Tag: health

Problems in March

I mentioned the cat allergy in March’s things post, but I somehow didn’t realise that I was closer than I thought.

The problem is dust.

Cats are not the only thing I have allergic reactions to. I struggle with VOCs (which makes using any oil-based paints a risky proposition), and I don’t sleep well with dust around. Both cause massive congestion and drop my IQ about fifty points*.

VOCs are relatively easy to avoid, but dust accumulates silently over time, and I forget it’s an issue over the winter because dust reaction feels so much like a cold.

On top of this, I had been habitually running on about two hours less sleep a night than I need, and the time change in early March** made the mornings darker just when I needed light.

Things I’ve done to improve the situation:

  • get a daylight lamp. I probably should have got one of these years ago. It has helped me wake up more completely in the morning and given me energy to approach real work first thing.
  • go to sleep earlier. If I am getting up at five (and I am still trying to do this) then I need to be asleep around nine as a usual thing. Maybe I can shave half an hour, but ten is too late and eleven is going to just kill me the following day. I’ve been slacking on this the last week or so, but it helps me a lot.
  • dust more regularly. Dusting is something that I’ve always had as a low priority. I’ve never enjoyed it: moving things around in order to just put them back again has always struck as more annoying than necessary. Still, if I want to continue to function, it’s something I need to do a lot more regularly. I’ve set up a regular reminder to do this task.

The weird thing is that while my mental processes have been swimming in treacle, my running has been stronger. Shamrock this year was great (and I have already signed up for 2020) and I’ve been consistently hitting 8:30 miles on challenging routes. There are injury concerns, but it’s working pretty well.

Still, better sleep will help there too.

Here’s to staying on top of things.

[*] y’know, approximately.

[**] ask me why I loathe the stupidity of the time change adjustments under the Bush Jr administration!

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Shamrock Run 2019

It’s Been Too Long

Somehow, it has been four years since I last did the Shamrock Run.

The Portland Shamrock Run was the first organised run I participated in, all the way back in 2002. I’d done several bike events in Britain, and a few different walks around Portland, but that was the first run I did: 5K, very slowly. I’ve run around ten of these races, at four distances (5K, 8K, 15K, half marathon — 15K is my favourite).

I’ve always enjoyed Shamrock because it’s so well organised. There are tens of thousands of participants in the different races: multiple distances, sometimes multiple paces for very over-subscribed distances, and yet the whole thing works. There is the traditional beer afterwards (although I don’t like to drink that early myself), and the medals being handed out, all with a feeling of great good humour from the crowds and the organisers.

There are reasons to dislike the Shamrock: it’s often cold and wet in the middle of March, and since the spring time change was pulled forward this run is darker than it used to be. Also, I’m not Irish so my participation is in the event rather than the party. Call me a curmudgeon if you like; it’s certainly the right word.

But the energy is great, and they keep innovating around how to organise the event. The last time I ran was their first half marathon, and the routes and start management have continued to improve.

I was keen to run this year just because I am fitter than I have been in a long time, and this has always felt like a good race to set out your stall for the year (not that I have plans yet for races over the summer). The new route was interesting to me too. And honestly I wanted to see what I could do in a race now.

One of the things I liked a lot about this year’s race was the more humane start time. The 15K start was 08:55, easily an hour later than I have seen before, and a very pleasant time to run. This later start mitigates the time change issue very nicely. Conditions could not have been better, either: it was bright and clear, a bit chilly in the shade but a glorious spring day.

Portland is a runner-friendly city, and many events kick off in Tom McCall Waterfront Park, a block-wide grassy area that stretches for a mile between the road and the river. From the park, there are options to cross the river (such as for the Bridge Pedal/Run), to wind through downtown streets, head north alongside the river into the industrial area, or to go south into the hills. Shamrock heads into the hills, for the most part, and the routes I have run in previous years took in many blocks of city streets before launching up Broadway towards the Terwilliger hill and returning to the waterfront via Barbur Boulevard.

The new routes go the other direction, following Barbur before turning and climbing up to Terwilliger. These changes also mean that there is much less time spent poddling around downtown: most routes start heading south, but those distances that head north stick to waterfront roads. Races not using downtown roads also meant that I could park close to the race start and be able to get out again afterwards!

The Race

Shamrock is still a very well-organised race with clear announcements and a well-designed timetable. I also like the way they do the gapped race start. They have a few hundred runners go then hold for a minute, then a few hundred more and hold again. It helps to prevent congestion on the course, and your official time is from when you cross the start line rather than when the gun goes off so you are not losing anything from this slight delay.

They also have pace groups within the start lanes. I picked the 8-9 minute pace group this year based on my training times, which put me closer to the front than I have ever been: I crossed the start line only half a minute after the race began. Early running was clogged, as it always is in these things, but I quickly found space to hit a comfortable pace. I cleared my first mile in 8m27, which I felt was a good beginning.

In fact, all of my first four miles went pretty exactly on plan. My lovely family came out to cheer me on* and they waited for me at the four mile mark (by The Chart House, a restaurant overlooking south Portland) and I saw them almost exactly when I said I would — it is always satisfying when these predictions are borne out! Then it was the long trundle back down the hill.

Terwilliger, however, is not a steady gradient. There’s a downhill for half a mile then up again before the last crest just up from the VA hospital. On one of my usual running routes I would then follow Broadway to downtown, but this 15K route carried us back down to Barbur past the Duniway Park track then south to rejoin Naito Parkway.

For some reason, that gentle slope on Barbur from Duniway Park back up to the Naito junction just killed my legs. Up to that point I had been able to keep a respectable turn over to maintain my pace, but on that section my push muscles decided they were done. I managed a tiny tiny spurt of speed over the last two or three blocks to the finish, but my last couple of miles were pretty slow.

The Outcome

My watch told me I ran at 9m01 pace, but the official race time gave 8m58. I’ll take that.

It compares favourably with my ten miler a few weeks ago (which was 8m52 pace, but over a well understood route), and although I could probably go faster with better preparation, my over-tapered run-up to race day meant that I lost some of the pace I should have had. There again, I was also less injured than I would have been if I had pushed harder; I think I made the right trade-off.

One reason I know this is because although my muscles are sore, they are not as sore as they were after previous races and (critically) only my muscles are sore: there is no new joint pain, and stretching after my run today showed that my tendons are significantly less inflamed (eg IT band stretch didn’t hurt).

I’m not sure I will do the Shamrock again, but this is a very exciting return to form so I will joyfully do more races in the future.

[*] and they bought me baked goods for later, which was a delicious way to refuel!

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Long Term Goals

Most of my recent health goals have been centred around eating, or at least my weight. But those are not the only health goals that I have, so I wanted to write a little bit about them.

Wait, Weight?

I should address my weight goals first, though.

I’ve been at or below my goal weight for over three months now, despite Thanksgiving, Christmas, and many other opportunities to launch myself off the wagon in that period.

I am getting used to how I feel.

I have also been weighing daily during that time so that I can get a clear sense of how my weight fluctuates during a week. There can easily be a two pound swing from one of the week to the next, and lots of factors affect it on any given day but those factors mostly lag pretty heavily. Obviously eating a lot of food the previous day makes a difference, but I haven’t seen that weight sticking — it mostly seems to be the weight of the food itself, rather than fat that that food turns into.

The biggest thing is just getting used to new eating routines. I am maintaining now rather than trying to shed, so Weight Watchers gives me more points. They also encourage you to adjust your points allowance if there is a change in weight, and I landed on a pretty effective daily budget within a few weeks. You also get weekly points, although I rarely dip into those — I prefer to have my fit points instead.

Getting Credit

Even the first time I was using a WW programme, fit points were my silver bullet.

My requirement for exercise has always been that it be vigorous and intense. “Going for a walk” rarely feels like exercise, although hiking certainly can if the route is hilly enough or far enough.

With this iteration of WW, I have connected my fitness tracker to my WW account so that WW can pull in my step counts without my even having to type them in. It’s great, and for most of the trundling around I do it captures my activity pretty accurately.

However, when we started doing a spin class it became apparent that the steps I got from my tracker (which is tucked into my sock when I ride) didn’t match the amount of effort I was putting in*. Similarly, for the kind of push running I do I wasn’t getting full credit, which matters a lot when you want to go and get a bun to satisfy your bone hungriness.

Putting in the activity double counts my steps, though: I don’t want 20 points for an hour of spinning as well as 7 points for my spin steps; that’s cheating!

So I pro rate the activity time to discount it by the steps. For spinning and running, this comes down to about two thirds of the time. This way I get credit for the intense exercise, but I also don’t have to abandon my step counter while I’m doing it.

Being Fit

Stephen Fry once wrote that he was fit: fit for the life that he led of cerebral contemplation and creative work.

My criteria for being fit are a bit more specific. I have had these fitness goals for a solid fifteen years, all of these being things I would like to be able to do with regularity and without thinking about it too much before hand:

  1. run an eight minute mile
  2. run ten miles
  3. cycle fifty miles

The one I hit first was the ten mile run: I had this down for about six months at one time, when I was planning a maintenance schedule which included a regular ten. I am not there yet this time around, though: I ran ten today, but it took special effort and it was a particular strain.

The goal I expected to take longest was the eight minute mile, but that is actually the one I have in hand now. I am regularly posting runs in the 8:05-8:15 range on a variety of terrains, and I have had a couple of sub-8 runs. Even on longer and tougher runs my times are coming in much lower: only the most challenging hill runs are posting over nine minutes a mile, and today’s ten — the longest run I have done in some years — came in at 8:52 a mile. That wasn’t flat, either.

Which just leaves the fifty mile bike ride. This seems more than plausible at this point.

I hope you are engaging with your health goals. It’s better to confront them than to ignore them, and I am glad I have finally done so over the last year.

[*] in fairness, I had been suspicious of the mismatch between step count and perceived effort while cycling for some time, but when eating was on the line it suddenly seemed more urgent.

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Burnout or Laziness?

A few weeks ago I wrote that I was taking a break from writing to let myself spend time working on clutter.

And that time has been successful in that I have done no writing at all. I have worked on some Magic decks, and sorted cards, but basically I have taken a break from anything. In truth, I have been feeling creatively drained — I have taken time to actually read a whole book rather than vomitting out words.

I needed this break, just like I needed the break over Christmas.

However it was beginning to feel like laziness.

Then on Monday I got up at my usual time and had my usual breakfast and I mooched around as I usually do — it always takes me a while to wake up, so the mooching is necessary. But even after a cup of tea and all the other routines I found that I was still basically asleep.

So I went back to bed, and slept for another six hours.

I am feeling better now, I’m glad to say. It seems to have been a minor fever based on how other members of my family have suffered the same way, but I am still pretty flattened. I would usually run from the office but I deliberately left my gear at home.

More significant is that I can feel the flickering flames of the creative urge. The burnout was real, but it was not just laziness that led to my not writing.

Time to get back on the horse. Probably just a trot, just yet. Let’s keep the cantering in all directions for when the flames are burning hotter.

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Continuing Improvement

I went for a run the other day.

That’s not so unusual, of course. I run several times a week, because despite still being a cyclist who runs I do rather enjoy running.

When I got back I found that I had run a personal best for the route — indeed, I had clocked my fastest mile (downhill, I should say) which is at least a good thing to show my body how to go that speed.

That isn’t so unusual either, as it happens, but it’s one of four personal bests I have run this week.

Cycling vs Running

I started running because I wasn’t cycling, but even when I started riding again I found that running was a more time-efficient way to get the intensity of exercise that I look for.

But whenever I get back on a bike I always remember that while I like running, I love cycling.

Like A Record Baby, Right Round Round Round

As part of our continuing health journey, we’ve joined a local gym. Well, more precisely, my wife joined the gym and I go to one class a week.

It’s a spin class. While I’m not getting out on the bike at this time of year, the spin class gives me almost every part of cycling* that I love best. It’s an hour of intense riding where I don’t have to work to stay upright and it wears me out in the best way.

Spinning is also reminding me what turning my legs over quickly is really like, hence all my recent personal bests on my running routes.

The Bests

Over the last week I have run:

  • a hilly four miler from our house in sub-nine minute miles, roughly ten seconds faster per mile.
  • a flat five down by the river in 8:24 miles. For context, I ran a 4K two years ago on waterfront there in 8:22. This is also 40s a miles faster than the previous best on this route.
  • a hilly four from the day job in 8:19 miles, including a new downhill record mile, twenty seconds faster per mile on average.
  • a hilly trail seven miler from our house in sub-ten minute miles, which is about a minute and a half faster per mile than my previous best.

It’s a good week for health goals.

[*] the thing that’s missing is bombing down a forty mile an hour hill.

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Weights and Measures

I promised a health goals update, so here it is.

The big news is that I got back to Lifetime status at Weight Watchers (or “WW” as they have rebranded themselves). The intention* here is to have members stay no more than two pounds above their goal weight, and not too far below either.

This came a little more quickly than I expected. I was creeping down to my goal weight with my weekly weight loss having dropped to only a pound or so. Then at the end of October, I had a sudden larger loss to two pounds above goal. This put me back within the Lifetime zone. Since then I have been trying to find levels to maintain my weight.

Maintaining is hard.

The first thing I had to do (and the thing that really bombed my weight loss last time) was to stop losing weight. There is a maintenance mode in the app which immediately added some points, then they sent out additional guidance on how to further adjust your points to stabilise. I kind of fish-tailed all over the road as I tried to slam the anchors on with the weight loss, but my weight seems to be close to stable at a few pounds below goal.

I have started buying clothes again.

Q: why did you decide to stop losing weight?

This is a question I have asked myself as well as been asked, and the basic reason is maintainability. I have had long term periods of weight stability at much lower weights than I am carrying now: when I was at Uni I weighed 9st8 for the entire time**, and then when I started work I was stable at 10st7 for about four years. Given that, there is arguably a stone and a half I am leaving on the table for my weight loss now.

But, there are differences. That was thirty years ago, for a start, and when I was working at my first job I was cycling at least an hour a day. While I didn’t exercise regularly at Uni, I also didn’t have money to be extravagant with food. The Uni weight was also when I was naught but skin and bone, so it would be deeply unhealthy to aim for that weight again.

Regardless, where I am now is a maintainable weight and maintainabilty is more important that idealness. And I am already quite bony so I don’t want to lose any more.

The next challenge is to make it through the feast season without putting enormous amounts straight back on again: apparently the average American gains fifteen pounds from Halloween to New Year. For me Halloween was a non-event food-wise and Thanksgiving was manageable so I maintained through it — I have even had scones at the local bakery a couple of times***. The trick, it seems, is to only have one of these treats a day, and not every day either.

We have our Christmas traditions that we are going to follow and which I am going to enjoy: the breakfast coffee cake, the Christmas lasagne, my special whipped cream on pie, and a certain amount of wine. I will partake of those but not to the point of being unable to move, and then I will go for a run on Boxing Day.

It’ll be fine.

I hope you are reaching your goals. I will report back after the holiday food is but a memory.

[*] I say “the intention”, but it is also worth noting that to obtain lifetime status now you have maintain your weight in a +/- two pound window around your goal weight. This is harder than the standard I had to meet before.

[**] somehow I lost another three pounds just before I started work. I don’t actually know how. I also feel like this is the absolute lowest weight I could thrive at.

[***] celebrating NaNoWriMo achievements.

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Backsliding Risks

“Feed a cold, starve a fever.”

— proverbial advice

My biggest challenge with controlling my eating is when I have a cold.

I’m pretty proud of how my recent efforts to lose weight have been going, but the last couple of days have been the first bout of unwellness on this round of Weight Watchers. It brings back all the memories of comfort-eating, and of being hungry when I was cold. On top of that, I am hanging around the house on my own which means I am close to things that I could just scarf down.

So far I haven’t sabotaged my progress entirely, and on a rational level I know that if I had one heavy food day it would be fine, even without exercising, but I want to stay on track because I also know that one heavy food day could easily turn into a string of them. I’m down two stone now, and I would like to keep it that way.

One thing that really helps me is that the foods I have the most gluttonous relationship with aren’t easily available to me: there’s no Cadbury’s Dairy Milk in easy striking distance; chocolate digestives are several miles away at best and over-priced to boot; and we don’t have any good marmalade in the house for me to devour.

So, I am going to have my lunch with no bread in it, and then have fruit and fat-free yoghurt later for a snack, and I am going to be fine.

Then tomorrow I will feel better and I get back to the quotidian temptations of cheese and nuts in the snack dispensers at the day job.

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Weigh Time

I’m probably not going to do an update on this every month, but things are still changing fast enough that it is worth it for now.

  1. my weight has dropped almost two stone — I’m still averaging about two pounds a week1, and my usual routines have reestablished themselves. I feel lighter in myself.
  2. I’m able to wear clothes I haven’t fitted into for years — I mentioned shirts last time, but now it’s trousers and jeans in smaller sizes which I can not only squeeze into but actually spend a comfortable day in.
    One side note here is that the smaller jeans in particular don’t have big enough pockets to hold my phone. The last time I wore these was before I got a smart phone, and my current device is huge in comparison to the flip phone I had before. So I have had to get a phone holster to go on my belt so I can sit down while wearing my jeans.
    Bonus: I can use this holster with anything.
  3. running continues to be easier — I am routinely seeing sub-nine minute pace over some pretty challenging routes, and even had a sub-7:30 mile coming down hill2. Today’s run is emblematic: I did a standard route and thought I had gone quite slowly because I kicked out too fast and then had to slow down a bit in the last mile, but when I checked my records it was the fastest I had run that route.
    More significant is that I can run more; I have been able to increase my runs to five a week from four without additional discomfort. In fact, my joints feel much less painful in general.
    Also, I just like how loose-limbed I am feeling when I run now. It’s relaxing to go out rather than dreary.

It’s been very positive.

The immediate goal is to regain my lifetime membership status with Weight Watchers3, a goal with which I have a slightly contentious relationship.

The last time I was following a Weight Watchers programme, I followed the plan but I wasn’t eating enough. The zero point foods were very restricted and contained no protein, and I ended up dropping weight past my goal to the point where I couldn’t stop losing. I increased my food intake with maintenance points and I was still shedding, so the meeting leader and I finagled the goal weight a little bit so I could stabilise at a lower weight that was closer to where I had landed while still satisfying the rules as they were then. Then I got my lifetime membership.

But the lower weight was not sustainable, as I had feared, and the purported lifestyle changes didn’t stick because I had been depriving myself in order to stay on programme4. I basically went back to my old eating habits within a month.

So, as I approach my goal weight, I find myself reviewing my records from 2006 and thinking that I need to talk to the leaders at my meeting to see what they think is the best way to negotiate this process. Do I aim for the original goal weight, which is less than ten pounds away now, or for the lower weight I have written on my lifetime membership card (which would probably be sustainable, given the newer programme).

It’s an interesting problem, but it’s a good problem to have.

[1] a kilogramme

[2] which obviously doesn’t count as a PB, but does have the benefit of teaching my body what that feels like so I can push for that pace on the flat.

[3] soon to be rebranded as “WW”, mostly to de-emphasise the weight loss portion of the programme, but I have thoughts on that I will share another time.

[4] the point of Weight Watchers is to encourage lifestyle changes and to not feel deprived in the process, but the older programme didn’t support that at all.

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Weight State

I alluded to this in my things post for this month, but the health plan has been progressing.

As of now, I have the following measurable improvements to report:

  1. I’m more than a stone down — not quite to a stone and a half, but close. My average has been close to a couple of pounds* a week, which is about where I was last time. In fact, this is the least I have weighed in about six years**.
  2. my clothes are fitting better — I am comfortable wearing shirts I haven’t worn in a while, and I am almost at the point of going down a jeans size.
  3. my running is easier – less stress on my joints, more power available to hurl myself along the route. I am consistently running well under ten minute miles, and seeing more runs in the low nines or even high eights. Now, some of this is undoubtedly down to continuing improvement from training, but the rapid speed increase seems likely to be more a function of weight.Also, my shorts fit better which is nice.

One of the things which I particularly want to celebrate is staying on programme during both the conference and the holiday.

Having said that, my latest weigh-in was a little disappointing: my measured weight was flat, despite having been as consistent in my eating as before. There are two factors which explain this, though. Firstly, I’m prepping for a routine medical procedure which requires me to follow a particular diet, and it has (ahem) changed my routines. Secondly, it’s colder so I am now wearing jeans rather than shorts.

So, things should return to normal in a week or two.

I’ve got about another stone to reach my goal, so we’ll see how we go.

[*] a kilogramme

[**] ie since I started at the current day job and the ready availability of delicious snacks overcame the last vestiges of willpower.

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Weighty Matters

I used to go to Weight Watchers.

My weight was not, when I started, the heaviest I had ever been, but I was a stone over where I am now. We’d just had our first kid and I’d lost my day job at the time (not related, but the timing was pretty special) and there had been trouble obtaining non-employer health insurance1. Something had to be done.

I liked it. The programme fitted me pretty well and I had good results. Within a year, I was down almost four stone and I made lifetime member.

Even after that achievement, I continued to struggle with fitness and weight. It’s a bit like medicine: if you feel better, you stop taking it. With some medications that is as intended; with others you can make things worse by stopping too soon. For me, I probably should have continued to go to meetings but I wanted my Monday lunchtime back and I was feeling a little resentful towards the programme is it was then constituted.

And so my weight has crept up again — not yo-yoing, at least — to the point where, again, something had to be done because what I was trying to do wasn’t working.

Not Just A River In Egypt

The tenor of this post so far has been that I saw a problem and tried to solve it, but this doesn’t really capture the depths of denial I’ve been going through around this issue.

I like eating. As Matt Lucas said in an interview with The Guardian years ago, “Chocolate is nice2.” So I have been ignoring the signs, including anything which would suggest I not eat whatever the heck I want to eat, and although I had done a lot to stabilise my weight over the last three months (exercising regularly again, reducing snack intake) it wasn’t enough.

Something, I eventually understood, needed to be done. Again.

Why Bother?

Which is where I come to why I care.

I don’t like weight as a measure of fitness and I especially dislike the BMI (body mass index) metric since I have a lot of muscle on my legs that throws that metric off. But being heavier does make me feel worse: it is definitively harder on my joints, I run slower, and I am less flexible. There is also the small matter of fitting into airplane seats: when I travel it tends to be for long distances, and those tiny seats are miserable when I am heavier3.

So I have my reasons for wanting to shed some fat, which is why I’ve started going to Weight Watchers again.

It feels good.

The programme has moved on a bit, but the basic idea is the same: you have a number of points per day and the food you eat uses up those points. Food points are calculated based on calorific value, where added sugars count for more as do some fats. Protein calories count for less because your body has to work harder to extract them.

The biggest innovation since I last followed this programme is the expansion of the zero point foods: things you can eat to satisfaction without having to use any points at all. Last time, only vegetables and some fruit were zero point, but now eggs, beans and tofu are as well – I can eat lunch for zero points!

Anyway, I’m only a week or so in to this round and it’s been good and bad.

The good is that I am already down a bit, and my clothes are fitting better.

The bad is that I am still learning how to distribute my points through the day. I need to have a pretty substantial breakfast to get me through the morning and hence I tried to keep lunch to zero points, but if I do that then I get a hollow feeling: my belly is full, but I am missing something that means I still feel hungry.

So there’s learning to do, but results are encouraging so far.

Onward and downward.

[1] because US health care policy is insane.

[2] this is where I have an advantage over Mr Lucas, in that I no longer live in the UK and I do not enjoy a great deal of American chocolate. Baseline crappy chocolate in Britain is Cadbury’s, which is about 30,000 times nicer than Hershey’s.

[3] there is a specific story here about travelling to my grandfather’s funeral in 2006 and being deeply uncomfortable in the window seat next to another sturdy gentleman. That was a loooong flight.

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