2020 Experiments: Exercise & Running Program

Open Question: What is a reasonable program for people to follow to develop a good level of fitness?

I’ve been thinking a bit about the 2018 Experiment: HIIT Burpee and Running Program. The challenge of that program was to met a minimal standard for health, which I define using the American Heart Association standards:

  • 25 minutes of aerobic activity, 3 times a week
  • moderate intensity muscle-building, 2 times a week

Aerobic Activity

I prefer running for cardiovascular fitness. I have always wanted to run a sub-20 minute 5K. So, I was thinking that a speed program at the desired speed, 9.0 on a treadmill or 6:40/mile pace on Monday and Fridays, incrementing as the current level becomes easy.

  • 0.25 miles with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 4 to 12 reps
  • 0.5 miles with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 2 to 6 reps
  • 0.75 miles with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 2 to 4 reps
  • 1 mile with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 1 to 3 reps
  • 1.5 miles with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 1 to 3 reps
  • 2 miles with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 1 to 2 reps
  • 2.5 miles with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 1 to 2 reps
  • 3 miles at one rep.

On Tuesday & Thursdays, it’s an easy 4 miles. On Wednesday, it’s either a easy 6-10 miles, an easy 4 miler or a rest day, depending on how I’m feeling. I’m not sure how long this kind of program will take, but I think taking two years seems like an achievable time frame.

Moderate Intensity Muscle-Building

But, the burpee program I came up with was positively brutal. I wanted to avoid making the same mistake this time, and keeping this easy.

This year, I spent some time revisiting The Hacker’s Diet, and I think his idea of having a low-intensity, low-time commitment exercise regime that can be done daily and anywhere is a good one. I took his program, and modified it to include a stepped program that increases 7% from 10 up to ~200 of bends (hands over head, legs spread, touch toes and return), sit-ups (hands across chest), skydivers (one rep, 4-count, hands to head and legs), push-ups, scissors (one rep, 4-count), jump squats, planks (front, back, each side for X seconds and 20 second rest period in between each), and jumping jacks (one rep, 4-count).

Each exercise is done for one set. The first rung takes less than 15 minutes. It’s easy to start, but it has the potential to become seriously challenging as you progress.

Modified Hacker’s Diet Exercise Program

Rung Bend Sit-up Skydivers Push-up Scissors J-Squats 4-Planks Jacks
1 10 10 10 10 10 10 45 10
2 11 11 11 11 11 11 50 11
3 11 11 11 11 11 11 50 11
4 12 12 12 12 12 12 50 12
5 13 13 13 13 13 13 55 13
6 14 14 14 14 14 14 55 14
7 15 15 15 15 15 15 60 15
8 16 16 16 16 16 16 60 16
9 17 17 17 17 17 17 65 17
10 18 18 18 18 18 18 65 18
11 20 20 20 20 20 20 70 20
12 20 21 21 21 21 21 70 21
13 20 23 23 23 23 23 75 23
14 20 24 24 24 24 24 75 24
15 20 26 26 26 26 26 80 26
16 20 28 28 28 28 28 80 28
17 20 30 30 30 30 30 85 30
18 20 32 32 32 32 32 85 32
19 20 34 34 34 34 34 90 34
20 20 36 36 36 36 36 90 36
21 20 39 39 39 39 39 95 39
22 20 41 41 41 41 41 95 41
23 20 44 44 44 44 44 100 44
24 20 47 47 47 47 47 100 47
25 20 51 51 51 51 51 105 51
26 20 54 54 54 54 54 105 54
27 20 58 58 58 58 58 110 58
28 20 62 62 62 62 62 110 62
29 20 66 66 66 66 66 115 66
30 20 71 71 71 71 71 115 71
31 20 76 76 76 76 76 120 76
32 20 81 81 81 81 81 120 81
33 20 87 87 87 87 87 120 87
34 20 93 93 93 93 93 120 93
35 20 100 100 100 100 100 120 100
36 20 107 107 107 107 107 120 107
37 20 114 114 114 114 114 120 114
38 20 122 122 122 122 122 120 122
39 20 131 131 131 131 131 120 131
40 20 140 140 140 140 140 120 140
41 20 150 150 150 150 150 120 150
42 20 160 160 160 160 160 120 160
43 20 171 171 171 171 171 120 171
44 20 183 183 183 183 183 120 183
45 20 196 196 196 196 196 120 196

So, I’m going to give this a try next year, and I’ll report back on how it worked out.

Army Fit

I’ve argued before about the value of a periodic fitness test. These are the current United States Army standards, perfect and passing, for each exercise, courtesy of Outside Magazine.

Deadlift

Lift the heaviest weight you can three times.

Max (100 points): 340 pounds
Pass (70 points): 180 pounds

Power Throw

Launch a ten-pound medicine ball over your head and behind you.

Max (100 points): 13.5 yards
Pass (70 points): 8.5 yards

Hand-Release Push-Ups

Perform as many reps as possible in two minutes.

Max (100 points): 70
Pass (70 points): 30

Sprint-Drag-Carry

For 50 meters each, sprint, drag 90 pounds, side-shuffle, farmer’s-carry 80 pounds, then sprint again.

Max (100 points): 1 minute 40 seconds
Pass (70 points): 2 minutes 9 seconds

Pull-Up Leg Tucks

While hanging from a pull-up bar, hoist yourself until your arms are at 90 degrees while bringing your knees into your chest, then lower. Complete as many as you can.

Max (100 points): 20
Pass (70 points): 5

Two-Mile Run

Finish as quickly as possible.

Max (100 points): 12 minutes 45 seconds
Pass (70 points): 18 minutes

From Outside Magazine, November 2019

Suggestions for Good Health

Blue Zones is a good place to start. However, if I were to give advice to my younger self, I’d focus on:

  • Sleep: Get a full night’s sleep and take a midday nap for a total of eight hours.
  • Food: Limit eating to four consecutive hours a day. Eat mostly plants. Drink powdered psyllium and water to stave off hunger feelings in the off hours.
  • Exercise: Walk/run for 16,000 steps a day or 8 miles, incorporating a full range of movement. Include some weight-bearing activity or physical training twice a week.
  • Social: Cultivate a social environment for flourishing among family, friends and your larger social circle. Be a positive, creative person and look for the same in others. Relentlessly prune relationships that are predominantly negative.
  • Being & Doing: Find something to do that leaves the world slightly better than you found it and promotes good sleeping, eating, exercise and social habits. The Buddhist idea of the Noble Eightfold Path is a useful model of how to be and what to do.

Bad Exercise Advice, Exhibit B

“Despite the apparent complexity of modern exercise programs, you really have only two options if you want to get fitter: you can train harder than you’re currently training, or you can train more. Those two variables, intensity and volume, are the basic levers that all training plans fiddle with in various ways. But let’s be honest: two variables is still too many. We all secretly want to know which one is really the master switch that controls our fitness.”

-Alex Hutchinson, “Is It More Important to Run Faster or Run Longer?Outside. August 14, 2019.

As covered in the discussion on adaptation response, there is no “master switch that controls our fitness.” If you want to be good at doing push-ups, do push-ups. If you want to swim the English Channel, then practice swimming miles at a time in cold water currents. If you want to be able to hold your breath for an extended time, then practice holding your breath. If you want to have six-pack abs, then you need to reduce your eating and increase your activity to the point that you can get your body fat below 10%. Everybody has six pack abs, it’s just that, for most of us, they are hidden behind a thick layer of fat.

Of course, goals tend to be more complex. If you want to run your first marathon, then you need to run more. You should work up to running 50 miles a week and be able to run for 20 miles straight a month before your race.

If you want to run faster than your last marathon, then you can increase your mileage up to 120 miles a week of elite runners and you can work in as much speed work as your body can handle at that volume, which will not be much unless you have been running that kind of volume for years and your body has adapted to it.

It is possible to run shorter distances fast and move up to the marathon. So, after years of adapting to a high volume of speed and middle distance running, you can start training for longer distances and increase mileage.

However, if your new to running, your goal is to run a marathon and you don’t have a decade time horizon to do it, then it’s probably easier to start with running more rather than a running program focused on running faster. Conversely, if your goal is to run a sub-20 minute 5k race, then running more than 50 miles a week will likely make you slower, not faster. Better to do intervals of 5k, a mile, a half-mile and a quarter mile with lower total mileage.

Your training has to reflect the activity you are training for. Sprinting is not the same as long distance running. Cycling isn’t the same leg exercise as doing squats and deadlifts. Our body (and mind) adapts to the training (or lack thereof) we give it.

Bad Gyms

When some one enters a gym for the first time, what are they looking for? If they are young, the driving force is often performance. Athletes want to be better at their chosen sport, and the gym provides a training ground in which to improve.

For the non-athlete entering the gym later in life, the focus may be on a particular goal – such as losing weight, cardiovascular fitness, or strength, but these too are performance goals. A desire for improvement is the motivation.

But, there is an interesting disconnect between the user of the gym and the gym owner. The concern of the gym owner, particularly if the gym owner is a corporation, is to reduce their risk of liability and reduce costs.

Enter any “fitness center” offered as an amenity by a corporation and you will find a wide variety machines that are designed, primarily, to prevent people from injuring themselves. These machines encourage repetitive, defined movements that limit the range of motion and the potential for injury. Free weights, if they are available at all, are confined to low weight dumbbells.

The simple fact is exercise machines are less effective forms of exercise than exercising with free weights. Yet, machines are the only options on offer because they are safer, and machines are cheaper than paying for staff to help people learn to exercise with free weights safely.

As a result of this typical safe gym environment, we almost never hear the simple truth. The overall best exercise for improving fitness is lifting heavy weights over a complete range of motion. If you wish to improve your health and fitness, deadlifts and squats are the single best way to do it. People using the gym need to learn how to do these exercises safely. A good gym trains people to do effective exercises safely. A bad gym provides machines to do less effective exercises that are safe and cost effective. Almost all the gyms we have are bad.

2018 Experiment: HIIT Burpee and Running Program

Background: Maintaining a minimum fitness standard is a challenge, particularly as we age. American Heart Association (AHA) recommendations focused on HIIT strength training and running suggests two sessions of HIIT strength training and three sessions of running for twenty-five minutes each.

physical-activity-in-adults

HIIT program criteria:

  1. It can be done anywhere.
  2. It requires no equipment.
  3. It takes less than 20 minutes.

This program is an experiment to see what kind of results can be obtained from HIIT training using one program with one exercise in combination with an easy program of running. It is as simple a plan to meet AHA recommendations for physical activity as I could come up with that incorporates strength training and meets a minimum running goal of 10 miles a week, which is a very low weekly mileage for runners.

Methods: Use the Bats! HIIT Interval Timer. Set up eleven phases. Work, break and rest are in seconds. Blk is for block or number of sets. #/Blk is number of timed intervals per set. Min. is total number of minutes required to complete.

Phase Work Break Rest #/Blk Blk Min.
P0 10 60 30 12 1 15
P1 15 60 30 12 1 16
P2 20 60 30 12 1 17
P3 25 60 30 12 1 18
P4 30 60 30 12 1 19
P5 30 55 30 12 1 18
P6 30 50 30 12 1 17
P7 30 45 30 12 1 16
P8 30 40 30 12 1 15
P9 30 35 30 12 1 14
P10 30 30 30 12 1 13

Do each phase for a month, twice a week. For the work interval, do burpees (standard or an easier variation). During break time, I plan to rest completely. Then, rinse and repeat until complete.

Initial plan is to do this program Tuesday and Friday. After HIIT training, do an easy run/walk of 25 minutes. On Monday and Thursday, do a minimum run/walk of four miles or approximately 40/80 minutes, respectively. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays are rest days.

Experiment will be considered a success if Phase 10 is done four weeks in a row. If I go for four weeks without doing the strength training or reach December 31, 2018 without completing Phase 10 for four weeks, I will consider the experiment over. On completion, I’ll write up a post mortem with results and conclusion and if I want to try it again, how it should be modified.

Results: For four months, I followed this program. I got to phase 3. At the end, I completed 6 burpees for 12 sets for a total of 72 burpees in 18 minutes for 6 weeks. There were dramatic improvements in cardiovascular fitness. Strength was improved. I also gained 15 pounds, which was the reason I stopped doing it.

Discussion: If I were to do this again, I’d focus on the number of burpees per work set and bring down the number per set and add sets over time. For example, I’d start with doing 1 burpee per minute for 10 minutes. As able, I’d add 2 minutes a session until I was at 20 minutes, then I’d drop down to 2 burpees per minute for 10 minutes and repeat the process.

I found that I could do 1 burpee every 3 seconds. So, you could work up to 10 burpees every minute and still have a 30 second recovery period per set. If you did that for 20 minutes, it would be 200 burpees. This is enough fitness for the vast majority of people.

The program above, in contrast, required doubling the amount when you go to the next level. It was very difficult. There needs to be a more gradual adaptation. Using the program outlined in the discussion section, I suspect it would probably take two years to start at 10 burpees in 10 minutes and work up to 200 burpees in 20 minutes.

Two sessions per week is reasonable. As long as you were doing the more gradual program, you might be safe doing as many as three.

The major issue is that doing this kind of exercise is going to fundamentally change your body composition and your weight is going to go up. I think it is worth doing. But, if your goal is to lose weight, then you’ll need to do that first and then do this program when you are ready to build your strength and fitness.

Conclusions: Properly modified per the discussion session, this technique is worth exploration as a way to maintain fitness and strength. But, it should not be confused with a weight loss program. This program will put weight on you, a lot of it.

Obesity and U.S. Marathon Times

Conclusions

  • The average American runner have never been slower (across gender and distance);
  • This effect is not due to the increase of female participants or “runners” – people who run slowly or walk the race.
  • Signs of poor health are highly correlated to the decrease in speed. Though we cannot with certainty say that these are the causes for the slowdown. And if they have causal nature that they show the full picture.

—Andersen, Jens Jakob. “American Runners Have Never Been Slower (Mega Study).” RunRepeat. August 2017.