The Goat

This weekend I raced The Goat, which is a ~20km mountain run from Whakapapa to Turoa, along the western slopes of Mount Ruapehu.

It’s a beautiful but brutal course – a lot more scrambling, scree, and rock climbing and a lot less packed trail than I had mentally prepared for. I managed to get around with only one face plant and tagged knee. The last 5km climbs from 1233m at Mangaturuturu Hut to 1624m at the ski field finish, including the final 2km “mamas mile” up the road, by which point everybody was looking pretty broken.

I was stoked to finish in 3h 11m, in 135th place overall. The data file from my watch recorded 1163m of vertical ascent (and 2402 calories burnt, yo!)

I don’t normally bother with official race photos, but this one taken half way up the famous “Waterfall” was just too good to pass up:

The Goat 2014

If you look closely you can see there is one small spot on my shirt which isn’t soaked in sweat. It took me a while to work out this is just the thick part of my heart rate monitor strap.

More photos:

It’s a great event, and I throughly recommend it to you.

There are only 600 places available each year, so keep an eye out for registration for the 2015 race soon!

 

The Observer Effect

Just over a year ago I started using an iPhone app called Fat Watch to track my weight and body fat percentage every day. It’s had a big effect.

This might be the most no-nonsense, accurately described app in the store, but probably doesn’t have the viral coefficient that it might have with a slightly less direct name – it can be difficult to find the right words to use when you want to recommend this app to your friends. But, let me try. :-)

It was, at the time and still, the most expensive app I’ve purchased for my iPhone, at NZ$13.99 (since then the price has dropped to $9.99), but still good value I think.

A brief history…

Between 2001, when I peaked at 106kg, and 2004, when I returned to NZ from the UK, I lost about 25kg. Mostly this was a result of eating less crappy food, but also by being more active.

In the five years following I more-or-less maintained my weight at between 82kg and 85kg, although during that time I started to train more consistently for cycling and triathlon and in the process shifted my body composition quite a bit, from ~23.5% body fat to just over 20% body fat.

To be honest, I was focussed more on my aerobic fitness than on my weight. We didn’t even own scales, although I did weigh myself from time to time at the gym. I mostly measured my progress using the belt on my trousers. I thought I’d pretty much lost as much as I was going to and was confident that I wouldn’t fall back into old bad habits and put it back on.

However, despite all of the good things I was doing there was a persistent amount of body fat that I just couldn’t shake, especially on my upper body. Then at the start of 2009 I broke out of the top end of this weight band, so I decided it was time to start paying more attention and seeing what changes I could make. When I first installed the app and weighed myself in May 2009 I was 88.6kg.

Measure Everything

My first goal was to get back to 80kg. Even when I was running fit in London I never got below this level. I guess I assumed that this was my asymptotic limit. I was wrong.

Since I started measuring, as the graph below shows, I’ve lost about 15kg, and skipped right through the 80kg barrier. As I type I’m about 73.5kg.

The red line is a moving average of daily measurements, taken at approximately the same time each day using the approach described in The Hackers’ Diet.  You can see there have been a few flat points, which all correspond to times when I’ve been traveling.  But, in general, it has fallen reasonably steadily during this time.

The green shaded area is the “normal” range based on the BMI scale.  I remember calculating this when I weighed ~90kg and thinking it was absurd to think that 76.5kg was my target weight.  I’ve now been comfortably below that level for a few months.

When you aggregate these changes over a long period of time they seem quite big, but actually they are small.  Over the last 12 months I’ve lost about 0.25kg per week.  If you do the maths (or let the app do it for you!) on average I have been burning ~277 calories per day more than I have consumed – less than one Moro Bar – not such a big sacrifice when you compare it to the positive effect that it has had.

Feedback Loops

In physics they talk about an Observer Effect – that is, when you observe something you will change it.  This is how I think of these changes.  It’s all about creating a feedback loop between what you do (inputs) and the effect it has on you (outputs); creating a game that you win by following the behaviours that you want; and getting a much better understanding of the impact of all of the little decisions you make.

If you eat an unnecessarily big lunch and weigh yourself a couple of weeks later it will be difficult to create a cause and effect relationship, but when you weigh yourself the next day and can compare that to previous days and see the increase immediately then you can start to work out what not to do.  Or, perhaps even more importantly, if you know that you’re going to weigh yourself the next morning and be disappointed in the results then perhaps you choose a better option from the menu or eat a smaller portion in the first place.

When you measure your weight every day you also get to see how much it jumps around of its own accord.  This graph from the last three months shows the daily readings in black.

Again, the red line is a moving average.  You can see there are many days when I was 1kg or more above or below the trend line.  There is generally an explanation – too many snacks or not getting enough sleep (bad) or a long bike ride or hard session at the gym (good).  There is only one way to learn about all of these different factors.

You also see the importance of taking regular and consistent measurements, so as not to be unnecessarily disappointed or unrealistically encouraged by a single reading in isolation.

In mid-April there was an updated version of the app released which added tracking for body fat percentages.  This can be difficult to measure accurately using scales, but again using regular measurements and a moving average you will at least get a sense of the trend.  This graph shows my total body fat measurement over the same period.

According to ACE an “ideal” range for a fit male is between 14% and 17% (at the moment between 10.3kg and 12.5kg for me), so I’m now in that range, and probably only have at most ~2kg more to lose.

What am I going to obsess about then, I wonder?

Related:

Replete – my previous post about weight loss

“If you want to be healthier or lose some weight it’s very easy to complicate things.  But, in my experience at least, it’s mostly the simple things you already know you should or shouldn’t do which make the biggest difference.”

Fat In A Can – NYC Health (via @presentationzen)

“1x can of soft drink per day = 4.5kg fatter per year”

One Tasty Pie Chart – DataVisualisation.ch

This is a bit of a gimmick – but still an interesting concept.  If you’re trying to reduce the portions you eat then one easy solution is a smaller plate.

Exercise, weight loss and common sense sensationalism – Science of Sport

An excellent series of posts.

“This market is enormous, a multi-billion dollar industry, and it borrows from science to pitch a dizzying array of exercise machines, programmes and diet plans at consumers, who, desperate for an answer (in a short space of time) will jump at anything that promises to meet their need.”

Withings – WiFi enabled body scale

If the hassle of data entry is the main thing stopping you from tracking your weight then perhaps you’re lacking some of the core motivation required to sustain something like this, however, this is nifty technology.

Everything you know about muscle is wrong – Men’s Health

This is probably a lot more than you wanted to know about muscle.  I recommend you try the knee life experiment he talks about – a useful reminder that your body is something you can maipulate.

“Every move you make is a physical experiment. If the experiment works — say, you swish a jumper while cocking your head to the side — it becomes a habit. All those little habits become locked in as posture. Over time, posture becomes structure: The man who accidentally nailed a three while his ear was itchy now feels comfortable only when his head is slightly off kilter.”

5 hours 47 minutes, baby

“If you find yourself in a situation where a white person is talking about a marathon, you must be impressed or you will lose favor with them immediately.  Running for a certain length of time on a specific day is a very important thing to a white person and should not be demeaned.  Also worth nothing, more competitive white people prefer triathlons because Kenyans can’t afford $10,000 specialty bicycles.”

Stuff White People Like

“In Europe, pretty girls on retro bikes with wicker baskets ride, carefree, to work everyday. Keeping active, while also keeping up the appearance of effortless chic. In New Zealand, by contrast, cycling is seen more as something for large groups of overweight, middle-aged men on expensive racing bikes – men who really shouldn’t be pouring themselves into fluorescent Lycra – to do on Saturday mornings, sweating and panting up the hills like sheep in the sun.”

Kiwianarama

Last weekend I completed my third Half Ironman in Taupo…

Swim Start

Bike

Finish (pipped at the post by a 5 year old!)

Some of you may remember a post from earlier this year, Start != Finish, where I wrote about my experience of the Tauranga Half Ironman in 2008.  Trying to avoid making those mistakes again, my goals for this race were mostly related to the shape I wanted to be in at the start line rather than the time recorded at the finish.  That seemed to work out for me both ways – I’ve lost some more weight and I’m as fit as I’ve ever been and feeling quite positive about that, and (as a result?) I smashed my personal best time for that distance by nearly 30 mins, finishing in an official time of 5:47.50.

In case that sounds fast, I should point out that this put in me in 205th place on the day, over 90 mins behind the winner.  One of the good things about triathlon as a sport, and these sort of events specifically, is that you can race yourself and win.

I know that entering long races seems like madness to most people, but really they are just an excellent excuse to be active, eat well, push myself, etc.  I’ve found committing to an imminent race date to be just enough motivation to tip the balance in my favour on all of those fronts.

However, I’d like to specifically recognise the anonymous person who unkindly commented on the size of my belly when I posted my finish line photo from Tauranga. You didn’t, and probably wouldn’t, say it to my face. Thing is, there really is nowhere to hide in those lycra race tops, as you could easily discover for yourself. But, anyway, thank you. To quote Michael Jordan’s acceptance speech when he was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this year: “You put another log on the fire”.

So, with this race done I’m on the lookout for another challenge.  Ideally this time it will be something that doesn’t involve swimming, cycling and running a long way, only to end up where I started.  Any suggestions?

Aluminium Man

Just getting my bike set up so I can live tweet my race tomorrow:

If you want to follow my progress, my user name is @rowansimpson.

I don’t have a solution for my wetsuit yet, so if you have any ideas please let me know.

;-)

UPDATE ,13th Dec:

Thanks for all of your replies and suggestions.

I especially liked this, from @jontsnz:

“Maybe add a sticker: “In case of accident, please press Send” so we can at least get the tweet that you wiped out writing!”

Classic!

Once I get feeling back in my legs I’ll write up a longer post about the day, but in the mean time here are the tweets:

“Lake not too choppy. Swimming advice from 5yo: bubble arm, bubble arm, breathing arm and repeat.” 6:05am

“Lake water tastes better than sea water. Did a good time. Only 111km of bike and run to go.” 7:16am

“Run: 16km of hope completed 5km of truth to go” 11:40am

“Approx finish time 5h 48m feel great and crap at same time” 12:24pm (see Start != Finish for context)

“Thanks for all your messages of support. And thanks to Emily for being on Twitter duty while I was otherwise engaged. Now, where is the spa?” 2:11pm

Replete

Emily: I’m on a new diet. I don’t eat anything. Then, when I feel like I’m about to faint I eat a single cube of cheese.
Amanda: It’s obviously working.
Emily: I’m just one stomach flu away from my goal weight.

The Devil Wears Prada

How do you know when you’ve had enough?

How do you stop yourself from having “too much” (whatever that means)?

I think that the answer to these questions will become increasingly important in a number of areas. More on that. But first, let me start with a personal anecdote and some lessons I’ve learnt about what I eat and drink…

Who ate all the pies?

On 21st October 2000 I weighed 106kg 1.

I was, by most reasonable definitions, a fat bastard.

I was talking with an old friend that evening, who was telling me about the seemingly crazy 8-week Liver Cleansing Diet that his then girlfriend, soon to be wife, was currently doing. I commented that I should probably try something like that, at which point he just about choked on his drink laughing. He bet me $100 that I couldn’t do it, which was all of the motivation I needed. It was bloody hard – my competitive spirit was probably the only reason I managed to complete it, to be honest.  The thought of another Carrot, Celery & Parsley juice first thing in the morning still makes me want to puke. But I did it, and by the end was already under 100kg.

Shortly after that I got Campylobacter from some dodgy sushi and lost another few kilos. There is a silver lining to every cloud.

On 1st August 2004 I weighed just over 80kg 2, and I’ve managed to stay at or about that weight since then.

During that time I made some permanent changes to my diet. I started drinking more water rather than coke and other fizzy drinks, which was a terrible habit I had picked up from my time in the Computer Science department at university.  And I stopped eating food that I knew was crap – e.g. no McDonalds since 2001. Apart from that I still eat and drink most things, including many things I probably shouldn’t, I’m just a bit more mindful about it.

I also became a lot more active. I started running when I was living in London, mostly to counterbalance the stress of trying to find work after September 11. After a while it got to the point where I could run for longer than my patience could tolerate, so I mixed it up a bit with some swimming and cycling (like most people, I thought I could swim, despite not really doing it for 20 years prior, and the first time I got back in the pool I managed about 80m before I just about drowned). I set myself the challenge of running the Nike Run London 10km race and, after I’d ticked that off, the London Triathlon, mostly as motivation to keep training through the northern winter.

But, more important than either of those things in isolation was doing both – breaking out of the negative feedback loop I was in and turning it into a positive cycle.

For a while I was quite proud of this achievement. But, now I’m mostly just embarrassed that I was ever in the position to need to lose that much 3.

It was all my own fault and responsibility, a result of poor choices and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle in the years prior to that.

It’s also not necessarily the end of the story.  I continue to pay pretty close attention, conscious of not wanting to fall back into bad habits.

At the moment I’m teetering on the edge of 80kg – perhaps one day soon I will drop into the 70s, for the first time in as long as I can remember. That will be a nice milestone.

Things we already know

“Don’t ask me about intermittent fasting, macro-patterning, cyclical ketogenic diets or meal replacements if you aren’t eating enough vegetables.”

Diet Blog

If you want to be healthier or lose some weight it’s very easy to complicate things.  But, in my experience at least, it’s mostly the simple things you already know you should or shouldn’t do which make the biggest difference.

I’m by no means an expert, but here are some lessons which I’ve picked up during this time, which may be useful.

All of these things are common sense, but not necessarily common.

1. Understand the maths

What you weigh is a simple function of the energy you consume and the energy you burn.

There are lots of ways to burn energy, some more fun than others. You burn some energy just by breathing, so it’s not necessarily all about sweating it out at the gym.

There are not so many ways to consume energy, apart from when you put food and drink in your mouth.

By far the easier way to tip this formula in your favour is to be more careful about the energy you consume – it’s far FAR easier to unnecessarily consume a few hundred calories than it is to burn them off on the treadmill.

The best explanation of this maths I’ve come across is The Hackers Diet.

2. Track the crap food and drink you consume back to the source

If you don’t want to eat crap food, don’t put it on your plate.

If you don’t want it on your plate, don’t put it in your cupboard.

If you don’t want it in your cupboard, don’t put it in your trolley at the supermarket

I’m not one of those people who eats a biscuit, I eat the whole packet. When I was little if you didn’t eat as many as you could as soon as the packet was opened there would be unlikely to be any left later on 4.  So, perhaps this is a learned behaviour – I don’t know?

My wife, on the other hand, is the sort of person who can happily eat one piece from a block of chocolate and then put the rest away for another day. I have a lot to learn from her. But in the meantime it’s better for me to keep a safe distance between myself and the crap food I don’t want to eat.

3. Buy your quota of good food

If you want to eat good food, make sure you buy enough of it.

If you want to eat 5 “servings” of fruit and vegetables per day, and there are two people in your household, that means buying 70 servings worth per week when you shop – probably a lot more than you would think.

Your appetite isn’t going to run out when the good food does, you’ll just revert to eating crap.

Related to this…

3(b). Good food you throw away doesn’t count

One of the things I noticed when I started to pay a bit more attention to the food that we put in the trolley at the supermarket and also the food scraps we put in the bin, was that we would usually eat all of the unhealthy foods we bought but less than all of the good foods (fruit, vegetables, etc) which were much more likely to go off and be thrown away.

It’s not enough to buy good food, you actually have to eat it.

4. Measure

I struggled with this until just recently.

Firstly, you need to find something to measure which actually correlates to the change you’re trying to make.

The only reason so many people focus on weight (in kilograms etc), I think, is because it’s so easily measured. But, there are others, which are arguably more relevant.

For example:

  • Your waist circumference – objective, easily measured
  • The belt hole you use – same as waist circumference, but with a less granular scale
  • How good you look naked in a mirror – more subjective, hard to fake
  • How fit you feel – completely subjective, easily ignored/excused 5

Secondly, you need a way to track what you’re measuring that actually gives you useful results.

Jumping on the scales every now and then isn’t going to help at all.  To get useful data you need to be systematic about it – i.e. weigh yourself at the same time everyday and track a moving average, otherwise your results will be skewed by normal fluctuations that occur.

If you want to understand these movements better, measure your weight at regular intervals – e.g. every 15 mins – during the course of a few days, you’ll be astounded how much your weight goes up and down as you eat, drink and poop, and surprised by how much weight you lose just by sleeping every night.

You also need to keep measuring long enough to see the trends that reveal themselves over longer periods of time.

I’ve found an iPhone app called FatWatch to be an excellent tool that I can easily use everyday.

Lastly, avoid measuring inputs rather than outputs.

The diet you’re following is an input. The gym membership you’ve signed up for and/or the expensive exercise equipment you’ve purchased are inputs. Even how often and how hard you workout are inputs.

What matters is the overall impact that those inputs have on the measures you care about.

5. Stop making lame excuses

A common excuse: “I started going to the gym, and put on weight, but muscle weighs more than fat”.

The more likely reality: because you were expending more energy you probably consumed more energy to compensate (Powerade, anybody?) and as a result likely didn’t burn much fat at all.

The reason you still weigh too much or look rubbish in the mirror is not because you all of a sudden have big muscles.

Yes, muscle weighs more than fat. But, fat doesn’t convert into muscle. When you exercise you burn fat and increase the size of your already existing muscles. The extent to which one offsets the other depends on a number of variables.

To test any excuse like this, try it in reverse: “Yes, I’ve lost some weight, but I haven’t been going to the gym so often so it’s probably just muscle reverting to fat and fat weighs less than muscle”.

There are heaps of silly excuses like this, and they don’t help.

6. Start

This is a real problem: you need to do enough to break the negative loop I described above. But, you need to start with something simple and achievable enough that you actually do it, repeat it and can build on it.

I don’t have the answer for you. In my case I was very lucky to have somebody else who was prepared to kickstart the process, by creating a competition that I was determined to win.

I know one expert who gets approached by people all the time asking for help with an exercise programme. His advice: go for a short walk every day for a week, then call me back 6. They seldom do – I suspect a combination of scepticism that a short walk will make any difference, and an inability to motivate themselves off the couch in the first place (much easier if you have somebody else kicking your ass, perhaps?)

Whatever the solution is for you, start.

It probably won’t be a quick fix, it’s unlikely to be easy, and the results to start with are likely to be underwhelming.  But, what did you expect?

Shop like there is no tomorrow?

Of course, eating and drinking more than we need is not the only way we all over consume in ways that hurt us.

For example, spending more than we can afford on things we don’t really need and then complaining that we don’t have enough money to invest for the longer term or that there isn’t enough space in our house. Or, wasting hours on pointless stuff and then complaining that there isn’t enough time to do all of the things that we need to and want to.

Interestingly, the same techniques that I described above can help in these other areas too.

The same sort of maths applies – the amount of money you save is a function of how much you earn and how much you spend; the amount of clutter in your house is a function of how much stuff you buy and how much stuff you chuck out; the amount of time you have to spend on the things you want to do is a function of the amount of stuff you’re trying to do and how efficiently you work.

Tools like RescueTime and Wesabe can help you track how you actually manage your time and money, and track the trends over time. They are also starting to evolve to help you actually try and solve the underlying problem rather than just measure it.

Many of the standard self-help prescriptions you hear in these areas are simply variations on the advice for people who eat too much – e.g. a financial planner telling you to automatically saving a portion of your income each month and putting it somewhere where you can’t easily spend it, or cutting up your credit cards is no different from a nutritionist who tells you to stop putting the crap food you don’t want to eat into your trolley at the supermarket.

I don’t know, but would guess that a lot of the excuses given by people who have a problem with these things are also misguided – e.g. people who shop like there is no tomorrow blaming the amount of money they earn rather than the amount of money they spend for their financial predicament, in just the same way as somebody who overeats starting out trying to lose weight by burning more rather than consuming less; and the person who has a house that is full of clutter who thinks their problem is that they just don’t have enough space, but just needs to learn how to chuck out stuff they don’t need any more.

And, of course there are equivalent negative feedback loops created in each case too.

Less is the new more?

Being satisfied with less is hard, it would seem.

As the guys from RescueTime have noticed, there are lots of things that are making it harder and harder for people:

“The web is getting scientific. Specifically, it’s getting scientific about separating you from your time. Entertainment and news sites are doing multi-variate testing trying to maximize the metrics that matter in their business. That is: pageviews, time-on-page, and bounce-rate. They’re getting good at these tests, and it’s costing us. Even the best of us. We’ve all experienced that moment where we look at the clock and realize, ‘Holy crap– I just spent two hours surfing when I really wanted to be getting things done!’.”

RescueTime Blog

The same is true of food, and money.

The challenge is to find ways to counterbalance these things and break out of the negative feedback loops. I think this is something that people will increasingly want and need help with, and that creates opportunities.

I’m interested in your ideas.

How do you know when you’ve had enough? How do you stop yourself from having too much?

Are there other areas you can think of where less is now more desirable than more (although not necessarily easier to achieve)?

And, how can you help others with these sorts of problems?

Notes:

[1] The only reason I’m able to remember this exact date is because it coincided with a rare Wellington victory in the NPC.

[2] The day I did the London Triathlon.

[3] As I recently noted on Twitter, it’s a funny thing that people who fix a problem and get themselves out of a bad position, like an addiction to alcohol, coffee, or overeating (or many number of other things), are given more credit than those people who avoided the situation in the first place.

[4] Another related thing I’ve noticed myself doing now I have my own kids is insisting that they eat everything they are served (“no dessert unless you finish your dinner”).  That’s fine as long as the serving size is appropriate, but again probably not necessarily a healthy habit to encourage.

[5] You only have to look at the body shape of some normal people competing in endurance events to realise that you don’t necessarily have to be skinny and light to be fit.

[6] Simple filters like this can be very effective.  I use an equivalent approach when people I don’t know contact me wanting to chat about their great idea for a website.  I ask them to send me a one-page summary first.  So far, very few people have bothered – and keep in mind, these are all people who were asking me to spend my time on them.

Knocking the bugger off

Like many of you, I’m sure, I’m enjoying following the adventures of Vaughan Rowsell, who is now more than two weeks into his attempt to ride the full length of New Zealand “uphill” (i.e. starting at the bottom and finishing at the top).

Here are the videos he has posted on his blog summarising the distance covered so far:

Week 1 – Stewart Island to Mosgiel

Week 2 – Mosgiel to Waikouaiti

He also has some route maps on his site.

What make this so exciting?  Just that he’s doing it.

In other words: what sounds impossible is actually quite achievable, which is not to say easy.

The only thing that makes him different from you (and me!) is that he has managed to bridge that massive gap between thinking about doing something great and actually making it happen.

From Twitter:

“I do feel like I am doing something impossible! Something I never thought I was able to do. It’s such an awesome feeling. Try it.”

@rowsell

It certainly beats sitting on the couch feeling fat and lazy and generally sorry for yourself.

I got to know Vaughan a little when we worked together on the first part of the Travel Bug project (then going by it’s code name “Jandals”)

He’s a pretty unassuming guy who deserves all of the credit and support that I hope he gets (en route he is raising money for The Agency for Spinal Concern).

I don’t know if he is thinking this far ahead yet … possibly only when it gets really hard grinding up a big hill or into a headwind in the rain … but the feeling he’ll have when he gets to the end is going to be crazy awesome.

I’m really looking forward to spending a day riding with him when he gets to Wellington.

Maybe two, if he’ll have me?

UPDATE (21-May)

I rode with Vaughan from Wellington to Otaki.  It was a cold wet day, and the route we took over the Akatarawas was pretty brutal, but it was fun anyway.  His blog has some details.

Since then he has continued on up the country and is now into the final week or so of his ride.

If you are in the Auckland area get out this weekend and support him as he rides across the bridge.

And, where ever you are, you can support his charity by donating through his page on Give A Little.