Sunday, January 31, 2010

the lower back pain issue

i've mentioned my lower back issue from time to time in this blog. not really directly, but more in relation to other discussions covering training and racing. those of you who've followed this blog consistently over the years can probably recall the posts i've made on the troubles i've had with my lower back and all my efforts to address it. i figured i'd devote a post to it and share what i've found in case other athletes were having similar problems that threatened their involvement in a sport.

my lower back, quite frankly, is a pain. a bad one. particularly through the sacroiliac, sacrum, lumbar, hips, and pelvic region. not bad enough to be permanently debilitating, and certainly not anywhere near the level that would impair normal living, but definitely bad enough that it is delimiting, in that it's served to inexplicably flare up at the times i've really needed it the most (races, mostly Ironmans) and prevented me from being able to really generate the kind of lower body power that i'm ordinarily (as in shorter distances) capable of exerting.

i've done my best to just gut it out when the pain has come on, but as any of you who have had a bad back know, it's not something you readily dismiss. especially when you're hunched over on a bike in the exact position most likely to induce it for mile after mile after mile after endless intensifying painful mile.

i've tried all manner of things over the years, from brute force weight training to increased stretching to sport-specific physical therapy. they've all helped to some degree, but never enough to address what happens over the course of a 140.6-mile Ironman race course. the lack of substantive success has driven me to be much more experimental relative to other people--athletes and non-athletes alike--in trying new solutions.

after some years of searching and trying various options in the wake of my last debacle (Ironman New Zealand 2008, where my back was so bad that i couldn't maintain the aero position on the bike and had to stop at every aid station for several minutes to stand and relieve the stress in the lower back), i think i can say i've found some success using a combination of various things. i'll comment on each of them below:
  • pilates: yes, pilates. i used to wonder about this. i wasn't so sure. but i gave it a try, and was stunned to find out that i couldn't do some of the basic moves. the physical therapists and dancers (yes, i learned this from dancers, who deal a lot with lower back issues, and so i figured they must know something about how to deal with it) taught a lot of the moves to me, particularly the ones that don't require special equipment. i found that this did wonders in developing my minor muscle groups and increasing my structural stability, especially through the core--including my lower spine through the abdomen, sacrum, and hips.
  • core-related physical therapy: a lot of these are related to pilates, but i broke them out because these involve some basic equipment. the exercises i'm referring to involve use of the swiss ball, medicine ball, balance ball, and dumb-bells, where you focus on proprioception and kinesthetic, which focus on structural strength involving muscles coordinated in static and dynamic movements, respectively. these look simple, but are brutal. these, in particular, really amplified the development of minor muscle groups through the ranges of motion typical of the chaotic, ballistic conditions common to athletics.
  • kung fu: yes. kung fu. i've documented my education in martial arts, predominately traditional chinese martial arts (reference: ). this worked (and i mean worked) my body through complex, multi-planar, multi-angle ranges of motion that built structural strength in a way that was not brittle or stiff, but instead pliable and responsive to physical stress--think a 3-D shock absorber (as opposed to, say, a pillar), which is what you want in the high-load environment of sports.
what i found through these strategies was as follows:
  • yoga made me sore, and didn't work. in fact, it made my back issues worse. but i believe the reason is that all of the above focus on dynamic structure, which is what is involved in sports. yoga, in contrast, focuses on static structure, which may help, but only to a degree.
  • weight training doesn't work. so much of weight training is aimed at developing large muscle groups. unfortunately, this leaves the small muscle groups undeveloped. your body, unfortunately, is only as capable as its weakest link. as a result, despite all the improvements in large muscle group strength, my body was still being limited by the weakness in small muscle groups--and the small muscle groups are the ones used to maintain structural stability (which involves the lower back).
  • all the years of training had only resulted in major physical imbalances in my body, with opposing muscles groups having severe imbalances in strength. my coaches, physical therapists, advisers, and instructors all noticed this, and they all asserted that it was causing structural imbalances in my body...and my lower back issues were a symptom of this.
  • all of the above methods (pilates, core-related physical therapy, and kung fu) served to 1) identify the location and nature of my structural imbalances (because they're so comprehensive, they pretty much expose all of your body's flaws), and 2) target those structural imbalances (because they're so comprehensive, they don't let you hide any of your body's flaws, but instead force you to work on them again and again and again and again...).
i can't say that i've completely solved my lower back pain problem. that's something that i'll only be able to definitely know for certain under the race conditions of the 140.6 miles of an Ironman.

but i can say that i have seen some substantial improvement. my sacroiliac and lumbar areas don't catastrophically give way while engaged in simple actions (like standing up out of bed). my lower abdomen and spinal regions don't ache while working through long swims or while hunched over during extended rides on the bike. my hips and buttocks don't get as sore while having to ascend hills.

it has been, to say the least, a relief to know that my delimiting factor in training has not been my lower back, but instead the muscles of my legs and upper back and lungs and heart. it's something more consistent with the training and racing experiences of other athletes. for me, it's a different feeling.

which gives me hope, since maybe it means that i can start to be more like them.

Monday, January 25, 2010

exercise and weight loss redux

this is a follow-up to a post from several months ago regarding exercise and weight loss:
the prior post dealt with my take on media reports of studies suggesting that exercise doesn't help you lose weight. my take was--and is--that the media reports had the wrong interpretation of the research, and that people should understand that weight loss is not a function of exercise alone, but rather a function of a number of variables: basic physics (energy output from your daily living v. energy input from your food intake), nutrition (the composition of your food intake), and lifestyle (the nature of activity in duration and intensity comprising your daily living, whether it be via exercise or the mundane routine).

one thing i didn't mention in the prior post is that we need to apply caution in associating exercise with weight loss. this is because there are different objectives for exercise, not all of which relate to weight loss. for athletes, in particular, exercise is a component of a training regimen aimed for the purpose of achieving superior physical performance in a specific sport--and sometimes this means losing weight, sometimes it means gaining weight, sometimes it means nothing regarding weight at all.

as a result, a person with the goal of greater performance won't approach exercise with the same mindset or method as a person with the goal of weight loss. rather, a person with the primary goal of weight loss will have to modify the nature of exercise to enable their objective. even then, how they employ exercise will depend on what kind of weight loss they want, with weight loss in the form of overall body mass entailing a different exercise regime than weight loss in the form of lower body fat percentage.

and even with all this, i still go back to my comments in the previous post: exercise won't do it alone. to really get results--any results, whether for physical performance, weight loss in overall body mass, weight loss in lower body fat percentage, etc., that extend on a substantive, long-term basis--requires a comprehensive scheme encompassing the overall lifestyle inclusive of exercise and nutrition.

i didn't go into too much detail then regarding just what this means. i figured i'd written enough in other posts here to deal with the more general aspects of the issues (reference: ). that, and i also figured that i just don't have the level of expertise to go into rigorous explanation of the details, and hoped that people would be able to find it on their own.

well, i think i've come across something that may rectify the shortfall in my work, and which may save everyone a good amount of work in finding the details for themselves. check these links out:
this is, without question, some of the best discussions regarding exercise and weight loss i've come across. it's from a blog called Science of Sport, run by 2 sports scientists. i like these pieces because they give a very clear breakdown of the nature of exercise to the body, and provide the details of everything i've been telling people regarding the relationship between exercise and weight loss. and they also indicate what i've said here: that exercise can have different purposes which may or may not include weight loss, and so must be approached with an understanding of how exercise can be adjusted to fulfill those respective purposes.

if you have the interest and the time, i definitely recommend you take a look.

Monday, January 18, 2010

exercise and stress

well, here's yet another bit of research showing that exercise is good for you. apparently, a regimen of regular exercise can help reduce or prevent anxiety, not just in terms of psychological perception but in actual physical composition. it seems researchers have learned that exercise induces biochemical reactions adjusting cellular adjustment that increases the capacity to resist stress and produce less of the stress hormone serotonin--essentially making for a more mellow, stable personality.

check it out. it's a little dated, but i came across it while perusing the archives of the New York Times:
in case the link doesn't work, i've put the full text of the article at the end of this post.

in a way, i guess this helps explain the common perception that so many athletes are a cool, calm, collected bunch (i should note: i differ on this, since i've personally seen an equal number of brash, temperamental, excitable personalities)--cool, calm, and collected to the point of being egotistical and arrogant.

i don't often agree with this latter conclusion, although i can see how people can believe it. a lot of this, i believe, comes from so many athletes just having a higher level of self-confidence and self-esteem derived from an understanding of their competitive abilities. it makes for a measure of self-understanding, which can be translated as just being comfortable with the self, or in common parlance: at peace with the self. you can construe this as resulting in a mellow, relaxed personality less prone to excitement and less likely to get worked up over a sudden source of stress.

but all of this implies a certain reified hubris: that because you believe you're good, you know you're good, so you act like you're good...which is fine if you actually are good, but not so fine if you are not. and it's even more problematic if rises to the point that you believe you're not only good, but better than everyone else--not just in terms of physical ability, but also everything else. this is definitely not good, because it definitely indicates the vices of egotism and arrogance.

what's interesting here is that the research is suggesting a biochemical explanation for the cool, calm, collected demeanor of so many athletes. in essence, the act of exercise is driving the change in personality. which i take as resulting in the following:
  1. the demeanor isn't coming from a belief that you're good or better than anyone else, but from bodily adaptations to physical behavior.
  2. the bodily adaptations therefore don't require that you believe you're good or better than anyone else, nor that you actually be good or better than anyone else.
  3. the personality change can happen to anyone involved in regular exercise, not just athletes but also ordinary people.
  4. the resulting demeanor is beneficial in terms of overall well-being and quality of life.
in which case, we should be exercising not just for the sake of becoming physically healthier, but mentally as well. exercise can help reduce stress, with even a little making a difference. it just has to be done on a regular basis.

so for anyone who says they're too stressed to exercise: you just need to get into a steady routine. you just might be surprised with the results in terms of how you feel...and it also just might make a difference in helping you figure out how to resolve the source of that stress.

so get to it! and relax!

Phys Ed: Why Exercise Makes You Less Anxious
New York Times
November 18, 2009
By Gretchen Reynolds

Researchers at Princeton University recently made a remarkable discovery about the brains of rats that exercise. Some of their neurons respond differently to stress than the neurons of slothful rats. Scientists have known for some time that exercise stimulates the creation of new brain cells (neurons) but not how, precisely, these neurons might be functionally different from other brain cells.

In the experiment, preliminary results of which were presented last month at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago, scientists allowed one group of rats to run. Another set of rodents were not allowed to exercise. Then all of the rats swam in cold water, which they don’t like to do. Afterward, the scientists examined the animals’ brains. They found that the stress of the swimming activated neurons in all of the animals’ brains. (The researchers could tell which neurons were activated because the cells expressed specific genes in response to the stress.) But the youngest brain cells in the running rats, the cells that the scientists assumed were created by running, were less likely to express the genes. They generally remained quiet. The “cells born from running,” the researchers concluded, appeared to have been “specifically buffered from exposure to a stressful experience.” The rats had created, through running, a brain that seemed biochemically, molecularly, calm.

For years, both in popular imagination and in scientific circles, it has been a given that exercise enhances mood. But how exercise, a physiological activity, might directly affect mood and anxiety, psychological states, was unclear. Now, thanks in no small part to improved research techniques and a growing understanding of the biochemistry and the genetics of thought itself, scientists are beginning to tease out how exercise remodels the brain, making it more stress-resistant. In work undertaken at the University of Colorado, Boulder, for instance, scientists have examined the role of serotonin, a neurotransmitter often considered to be the “happy” brain chemical. That simplistic view of serotonin has been undermined by other researchers, and the University of Colorado work further dilutes the idea. In those experiments, rats taught to feel helpless and anxious (by being exposed to a laboratory stressor) showed increased serotonin activity in their brains. But rats that had run for several weeks before being stressed showed less serotonin activity and were less anxious and helpless despite the stress.

Other researchers have looked at how exercise alters the activity of dopamine, another neurotransmitter in the brain, while still others have concentrated on the antioxidant powers of moderate exercise. Anxiety in rodents and people has been linked with excessive oxidative stress, which can lead to cell death, including in the brain. Moderate exercise, though, appears to dampen the effects of oxidative stress. In an experiment reported at the Society for Neuroscience meeting, rats whose oxidative-stress levels had been artificially increased with injections of certain chemicals were extremely anxious when faced with unfamiliar terrain during lab testing. But rats that had exercised, even if they had received the oxidizing chemical, were relatively nonchalant under stress. When placed in the unfamiliar space, they didn’t run for dark corners and hide, like the unexercised rats. They insouciantly explored.

“It looks more and more like the positive stress of exercise prepares cells and structures and pathways within the brain so that they’re more equipped to handle stress in other forms,” says Michael Hopkins, a graduate student affiliated with the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory Laboratory at Dartmouth, who has been studying how exercise differently affects thinking and emotion. “It’s pretty amazing, really, that you can get this translation from the realm of purely physical stresses to the realm of psychological stressors.”

The stress-reducing changes wrought by exercise on the brain don’t happen overnight, however, as virtually every researcher agrees. In the University of Colorado experiments, for instance, rats that ran for only three weeks did not show much reduction in stress-induced anxiety, but those that ran for at least six weeks did. “Something happened between three and six weeks,” says Benjamin Greenwood, Ph.D., a research associate in the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado, who helped conduct the experiments. “It’s not clear how that translates” into an exercise prescription for humans. We may require more weeks of working out, or maybe less. And no one has yet studied how intense the exercise needs to be. But the lesson is “don’t quit,” Greenwood says. Keep running or cycling or swimming. (Animal experiments have focused exclusively on aerobic, endurance-type activities.) You may not feel a magical reduction of stress after your first jog, if you haven’t been exercising. But the molecular, biochemical changes will begin, Greenwood says, and eventually they become, he says, “profound.”

Friday, January 15, 2010

a moment re Haiti

never let it be said i don't have a social conscience of some kind, nor let it be thought that i am not conscious of current events--both are things which have become part of my job, and so are things i do try to maintain. to this end, i'll shift the usual topics of this blog, if only for a moment, to help out with the crisis in Haiti.

i have no connection to Haiti. i just know that it's a country that has suffered tremendously, both historically and now. and i know that its presence in U.S. and world awareness has waxed and waned over the years as a function of geopolitical interests. i also know that the international efforts to respond to the disaster there poses a crossroads in a number of ways: a crossroads in the health of the people (either aid comes in time to prevent further loss of life, or aid arrives too late to prevent an onslaught of fatalities wrought by disease, infection, malnutrition, and starvation); a crossroads in the welfare of the country (either this is finally the moment that the country's political system divests itself of its past predilection to corruption, violence, and kleptocracy, or the country falls victim to the selfishness and callousness of its leaders); and a crossroads in the commitment of the world (either the world demonstrates a true desire to live up to the more noble aspects of this age of globalization, or the world demonstrates that the promises of greater welfare were illusions foisted by those with darker interests in world affairs).

these crossroads are real--just reference these:
in the hope that we can make things for the better and not the worse, and in the hope that we can encourage the taking of the more noble direction of the crossroads rather than the nefarious, i'll offer up this:

for those of you who would like to help, but are wary of con artists seeking to take advantage of your goodwill for their own benefit rather than the victims, the U.S. State Department has set up a way of donating via your cell phone. you text the word "Haiti" to 90999, and it will prompt you for a $10 donation to the Red Cross International Relief effort which will be billed to your cell phone account. if you need verification of this, you can refer to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (she mentions this at the end of the segment):

i tried this myself, and it works. and it prompts you, so you can change your mind if you want. i figure you can't get much more legitimate than the U.S. State Department.

hope that helps anyone out there who's interested. good luck. and here's to social causes.

Friday, January 08, 2010

endurance fitness keeps you young

for those of you looking for motivation to pick up (or keep up) your physical fitness, here's another log to throw into the fire of your training regimen.

i found this in the BBC News recently:
if the link doesn't work i've put the text of the article at the end of this post.

essentially, the article reports that researchers have found that long-term fitness aids in preservation at the cellular level, and conclude that this means that physical activity can help your body remain youthful. telomeres, which are DNA components located at the end of chromosomes and help preserve the stability of DNA strands, appear to decay less quickly in athletes, particularly those with a history of endurance training. which suggests that endurance fitness functions to prevent cellular decay (i.e., aging).

the article goes on to cover other research that indicates that people with greater levels of fitness also exhibit greater intelligence and higher educational achievement.

i should caution here that the article doesn't give a lot of detail about the research, and so there's probably more in the original research publications regarding the relationship between the variables being given by the news. as the classic admonition observes: correlation does not equal causation, and without reviewing the research publications it is not clear just how much of the correlation between fitness, youth, intelligence, and education can truly be interpreted as a causal relationship (i.e., fitness really causes youth, intelligence, and education, and vice versa). still, the relationship is certainly fascinating, and counter-intuitive to the common stereotypes of athletes as being morons.

i should also caution that the discussion in the article centers around fitness and physical activity, not competition. while all are related to sports, there's still a difference. fitness uses physical activity to increase or preserve personal capabilities, while competition goes on to use those personal capabilities for the sake of winning. the implication is that with fitness you will engage in physical activity to the point that it builds your person, while in competition you are willing to push physical activity to a degree that sacrifices your person for the objective of victory. that is, a fitness focus maintains self-improvement as an overarching theme, while a competitive approach is about winning as an over-riding imperative. with the former you will stop physical activity if you feel you are risking injury, with the latter you will continue physical activity even if you are injured.

the arguments in this article assume the former perspective, with the argument of a causal relationship between fitness and youth requiring an assumption that the training related to fitness is applied properly--in other words, that there is proper exercise with proper volume and proper intensity in a proper schedule with proper recovery and proper nutrition. as a result, it still observes the stricture against overtraining (excessive activity), which only serves to break you down (i.e., make you old). there's a fine line between the 2, especially for ultra-endurance athletes.

still, the evidence appears to be there: fitness, and endurance fitness in particular, helps you stay young. so spread the word, pick up the mantra, and go for it.

Long-term fitness 'fights ageing'
Long-term physical activity has an anti-ageing effect at the cellular level, a German study suggests.
BBC News

Researchers focused on telomeres, the protective caps on the chromosomes that keep a cell's DNA stable but shorten with age.

They found telomeres shortened less quickly in key immune cells of athletes with a long history of endurance training.

The study, by Saarland University, appears in the journal Circulation.

In a separate study of young Swedish men, cardiovascular fitness has been linked to increased intelligence and higher educational achievement.

Telomeres are relatively short sections of specialised DNA that sit at the ends of all our chromosomes.

They have been compared to the plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces that prevent the laces from unravelling.

Each time a cell divides, its telomeres shorten and the cell becomes more susceptible to dying.

National athletes

The researchers measured the length of telomeres in blood samples from two groups of professional athletes and two groups of people who were healthy non-smokers, but who did not take regular exercise.

One group of professional athletes included members of the German national track and field athletics team, who had an average age of 20.

The second group was made up of middle-aged athletes who had regularly run long distances - an average of 80km a week - since their youth.

The researchers found evidence that the physical exercise of the professional athletes led to activation of an enzyme called telomerase, which helped to stabilise telomeres.

This reduced the telomere shortening in leukocytes, a type of white blood cell that plays a key role in fighting infection and disease.

The most pronounced effect was found in athletes who had been regularly endurance training for several decades.

Potency of training

Lead researcher Dr Ulrich Laufs said: "This is direct evidence of an anti-ageing effect of physical exercise.

"Our data improves the molecular understanding of the protective effects of exercise and underlines the potency of physical training in reducing the impact of age-related disease."

Professor Tim Spector, an expert on genetics and ageing at Kings College London, said other studies had suggested more moderate exercise had a beneficial effect on ageing.

He said: "It is still difficult to separate cause and effect from these studies - as longer telomeres may still be a marker of fitness.

"Nevertheless - this is further evidence that regular exercise may retard aging."

Professor Kay-Tee Khaw, of the University of Cambridge, an expert on ageing, said: "The benefits of physical activity for health are well established from many large long-term population studies.

"Even moderate levels of physical activity are related to lower levels of many heart disease risk factors such as blood pressure and cholesterol and lower risk of many chronic diseases associated with ageing such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers."

Intelligence link

In the second study, published in Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, a team from the University of Gothenburg analysed data on more than 1.2 million Swedish men born from 1950-1976 who enlisted for military service at age 18.

They found that good heart health was linked to higher intelligence, better educational achievement and raised status in society.

By studying twins in the study, the researchers concluded that environmental and lifestyle factors were key, rather than genetics.

They said the findings suggested that campaigns to promote physical exercise might help to raise standards of educational achievement across the population.

Lead researcher Professor Georg Kuhn said cardiovascular exercise increased blood flow to the brain, which in turn might help forge more and stronger connections between nerve cells.

However, he said it was also possible that intelligent people tended to make more exercise.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

back after a break

well, i'm back. i took a family vacation over the winter holidays, and promised myself to get away for a while by completely unplugging from anything work or school-related.

no reason really, other than this: quality time with the folks isn't really quality until you actually commit...and sometimes that means ensuring your focus is on them and nothing else--our time in life is unfortunately a finite quantity, and this unfortunately means that allocating that time is a 0-sum game, where you can increase an allocation of time to one thing only by decreasing the allocation of time to another. for most people, the decision over allocation often weighs more towards work and school and less to family or self.

this time, i wanted to be sure it went to the latter and less the former.

but i'm back now. so i'll resume posting for all you. i know there's a regular following, based on the Google Analytics reports, and from a surprisingly wide range of countries around the world.

i'm writing for you. give us a shout out!