Category Archives: Chapters from my book of life

Beyond miles, minutes and medals

On Sunday, 1st December 2013, more than 7,500 folks gathered to run what was possibly Chennai’s largest fitness event – The Wipro Chennai Marathon. Firstly, kudos to the organizers for such a wonderful event. I didn’t get to run this one, but the word on the street is that the run was beautifully planned and executed. Secondly, congrats to everyone who participated in the event.

So how did you do? Awesome or awful? Did you blast through it or did you suffer your way to the finish? Did you make yourself proud or did you walk out feeling defeated?

If it’s the former, I’m here to offer you a different perspective on running. If it’s the latter, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t matter. Because the joy of running is beyond what miles, minutes and medals can capture.

TWCM3a

Photo credit: Weekend Studios, The Wipro Chennai Marathon 2013

Most of you who have followed me know that I started my journey towards health and fitness with running. I was a running junkie and enjoyed every second of being one. For the runners who don’t know me, I’m the guy who writes about smart training and how to not be a dumb runner- something running junkies are never fond of. More on the subject here, here and here.

Thanks to a lifetime of sedentarism and asthma, my entry into running was dominated by suffering. My first run lasted an amazing 100m at the end of which I found myself sitting on the pavement panicking and hurriedly taking puffs from my inhaler. A month of relentless consistent running and I broke the 1 mile barrier in (a painful) 23 minutes. It took me 6 months of hidden-running (on the side-roads post 10pm) before I could muster the courage to sign up for an official run and boy do I remember that one vividly.

It was the Skyline Ridge 14 km Trail Run which took place in Palo Alto, California. I had set myself a goal of 85 minutes.

I land up at the start all excited and I see a total of just about 150 people. Most of these folks were in pretty good shape, had hydration packs, compression shorts, dry-fit tees, funky shoes, crazy watches and no ear phones. And there I was wearing tracks I’d bought the previous week, a zipped hoodie that I wore to work, an old heavy pair of Reebok sneakers, a regular water bottle with water and a heavy-ass 1st generation iPod in my pocket that threatened to pull my pants down anytime. Excellent. I’d brought a knife bunch of old rusty crap to a gun fight.

Nevertheless, I present myself at the start line and listen to the organizer explain the running route as he points up to a, ummmm, moutain! No maps. No directions. Just a couple of colored ribbons tied to branches which are meant to keep you on track. In other words, if you’re left behind, you could be lost.

The whistle blows. I turn on the first song on my playlist and start running. With sub-zero temperatures and altitude, I instantly find myself struggling to run and in about 15 minutes a feeling of over-expanded lungs forces me to stop and use my inhaler. I see people of various ages and sizes zip past me and I can’t help but feel small. So I decide to pick up my feet.

I turn up the volume, focus harder and accelerate. I overtake a good number of folks. I feel alright. I’m at mile # 2 and I keep this going for another 2 miles. At mile 5, an unexpected hill presents itself and I’m hit. And this time I’m down and the inhaler doesn’t seem to help either. I realize I don’t have it in me to get back up.

I start to really panic. How am I going to finish within 85 minutes? What if I’m among the last few? What if I finish so late there is no one to cheer at the finish line? What if they publish the results? What if I get lost? What if this asthma episode is real bad? Do I have to call for help?

I decide to calm down and breathe. Almost completely broken, for the very first time in the last 50 minutes of turmoil, I look around me and I was breathless. But this time, in a whole other way.

skylinefinal2

Photo credit: www.atrailrunnersblog.com

Everything that is right about the world was right in front of my eyes but I refused to open my eyes. Silence in all it’s glory encapsulated me but I rebelled with music. Water in it’s purest form hydrated me but I said no thanks to the mist and wiped myself dry.

What am I doing here? What am I trying to prove here? Who am I trying to prove it to? Who am I racing against? Is it the 70 year old man running ahead of me? The ultramarathoners who ran their way from home to the start line? The world that talks but doesn’t care?

I said, fuck it. I’m going to live this run. I’m not going remember my first run as the one that made me feel miserable. I’m going to love every remaining second of this trail. It doesn’t matter if I have to walk it or even if I have to call for help, but I was going to savour every remaining moment.

skylinefinal1

Photo credit: www.atrailrunnersblog.com

And so I did.  I finished the run in about an hour and 40 minutes. Not the first. Not the last. I placed 41 among 71. But that didn’t matter anymore. It was not about ranking and timing anymore but about collecting memories. And from then on, for me, running was about the experience.

You see, running is a sport. How fast your run your 10k means something. Running your first half marathon or full marathon is definitely something you should train meticulously for. But before all that, running is a passion driven activity and it is important that you enjoy it for the right reasons.

So for a minute, forget how well or badly you did. Forget your timing. Forget how far you ran. Forget the difference between you and the overweight unfit runners who huffed and puffed their way to the finish. Forget the many miles between you and the faster runners who you barely caught sight of.

Take a moment to look beyond numbers. Remember the weather, the rain, the darkness, the sound of your heart pounding, the bounce from each step, the wind, the views, the excitement, the motivation, the smiles, the sweat, the grit and, finally, that feeling of liberation.

Take a moment to relive the experience ‘cos at the end of the day, it’s all about the experience.

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It’s about skills

I think I was 7 when I first tried riding a real bicycle – you know, the one without the balancing wheels and baguette basket. I spent most of my childhood being a short kid and then I grew up to become a short adult. So I clearly remember a friend helping me climb on the machine before I pushed the pedal, experienced a magical moment of lightness and then fell face down. Little did I know that the face plant was the start of a journey. An incredible journey that will have challenged my idea of movement, distances and independence.

The process of learning this simple act of moving through three dimensional space by merely pressing on a pedal was the foundation of so many things. It taught me balance, pace and focus. I experienced for the first time that amazing feeling of speed. It made distances seem plausible. It made transport more time efficient. It ended my limited world view of just a few meters and made me look further. It made me independent. It opened up a whole new world.

That’s the beauty of learning skills. Every time you learn a skill you add another tool to your toolbox and a new perspective towards life is created. You are now capable of more. Impossible tasks now seem possible. More of the world applies to you and new interests and opportunities present themselves.

Bodily movements work the same way. Every movement is a skill and needs to be treated as a skill. You need to learn the skill before you start using the skill to help you in life. The squat, which is the most fundamental movement there is, is the most basic and important skill you can learn. Once you have mastered this skill, you can move on to bigger and better things. But first, you need to master the squat. The hinge isn’t any different. You need to learn to hinge properly, and by that I mean activating the appropriate muscle groups, tempo, breathing, stability etc., before you start using the hinge in movements like the kettlebell swing, barbell deadlift, broad jump, barbell clean and snatch.

Adarsh and Chezhiyan can squat and hinge a truck but they took their time to learn the basics.

Unsurprisingly, this is the case with any movement in any activity whatsoever. Be it the pushup or the cover drive or the forehand volley or even, running. It is absolutely critical to learn to do the movement well first before you start using the movement in life – to help you lose fat or get stronger or strike the ball faster or whatever it is that you’re looking for.

But here’s the deal – failures and mistakes are a part of learning.

You will  inevitably fail in almost each progressive step and that’s OK! The failures are what makes the process educational. If you remember, learning to ride a bicycle wasn’t easy or eventless. Countless falls triggering false alarms, innumerable bruises calling for Dettol and Soframycin and scars that serve as battle wounds till today were a part of the process. But then, a priceless skill was learnt.

Raj handstand

The handstand is a skill the demands practice, patience and common sense

This holds true for movements too. The first few weeks when you learn a new movement chances are high that you do the movement wrong. You will probably feel the wrong muscles. You may feel excessively sore. You may even strain a muscle or two. But that’s OK! You are learning a skill and you are allowed to fall and, more importantly, learn from it. It is this process of learning from your mistakes that help you move towards mastery. So don’t shy away from it. Don’t lose heart. Don’t freak out. And don’t run around screaming bloody murder. It’s OK. You fell. You will get back up. You may fall again and that’s OK too. It’s only matters that you learn from your mistakes.

At the end of the day, it’s about skills. The more time you invest in learning skills, the more dedicated you are to betterment, the more tools you will possess and the more you can do in life.

De-cluttering training and nutrition

It’s been a long time since I blogged and today seemed like a perfect day to do so. One thing I’ve been thinking about is how I started writing this blog as a way to record my experiences with health and fitness and how it slowly moved away from that and became an information dump of sorts (while helping thousands of people, of course). Considering how busy lazy I’ve been to keep this blog alive and thriving, I think, like everything else in life, it is time to get back to the basics. Make a plan and stick with it. And here is my plan.

Start writing.

Just so we’re clear, this post won’t have any amazing insights about nutrition or links to studies that prove that a certain food is a superfood/poison or how training exactly 17.32 minutes after waking up will help you lose more fat. Posts like this might very well be boring for many, but they are what I need to write and read.

– – – – – x – – – – –

My battle with fitness related progress has always been because of the ‘switch’ mentality. I’m an all or nothing kind of guy. When it comes to training, I’m in it or out of it. Moderation never works for me. In other words, I walk into a training session either to dominate the session or I explicitly half-ass it or don’t train at all. And honestly, most of you are like me.

I approach, not just training sessions, but even training programs with this mentality. When I start a training program, I’m super excited looking forward to everything about the program and start off with a bang. With time though, my excitement drops and I see myself crawling to the finish line. What is interesting here is that I do stick with the program entirely and I get the results I’m looking for, at least most of it. What I lack is the motivation to keep going beyond the finish line. The problem is not the lack of commitment or lack of variety in the program. The problem is the finish line. The problem is that there is a finish line.

It took me years to understand that fitness never ends. There is no such thing as ‘completion’ when it comes to fitness. Programs, be it a self-conducted one like Starting Strength or a professionally conducted one like The Quad, are short spurts of intense effort providing you visible results. But the point of such programs is to lay a foundation on which you can build on and continue your never ending journey towards fitness.

This all or nothing mentality worked well for a good chunk of time but, like everything else, it got old. It became harder and harder to psych myself up before each training session, to stay committed and focussed to my oh-so-ambitious goals and, most importantly, to make continuous progress.

I decided to fix this once and for all. So here is what I did – I came up with rules to de-clutter my training and nutrition and hence, life. Simple small rules that will help declutter my fitness-life. Here are the rules.

  1. Push, pull, squat, hinge and run. Waste no time on fluff.
  2. Forget equipment. Forget muscles. Focus on movements.
  3. Train hard. Keep total volume low.
  4. Do some form of rehab work everyday.
  5. Stop being a brat and sleep.
  6. Eat protein with every meal.
  7. Keep starch to a minimum on rest days.
  8. Eat more organic produce.
  9. As an immediate response, say no to junk. You can reconsider later.
  10. Supplement wisely.

Details about each one of these rules and how they have helped me stay strong and in great shape without dedicating too much time or sanity to follow in the upcoming posts.

More soon.

Adios!

Is it all in the head?

You fail to see beauty in something, anything, once you understand it. So it the case with paranoia. You stop being afraid of something, anything, once you understand it. This applies to food as much as it applies to God and the devil.

Pretty cool line huh? Who came up with it? I did! And yea I know. I’m pretty awesome like that. Ok now, let’s talk about something you don’t know.

Back when I used to chronically diet…

… I was always on one diet or the other. In other words, there was always some food group I’d not eat. During the good old whole wheat days, I’d eat everything in whole wheat from bread to cereal to roti to naan to lavash bread to pita bread to pasta and hardly eat any fat whatsoever. I’d stay away from ghee like it was demon’s piss, shun cheese like it was illegal and fatty cuts of meat didn’t even exist in my food dictionary!

Then when I learnt more about nutrition and that fats were good and (thought) carbs were the devil, my idea of foodtopia (see what I did? Again, pretty awesome like that!) went from wheat-ville to lowcarb-asylum. I’d eat about 1-1.5lb of fatty meat and 2-3 lb of green veggies everyday in addition to cream and cheese and butter and macadamia nuts. I stayed away from wheat like it would clog up my respiratory tract and bananas were off limits ‘cos they were nothing more than yellow colored candy bars and chose cream over milk ‘cos milk was a carb source!

It’s amazing how things have changed in the last few years after I started doing more self-experimentation and began reading more unbiased literature (as opposed to reading strictly within the whole wheat or paleo or low carb circle, depending on which phase I was on), but here is something interesting.

Let me first say that I used to be the epitome of clean eating. Will power and motivation flowed so seamlessly like swear words out of a hookers mouth. Nothing could break me. I had no temptations and no one could ever convince or lure me into eating something I hadn’t planned on eating unless, of course, I’d already factored it into my ‘eating plan’. But I observed something.

When I did eat strictly low fat (and whole wheat), I’d eat sandwiches everyday and twice a day on many days. Even today, I’m a sandwich maniac and can eat one for every meal for the rest of my life, but living in a region where the best sandwiches are available at Subway, I don’t quite have that urge. Anyways, I remember I’d stand in line to order a sandwich and I’d know exactly what I wanted (whole wheat bread, lean meat, green veggies, mustard, fat free mayo yada yada)… except one thing – should I get the cheese or not? I loved and craved cheese (of course ‘cos I wasn’t “allowed” to eat it) but this question would confuse the shit outa me! I’d stand there in line letting people behind me go ahead ‘cos I’d never be able to make the call. Sometimes I’d get the cheese and sometimes I wouldn’t. When I did get the cheese, I’d love the sandwich but immediately after eating the sandwich, I’d “feel fat”. I’d literally feel like I had gained weight on my lower abdomen/belly area. And you know what guilt does… makes you want to compensate by doing some extra work or eating less for the next few meals. All this for a slice of cheese!

Funnily, when I was deep into low-carb dieting, the exact same scenario would happen when I a cup of rice or eat a banana or eat a meal which is even mildly high in carbs. The “feel fat” thing would pop up in my head which will lead to similar type of compensating.

And the gluten-free days weren’t an exception. Once slice of bread and boom! The next morning I’d feel like I had a “cannonball in my tummy” or like “I’m having trouble breathing well” or like “I’m feeling bloated” or like “I feel fatigued”.

But let’s look at the other side of the coin.

During my low-fat-all-whole-wheat days, I’d eat about 300g of carbs a day most of which was from wheat and didn’t get bombarded by cannonballs or continuously bloat to the point of explosion or feel so fatigued all day I couldn’t work. Heck, I have photos of myself with a prominent 6-pack and remember feeling so awesome I used to workout twice a day 6 days a week – that is 12 fairly intense sessions of physical activity per week with about 6hrs of sleep per day.

During my low carb days, cream, cheese and fatty meat were my main dish, side dish and dessert! My belly didn’t get bigger. Neither did I see the digits on my scale go up or any part of my oh-so-precious 6-pack fade even a little.

I’m more than sure you’ve been through or are going through the same or similar phases. So, you tell me, is it all in the mind? Is fat making you fat or are you just made to think that way? Are carbs fattening or is it that you don’t know any better? Are you truly allergic to gluten or are you just trying hard and finding the symptoms you are told you would experience?

Today, I am in a much better place…

… nutritionally.

Back then, I always was off something. Something was evil. At any point of time, I’d be “off” carbs or fat or gluten or something. Today, I eat everything. While I don’t stuff myself silly with junk food all day everyday, there is literally nothing I am “off” from.

Back then,  I always craved something or the other (probably ‘cos I was off something or the other). Today, I have no cravings whatsoever (definitely ‘cos I know nothing is off limits).

Back then, I was paranoid and, with a lot of focus and diligence, healthy and fit always looking for the next nutritional breakthrough. Today I am free and, with absolutely no conscious effort, healthy, fit and in peace not looking for the next big thing.

The truth is that science isn’t something you believe in. It is a fact. You either know it or you don’t. There is no anxiety in science. There is no guesswork. There is no maybe. There are only equations. You do the experiment (unbiased) and you get (real) results. Nothing more and definitely nothing less.

So are you making the effort to truly understand nutrition via unbiased research and self-experimentation or are you just jumping on and off the fad bus? Do share this post (buttons below) and let’s get this discussion started.

Don’t be an idiot

So about 5 weeks back, I came home from The Quad and brought along with me a pair of pushup handles since I had twisted my left wrist pretty bad while doing some non-training related activity. Due to the messed up wrist, I wasn’t able to do many traditional moves and hence was working within what I could do without aggravating the injury. That night was upper body day and so I decided to do a simple push-pull combo. This was the workout…

Repeat for a total of 10 rounds.

  • 5 pushups @ BW + 70lbs
  • Rest 90 seconds
  • 5 bent over barbell rows @ 135 lbs
  • Rest 90 seconds

I usually try and do more pulls than pushes to even out the chronic anterior-posterior imbalance we all suffer from, so every other round, I added in 10 pullups. So overall it works out to be 50 pushups @ BW + 70lbs, 50 pullups @ BW and 50 rows @ 135 lbs. Being 145 lbs, this is a fairly intense workout but by no means crazy. The goal was exerting optimal power within the constraints of proper technique. If at any point of time my technique was compromised in any exercise I decided to stop the step.

The loads felt light and I kept knocking each rep out of the park. Rest periods were perfect and I felt strong overall. At about the 5th set, as I continued to feel great, I very subconsciously decided that I was going to kill this workout. That is when shit hit the fan.

I reached the 8th round and as I was doing my 4th pushup, I felt some discomfort on my right shoulder (possibly from overly compensating using my right side due to subconsciously trying to reduce load on the left wrist). I consciously ignored it and went on to do my final and hardest rep. I grit my teeth through the pain and completed the set in style but after the set, I felt considerable stiffness on my right shoulder. I did some basic shoulder mobility work and expected to feel better. Since I didn’t feel too much better after the mobility work, I decided that for the 9th and 10th rounds I would not do weighted pushups but would do bodyweight pushups instead. Painful and uncomfortable as they were, the last two rounds were  already“step-downs” from my original plan and, in my head, I “needed” to do “at least” this. Not doing the last two sets was not an option (at that time).

So I did about 25 pushups in each round and successfully completed the workouts with 40 pushups @ BW + 70lbs, 50 pushups @ BW, 50 pullups @ BW and 50 rows @ 135 lbs.

I woke up the next morning with an overly stiff and painful shoulder and since then have been nursing that shoulder till date. While I’m not in pain anymore, I’ll tell you I’m well away from feeling a 100%. This messed up my training pretty badly. I’ve met 4 different physical therapists, spent over Rs 8000, taken two non-consequetive weeks completely off from training and am only now slowly getting back to training with a plan.

One rep! Just than one damn rep! If only I had stopped before that rep, I would not have had to suffer for more than a month. I’m such an idiot! Right?

I’m an idiot alright, but it wasn’t that one rep that caused the damage. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t that set or that workout or even the workouts before that. I wasn’t overtrained or fatigued. I wasn’t lacking focus or sleep. I wasn’t eating junk and was by no means weak.

So then, what caused the damage? Honestly, my attitude. My attitude towards training is what caused all this havoc. Let me explain.

Like most fitness enthusiasts, I have a tendency to get carried away when I workout. Though I have solid goals defined for each mesocycle and for each workout, I tend to forget those and get lost in the moment. I try to kill every single workout. If you have been training for a while, you’ll know that’s a recipe for disaster and if you’re brutally honest with yourself, you’ll realize you do it yourself!

In this specific case, my goal for the quarter was strength. Not max pushups or fat loss but strength. And for me to get stronger I need to train very consistently. And for me to train consistently, well, I need to stay injury free. So, though, at that time, that last rep seemed like it was taking me towards my goal of getting stronger, by doing the rep I injured myself which has set me far far away from my goals.

What do I need now? Rehab? A new training plan? Some postural alignment? Sure. I need all of these. But most importantly I need a change in attitude. I need to look at training as training. I need to focus on the big picture. I need to not be penny wise pound foolish. I need to train myself to work towards a larger goal be it strength or long term injury free living or general health.

Similarly, very very similarly, it isn’t that one week binge that made you fat. It isn’t that one cheat meal that made you “fall off the wagon”. It isn’t that diet that made you sick of health and fitness. It isn’t that trip you had to make that messed up all your efforts.

It is your attitude. It is your attitude towards transformations and fat loss and health. Let me break it down further.

  • If you think you can eat junk tonight and “burn it off” tomorrow either by doing some extra reps or extra cardio, you need a change in attitude.
  • If you think you can “go on a diet” and lose in 6 weeks what you have gained in 6 years, you need a change in attitude.
  • If you think eating well for 3 days gives you the leeway to stuff your face on the 4th day, you need a change in attitude.
  • If you think you can just moving your arms and legs for a few minutes three times a week and saying no to cake once a week will fix all your health problems, you need a change in attitude.
  • If you think the people who look awesome or perform at a high level or live forever just put in a few weeks of work, you bloody well need a change in attitude.

To help you and I change our attitudes, I’ll present here the most inspiring thing I’ve ever heard.

Understand that health or fitness or looking awesome or reversing a disease is a long term effort. You are not going to sport those sexy abs with a 6-min abs program. You’re not going to become an awesome athlete with half-assed mobility work. You are not going to lose (and keep off) those extra 20kg by going on a diet for 2 months. You are not going to live to see your great grandchildren by eating at pizza hut every other day. You are not going to reverse diabetes by replacing sugar with splenda. And we are not going to get anywhere with an attitude that undermines real work.

We are only going to achieve all this by possessing one thing – consistency. Consistent effort leads to sustainable long term results. Period. Be it aesthetics or performance or blogging or cooking or meditation or even life in general, consistency results in excellence while inconsistency results in mediocrity.

And just to be sure you and I got the message, I’ll say it again…

Don’t be an idiot. Focus on the big picture.

Adios!

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