Tuesday, January 15, 2019

My Top Ten of 2018 (plus one!)

1. Phone App I reached for the most: Calm
I've tried several meditation/mindfulness-based apps, and this has become my go-to. I ponied up for a
yearly subscription this past year after using the more limited, free version for several previous years. Unclear whether it was (a) paying for something, (b) having full app functionality, or (c) all-time stress highs thanks to ER residency that led to my drastic uptick in app-based mindfulness consistency, but I used this app on about 3/4 of my days (most often 10 minutes before bed). The "Daily Calm" featured on the home screen was my go-to, but I also worked my way through 7 days of Managing Stress, 7 Days of Calming Anxiety, 7 Days of Sleep, and the Relationship With Self Series.

2. Favorite New Nutrition Product: Untapped Ginger MapleAid

I have been through more drink mixes than I can count. Something seems to work for me for about 6 months, and then no longer sits well. And what works during the winter does not work during the summer, and vice versa. This is the latest and most appetizing in my rotation. Simple ingredients, not too much sugar, and it actually tastes like ginger - it has a strong kick. Also good warm, which is what I've been doing for winter riding - brings out the ginger even more when hot! Plus it comes from Vermont and a fellow Middlebury Alum.

3. Best New Thing I Bought: Salsa Cutthroat

I love this bike. I spent about 6 months after I finished my initial build trying to get the fit right, and now it's there, and I love it. Everything's matchy and pretty, and it rides over pretty much anything, can be loaded down with bags for bikepacking, has a generator hub for ultra-distance needs, and has been on lots of adventures already (mostly in Iowa, see below). It's not the speediest over short distances ("short" being <150 miles) and quite a bit heavier than most "gravel race" bikes, but it's doing double-duty for that as well until another bicycle child is acquired.

4. Best New Experience: Solo Bikepacking

There's something to be said for doing something that scares you. And I'm willing to admit that this did. It's also the most empowering thing. I do have a Spot Tracker in case of emergency/so that someone knows I'm alive.

5. Best Race I Went To: 24 Hours of Cumming

See the recap here. In short, this topped the list because of the 36 hour party it turns into, all of the new gravel friends I made, the mind-bending 100k loops I rode through the day and night and part of the day again, and the hills, because I am a masochist who loves Iowa hills.

6. Best Race Photo of 2018: DK and Land Run Chase the Chaise pics

Prior to Land Run, I thought Salsa Cycle's "couch photo op" on course was going to feel gimmicky and that I would hate it. But then I kind of loved the picture. And then I accidentally took probably the best race pic of my life while feeling like death at DK, also on the chaise. Note they have added a tasteful lamp there. 

7. Best Thing I Drank: Shacksbury Cider

Bone dry, craft cider, from local orchard and foraged wild apples in Vermont. 'Nuff said. Wish it was easier to track down in the great state of Oklahoma.

8. Video I'm Using the Most (Still): Foundation Training

A PT friend of mine turned me on to Foundation Training four years ago, and I'm still using it. Highly recommend if you have any spine, hip, pelvis, stability issues, or if your mobility has just generally started to suck because you're an adult who maybe spends a large portion of the day in front of a computer. I started with the movement sequence in their book, and now just use this video routine:

9. Favorite Pit Stop: Casey's General Store

Casey's, where have you been all my life. I'm probably so in love with this convenience store because I'm typically in dire straits when I encounter it (Trans Iowa, Spotted Horse Ultra, that time I bikepacked 300-some miles in a thunderstorm), but you can get many life-saving things here. My proprietary 1:4 ratio of hot chocolate to coffee. Mechanic's gloves. Car engine lubricant for your drive train. Plastic bags for your feet. Pickles, potato chips, snickers, Clif nut butter bars.

10. Favorite sleep hack for shift work: Sunrise Alarm Clock

More accurately a "wake up lamp" than alarm clock. This magical egg-shaped machine gets gradually brighter starting 15 minutes before the alarm (chirping birds or chimes) goes off. I usually wake up with the light a few minutes before the alarm sounds, which is much nicer than the iPhone beeping. Shift work with constantly changing circadian rhythms is tough, might as well trick your body into thinking day is night and night is day and mid-day is...whatever. 

11. (because 10 wasn't enough...) Top career moment: Lateral Canthotomy

In a turn from all the bicycle and lifestyle stuff...if you're squeamish about eyes, don't google this. It's one of those procedures that an ER doc does only a handful of times in an average career. And eyeballs are fun! No, really, eyeball tendons are great until you have an evolving retro-orbital hematoma and...ok I'll stop :)

Friday, January 4, 2019

The Mental Training Reboot Series: Brain Training for Endurance Athletes

A few years back I wrote a series on mental training & the brain science behind endurance sports for a now-departed multisport news website. Time for a reboot! Edited & updated for 2019. Enjoy.
Just like stressing your body in training leads to gains in strength and endurance (and thus performance), stressing your mind during your workout can benefit you. Granted, you can’t substitute mental training for physical training – your mind is often a performance limiter, assuming you haven’t already met your actual physical limits.
For example, when your calves are screaming at you to the point that you physically can’t toe-off the ground any faster, you’ve run into a physical limitation best solved by work in the gym. But when your muscles have even a little juice left in them and you’re falling off pace – or into the same-old pace where you seem to have plateaued for weeks, months, years – training against mental fatigue may help.
Consider this: cumulative stress, distraction, and cognitive demands can cause you to struggle through a subsequent workout, and it’s not because you’ve exhausted your body. Perhaps you’ve noticed that your key run feels noticeably harder after a long day at work – there’s a reason, and it’s in your brain.
This “long day at work” effect was reproduced in the lab as early as 2009, when exercise physiologist Samuele Marcora’s group showed that mental fatigue from a 90 minute, highly demanding cognitive task caused subjects to max out their perceived effort faster and disengage earlier during a “cycling to exhaustion” task. In short, if your brain gets tired early, your body quits early.
“Well %^#&,” you might be thinking. “I better quit my job and move to a cabin in the woods with nothing but my trainer, bike, and an endless pool, such that I can minimize the demands on my brain and thus maximize my physical performance.”
There are a couple of problems with this proposition. First, it’s probably not realistic. Even if we remove the cabin-in-the-woods scenario, reducing your stress level is great, but you’re never going to remove every single cognitively demanding or stressful task from your day. Nor should you want to.
The key here isn’t getting rid of everything that is mentally fatiguing, it’s making the mentally fatiguing things less…fatiguing. You can actually work on pushing out that time-point at which your brain quits. And even better, you can do it while you exercise.

1. The pre-workout brain training method:

This would seek to emulate Marcora’s study referenced above. Sit yourself down in front of your computer, phone, or tablet and pull up one of the classic cognitive neuroscience tasks – I recommend the StroopFlanker, or Attention Network Task. Play for 5 to 90 minutes – you’ll know when you’re tired. Your mind will start to wander and you’ll get frustrated, even if selecting the right answers would still be “easy”.
This is the same thing that happens mid-race when your brain wants to quit and move on to the next new, shiny thing. Now immediately go out and run/swim/bike. It’ll probably seem harder than if you had done the same session without the cognitive task first.

2. The intra-workout training method:

Great for the time-pressed, and possibly even more beneficial – although we don’t really know yet (no published studies to date), many have speculated that simultaneous physical + mental training could be even more effective, since it more specifically replicates reality. Of course, this requires that you be somewhere with easy access to your tech – the Attention Network Task on a tablet during a trainer ride is a personal favorite (watch me below), but you can also put your mental training in during rest intervals if you’re out on the track or in the pool (grab your phone from the deck/sidelines).
If you’re intrigued, just keep a few things in mind. Training in a mentally tired state is stressful, so treat it like you would any other stressor you throw at your body to produce an adaptation – e.g. fasted sessions, post-strength work –start as small as you need to and build up, and consider where you insert these sessions into your training schedule (obviously, not on a recovery day).