or maybe someone's nemesis is the box jump, or the snatch, or... whatever movement he or she isn't quite up to doing when the person begins CF.

There is simply no doubt that "scaling" a workout down in reps, or modifying movements, is a way to get a new CrossFitter over the initial hump of "I can't do that."

But it's not the only way to scale, or the only reason for doing so.

Most people understand that there is an enormous difference between doing CrossFit for general health and fitness and actually competing in CrossFit as a "sport." But I think the impression is that the principal distinction between the two is that the "CF as a sport" CrossFitters just do more than whatever workout that the health/longevity/fitness folks are doing. The "sport" CrossFitters are the ones trying to qualify for regionals, competing in the CF Open not just to get some idea of where they stack up against the monsters of the game, but because they want to join the monsters and throw down at the highest levels of the sport So you will find them doing extra work, often a lot of extra work.

And that's cool. It makes sense because the extra effort fits their goals.

But let's get back to the health/longevity/fitness crew. Even after the newbie phase has passed, and those CrossFitters don't "need" to scale workouts down, are their goals all the same?

Probably not. A typical CF box -- let's say, the one that I belong to, for instance -- has in its membership all sorts of people who will tell you they are there for reasons of general fitness, long life, happiness, etc., as opposed to an effort to qualify for regionals in the "sport"' of CrossFit. But within that fairly large group of people who are, ostensibly, just there to "get fit and stay that way," there is a lot of variation. There are young people, and 50-somethings like me (or older), and everything in between. There are toned, muscular, already-fit folks who are occasionally dabbling in local competitions between boxes, and then there are people who are there just because they want to improve body composition and would like to pick up heavy things around the house -- like their kids, or grandkids -- without pain. In fact, sometimes members of that latter group get so damned fit that they start thinking about joining the former crew and hitting a throwdown at a local box.

And here's the catch: within all those groups are a myriad of different goals. Different goals can present options for "scaling" a workout that go far past that "newbie" shit that you associated scaling with when you first started reading this.

Here's the dirty secret for most of us: scaling often makes sense, but it's our egos that are stopping us from doing smart, intelligent training modifcations that fit our goals.

Example #1:

Maybe your box is doing the "Filthy Fifty." Although you can finish that workout, it's going to take you 40 minutes to do so. You are slow at those movements and you are also unhappy with your body composition. In fact, you joined CrossFit to "burn off" some fat that's accumulated over the last few years. The best prescription for fat burning that I know of is contained in Jason Seib's book The Paleo Coach, and the exercise component of that plan is: heavy lifting a few days a week, walking every day and a few short sprint-length metcons per week. If fat loss is your goal, what exactly are you doing grinding out a 40-minute metcon? I can tell you what you are not doing: heavy lifting and a short sprint-style metcon. And you are probably so smoked from the 40-minute grind that the walking part of a fat-loss program is not going to happen that day either. You've just jacked up your cortisol levels so high from prolonged, excessive exercise stress that you may very well have added fat to your midsection. By doing a workout you probably shouldn't have done. Yes. Really.

Example #2:

You're an older dude -- say... a 50-something drummer with a somewhat gnarled right arm from years of the music grind. You are doing CF solely to live long, strong-ish and healthy. Olympic lifts? Some of 'em are OK. Snatches and cleans feel all right in singles or pairs, but jerks? Not so much. And none of the O-lifts feels good when done in a repetitive fashion, like 30 cleans as part of a metcon, or 30 snatches. They just plain fucking hurt in that kind of volume. Today's metcon is a 1000m row, followed by 30 power cleans. But you "suck it up" and do it as prescribed, even though you knew that you could substitute kettlebell swings for those cleans with almost no pain at all. Your right elbow is on fire afterwards.

I can only think of two reasons that you might have made either of those mistakes: (1) you didn't know any better, in Example #1 because you have never read similar advice from that book (and a lot of other sources) to go short, hard and heavy for fat loss, or, in Example #2, because it is literally the first time you ever tried repetitive O-lifts, or (2) you actually knew all of that, but you felt "dumb" or didn't want to stick out as the "weird kid" by modifying the first workout to a shorter version (e.g., "the Terrible Twenties"), or the second to include KB swings. I get the first reason, but now you know, so that won't be the reason next time. The second reason is your ego, plain and simple. You didn't want to "stick out" by scaling or modifying the workout.

You can't blame your trainer, because your trainer -- if he or she is worth the money you pay -- is never going to tell a client that the client can't "scale" a workout to reach a goal or to avoid further injury. You can't blame your momma, because she always told you not to give a fuck what the other kids say -- although it's possible she was a little more polite about it.

This one is on you.

Let's give your ego the b-slap it needs.... Scaling or modifying a metcon -- or even a heavy lift -- isn't just for newbies. It's called knowing your goals and working out in a smart way to achieve them.

Maybe you are the next Rich Fucking Froning (yes, that's actually his middle name), and striving for CF Games glory. Have at it, dude. Train like a beast. Or maybe you are a pretty fit CFer who is really happy with where you are at body-comp and fitness-wise, but you want to take a stab at some local CF competitions. Yeah, you probably shouldn't do a lot of downward scaling below the level of where those competions will be. In fact, you might want to occasionally scale upwards to test yourself to see if you are ready to try to reach those goals. But maybe, just maybe, you are like me -- because I'm the barely-disguised dude in Example #2 -- and want just to stay fit, decently strong and free of further injury. Or maybe you see yourself in Example #1, at the stage of CrossFit where what you want the most is to get fitter and drop a few sizes -- you know, fat loss is your primary goal right now. You may need to scale/modify downward on a workout. And, if you do, you should hold your head high, do the workout that works for you, and politely tell your ego to fuck off.

Smart exercise is no different than smart eating. What you do, and how you do it, depends on your goals. Life: modify as necessary.

Friday, February 7, 2014

ApoE, lipids and alcohol, or: "How I learned to stop worrying and love the [Jager] bomb"**

Ten days ago, I lost my mind just a little bit.

The loss was, as always, temporary, but, as my wife can most assuredly tell you, this time was a little worse than "usual."

As I have told you plenty of times previously, I started going to a paleo doctor last summer. He runs super-extensive NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) blood testing that not only gives readings for lipids in measurements that aren't found in your "typical" bloodwork, but also provides results on inflammation markers and informs the patient about his or her genotype in some critical areas.

Last August, my NMR bloodwork showed zero inflammation, high HDL and low triglycerides -- all great. But it also showed an LDL-P (LDL particle number) that was higher than optimal. The paleo doc wasn't terribly concerned. But he suggested low-dose fish oil and some Vitamin D supplementation because my D was a little low and my Omega-6/Omega-3 ratio was about 3.5/1.

Off I went with those recommendations, and a couple of minor dietary tweaks, but nothing significant.

In late January, I got retested to see what the new results would be. There was a lot to like: HDL is even higher (whoo!). Triglycerides are the same (whoo! again). Vitamin D levels were up 50% (in the winter!) and the O-6/O-3 ratio was down under 2.4/1 (awesome).

But, especially when it comes to my own health, I could find the dark cloud of doom in a sky otherwise full of lollipops and sunshine. While I was happy with the good results, something else caught my attention: every single measurement of LDL cholesterol was up 40%.

Forty fucking percent. From "kinda high" to what I consider "astronomical."

In just six months. Six months!

LDL-P, LDL-C, small dense LDL…. Whatever I looked at, my various LDL numbers screamed to me: "Son, you gonna die soon. Probably later this afternoon."

But, in a moderately successful (my wife might say "barely successful") effort not to spazz out completely, I started scouring my brain for possible reasons for the bad increase. Logic told me that it had to be something that I had either added to my diet, or had taken away. Added? Vitamin D? No. That wouldn't do it. Fish oil? I used to take five times*** the amount of fish oil that I take now and it didn't raise my LDL a point. Had I taken something away completely?

"Ohhhhhhhhh... wait," my weary, stressed brain said, "What about alcohol? Can removing alcohol from your diet completely actually increase your LDL?"

Or, put differently, can drinking moderate amounts of alcohol lower one's LDL?

As any regular reader of this blog knows, last August -- just barely before my previous bloodwork -- I quit drinking alcohol. It wasn't for reasons related to addiction. I just noticed that my gym performance, and, to a lesser degree, my mood and general outlook were a little rosier when ethanol was gone from my life. So, during the entire time between bloodwork #1 and #2, I hadn't been drinking at all****.

So off I went to Dr. Google…. What I found blew my mind. We'll divide it into two parts:


Apolipoprotein E (ApoE) helps to regulate how the body deals with cholesterol, particularly triglycerides and LDL. There is a genetic test for ApoE that is part of my paleo doc's bloodwork panel that he orders. Indeed, there are a number of genetic tests performed as part of that bloodwork. In fact, astute readers may recall a rather extensive discussion here about the MTHFR gene based on that very testing. But I hadn't paid attention to the ApoE results previously.

Those tests showed that I am, ApoE-wise, a "2/3" for that gene. There are three types of ApoE alleles (2,3 and 4) and you get one from mom and one from dad. So that means one parent gave me a 2, and one gave me a 3, hence the 2/3 designation. It turns out that what the literature calls ApoE-2 (which include 2/2 and 2/3) are pretty rare -- only about 10% of the population. On the other hand, ApoE-3 folks (just the 3/3) are really common -- about 65% of the population. That leaves 25% as ApoE-4 (3/4 and 4/4).

Are you with me so far? It's not that hard. I sucked at genetics, and I understand it…. One from mom, one from dad. You can be an ApoE-2 (which includes 2/2 and 2/3), an ApoE-3 (3/3) or an ApoE-4 (3/4 or 4/4). (Yes, really smart people, you can also be a 2/4, but that is super-rare, so put a sock in it). I am an ApoE-2, the rarest of the three major designations.


It appears that a rather significant, well-regarded study (the Framingham Offspring Study) found the following regarding ApoE:

--ApoE-2 folks (me!) (the 2/2 and 2/3) have significantly lower LDL cholesterol if we drink alcohol. Significantly! Lower! LDL!!!!!!!! From alcohol!!! (Mind blown).

--ApoE 3 people (3/3) see no positive or negative effects on LDL cholesterol from drinking or abstaining.

--ApoE 4 people (3/4 or 4/4) increase their LDL by drinking alcohol. They probably shouldn't drink.

(And you really smart folks have, again, figured out that I omitted discussion of one type of ApoE: a 2/4. The study didn't cover them. They are, again, super-rare. So, again, put a sock in it).

The bottom line? After clearing it with the paleo doc*****, I am, as a proud ten-percenter ApoE-2 person, conducting a one-variable science experiment from now through retesting in May: one alcoholic beverage a day (either five ounces of red wine or a shot of whisky or tequila). If the Framingham study is right, my LDL should plunge quite a bit.


This does not mean that alcohol is health food, even for ApoE-2 folks (me!). I have been back to the sauce -- mostly red wine******because I'm finding whisky on a daily basis really drags me down -- for a week now and my lifting/gym numbers already have taken a hit. If I were trying to do something earthshattering in the world of CrossFit competition, I would have to choose between abstaining from alcohol for the clear athletic-performance benefit or drinking it to lower my LDL cholesterol from its current mega-levels. But that is an easy choice for me. I am always more about health and longevity than I am about athletic awesomeness. I will opt for what I hope is still pretty decently strong at a few lifts, and heart-healthy. Remember, on this one I happen to have "won" the genetic lottery. I am part of a rare ten percent that appear to get a positive effect from alcohol on my blood lipids. And yet, I am going to have to be very careful about keeping to the one/day limit, or else risk all sorts of mood/sleep/etc. issues. I really wasn't kidding a few months back when I said I was digging the clean feeling of no alcohol. Now I have to see how it goes walking what is almost an an oddly tighter line.

Also, remember, if you are an ApoE-2, but you already know that you have addiction issues, I am not telling you to ditch the meetings and do a high-dive off the sobriety wagon. There are likely more important concerns to you than lipid levels in your bloodstream.

The real lesson here seems to be that this genetic-testing stuff is The Bomb. (People don't actually say that anymore, do they?) Imagine… you could go here or here and make an appointment with a paleo doc, and learn all sorts of predispositions that you may have to bad health*******, and, most importantly, learn dietary strategies for addressing those issues. If it sounds like I am telling you that you could personalize your food intake via genetic testing, yeah, that's exactly what I am telling you. I mean -- for the love of all that is good and right, man -- I took a big step and quit drinking six months ago because I thought it was a healthy thing to do, and now it seems that maybe it was a really awful idea. For me. Because… genetics.

You might want to learn about your own version of those genetics.

More on all this in May when the retesting happens.

Oh, ironic universe, you rarely cease to confuse and potentially amaze me….


** Under no circumstances, should you think that I am actually drinking Jagermeister/RedBull bombs. As with the photo that begins this post, the Dr. Strangelove reference was simply too much to resist….

***Back in 2010 when I started paleo, the going recommendation regarding fish-oil supplementation from both Robb Wolf and Whole 9 was really high, and I followed it. Later (sometime in 2012) I ditched taking it entirely, and then last summer I began two pills per day, about six-eight pills fewer per day than I was taking in 2010.

****Two tiny exceptions: 4 ounces (yes, not much) of hard cider on my wedding anniversary in October, and, on Christmas night, one shot of Laphroaig 18 Scotch whisky that my father-in-law really wanted me to try. Otherwise? None.

*****By the way, I should note that my doc shared none of my feelings of doom and gloom about my LDL numbers. He would like to see them improve, and he is signed on to the drink-a-day plan because of the Framingham study and my ApoE-2 status, but he thought, as do I in my less-freaked-out moments, that the most important issue is inflammation, and I have none of any significance.

******The presence of the ale label in the photo that begins this post should not be seen as an endorsement for drinking beer. One word: gluten. Don't do that. Wine, cider, spirits? Yes. Beer (other than the rare gluten-free one)? I can't get onboard with that. Sorry.

*******Indeed, if you were to read this article, you would find out that ApoE affects a hell of a lot more than blood lipids. For instance, ApoE-2 people really have to watch their carb intake or they run the risk of high triglycerides and diabetes. I don't currently have those problems. Low-carb paleo saves my ass on that. ApoE-4 folks are at greater risk for Alzheimer's. Knowing your variation could give you all sorts of other information about your likelihood of Alzheimer's, diabetes and other diseases. Wouldn't you like to know that?