Weighty Matters

The American Journal of Sports Medicine reported that the number of people ending up in the emergency room due to weight lifting injuries is steadily increasing. Although men are more prone to get injured (I can guess why), the rate of injury is increasing faster among women. You can find a good recap of the study and other related data in an article by Nicholas Bakalar in the NY Times (I first learned of it at www.sportsgeezer.com, a good source of articles of interest to TOJs).

The most frequent injury is people dropping or hitting themselves with the weights. In second are strains and sprains. The vast majority of the injuries occurred while people used free weights rather than machines.

This TOJ was disappointed to hear this because resistance training is really important to your health and well being, and weight lifting is the most productive form of it. For the past thirty years, there has been a disproportionate focus on aerobics, like running and biking, for cardio health. However, more and more studies show weight training delivers many of the same benefits and often more. Machines can be useful, but they do not develop the strength and balance that can be attained with weights, whether dumb bells, kettle bells or bar bells.

Resistance training is the only way to condition your muscles. So what's the big deal about muscles, especially if you don't plan to play NFL football? Lots. Muscles are what move you and provide shock absorption protection to your fragile joints. Plus muscles are the major site for your metabolic activity, where food is turned to energy. After training with weights, muscles continue to burn calories at a much higher rate and for a longer time than after running. For a TOJ, resistance training is especially important because once you reach your thirties, you lose about 1% of your muscle mass/year (aka sarcopenia). The good news is that you can dramatically slow this fact of aging by weight lifting.

Weight lifting poses should not be dangerous (assuming you have a healthy heart and no serious back or other skeletal issues) if you follow these simple rules:

1) Pay attention to what you are doing. Part of the benefit of a good weight workout is the concentration you put into correctly lifting the weight. Your mind can wander some when you are running on a flat road, but when you're lifting the sets are short and intense. Paying attention helps you perform the lift with proper form and stay in touch with your body. That concentration can also be wonderfully relaxing, like meditation.

2) Go slow. A weight is lifted by one muscle working against gravity to carry the weight up, then another muscle brings the weight down. If you let the weight down fast, you miss the benefit the opposing muscle receives as it comes down and risk injury due to the physics of an accelerating mass. Don't hurry to get it over with because it's a little uncomfortable. Great physical benefits accrue from that slow burn.

3) Breathe. As you lift, your energy producing system needs oxygen to provide power to the muscle. Generally you exhale as you lift and inhale as you let the weight down. I've found some lifts where I prefer to do the opposite. See what works for you. Proper breathing will ensure you observe #2 above. You don't want to go so fast that you hyperventilate or hold your breath so your oxygen drops and drops because there's no supply. Find a rhythm and pace where you can breath. Pause between sets to catch your breath.

4) Warm up 5 - 10 minutes before you lift. Swing your arms, jump lightly on your toes, rotate your knees and hips in small circles, shake your hands, swing your arms loosely from side to side as you twist your trunk. I like to finish with 2-3 minutes skipping rope or on an elliptical. Get to where you have a light sweat. Warm muscles and tendons are more flexible, and the movement lubricates your joints so they are prepared to perform with the additional friction caused by the weight.

5) Maintain good form. When you do a lift correctly, the body benefits and is not placed at risk of having too much weight placed on a weak area. You can bet that most of the sprains and strains that delivered people to the emergency room occurred when the person was no longer using proper form, not well balanced, or using another part of the body to complete the lift. Bad form = less physical benefit + more risk of injury.

6) Stop before muscle exhaustion. Some people think they need to lift until they drop. Actually, the injury zone is those last couple of dangerous repetitions when your muscles are trembling and your form is deteriorating. That's when people drop weights or strain. Stop before you get there. Weight lifting is not supposed to be punishment. Lift until you are starting to burn, but before you are on fire, grunting for breath, and pushing with other parts of your body that are not part of the lift, for example, bending your back when you are doing a bicep curl.

If you haven't lifted weights in a while, a good way to start is by just using the weight of your own body. Try sit ups, leg squats, push ups, pull ups (trying, even if you can't do one, builds strength) and burpees. This will get you used to using your muscles, feeling when you are in balance and control, and breathing correctly.

Also, it's very important to rest between weight sessions, especially if you're a TOJ. The soreness you feel a couple days after a good weight workout is caused by small muscle tears. You get stronger because the muscle heals stronger at the site of the micro-tear. Rest enables the biochemistry to get this accomplished before the muscle is challenged again. You can get tremendous benefits lifting just twice a week.

Don't believe anyone who tells you lifting weights is dangerous. They are probably selling running shoes.

Healthy Herd Instincts

The other day I was letting my mountain bike rip down the last steep section of an old mining trail. It was a hot 90 degrees. I was drenched with sweat and coated with red dust and the speed-created breeze felt good. With the front fork bouncing wildly, I came around a narrow bend and saw a jeep pull quickly off to the side of the narrow road to make room for me. I hit my brakes and climbed up a bank alongside the jeep, with two young guys inside. I nodded a greeting.

They looked surprised at the sight of an old guy making a hairy descent. One of the guys smiled and yelled, " Good for you!"

As I passed, I yelled a "thank you" back over my shoulder and enjoyed the last drop.

I recalled a thought-provoking 2009 article in the NY Times by Clive Thompson, entitled "Are Your Friends Making You Fat?", in which he explored a newly described phenomenon called "social contagion." Of course, it's not news that people influence each other. Consider it was 2500 years ago when Aesop, a Greek slave and philosopher, smartly observed that "A man is known by the company he keeps." But Thompson had a new slant. He said scientists are discovering that ideas and behaviors spread just like physical diseases studied in epidemiology.

What caught this TOJ's attention was that the scientists had studied the behavior patterns and health of the many thousands of participants in multi-decade study of heart disease being conducted in Framingham, Massachusetts. What they discovered is significant. People with bad health habits tend to socialize with one another -- the smokers hung around with smokers, fat people hung around with others with poor dietary habits. Likewise, people with good health habits tend to hang with one another. Evidently, the behaviors and habits are spread by the very act of socializing.

I thought about the truth of this. My fellow exercisers are more alike than we like to admit. Without thinking much about it, when together we naturally share information on diet, wellness, fitness, improving performance, training and gear. Sometimes we do it without even saying anything, like by what we serve when people come to dinner.

When I was putting my bike on the car rack after my ride was over, I thought about the two young guys in the jeep. I hoped the exercise bug spread like a highly contagious flu, and that the next time I saw them, they were pumping up the mountain on their bikes.

Elvis and the Belly Dancers

The 2010 Bolder Boulder. What's to say? It was the best of races, it was the worst of races.

At 6:45 I joined thousands of other runners making their way to the start. The weather was perfect -- already in the 50's, forecast to get in the low 80's. Perfect running weather. I had parked about a mile and jogged slowly to warm up and test my left calf. There was a little pain, but not too bad. It was weird to be headed to the start of a running race when I had only run four times in the past three weeks since pulling my left calf. I didn't know what to expect.

Waiting in a long line for one of the zillion porta-potties, I had a conversation with an almost barefoot runner (he had Vibram Five Fingers) wearing a "Born to Run" T-shirt. I asked him how he liked it, and he told me that he'd been running that way for almost a year and would never go back to shoes, except maybe on trail runs. He said he had to relearn how to run because with barefoot running your weight stays over your forefeet and your calves hurt until your body adjusts. But once you get used to it, your legs feel great. He thinks it's not a fad, but a trend.

My timing was good because I arrived at the start when there were only a few minutes before my wave took off. I took a place towards the rear because I planned to go out slow and see how my leg felt. I turned on my iPod, loaded with 60s classics like the Doors, Lovin Spoonful, Jimi Hendrix, the Beach Boys, the Who and the Byrds. When our wave was next to go, a nice race official checking bibs asked me to remove one of the ear pieces so I wouldn't miss the starting gun. I thought that was pretty funny because the booming sound of the PA system dwarfed my iPod.

The starting gun fired and off went EC wave, carrying me along with it. In the first few strides, I started my stop watch and plugged the earpiece in to hear Jim Morrison singing "Light My Fire" then built steadily to a good pace. I could feel a little pain in my left leg, but nothing too bad, and my breathing was even and relaxed. All good signs. I passed some people in my wave and crossed the first mile marker slightly faster than I planned.

But a half mile later, as the racecourse starts a modest climb, I felt a familiar pain. At first it was just a little twinge with each push off of my foot just above the narrow part of the Achilles tendon. I slowed a little to see if it would go away. But it didn't. Within a couple hundred yards, the pain radiated through my entire calf. It felt just like the first time I injured it three weeks earlier.

I stepped off the side of the course to find myself right next to the belly dancers. What luck! Ahead was a water table, and just beyond it, the excellent Elvis impersonator who's there every year. I watched the belly dancers undulate (which this year included some cross-dressing guy -- hey, this is Boulder!) as I tried to gently stretch the calf and see if the pain would subside. No luck. I limped up to Elvis to watch him sing as he high-fived runners passing by, then went back and got a cup of water.

I sat down on the curb by the belly dancers and thought about my options. I figured my race was over and took off my bib, folded it up, and jammed it in my shorts pocket. I got up and for over twenty minutes walked back and forth between Elvis and the belly dancers, trying to figure out if I'd should walk back to the stadium right then or wait for my wife's wave to come by. While doing this, the pain backed off a little. I paused to watch all the people going by -- all ages, some serious, some laughing, some in costumes, every manner of running style.

I trail run alone in the middle of nowhere most days where I live. I thought about what a unique experience it is to be part of an event like the Bolder Boulder. It was such a beautiful day with the sun beaming down, blue sky. For those runners, there were still five miles of sights, sounds and sensations to enjoy. I concluded it was too much fun to pass up. I took my bib out of my pocket and pinned it back on.

I started jogging slowly at the edge of the passing throng of people, then slowly picked up speed as best I could and moved into the middle of the road where the crown was flattest and pulled least on my calf. I found a running pattern where the pain was tolerable. Within a mile, I found I was even passing people.

The Bolder Boulder ends with a short, steep climb into Folsom Stadium. By then my right hip was hurting, too, because I had compensated with the rest of my body for the stiff peg-leg, flat footed posture I had to use to protect the calf. That hill hurt pretty good, but once my feet got on the rubber surface of the track in the stadium, it was smooth sailing to the finish.

When I looked down at my watch, I had to smile: it was the slowest I had ever run the Bolder Boulder. 1 hr, 23 minutes, 48 seconds. Later that day, my splits were texted to my wife's cell phone: Mile 1: 8:56, Mile 2: 33:28!!!, Mile 3: 9:58, Mile 4: 9:29, Mile 6: 9:55. The second mile was a time killer, and my pain-altered running style cost an average of about a minute per mile.

My wife ran a Personal Best, faster than me. I was elated for her. I ran my Personal Worst, but was still elated. This TOJ made it. Some days that's good enough.