Friday, January 21, 2011

Low Carb Diet for Runners.

It sounds crazy, but there are a couple new studies saying it is best to train, at least some, without eating any carbs before and during your long runs. While this goes against everything people have said to me about running nutrition, it makes sense from my experience with low carb diets.

So it turns out doing your long runs without eating carbs can improve your running and help you lose weight.

What strikes me about this is that it seems obvious. Of course it helps if you train your body how to burn fat for fuel. The mechanism by which your body burns fat can be exercised and improved, just like your cardiovascular system can be improved. If you can train your body to improve it's efficiency in delivering oxygen to your muscles, why couldn't you improve the efficiency of pulling energy out of your fat reserves? If you only train with high glycogen levels you are only exercising one of the ways your body powers your muscles.

This isn't just speculation, there is data behind this:
Several recent studies bear this out. At the Centre of Inflammation and Metabolism in Denmark, Bente Klarlund Pedersen, M.D., DMSc, had subjects exercise one leg once daily, and the other leg twice every other day, but in a glycogen-depleted state. The total amount of training was equal for both legs, but after 10 weeks, the glycogen-denied leg increased its endurance by 90 percent.
Further, this isn't just some experimental oddity; elite athletes already train this way. For instance, "the low-carb approach has proven effective for three-time Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington. She does selected long training sessions -- on average one every two weeks -- with minimal carb intake," and "Meb Keflezighi, the Eritrean-born American who won the 2009 New York City Marathon -- forgo carbs before and during [his] training runs." These people are not exactly lightweights or fad-diet crackpots (like me).

Can this help you lose weight?

I've always suspected the low carb diet helped me lose weight above and beyond simply reducing calories. There are a handful of studies that seem to confirm this, but some that do not. Now there is this study about the Benefits of Exercising Before Breakfast. Looking at three groups, they increased food intake. One group did not exercise, one exercised after breakfast and one exercised before breakfast. While eating the exact same caloric intake, the only group that did not gain weight was the one that exercised before breakfast.
Only the group that exercised before breakfast gained almost no weight and showed no signs of insulin resistance. They also burned the fat they were taking in more efficiently. “Our current data,” the study’s authors wrote, “indicate that exercise training in the fasted state is more effective than exercise in the carbohydrate-fed state to stimulate glucose tolerance despite a hypercaloric high-fat diet.”
I'm going to go out on a speculative limb here and relate both of these studies to low carb diets in general. Training your body to burn your fat reserves for fuel rather than a constant feed of carbs is good for you.

Read the studies: relatively small sample sets, but tight controls and a compelling outcome.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Weight War

When I finally put my mind to it, it isn't that hard for me to lose weight. We are coming up on the Christmas cookie season here shortly, so I'll probably backslide some. But I'm going to win this battle with my belly. I'm doing pretty good so far.

I've dropped nearly 15 pounds in less than a month. The losses will probably taper off over the holidays, but I plan to make January look like the above graph as well. The first 10 pounds are the easiest, so I'm going to have to stick with the diet and increase my running. I think I can reach my goal of 180 pounds by February 15th.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

God Damn I'm Fat!

I jumped on the scale the other day and saw the bad news.


It was the end of the day and I was wearing clothes, but lets not split hairs here. I'm fat again. I've always struggled with my weight. I've also had it in control from time to time and been in great shape. I dialed back the food and increased my output a bit and was at 205 a couple mornings later. Lets call that the starting point: 205 pounds. If I plan to run a marathon in 2011 that is going to have to change. Sure, I can probably complete a marathon either way. But all that training, and the marathon itself, will be much more enjoyable if I'm not lugging a tire around with me on my midsection. I just glanced at the novice marathon training program I mentioned the other day from Hal Higdon. Once I start the program I will run 426 miles leading up to the marathon, not counting the 26.2 mile race itself. Wouldn't it be nice if I could do all that running 20 pounds lighter? 

Well, I can. I've done it before. 

When I first started running I weighed 215. I commuted by bicycle mostly, and I surfed a little, so I was relatively active compared to some people. But I also ate like crap, threw back gin and tonics like they were water, and sat at a computer the rest of the time. When I started to run, I could barely run a block. I would jog a tiny little bit and then huff and puff while I walked for 10 minutes to recover. After I moved to Santa Cruz, I kept with it. Eventually, I built up to where my regular run was about 10k. It was amazing the changes to my fitness. My asthma all but went away. I even lost some weight. I was hovering around 200 pounds or a bit more. But there it got stuck. I thought things were fantastic. I enjoyed running and I had dropped 15 pounds from my peak. What could be better? I was dating the wonderful woman who would become my wife and I was in the best shape I'd been in in years. Sure, I was still heavy. But not nearly as bad as it had been.

But then then at our wedding an old friend showed up. He had dropped a ton of weight, and was talking about the biochemistry behind the Atkins Diet. I had completely ignored the diet at the time, as I was a vegetarian. "What kind of stupid diet says you should only eat meat?" was my opinion. But, my friend was a vegetarian. He was more strict at it that I was (I had recently started eating sustainable seafood).  So I bought the book and gave it a read. Say what you want about the pop culture aspect of the Low Carb diets, there is a ton of evidence that supports them (and some that does not). 

Boiled down to its basic terms, simple carbohydrates make you fat and hungry. Insulin is required by the mechanism by which our body stores fat. The crash that extra insulin causes after carbs are burned and stored makes us hungry. Avoiding the insulin response to a carb spike makes it so that your body cannot store fat, and it keeps you from feeling hungry for a long time. So, I started eating as low as I could on the Glycemic Index just to see what would happen. I'd eat a 3 egg omelet for breakfast, a good salad for lunch with tofu for protein and seafood for dinner. Each meal had protein, and I was getting plenty of veggies. I avoided potatoes, rice, sugar and bread like they were poison. But I ate all I wanted. I never let myself go hungry or counted calories. 

I dropped 30 pounds in about 4 months without feeling hungry. I went from nearly 60 minutes for a 10k training run to a personal best of 44:22 in a 10k race, and completed my first half marathon at 1:47 (still my PR). I kept the weight off for a couple years too.  

So what the hell happened?

Things change. We moved to Vancouver. Had a child. Running became less of a focus, and the occasional pizza sure did hit the spot. And who can resist a muffin with their coffee? And it sure is cold and wet and dark up here in the Winter. Who has time to run in the Winter? We had another kid. Our lives are busy. Toast is a fine snack. Granola is a perfectly good breakfast. Followed by a carb-laden burrito for lunch and pasta or pizza for dinner. Dont forget the ice cream! 

The saying "everything in moderation" is a good guide. But moderation can creep up on you. Here I am: almost back to the weight I was at 12 years ago, before I took up running. Bread, rice, sugar: I'm convinced these are mostly to blame. It is time to turn that around. I've dropped the simple carbs. I'm eating a lot of salad, vegetables, eggs,  fish and some fruit. It feels good so far. The other morning the scale said 195. It could be a general fluctuation or water weight, but it is encouraging. Ten pounds is a good start, but I'm still fat.

How low can I go?

It will be no problem to drop another 10 pounds, but that isn't enough. I would love to drop 20 pounds, but I know that will be tough: it has been a long time since I weighed 175. I went down to 169 at my lowest (and fastest). So it isn't impossible. 180 seems like a reasonable target.

I'm throwing down the gauntlet! I will weigh 180 pounds by February 15th. That will be a reduction of 30 pounds from what I weighed recently, lost in roughly 3 months, during Christmas cookie season...

Let's see how I do. 

Friday, November 26, 2010

Looking ahead.

It has been a hard couple months, as we've been coping with a death in the family. Haven't felt much like blogging about my running. But, I'm starting run a bit and I've been thinking about the future.

I'm hoping to finally do a marathon this year. It is something I've wanted to do since I started running, and keep not doing. It is understandable that I haven't, as there will be a big commitment in training and focus, and it is easy for the truly important things in life to take precedent. I know people do it, but I haven't been willing to put in that kind of time with the busy life we've had. Raising young kids is a marathon in itself, and time away just makes it all that much harder on the family. It seems selfish to set aside a day that includes a 4 hour run and hours of recovery, much less to fit in multiple workouts in a week. But life is a precious and limited resource. I''' be 42 years old after January and have yet to put myself to the 42km test. Running 1/4th of that tires me out these days and I'm hauling around way more weight than I should be.

Life could still get in the way, but I'm going to try. I did some googling on marathon training, and it seems the Hal Higdon plans are very popular. Their novice program looks really good. But it is 18 weeks with only Mondays and Fridays for rest.

No matter how I look at that graph, it seems a daunting time commitment. Most of this I can do as morning runs before work. But, in the last couple months Wednesdays will require a bit more time than that. Weeks 13 and 15 looks brutal. Cross training on Sundays seems terrible. Maybe I can swap Monday and Sunday: rest on Sundays with the Family and do cross training at the gym on Mondays.

I haven't yet decided which marathon I will do. I'll need to sort it out pretty quick so I don't wind up with less that 18 weeks to train.

Marathon, here I come. 2011 is the year.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Are graphs really that hard?

I don't understand how both Nike and Garmin Connect can get their running pace graphs so wrong. Both the Nike+iPod and GPS data are noisy. Nike just picks random points along your run, while Garmin seems to have chosen to just show all the noise. The first option is incorrect, and the second isn't all that useful.

Since I've switched to using the Garmin 405 and the Garmin Connect site, I've found a way to see how each of the three sites I've mentioned plot the same run data. This is made possible by this fantastic site that can convert and upload a Garmin run to the Nike Running site. Then, pulls the data from Nike and generates its own graphs. So lets take a look at today's sloppy attempt at a heart rate fartlek using the graphs for all three.


First, lets look at the Nike graphs. The thing to note for these two graphs is that they are the same run. The exact same data. The only thing that differs is that one view is in kilometers and one is in miles.

How is it that these graphs are the same run? These images underscore just how broken the Nike graphs are. It seems they pick a regular interval out of their noisy data, and plot them as if they were real. When you change the settings from kilometers to miles it picks new points, in different sections, and plots those. There is no rounding or cleaning up the noise in the data, which is crazy considering what the raw data looks like.

Garmin Connect

The Garmin site takes a different approach. As near as I can tell they don't interpret the data, but try to plot all of the raw data. Here is the same run as Garmin presents it.

This is starting to look a little more like my run, and I'm sure this is an accurate representation of the raw data coming off the watch. You can see what was going on, somewhat. The first and last kilometer or so of this run include some messy data. I start from the middle of downtown Vancouver, right in the middle of tall buildings, so the GPS signal is all over the place for a bit. But then you see some somewhat regular alternations of pace. My goal for this run was to alternate running hard until my heart rate hit 160bpm, slack off until it dropped to 140bpm, and then crank it back up. You can see that. Somewhat.


 The Slowgeek site presents a very different looking graph.

Now this is how my run felt. After the initial static of running in tall buildings (I assure you I did not run at 3min/kilometer at any point) it looks exactly like it felt. I alternate between running hard and backing off, until I get dog tired and everything falls apart at the end. Now that was my run. How much was that my run? Compare it to my heart rate graph from the Garmin site.

Look at the resemblance between the Slowgeek pace graph and the Garmin heart rate data. Uncanny. The Slowgeek representation of pace perfectly matches the effort exerted based on heart rate. It isn't that the Garmin graph is wrong, it is just that all that noise doesn't match reality as well as the Slowgeek interpretation.

What gives?

How is it that Slowgeek, a hobby site created by one guy, gets it right while both Garmin and Nike get it wrong. This is their business! Worse, Rasmus (who created both slowgeek and the PHP programming language) has contacted Nike a number of times and told them how to fix this. It isn't magic. From the slowgeek forums:
The math involved tries to do its best using something called a LOWESS curve. It uses locally weighted polynomial regression where each point is derived by weighted least squares regression over the local span for that point. Basically it means that it tries to pick out the trend in the data. Noisy peaks or valleys will be smoothed out in the process.
I sure wish the professionals cared as much as some random geek. I mostly love the Garmin equipment and site. But I plan to continue to use slowgeek for its superior pace graphs, and better graphs for historical data.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Garmin 405 accuracy.

GPS Accuracy

I've read much about how the Garmin 405 has a highly sensitive antenna, and is great even in heavy tree canopy or tall buildings. I'm mostly impressed with it in my limited sample size of runs so far, but today's run left a little bit to be desired.

If you really care about route data and you will be running in a city, zoom in the above and pay attention to the first and last kilometer of the run. Those do not match reality. For both the out and back my route took me up Pender, to Burrard and down Cordova. At no point did I do crazy Parkour over skyscrapers and on the living roof of the new convention center, as the map would suggest.

That said, the total distance is close to being correct, and everything after I hit the seawall is close enough to make me happy.  I still think it is more accurate than the Nike+iPod gadget overall (OK, maybe not for *this* run). I believe the problem is tall buildings. Around the lake is under trees, and that seems fine. But, from my work to the seawall is all in skyscrapers. Also, my habitual route keeps me on the South side of the street when heading west, and the east side of the street when heading north. As most of the GPS satellites are in a southernly positon in the sky from up here in the Great White North, that puts me in just the wrong position to get a direct signal. My next time out I plan to keep as clear of a line of sight to the southern hemisphere as I can and see if my accuracy improves.

Foot pod?
Another option is getting the Garmin accelerator foot pod to compliment the GPS data. For years while running with the Nike+iPod accelerometer I've had this recurring thought: an accelerometer foot pod, coupled with a GPS (and maybe some fuzzy logic algorithms) could provide almost perfect distance and pace data. I found that the Nike+iPod system is very accurate if two conditions are met:

 1) You have calibrated your foot pod on a track
 2) You run a very consistent pace

The Garmin I find very accurate unless you are in tall buildings, like the run above. But, if you could properly pair the two systems you could make it almost perfect. When you have a clear line to the satellites you could be constantly calibrating the accuracy of the accelerometer. When you lose sight of the satellites you have a recently and perfectly calibrated foot pod to cover the gaps. You would know your pace before the GPS went dark, and just after. You would have historical data for the different paces you run at, and how that matches the data coming off the foot pod. You could reconstruct the missing GPS data  almost perfectly (at least in terms of pace and distance). Plotting this on a map, you could have the route a different color when you think the GPS signal is not good enough to indicate that you probably didn't run that exact path, but pace and feedback distance would be correct on the watch and in the online data.

Is that how it works?
I don't know if this is how the Garmin 405 works when you pair it with their foot pod, but I'm going to bet it doesn't. There is a big technical hurdle that I don't think Garmin could overcome, related to processing power on the watch. If you look at the above map, I don't think I ever actually lost the GPS satellites. What happened (I assume) is that I was in the satellite shadow of a big building, and the watch was picking up the reflection of the signals off of a building across the street. How would the watch know if it was getting bad data compared to good data? Well, it would have to look at pace and location data and know how to do the right thing. An aggressive algorithm could mess things up, smoothing out speed work laps as errors and such. I think it would be tricky to get right, and might be more than a watch can handle (Or maybe not. I think we landed people on the Moon with significantly less power than this watch has).

In absence of that knowledge, I'm hesitant to fork out the cash for a footpod just yet. Sure, I'll get one at some point, if only so I can gather distance info if I'm running on a treadmill in the Winter. But I'm not going to get too excited about it. All the manual says about it is:
Your Forerunner is compatible with the foot pod. You can use the foot pod to send data for your Forerunner when training indoors or when your GPS signal is weak or you lose satellite signals.
As a technical writer, I appreciate the minimalism.  This covers the basics. I'm sure it is true. It leaves enough ambiguity around "weak signal" to allow developers to totally change how it works without reprinting the manual. Perfect. The ambiguity isn't going to keep me from buying the product and there is plenty there to satisfy the incurious. That is what I would have done as a tech writer. As a geeky consumer that blogs about running data, I want to know more. How would the foot pod have changed my run data on the run above?

At some point I will get the foot pod. When I do, I should have several, maybe dozens, of runs on this exact route logged. That should give me plenty of information to see if the foot pod improves accuracy fot this type of run.

Why not?

So here is my proposal. Garmin, why don't you send me a foot pod for testing? I'll give it a glowing review and suggest everybody buy one (assuming it improves accuracy). Heck, I love the 405 so much I think everyone should get one anyway. Buy a foot pod too in case you are on a treadmill. If it improves accuracy in the run above, I'll shout it from the rooftops.

So what do you think? Thanks Garmin. I'll be watching my mail. Also, I'm sure the accuracy would be improved significantly if you threw in an extra ANT+ USB stick. It couldn't hurt, right?


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Summerfast 10k. 49:20

So today I ran the Summerfast 10k with the new Garmin 405. I was pleased with my time (49:20 was my official chip time). My best time for the 10k ever was 5 minutes faster than this, but I was about 20 pounds lighter, 6 years younger, didn't have kids and was in a Track Club.  All in all I'm pleased with the time. I've had 10k races since I moved here that were 10 minutes slower than today.

I'm really pleased with how the Garmin 405 performed. It came in at 9.86k. That is pretty dang close. The interesting thing is that it seemed to be off by that much by the 2nd kilometer marker. There was a brief tunnel, and there were some tight turns and a brief out and back jog in the course before that. I think it might be more accurate than that if there were less trees, turns and no tunnel. I could hear the kilometer marks chiming on the Garmin watches around me (there were tons of them) and they grouped really tightly. It seemed they were all off by about 100 meters after the 2km marker and they tracked right, but 100m off, for every marker after that. The pace data was great, and I'm convinced that having quality feedback on the fly helped me come in under 50 minutes. I would check my pace and if I was above 5 minute kilometer pace I would suck it up and run faster. I was really tired around kilometer 7, but pushed through it.

I had a bit of a frustrating start. I got sidetracked answering questions about my shoes and the watch had gone into power-save mode when the race started. I had to step out of the crowd and wait for the Garmin to acquire the satellites. It was frustrating, but not a big deal since the race is chip timed.  Once it got going I dropped into a quick easy pace and stayed there. It is amazing being in a race. It isn't that I'm all that competitive (I'm mid pack overall and in the back of the pack for my age division). But it is amazing to have so many people to pace yourself against.

The rest of the day has underscored how out of shape I am. I've been starving and exhausted. It is pretty clear that I need to get back on the program in terms of diet, drop some pounds and pick up more mileage. Now I need to pick my next race. I'd like to do another 10k soon and at least one Half Marathon in the Fall.