Saturday, August 6, 2011

#355: Under the Weights, In the Water, and On the Boards

For most of my life, "muscle confusion" meant muscles asking, "hey, why are we moving all of a sudden?" Now, that I'm running, my muscles are more likely to ask, "hey, are you just going to sit there typing all day?"

Muscle confusion is a popular trend in training based on the principle that your body adapts very quickly to stress. If you do the same exercise over and over, your body learns to perform it more efficiently, and it has less and less of an effect on your growth. Eventually, you hit the dreaded "plateau" where you're doing everything right - eating clean, running long, sleeping deep, lifting heavy - but you don't lose weight, you don't get any faster, and you can't pull that new, heavier dead lift. You're stuck. How to get unstuck? Try cross training.

That's what they tell me, anyway.

Elliptical trainer
Since starting LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, I've been doing all kinds of cool stuff. The trainers have me doing cardio on the elliptical machine. That's cool, because it works my legs in a very different way than running does, and gives me a workout without interfering with the recovery day between runs that is so important to my old joints. I liked the machines at my first gym, Promatx, because they seemed to have a nice long stride that fit my legs. Many of the other machines I've tried seem to have shorter steps that make it a little harder for me to keep my balance. It took me a while to find a setting that let me work the foot pads without bumping up and down, but I think I've finally got it down. The elliptical is a funny machine. It's easy to fake it... lots of people watch TV or even read while they're working out. On the other hand, if you set an aggressive goal like maintaining a high pace or heart rate, you can really break a good sweat on the thing without banging your knees and hips. Sure, I'd rather  be running, but working those big muscles in the legs and butt, as well as the big one inside your chest, can only help when it's time to hit the road again.

Chest Press machine
I've never been a big fan of the weight machines, I find them restrictive and a little boring compared to free weights. On the other hand, when a group is training together, like we do, it's a lot easier for the trainers if we're all on machines that are easy to teach, easy to execute, and easy to adjust. Carrie and Melissa, our trainers at the Y, have designed a program for me that emphasizes balance between upper and lower body. My legs are pretty strong thanks to the running and the amount of weight they got used to carrying around on a daily basis for so many years. My upper body is much weaker. During radiation, I lost a lot of muscle mass in my shoulders and chest. I've never been very macho at the pull-ups/dips/push-ups stuff anyway. Hard for those little arms to haul that great big bottom around. The other thing that wants attention in my upper body workouts is my right shoulder. The nerves and muscle the docs had to remove around my tumor has given me a very limited range of motion in that joint. We're working very gently with very light weight to make the muscles that are left stronger so they can compensate for what's missing. It's pretty stiff and sore a lot of the time, but I'm going to keep working on it. I lose a lot of value around the house if I can't reach the top shelves anymore.

Dormont Pool, Dormont PA
Then there's swimming. I haven't been in the pool for a long time.  I remember swimming on a regular basis at Westminster, when we had to pass a swimming class as an all college requirement. From the time I was a child, swimming was considered a skill that everyone was just supposed to have. Not that I ever expected to be adrift at sea, but if I were, I'd be able to cope. I remember reading about JFK's long night swimming miles to save his crew from the PT-109. I'm no Mark Spitz, but were I on Tom Hanks' raft, I could have saved Wilson. We went to Dormont Pool all summer, back when summer actually lasted three months but felt like 10 years. All of us took swimming lessons starting with putting your face in six inches of water and finishing with lifesaving training over at the deep end. Swimming was a given. As I grew older, I swam less and less. I splashed around in the ocean a couple of times. One summer, Jim Ripper and I paddled across Lake Chautauqua. On my first tour with the National Shakespeare Company, we managed to swim in all five great lakes. Huron is surprisingly cold, even in August, by the way. But I've never been a lap swimmer. I found it too tiring and a little bit lonesome. That black line down the middle of the lane was just never enough scenery to hold my interest. Of course there was the biggest obstacle of all. When you're 200 pounds overweight, swimming trunks just aren't your best look.
Bemus Point on Lake Chautauqua, NY
So, there were a lot of things keeping me out of the water, but after a long sweaty workout, that pool at the Y just looked too good. I went to Meijer and found trunks on the clearance rack, then bought myself a pair of those weird little goggles. The good thing about swimming is there is a lot less tempting gear to by. Running culture is full of garments and gadgets that sneak up on you, once you're hooked on a sport that is only supposed to require a tee-shirt and sneakers. I already have a watch to count laps, and don't feel the need to wear a little rubber cap, so  my swimming spending was pretty much done. I was ready to give it a try.

I got to the pool about an hour before class. I took my shiny new suit and goggles out of my bag and padded naked to the shower. Even though the pool is chlorinated enough to take coffee stains out of a white shirt, it just seems like common courtesy to me to rinse off before jumping in. I pulled my trunks on and tightened the drawstring, then put the black goggle thingies over my forehead like I'd seen them do in the Olympics. I realized that I had never worn these things in my life, and wondered how stupid and bug-eyed I looked. Then came the few steps to the door, and out onto the tile pool deck.

Fat Man Swimming
The pool is inside, but there are huge windows on one end of the room. You can see the sun and the grass. The Legacy trail crossed at the far side of the field, so you can see runners and bikers knocking out miles in the sun. The pool is 25 meters long, and during the afternoon there are two lanes designated for lap swimming. The rest of the pool is for summer camp kids who laugh and splash and dunk each other: stuff kids have been doing in the water ever since our ancestors crawled out of it, I guess. I put my goggles over my eyes, jumped into the shallow end and got three surprises. First, the water is warm. Like bath-water warm. Those big windows produce a greenhouse effect that I hope is as effective in the winter as it is now.Then there was the depth. It's only three feet deep. Sure, the water slows you down, but you're still jumping down onto a concrete surface in your bare feet. It's a little jarring. Finally, there were those goggles. Remember how afraid I was that I might look foolish in them? That issue was settled when I splashed into the water and they flew up off my face, twisting crazily around my head. I looked around to make sure nobody saw how stupid I was, and then pulled the little cups back over my eyes. Then I took a deep breath, turned my back to the side, and pushed off down the lane.

I tried out all the strokes I learned as a kid. The breast stroke was always my favorite. I swam it smoothly and slowly, pleased with the way my body slid through the water. The elementary backstroke was probably the second one that my dad taught me, and I always liked it because you could see the sky while you swam. The side-stroke and the front and back crawl strokes were not so successful. They all require a degree of shoulder rotation that I just don't have anymore. So I stuck with the wide, underwater arm strokes. Nobody is going to confuse me with a competitive swimmer, but I do go forward instead of downward, so that's a plus. As I grew more comfortable in the water, I made my strokes a little longer, pulled the water a little harder. I could feel my sides and back working to move me along. Before I knew it, I had  been swimming for 20 minutes. My heart is strong, my breath was even, and my muscles felt energized. I popped into the sauna for a couple minutes, then went back to the locker room. After spinning the water out of my suit at the extractor, I rinsed some of the chlorine off in the shower and padded back to my locker. How about that? I just went swimming!

I think it's a great way to train between runs. Swimming is the lowest impact exercise I can imagine, and there's no question that it's a full body workout. You don't sweat. You don't get blisters. I won't say I enjoy it as much as a run in the woods, but I do like the sound of the water as I move along through it. It's good to be back in the water in a body that can actually move through it without gasping for air.

Tonight, I'm doing the Midsummer Night's Run 5K downtown. I'll be running with some friends, which will be a new experience for me. I'm usually a loner. The forecast is for fairly mild temperatures today, which means less than 100 degrees lately. It should be pretty pleasant by the time the gun fires at 8:30. Mrs P will be there, and Mum is going to see me run for the first time... first time ever, I think. I don't usually think about spectators when I run, but knowing she'll be there cheering me on makes this one kind of special. Not going for any PR tonight. Just a nice run with some nice folks.

Click the poster for info and tickets
My cast moved today's rehearsal so I could get out in time to run. They are so generous and kind to me. It just makes me want to work that much harder. I know I promised to blog more about the rehearsal process, but I've been pretty distracted lately. I'll try to fill in the blanks in the next few days, but in the meantime, just know that End Days is going great. The show is dangerously close to being really special. Actors' Guild's last show was completely sold out before opening night. Don't get closed out of this one. I hope you'll come see it if you're near Lexington.


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