July 22, 2010

Kettlebellery

Kettlebells

Fitness is infectious because being in decent shape feels good. Maggie has recently cautioned me against going crazy with my exercise, probably because she knows I can go overboard sometimes. "Extremism in good health is no vice" -- didn't someone once say that? I guess not.

Maggie's right; it's not smart to go overboard. But part of my plan for the summer is to get an exercise routine in place and habitual enough that when the semester starts again, I won't have to think about it.

Running is great because, if you can do it, you don't have to put much thought in it. You just run. Unfortunately, for me, almost any other exercise carries with it a learning curve because I am really unfamiliar with strength exercises. So, I'm starting from scratch, no matter what I try.

Are you starting out there, too? Then you might be interested in kettlebells. After some initial interest in kettlebells after reading about them on a Twitter-friend's website a while back, I recently got re-interested when friends told me their trainers had them try out kettlebells (for fitness and for rehab purposes). It just so happens that I would like some exercises for my off-running days. Usually I just do shorter runs, but I would like to both give my feet and lower legs a rest and get some core and upper body fitness. I like the idea of kettlebells because people tell me:

  1. They help you burn fat and tone your core instead of bulking you up (which is why they also have a large female following).
  2. They combine strength training with cardiovascular so that you get multiple benefits at once.
  3. They don't concentrate on one muscle group, but spread the benefit out over many muscle groups, which is both a time savings an advantage for general fitness.
  4. The equipment is relatively cheap, compared to home gyms.
  5. The equipment is small and portable.

Still, there's a learning curve because you have to understand how to do the basic exercises without hurting yourself. The most basic exercise stems from the "box squat" which teaches you how to bend over and pick up something heavy without hurting your back. Essentially, you plant your feet and bend down by creasing at the waist and throwing your behind back while keeping your knees above your feet. You can practice that with your arms straight out horizontal in front of you without a weight until you get it. Then you can try it by standing about 8 inches from a wall, facing the wall with your arms out from your sides. This will tell you if you're doing it correctly without leaning forward.

Once you've got that form, you can do swings and cleans and other fancy moves that are quite challenging.

I can tell this is going to challenge my weak upper body (I have problems doing even one pull-up) and help tone my relatively strong lower body. But, we'll see. I will post my progress (my learning curve progress) here; I'll let you know in the future if I am able to continue with this, or whether I have wasted my time.

(P.S. Here's a gal demonstrating what a kettlebell routine might look like.)

Posted by James at 3:52 PM | Comments (0)

July 18, 2010

Inception

A few people are interested in this film, so I figured I would pen a quick review of Inception. It's one of those films that makes it tough to say too much about, but I promise to be careful.

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a special kind of freelance agent; he has learned enough about people's minds so that he now has the ability to enter their dreams and learn their most valuable secrets. This skill is called "extraction." However, his own secrets are kept closely guarded even from his closest associates.

It is these associates whom he must convince to help him pull off a new job, one that will not only bring them wealth but will help Cobb deal with some trouble from his past. And convince them he does. Soon he has assembled a team to perform a daring feat that none of them are sure is even possible: "inception." That would be the placing of a thought into someone else's mind in such a way that they believe it is their own idea.

This quickly becomes a science fiction mystery film wrapped neatly into the trope of a heist film. With a bit of a con job thrown in, the fast pace keeps you from dwelling too long on the details. It's safe to say you will see bits and pieces of all your favorite films and genres here, because Christopher Nolan borrows heavily, but he's taken these elements apart and rearranged them. Ghost story? It's in there!

Ariadne (Ellen Page) is the new recruit on the team, a hotshot dream architect who acts as the audience's way in to the complex maze of Cobb's own mind, which might be just as challenging to unravel as how our heroes can succeed in their plan as things (inevitably) begin to go wrong. Her curiosity forces us deeper into Cobb's own story (which he actually seems to give up a bit too willingly, one of the forgivable flaws in my opinion). As Ariadne wonders whether they're even safe on Cobb's journey, we simultaneously wonder where he's taking all of us.

Inception reminds us that when Christopher Nolan isn't making movies about the Batman, he likes to mess with our minds. In this film, he's mixed taut action sequences with unsubtle psychological gymnastics in an attempt to give us everything at once. It's an enjoyable effort, if a bit messy at times. But Mr. Nolan probably doesn't want us to come away with too neat a view of this world he has constructed; he's left us to fill some of it with the projections from our own dreams.

Posted by James at 10:42 PM | Comments (4)

July 17, 2010

Run Training That Worked For Me

I have recently had the good fortune to be able to increase my running distance far beyond what I thought I would ever be able to run. I thought this would be a good subject for a blog post for anyone who might be dealing with issues with their running or workouts.

Background

I like running because it's a workout you can do almost anywhere. However, numerous foot problems have always prevented me from getting my routine running distance up to 3 miles, which is often considered "fitness" distance - a decent chunk of running you could do a few times a week as a fitness routine. Heel pain (plantar fasciitis) and later Achilles tendinitis limited my running, because I always felt the telltale signs creeping back when I increased my distance.

Finally, last semester I gave up entirely after trying a Couch to 5K training program on the iPod. My tummy doesn't tolerate NSAIDS (like ibuprofen) so when I felt the Achilles pain start, I figured I was done.

Base Workout

I dropped back to a base workout of alternating running and walking on the treadmill, using the pre-programmed workouts on the treadmill to burn some fat while I dieted. These workouts alternate running and walking, usually with an incline on the walking portion to keep your heart rate up. They keep you aerobic without killing your tendons and muscles.

Because I was limited in my distance, and because my doctor suggested it, I began exercising every day instead of every other day, in an effort to head off blood pressure problems (I had an elevated reading over the winter break).

Then I Ran Farther

Then something happened and I was able to run farther. I don't know exactly what it was, so I can't give you a single recommendation. Instead, I'm going to list these as guidelines for myself for what has made this year's run training so productive for me, and why I think I was able to increase my distance.

1. Maggie, Running Outside

First, I began to run with Maggie on her running days. Her schedule is 6-6-10. Twenty two miles over three days in a week. I couldn't do those distances, of course, so I would just run some distance out and then walk back. Sometimes, she'd catch back up to me and I'd run with her back home, making my workout a run-walk-run.

This helped my motivation. Running with someone else is motivating. Running outside is motivating, if you like outside. Also, somehow, running outside is easier than running on the treadmill. It is very difficult for me to run on the treadmill for longer distances. I do not know why.

I continued to work out every day, but I ran outside when Maggie ran.

2. Slow Down

Maggie has a slower pace than mine. I slowed down to match her pace. I think this was key to increasing my distance. I always wanted to run fast, but speed definitely stresses my legs. Slowing down allowed me to extend my workouts and avoid injury.

The slower you run, the more exercise you're getting per mile (mostly because it takes you longer). So, running slow is a good fitness choice. If you don't have a person to pace you just try to consciously slow down to the point where you're just barely running. (Some people call this jogging. I call it running slow.) You can always speed train later.

3. Ice and Heat/Ice

I began to ice my tendons every day. I keep two ice pads in the freezer. Any pain I had after a run I would ice. If I had no pain, I would ice the places where I usually had pain.

At night, I would use a heating pad on my habitual injury areas for 20 minutes and then ice them for 20 minutes. I am amazed at how this reduces soreness. And I have not injured myself during the time I have used this practice.

4. Slow Increases / Don't Run Through Pain

"Don't increase your weekly run mileage more than 10 percent" is an oft-repeated guideline. I kept this in mind as I slowly increased my peak-day mileage to approach Maggie's base-day mileage. But I also judged by how my tendons felt. Any indication of heel or tendon pain and I figured it was time to walk.

5. Protein / Calories / Water

At the time I began to increase my mileage, I stopped dieting as strictly as I had been. This was a welcome change! It means my weight loss has slowed way down (and even reversed on some weeks) but it takes calories to build muscle and repair damage, and it takes carb calories to efficiently burn fat during aerobic exercise. So, this gave me a (small) license to eat.

Immediately after a run, I would make sure to have some protein-rich food. Usually an egg substitute omelet. Sometimes yogurt.

I don't think it's good to cut your caloric intake way down when you're training, but if you have to, at least get decent amounts of protein.

Also, it's important to stay hydrated. I carry water with me when I run, by strapping a water bottle to my hand. Take a gulp of water every once in a while. Gulp it down to help your body get it out of your tummy faster, and get it t your muscles. I got that advice here, along with some other pre and post workout eating advice.

6. Get actual running shoes

Have your gait analyzed at a good runner's shoe store. This is something I did years ago, and it has helped with my crazy foot-planting.

7. Achilles tendon strap

I mention this last because I'm not sure it applies to anyone else, but it might apply to you if you have a history of Achilles tendinitis.

I was afraid enough of re-injuring my tendon that I began taping my foot before a workout to see if I could prevent heel and Achilles pain. Actually, I had slightly re-injured myself after my last attempt at Couch to 5K, and so I was taping in the hope that I could continue exercising without making my condition worse.

The tape seemed to help, but I hated having to constantly tape myself up. So, I bought an Achilles tendon support strap. This strap supports the tendon by applying gentle pressure with a soft, rubberized buttress. See this video to see someone applying the strap.

I have used this strap on almost every one of my runs. It seems to be making a difference in preventing the recurrence of my Achilles problems. I am not a doctor, and I did not begin using this strap on the advice of a doctor. But I think it has helped me avoid re-injuring my Achilles.

In Summary

I hope this has been helpful. My general advice to everyone is do some exercise you're comfortable with. Increase slowly. Don't get lured in by speed; running fast is not necessarily running well. The most important thing in your workout is to stay healthy. Try to listen to pain cues from your body. And try to work out every day to see the best results.

Posted by James at 9:14 AM | Comments (4)

July 12, 2010

Turkey Scallops

Earlier today on Facebook I mentioned that I was doing a foodsperiment by wrapping some of my scallops in bacon and some of my scallops in turkey bacon. The purpose of this exercise was to see whether an especially low fat turkey bacon would make a good wrap for scallops. Here I present the findings of my research.

First, I must apologize for not including a photo. As often happens, we were hungry and tucked into the scallops almost immediately. I like to take pix of my food, but did not have the energy to try to set up an attractive arrangement. Presentation is, admittedly, not my strong suit in cooking.

Why do this at all? Because scallops are a good and delicious source of protein, which I would like to get more of at meal time. Scallops taste great wrapped in bacon, and this method of preparation makes them both easier to keep on a skewer and allows them to cook more evenly. However, the fat in the bacon makes this a less attractive dish from a diet perspective. Turkey bacon is half the calories (this particular brand) and so I wanted to see what the difference was.

Back to the research. I had 2 lbs of dry boat-run sea scallops. I had a pound of Oscar Mayer bacon. and a pound of Oscar Mayer turkey bacon.

WRAPPING and SKEWERING

Wrapping the scallops was slightly easier with the turkey bacon. Every slice is the same, and it's less important where you skewer the bacon. However, real bacon is slightly stretchier, which gives the sense that you're making a tighter wrap. Still, the advantage here goes to turkey bacon.

GRILLING

On the grill, both kinds of bacon shrunk slightly, tending to hug the scallops, giving them more structural integrity and a better presentation. Regular bacon takes longer to cook, probably because of moisture content.

Regular bacon becomes slightly more solid, so it turns out that concerns over where you skewer the bacon (through a meaty part or a fatty part) are not too relevant.

One huge difference between the two is the amount of fat that drips on to the grill. Unfortunately, the real bacon renders a lot of fat which can catch fire in the grill. Large amounts of burning bacon fat can cause soot to deposit on the scallops. Greasy soot is an unpleasant grilling product; avoid the scallops from touching flames. This is much easier to do with the turkey bacon.

Advantage turkey bacon.

APPEARANCE

Turkey bacon cooks up somewhat similar to strips of bologna. This is actually better than it sounds. The finished color is reddish brown and each wrap came out a consistent width because of the similarity of the artificial bacon.

Real bacon is more variable, and presents a varied appearance in how it cooks. Where two scallops touch, the bacon stays soft, fatty, and pale. On the other hand, where the bacon is cooked on the external sides, it looks like scrumptious fried bacon.

This is a toss up.

TEXTURE

The variability of real bacon, and the variability in how cooked it gets makes it difficult to compare texture. The real bacon will have very cooked spots and soft, fatty parts. Turkey bacon has a slightly rough, chewy mouthfeel.

However, the richness of the bacon fat fills your mouth with flavor. The advantage here is with the real bacon.

FLAVOR

As you might imagine, turkey bacon cannot compete with true bacon in the flavor department. This comparison goes to real bacon.

ANALYSIS

The question here was not only to compare these two preparations, but to get a sense of how different they were, and whether turkey bacon could perform satisfactorily. I am interested in answering these questions:

  1. Does the turkey bacon prevent scallop shrinkage?
  2. Does the turkey bacon enhance the flavor of the scallop?
  3. Does the turkey bacon taste good?
  4. Does the turkey bacon introduce any unpleasant aspect that prevents enjoyment of the recipe?

And so:

  1. Turkey bacon does protect the scallop from shrinkage. They allow the scallops to cook and they help prevent overcooking by limiting the number of surfaces directly exposed to the drying effect of the drill's heat.
  2. Yes, turkey bacon imparts a meaty/salty/smoked flavor.
  3. Yes, though your opinion may vary.
  4. No, there was no unpleasantness introduced by the turkey bacon.

In addition, the lack of large quantities of rendered fat in the grill means it is easier to cook the turnkey bacon scallops.

CONCLUSION

I would use turkey bacon again and, considering caloric intake, will probably prefer to have turkey bacon wrapped scallops. It's bacon-wrapped scallops with slightly less guilt, but all the scallopy goodness you expect.

Posted by James at 1:31 AM | Comments (7)