In pursuit of failure

“Fail forward” is a sort of mantra in the startup world. (Or, that’s how it seems, watching that world from the outside.) The idea, as I get it, is that you have to fail often and fail fast, as long as you learn from your failures and get up meaner and leaner for your next adventure.

That’s not what I’m talking about here.

I guess that what I mean could be called muscle failure. But I think it’s more than that.

Back it up a bit

I guess that today’s The Obstacle is the Way chapter on Building Your Inner Citadel got me thinking about something that haunts me periodically: my own troubled relationship with willpower. And, perhaps, my weird linking of willpower with manhood.

This will be a disjointed blog post.

The fact of the matter is, I don’t know if I’ve ever reached muscle failure. I mean, I’ve collapsed after a set of push-ups. But, as I stood back up, I’ve been haunted by the fact that I might have been able to do a few more push-ups, if I’d really tried. After all, push-ups seldom are connected to any real consequences.

Fun random aside:

One of my father’s favorite stories from the Army was in some training camp or other where he was the platoon leader, and there were only enough truck to transport two of the three platoons back to the barracks. One platoon was going to have to march.

The way the seargents on the scene decided to allocate the trucks was to have the platoon leaders compete doing push-ups. “I knew I didn’t have to win,” my father always says in this story, “I just couldn’t lose.”

According to the legend, he did over a hundred push-ups in this story. I’ve never done that many push-ups, and I often wonder if I would have the mental fortitude to really push myself, if I had to.

So, I wonder, is there a way I can engineer my own muscle failure. Can I set myself up to try hard at things and fail, knowing I’ll come away stronger and wiser? (Or with a reinforced Inner Citadel, whatever that means.)

I don’t know.

The Army Combat Fitness Test

Part of what’s got me thinking like this is the news that the U.S. Army is introducing a new physical fitness test. Up until I stopped doing sit-ups (word on the street has it they’re bad for your back) I’ve been silently measuring myself against the existing Army Physical Fitness Test. After all, my first encounter with the idea of ‘minimal fitness’ was with the Army, and it’s nice to know (or think) “I could check all those boxes. I am fit.”

The new test may or may not be an improvement over the old test. What it is, though, is a departure from the days when I could do the exercises at home and say “Yup, that was enough push-ups.” or “I smoked my old two-mile run time.”

Conclusion

I don’t know if there is a conclusion. The point is, I wonder about my ability to push myself until my body simply doesn’t have more to give. I get that I’ll probably never need to do that.

But I want to know that I can. And I don’t know how to teach myself that.

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A headstand is also a burpee

This post could be titled “Burpee challenge, modified” and is inspired — like the whole burpee challenge thing, by a post on lifehacker. In this case, it was a post about getting a hundred burpees done.

How things are now

I still do burpees most days. Following my initial math, I worked up to sets of ten, by managing to get twenty done in two minutes.

The thing is, it’s not as fun as it once was, and I’m not seeing improvement. I get at least one burpee done (the old minimum) at least six days a week. And on one day, I managed seven sets of nine — in competition with my daughter who takes some liberties with form.

Still, I’m feeling more and more like I’m plateauing. The number of burpees I can do is not going up. I’m not getting more pull-ups done in a single set. And, adding burpees to my runs (the kill-two-birds-with-one-trip-outside strategy) means that I seldom run much more than a kilometer without a ‘break.’ (To be honest, the running feels like a break.)

How I want things to be

I don’t have a clear answer. I want to get back to feeling like I’m getting stronger, to being proud of my workouts, rather than just getting them out of the way.

I genuinely want to feel stronger.

A good fitness memory

Here’s a thing we did not long ago that made all of this seem a little more worthwhile: getting the kids outside (one of my biggest summer priorities) we found an oak tree that had a lot of branches that we could reach. Of course, we climbed it.

I haven’t spent much time in a tree in a while — though that is a long-term goal — and was surprised to see how effortless it seemed to about using my arms and shoulders to support a lot of my weight. I wasn’t doing insane rock-climbing stuff, and there was still a lot of weight on my legs.

None of those caveats, though, takes away from the feeling I had — not much more than two meters in the air — of being somehow stronger than I was used to being. And being strong enough to help my kids climb.

I loved that.

You can bet we’ve been back to that tree — and others, though that’s the one that seems to need my arms the most — often, as much for my benefit as for theirs.

So, here’s what I guess I want: to continue doing workouts that impress me (without injury, I might add!) and to have more of those moments of relative strength.

The way forward

I don’t know what the way forward is. Often, I make these posts after I’ve come up with an idea I want to try. Instead, I wanted to make a record of how things stand right now.

There is one change I’m making now, as I look at how to continue this fitness adventure. And, unfortunately, it revolves around an experience I had in which I felt less strong: headstands.

There was a time when my sister and I had a competition to see who could do the longest headstands. I could count to twelve and back down while standing pretty reliably on my head (not, I should add, my hands). It was one of those things that made me feel strong.

And then back hurt and I got into planks, and from planks into burpees.

Then, recently, my daughter has become interested in headstands, handstands, cartwheels, the like. And she asked me if I could still do a headstand (she’d seen them)… and it was hard. I got my legs in the air, but not with the confidence I’d had before.

So, I guess I’m going back to doing headstands. And that’s okay. I’ve just rationalized that I’ll try to substitute headstands for burpees on those days when I’ve realized I haven’t done enough burpees.

Maybe I’ll join my daughter in her handstand/cartwheel goals.

 

The slow run you take is better than the speedwork you skip

It’s been hot here. Really, really hot.

I’m not complaining — I’ll take heat over cold any day — but it’s been the kind of weather that makes all movement a sweat-soaked enterprise.

But, I ran. I’m a runner, and runners run. (In addition to me prioritizing exercise as a superpower.) But I didn’t run fast.

The Wednesday speedwork was just a slow run with burpees in the shade. Friday’s mid-distance run was just a simple 5k with more burpees.

But, I ran.

I’m a big believer that the perfect is the enemy of the good. And, as an extrapolation of that, the slow run you take is better than the speedwork you skip.

There is sugar everywhere!

kidneybeans

The sugar fast update

Of course, I planned to be able to write that I didn’t cheat at all in my sugar fast. After beginning a day earlier than I planned — I didn’t eat the chocolate I had planned to eat — I thought it would be a pretty simple experiment for me.

After all, I don’t eat that much sugar.

That’s a joke.

“I’m not feeling so great”

On Wednesday and Thursday, three and four days after beginning the fast, I felt crappy. I couldn’t place what my exact complaint was, but it was there. I found it hard to get myself started on anything and did a lot of sitting and staring at walls until deadlines made me move.

I had a headache, and a pain I used to have in my neck, shoulder, and arm came back. (I still have it. I thought doing planks had helped.) I complained a lot to my wife, who observed that she didn’t think I had eaten so much sugar that I should have withdrawal symptoms, did I quit anything else?

Yes, I quit alcohol along with sugar (because it’s basically good-feeling sugar water, right?). But, even less than I liked having withdrawal symptoms from sugar, I didn’t like the idea that I had withdrawal symptoms from alcohol.

By Friday, though, I was happily buying a Granny Smith apple to eat in a meeting where I knew that my boss would be bringing cake. I wanted to have something to put in my mouth to avoid the temptation.

“What can you eat?”

When I talk to people about this, they have ask the obvious question. And it’s both more and less than you might think. First, I’m not trying to be strictly plant-based doing this… though that’s where I’d want to end up again.

Secondly, I’m not avoiding all carbs — or even all sugars — just the refined ones that have been added to something. Snacking on blueberries? Acceptable. Eating apples? You betcha. Pasta? Yes, please.

But, I took the photo at the top of the post to send to friends in protest. After I’d made my ‘healthy’ lunch (and I’m enjoying the minimalist element of my life right now), I saw on the back of the can that kidney beans have added sugar.

What?!

That was today’s lunch, and it wasn’t my first time ‘cheating.’ Last Tuesday, my wife cooked some pre-marinated chicken that we’d bought for a barbecue and didn’t grill. There’s a good chance there was sugar in the marinade. (And I still felt like crap on Wednesday!)

On Sunday, we had a really great pan-fried pasta-and-sausage thing. Delicious. But there was dextrose in the sausage. And, yesterday, my wife thought she was doing me a favor by buying me one of those sushi-to-go things. It was great to come home to after teaching until nine thirty.

After I ate the sushi, though, I turned the package over out of curiosity and… there was sugar in the rice.

Results

I can report that my energy is getting back to usual. I don’t know if that’s a result of the sun coming out, or the end of some mythical “withdrawal.” And, I feel good and mentally sharp. What’s more, I feel mentally sharp later in the day.

The mental sharpness could be an artifact of the placebo effect, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it continues.

My weight is slowly but steadily dropping. I’m down about a half kilo since I started this, but that could just as easily be the result of quitting alcohol as of anything else.

Lastly, I’m finding it easier to stick with fitness goals, like the ones I set in January. (I should get back to writing up those plans/reflections). That could be because I’m generally more motivated to see a return on my ‘investment,’ or it could be because my overall energy/motivation level isn’t changing as much.

I’ll keep you posted.

Living in a man’s body

The Internet is full of motivational messages saying things like “we’re all just pretending to be adult” and I have that feeling pretty often. In my case, I have the added complication of people telling me that they were intimidated by me when they first met me.

Intimidated? By me?

It always surprises me, in spite of my hearing it often. I’m such a big goofball.

But, I’m huge and bearded and look obviously like a man approaching forty. (Some would say I look older, but they’d only say it once!) And I forget that. In fact, get me on school grounds and I have to remind myself that I’m one of the adults, not one of the kids. (Ha! Teachers have to speak to me as an equal! In theory, anyway…)

Recently, though, I’ve had moments where I realized that I’m living in a man’s body. I can’t explain what exactly triggers it, but it’s generally at times when I’m in motion and I feel somehow… manlier? Not stronger, not even fitter. But whatever it is, it’s closer to ‘strong’ and ‘fit’ than it is to ‘old’ or ‘creaky.’ I’m not talking about feeling like an old man. (That I had more often when my back was giving me trouble.)

My best guess is that the plank workouts and all the burpees are giving me a degree of core strength that I didn’t have as a kid, or, apparently, in my early thirties. So, maybe it is fitness.

On the other hand, maybe I’m just developmentally slow in this as I am in so many other things and whatever this feeling is, it’s what made jocks walk around the school what that particular gait of theirs all those years ago. If I am slower, does that mean I get to die later?

And, if it is a question of fitness, I wonder if I’ll eventually find a broader link between my (hopefully) increasing fitness and the way I behave.

Forming a running habit

After writing about how surprisingly motivational the Google Fit weekly running goals are for me, I thought it’d be nice to post an update:

Screenshot_20180121-132845

It took quite a bit of work and more than once I caught myself saying “if I don’t get a run in, I’ll have to wait a long time to push an incomplete week out the other side.” (If that phrasing makes any sense.)

The result was me having more back-to-back runs in the week: generally one 5k and a 7k, and a long run on the weekend. Maybe it’s not the structured approach to running I’d been hoping for, but it’s running.

Glory Days

I think a lot about the song “Glory Days” and of the danger of becoming a person who lives in the past. (‘A lot’ in this context means at least half a dozen times in my life.) The thing is, I used to run pretty regularly and it’s weird for me to struggle to get something done that used to be so fundamental to me.

I can rationalize that my kids are getting bigger, that I’m doing more with them, that I didn’t use to try and code a website in the same off-time that used to be just for reading and running. Nonetheless, it’s important to me that I continue to be the kind of person that I want to be, rather than assuming that having once run a marathon means I get to claim “runner” status forever.

Burpees

Yesterday, I did something that I’ve been talking (to myself) about doing for a while: I added exercises to my run. Six times in my usual 7km run, I stopped and did 5 burpees.

burpees1

I don’t know why I picked them over any other exercise, except that they have the reputation of being super hard, and I was ready to have my butt kicked. Even more, I was ready to push myself into being seen being different. And they’re certainly different.

How was it?

First, let me say that I might have forgotten about them, except that I certainly feel the workout still. And I kinda like that.

Next, in addition to the fact that, although I felt self-conscious for the last set, my shyness decreased with each set, I’d like to say that I really enjoyed getting my hands dirty. It’s a funny thing to say, but for such a (self-perceived) nature-loving, Earth embracing hippy, I don’t get dirty very often. And, doing the burpees, I had to… and I liked it.

The last thing I wanted to mention as I reflect on them is that it was a fun change to start seeing the run as the ‘recovery’ part of the workout. I mean, after just five of them, I was so out of breath that I was glad to be running again. And that’s not how I usually thing about running.

When will I do them again?

My new short-term goal is to add a fourth, short run to my running week and to try and get the thirty burpees in just four sets…

If I do or don’t, I have to say that I’m feeling more active now, and I’m enjoying that level of activity.