Tag Archives: winter running

Food and Thermogenesis: How what you eat affects your body temperature

Energy produces heat. If you didn’t sleep through science class, they probably taught you this.

There are all sorts of circumstances behind what we now call climate change, the steadily rising temperature of the planet. But one key element is the fundamental existence of more human beings than have ever been on the planet in recorded history.

All humans produce heat. Every mechanical, electrical, chemical anything we have ever done produces heat. Vehicles and other machines produce heat when they operate. Anything we built that moves produces heat. Even the coldest fridges, freezers and air conditioners produce heat to cool what’s inside: The heat is just emitted out of the back or top of the device into the surrounding atmosphere.

And our bodies produce heat. The bigger we are, the more active we are, the more heat we produce. This is a key reason why your perceived temperature is hotter when you’re running than it is when you’re walking or still. You produce a lot more heat when you exercise.

Even the energy required to digest food produces heat. The act of digestion producing this energy is a little something scientists call thermogenesis.

Some foods require more energy from thermogenesis than others. This is one of the keys behind why it’s generally healthier to eat unprocessed meat and vegetables than processed sugar.

Insoluble fiber and most proteins require a lot of digestive energy for the body to digest its nutrients. These foods are highly thermogenic.

Meanwhile, chemically refined sugar is by design quickly digested, as these foods are chemically engineered to not satisfy you hunger and make you crave more of them. These foods are lightly thermogenic.

You can eat 500 calories of sugar cookies, and still be very hungry immediately after eating them. Meanwhile, you can eat 500 calories of steak, and be so full you won’t want another bite of anything for several hours. And woe is the poor soul who tries to eat 500 calories of broccoli… if he even manages to get it all down (1 cup of cooked broccoli is about 60 calories). He will end up spending a regretful amount of time on a toilet at some future point.

Broccoli and other vegetables are among the most thermogenic of foods. Many require more caloric energy to burn them than the calories the vegetables themselves contain!

Now, why bring up global warming when bringing up the thermic effect of food? Is Steven saying that broccoli causes climate change?

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Thinking about the Wim Hof Method of breathing

https://www.ratemds.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Feature-Foto-Blog-Wim-Hof.jpeg
Wim Hof relaxes in some ice cold weather while wearing almost nothing, thanks to the positive warming effects of his signature breathing technique

A Dutchman named Wim Hof created a unique breathing method that effectively supercharges your body.

I first learned about the breathing technique years ago from this 2016 Men’s Journal post from Scott Carney. Carney was posting an excerpt from a book he was releasing, but I was more drawn to the idea of a breathing method not only warming you up in Chicago (where I lived and ran during the deadest of winters), but also hyper-oxygenating your blood and better equipping yourself to perform athletic feats.

The Wim Hof Method is basically this:

  • You forcefully breathe in, out, and again, for 30 repetitions where each inhale and exhale only lasts a second.
  • After the 30th exhale, you then hold your “breath”, or in this case lack thereof, for as long as you reasonably can.
  • Finally, when you need to breathe, inhale only halfway, then hold this breath for 15 seconds.
  • Exhale, then take a normal deep breath. Breathe normally.

Ideally, you do this whole sequence about three times. The idea is that your blood oxygen kicks up to the max during the 30 strong breaths. Then the lack of oxygen as you hold your exhale drops your blood oxygen so rapidly that stress hormones kick in and this provides a ton of benefits. Plus, once you’re breathing again, your body becomes a lot more efficient at absorbing and utilizing the oxygen drawn for a short while after.

Carney mentioned being able to perform dozens of push ups beyond his typical means after doing the Method. Personally, while intrigued at that, I was also intrigued at the accounts of being warm while shirtless in ice cold weather. I didn’t plan on shedding any clothes during winter workouts, but I liked the idea of being warmer.

At first, I tested the breathing warm-up before Racing Team workouts on Wednesdays in the summer and fall. While I’m not totally sure how much it helped my performance, I certainly performed well in those speed workouts. I liked going out to the meeting point early on workout days, and this was a good warm-up to do while waiting for everyone else to straggle over.

I’ve used it periodically since. It was never something I adopted religiously. Often I did it when I felt I needed to improve my energy before a tough workout: I always did these after work, and energy levels generally aren’t the highest on a weekday at 6pm. If it was going to help improve oxygen intake and usage, then why not try it.

I’ve definitely used it before winter races or post-work runs, when temperatures were below freezing and I simply was not warm. I think it helped a good portion of the time, though so did starting to run and getting 15-30 minutes into said run. Still, if at a start line and it was going to be a while before we could go, I definitely practiced the method, and I do think it helped some.

I’m not looking to draw any sort of study or conclusion from the Wim Hof Breathing Method. I think, regardless of what conditions you run in, it’s worth a shot… provided you’re careful about how long you hold that exhale after the 30 breaths. You obviously don’t want to pass out or suffocate by accident.

I’ll recommend you do what I did when I first started: Pick a pre-determined amount of time to hold that exhale that you know you can handle, and start with that. I would start by trying for 30 seconds (and obviously, nothing wrong with chickening out at 15-20 if you find it’s getting rather tough). Over time, you can gradually increase the time held as you get comfortable or begin to find holding that exhale too easy.

Obviously, in Las Vegas, I have no need to get warmer. And right now I’m not running a whole lot.

However, I noticed my sleeping oximeter levels (91-93%) are lower in Las Vegas than they were in the Midwest (though my waking oxygen levels are well above 95% like they should be). Some of that is the high altitude and dry air, sure, but it’s a concern. I am also mindful of the lung and breathing risks that could come with Coronavirus.

I wouldn’t mind practicing the Method just to improve my general oxygen availability, not to mention recalibrate my body to maximize any potential benefits from a shortage of oxygen. Re-reading writing about Hof’s method does tip me off that maybe my periodic lower levels during sleep are also suppressing inflammation in the body and promoting healing. They tend to drop lower during deep sleep periods, per my tracker. Can this “practice” with the Method help enhance that effect or provide it during waking time?

In any case, the Method is worth a try, especially now with me focusing on strength training and less on running for now.

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Winter long run struggles

I’ve faced an odyssey of problems with my long runs over the past month due to Chicago’s extreme turn of winter weather.

Getting long runs in hasn’t been the problem. In fact, I’ve been more consistent with my weekly long runs over the past several months than ever before. The issue is that weather and other concerns have made those long runs more difficult. Last weekend’s 2 hour run was a snow stomping slog through an obstacle course of unplowed snow, standing ice and other issues.

This past weekend’s 2 hour run battled a stiff 30 mph crosswind that not only made maintaining a straight path difficult but also sent broken tree branches and other debris flying across the lakefront.

I haven’t focused as much on stretching out or improving training pace/cadency because just managing to stay upright and run in itself was already a huge challenge in the conditions.

It was almost a blessing in disguise that I had to run the F3 Half during the early portion of my training cycle. Racing 13 miles right off the bat meant that stretching out wasn’t a concern. And forced downtime the following week (due to extreme cold and -50°F windchills) allowed for some needed recovery after the race took quite a bit out of me. And it assured that by my early base phase I was already able to run 2 hours at a harder pace.

So effectively the first half of Vancouver training has been largely a base phase built around mixing challenging volume with recovery. The hope is that this builds strength with my endurance, while also adding extra recovery between key workouts.

Sure, it’s a bummer that the key workouts have been more about fighting through tough conditions than about speed or showing out pace, or that the quality has to be a tradeoff for a lesser quantity of mileage.

But, even if winter and the harsh conditions stick around longer than we’d want, hopefully this allows for volume building and longer base workouts, and the payoff is a good long run in Vancouver this May.

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Losing Fat Without Losing Sleep

An irony of New Year’s Resolutions driving people to diet and hit the gym in January is that winter is probably not the best time to try and burn fat in colder climates.

You have a more difficult time sleeping when hungry, especially if it’s cool or cold. Your body will kick into a sort of overdrive to burn body fat, which revs your circulation up enough to keep you in a state too awake to get to sleep. In fact, if you have issues getting to sleep, you may want to make sure you’re better fed shortly before bed.

But most of you want to lose weight and this is the time to do it because blah blah bathing suit season etc. You don’t want to punt the golden opportunity, and you certainly don’t want to gain weight during the winter when you want or need to lose fat in the long run. Fair enough.

There’s actually a middle ground, and it works especially well if you prefer to train later in the day. The key is intermittent fasting, i.e. not eating for most of the day, then eating all of your food in a limited time window like 6-8 hours.

Now, a myth with intermittent fasting is that it causes you to lose weight in itself. That isn’t necessarily true. You could still overeat for the day in the 6-8 hours you can eat. It’s very easy to pound a frozen pizza, and then a hamburger or something 4-6 hours later, let alone snack on anything in-between, and end up over the line. Even with 16-18 hours of not eating, you could still end up storing extra fat overall.

Given that, it’s still entirely possible to diet effectively and lose weight, while still going to bed each night feeling satiated after a ridiculously sized meal.

The key is to flip the conventional “breakfast like a king, dinner like a pauper” wisdom on its head. This is actually for most a counter-productive way of eating that has been sustained largely out of forced cultural habit. It makes sense to many people (even alleged experts) because that’s always how they’ve eaten.

Basically, even if your last meal of the day isn’t your largest, you want your last meal to be a large meal, one where by the time you go to bed you’re not in any way hungry. You may even want to top it off with a hearty snack right before bed.

Also, as this infers, you probably don’t want to start your limited feeding window at dawn and then eat your last meal around noon or 1pm, going to bed several hours after that meal. You will almost certainly be hungry at bedtime.

You will want to follow a more conventional intermittent fasting window, where you skip breakfast, eat your first meal at lunch, and then eat regularly until before bed. This allows you to fill your stomach close to full before bed and avoid insomnia-producing hunger.

Now, that doesn’t mean your first meal of the day should be the smallest. You can break your intermittent fast at lunch with a large meal as well. Just make sure any meal or snack you eat between lunch and dinner is not too large.

You probably do want to make sure you eat something a few hours after lunch to avoid any hormonal crashes or temptation to binge-eat any garbage at dinner… unless you have a specific reason you’d want to do so (like a special family dinner). Just make sure it’s around the 400-600 calorie range, bigger than a little snack but not quite a full meal.

Just because you can still gain weight intermittent fasting doesn’t mean your body isn’t burning fat during the fasting period. Moderating your diet just makes sure you aren’t piling on more fat than you burn. The fasting period does its job burning fat without food in your stomach. This process revs up your circulation, which you want during the day when you’re awake but mostly sedentary.

By back loading your food intake later in the day, your body can utilize this nutrition for post-workout and overnight recovery, and allow you to relax and sleep.

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Feast or Famine Winter Training: A blessing in disguise?

Chicago’s freezing weather has forced me to hibernate for days at a time. Last week’s brutal -50°F windchills knocked out a couple days, and this week a combination of sub-10°F temperatures with stiff 20-30 mph winds have compelled me to flex in a couple of days off.

This has led me into a feast/famine schedule, where I’ll run 4-5 days in a row, then run very little for a few days, then repeat. If Chicago’s weather can stabilize into something consistently tolerable, I’ll resume a more normal training schedule.

But I realized this schedule is very similar to one that emergency workers (hospital medical staff, firefighters, law enforcement) follow, along with to some extent expo workers.

They work long hours for several days in a row, then they get several days off in a row. In the case of emergency staff, working a regular 8 hour shift is often impractical when attending to real-time emergencies. In the case of expo staff, they work when convention services are needed, and those periods often come in peak-season blocks rather than everyday on a 40 hour schedule.

Obviously, there are drawbacks to life with such a schedule. No one ever argued this was an optimal schedule. However, not only do workers put in entire careers on such a schedule, but (taking a bit of a logical leap here) it’s entirely possible that runners could to some extent do fine on the same schedule.

In fact, runners kind of do. We train hard for goal races in 8-24 week cycles… then we take longer breaks before resuming training for the next goal. Even the famous elite Kenyan runners take weeks or months off following their marathons.

We couldn’t train as hard as we do unless we took breaks at some point. Sometimes, injuries or life force those breaks. But many end up taking them by choice or other willing circumstance. It’s during these breaks that the body and mind rebuild, allowing us to train hard the next time around. You don’t grow stronger during training, but during the recovery between bouts of training.

So back to this strange-to-many feast or famine schedule: Imagine 4-5 days straight of moderate running, with a long run at some point, perhaps a speedwork session early on… then 3-4 days of no training, or perhaps a short run or two during that period… before another 4-5 days straight of moderate/long running.

That moderate period might really beat you up, but then you get that long subsequent period to heal up from all that work. You’re possibly almost chomping at the bit to get back at it two days before you resume training. By the time you get back to longer runs, you’re physically and psychologically fresh.

The latter situation is actually the idea behind a marathon taper. You spend months grinding yourself to get ready for the race. Then you scale back your training to too-little-running, so that your body and mind can heal up and running can become fresh again once it’s time to run the actual race.

I won’t go as far as to say everyone should do this. If I had it my way, I’d have trained normally over this past month, instead of having to stall training for 2-3 days due to severe weather.

But in a way the severe weather was an opportunity to rest up and recover. So long as I maximize the time to train while the weather is good, the time off could maximize the recovery and growth from that training.

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The Hidden Benefits of Hibernating, or Why I Did Nothing During the 2019 Polar Vortex

I run through winter, but I have my limits.

My drop dead low temperature for running is -5°F. Beyond that, any amount of wind creates a sub-30-minute frostbite risk. I don’t want to take any chances by running outside for any length of time, since given icy conditions I will likely have to travel some distance on foot to find a suitable running path.

My drop dead low temperature for any kind of outdoor anything is -10°F. Even if covered up, even with no wind, the temperature by itself begins to pose a frostbite and hypothermia risk, regardless of how well you’re bundled up.

(Much respect to my Canadian, Maritime, Dakotan, Montanan, New English, Mongolian, Siberian, Antarctican, et ceteran readers who regularly experience temps far colder. You also have the benefit of generations of biology that we southerners lack. I have grown to handle extreme cold but despite my best efforts I still have physical limits.)

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Recap of an ice cold F3 Half Marathon

f3halfThough 10 degrees Fahrenheit was far warmer than it had been in Chicago throughout this week, the cold at Saturday’s F3 Half Marathon was stiff enough to compel organizers to do most of the pre-race festivities (including the National Anthem) inside the Soldier Field concourse.

Your intrepid running writer struggled Friday night to find an effective race-day-gear middle ground between minimal racing weight, and functionally layering for the cold.

Because this was basically a goal race on my schedule, how I did today was important enough to not just dismiss this as a throwaway result in icy conditions. I didn’t train for the Half distance just to phone the race in.

I knew a PR was probably unlikely: I knew I’d end up a bit heavy (and thus slower) due to layers, and that despite the cold I might end up a bit overheated due to what layers I wore. This was just about seeing how close I could get in these conditions.

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