Why I chose P90X over Insanity

Although I once thought I would never be interested in a commercial workout program, I’ve decided to start P90X. The weight that I put on last year still remains, and I’m going to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (500 miles), and would really rather not be recognizable as an American by my weight alone. In addition, my running suffered this year due to an injury I sustained last year, so I had an additional motive to get into shape with something other than simply running. The testimonials of Insanity and P90X won me over, and I became eager to learn more.

Initially, I leaned more toward Shaun T.’s Insanity program. The program takes two months, and the results are comparable to P90X‘s, which takes three months. Also, no equipment is required at all for Insanity, while P90X requires dumbbells or resistance bands, and a chin-up bar. Insanity’s workout DVDs are usually shorter than P90X’s, and never go over an hour.

Once my copy of Insanity arrived in the mail, I was quickly discouraged. The program is heavy—very heavy—on plyometrics (fitness code for jumping). Jumping for forty minutes is all well and good, but I had some reservations:

  1. Metatarsalgia. I broke a toe about six months ago in a race. Ever since then, my third metatarsal has been finicky. I took a doctor’s advice to avoid putting weight on it for a few weeks, but the punishing jumps of Insanity seem like a recipe for immediate re-injury.
  2. Downstairs neighbor. I know I wouldn’t appreciate it if I had an overweight neighbor jumping up-and-down above me for the better part of an hour the first thing in the morning.
  3. 117-year-old floorboards.

I decided to look deeper into P90X, and chose to do it instead. What persuaded me?

  1. Greater variety. Plyometrics is but one of twelve different workouts, which run the gamut from strength training to power yoga to karate.
  2. Customizability. Whereas Insanity seemed like a one-size-fits-all-jump-around-with-Shaun approach, P90X not only has great variety of workouts, but three different versions of the entire workout plan as well: a “classic” version, a “doubles” version for elite athletes, and a “lean” version with greater emphasis on cardio. Any phase can be extended up to two weeks if you feel necessary, and yes, you can skip Plyo if you need to.
  3. Emphasis on safety. Tony Horton repeatedly urges the participants to recognize and respect their limits in the interest of safety. Not hearing any such caution from Shaun T; somehow, I get the feeling that Shaun T. isn’t expecting anyone in his program to be much older than he is. Tony Horton, on the other hand, is actually two years older than I am.
  4. Nutrition. Whereas the nutrition plan in Insanity is treated almost as an afterthought, the nutrition plan in P90X is a fully-developed, essential part of the program. It’s made clear that you are not doing P90X if you are not following the nutrition plan. A nice touch is that the plan changes as the program progresses. The first month is a fairly low-carb, Paleo-ish diet, which becomes increasingly carb-ful as the body adjusts to the amount of exercise and begins to build endurance, which sounds great to a runner like me.
  5. Workouts are not longer than Insanity. Although some of the P90X DVDs last 75 minutes, much of the time is spent in explanation and demonstration. Once you learn the exercises in a specific workout, it’s not necessary to do them with the DVD; you can simply refer to your log to do them at your own pace, unlike Insanity.

Yesterday I took the “Fit Test” for P90X, to see just how badly out-of-shape I’d become. The results for most of the tests were disappointing—I can’t do a single pull-up, I can only do ten bicep curls with 10 lbs, etc. But I excelled on the abdominal exercise, bringing my knees to my chest 176 times, when the baseline was just 25. In other words, I’ve got fantastic abs! You just can’t see them!

Tonight, I’m doing the first P90X workout.

The Vegan Diet Experiment Conclusion

I’m ending the vegan diet experiment a week early. The results were disappointing. Not only did I not experience the tremendous energy boost that many vegans rave about, I didn’t lose a single pound!

However, I still believe that healthy vegan diets can be excellent for many people. As I mentioned in my previous post, there is not really any such thing as “The Vegan Diet,” since “vegan” merely describes what is not eaten, rather than what is. And that was the heart of the problem during my experiment. What healthy approach to use?

Brendan Brazier’s “Thrive” plan proved to be extremely intimidating from the first day. Although I had already spent a good week familiarizing myself with its concepts—making everything yourself, sprouting beans, exotic grains and seeds, creating your own flours, etc.—I found that I didn’t have the time or willpower to actually put much of Thrive into practice.

After some weeks, I came across Dr. John McDougall’s “The Starch Solution,” which seemed at first to be the vegan answer for anyone ill-suited to the time demands and exoticism of Thrive. However, The Starch Solution was even worse in the regard that all of these starchy foods involved cooking. While I didn’t completely avoid cooking during the test, asking me to actually cook rice and potatoes often—and without unhealthy fats—is just not going to work.

Another healthy vegan approach which I was familiar with, but wasn’t interested in trying, is the 80/10/10 or raw vegan diet. Although some people do well on it (I love ultrarunner Michael Arnstein’s posts on it at The Fruitarian), others have tried it and had poor results, such as the Raw Brahs. My main reasons for not going there during the trial were:

  1. I ate so many salads last year that I burned out. Three months of salads, fruit, and smoothies did not appeal to me.
  2. Both the Raw Brahs and even Arnstein have reported decreased sexual desire on the raw diet, also not appealing to me.

Any healthy diet, vegan or not, should eliminate or minimize sugar and omega 6–heavy vegetable oils, and that is certainly the case with these three. The problem is that many of the most appealing tastes go with the loss of sugar and oils. The additional flavors and textures of animal-based foods, do a lot to bring palatability to a healthy diet. At least, that’s my excuse.

Alas, my trial ended up being “The Standard American Diet, Quasi-Vegan Edition” with all too many junk foods, and predictably unspectacular results. And although I allowed myself two “cheat meals” per week, I sometimes had more like three or four cheats. Many vegans would object that I hadn’t given veganism a genuine try. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t give a healthy vegan diet a try.

Not eating meat was the easiest part of the switch. I ate meat only about four times in the duration. Although I’ve never been a firm vegetarian, I have long believed that eating little meat is far more natural and healthier than eating meat three times a day, which was unknown to most people in history, except for hunter-gathers in regions that are covered by snow periodically. (There’s a reason why hunter-gatherers have been far more numerous and successful in the tropics and subtropics.)

The most difficult thing to give up was actually the cream in my morning coffee. My friends joke that I don’t like coffee-flavored coffee, and they’re right. I like cream-flavored coffee, preferably with heavy whipping cream and spices like cinnamon and ginger. In the absence of heavy cream, a generous amount of half-and-half also works well. But I found soy milk in coffee hideous, almond milk pretty bad, and even coconut milk poor. Soy creamer was a bit better, but full of weird ingredients, and the popular “non-dairy creamers” are so full of chemical junk I avoided them altogether. At first I coped by substituting yerba mate for coffee, which I could drink without cream or sugar (but still not enjoy), but towards the end I was often drinking sweet soy lattes and mochas instead.

I really missed cheese. ‘Nuff said.

Although omelets were my most common breakfast last year, doing without eggs was much easier than I expected.

Towards the end of the experiment, I finally became comfortable with soaking and sprouting legumes. I think treating legumes this way (which removes the toxins and anti-nutrients) makes them near-superfoods. I also found the restriction of the diet much easier when eating sprouted legumes towards the end. Although I have never listed beans as one of my favorite foods, there is a fantastic difference between black beans that have been soaked and rinsed repeatedly for a day and sprouted for three more, slow-cooked with onions, garlic, and other spices, versus any prepared in a fast rinse-and-cook manner. I came to really enjoy eating my own slow-cooked, sprouted black beans and hummus made from sprouted chickpeas.

This also makes me question the Paleo diet’s rejection of legumes. Sure, hunter-gatherers don’t usually eat legumes, and many legumes are somewhat toxic without treatment. But properly treated, they become one of the most nutritious foods around, and most human cultures have successfully incorporated them into their diets for centuries. No, human evolution hasn’t changed in that amount of time, but to gut bacteria, it’s been millions of generations, and they can easily process legumes prepared well. Antiquity should not be the primary criterion of suitability.

I’m also canceling my planned Paleo and lacto-ovo experiments. I’m beginning the P90X workout system, and will be following its nutrition plan, though going fairly lightly on the meat.

My conclusion: vegan or not, a diet that doesn’t minimize sugar and omega-6′s is going to be mediocre at best.

The most essential skill

The most essential skill in the Jedi life …

is returning. Picking yourself up. Getting back on your feet. Turning yourself around. And when you’re about to give up—not.

Of course, there are exceptions—a few truly blessed folks who seem to be born disciplined. They could stop a freight train through their willpower, difficulties that would crush others only make them laugh, and bad habits are as foreign to them as Old Alpha Centaurian.

I’m not one of them.

Last summer, after the thrill of further progress on my weight-loss, faster times in my races, my most robust energy in years, and the beginning of a great relationship—I crashed. A sudden load of stress re-ignited my sugar addiction, and a breakup followed by a short depression turned it into a firestorm. Within two months I gained nearly twenty pounds. I began running less—far less—often not at all. My race times regressed. I gained a even few more pounds till I edged back over the obesity line.

I went from having completed five half-marathon races last year, to being unable to even finish an 8K in March. Despite promising to update the blog frequently, I didn’t, and the reason was that I didn’t even feel qualified to. (Jedi Life? How can I write about Jedi life? I’ve made a mess of myself; I’m no longer living a “Jedi” life.)

However, my failure in the 8K was a wake-up call to turn things around. I eased back into running consistently, and soon finished a pleasantly challenging 5k obstacle course. I hired a naturopath to help me regain lost energy. I began making bets against myself to encourage me to lose weight. For example, all of my co-workers know that the instant they see me eating chips or sweets, they can collect $20. I also promised a friend a more substantial sum if I don’t weigh in at or below a certain number every week. This has been very motivating!

I rediscovered a sense of purpose, and also clarified the purpose of this blog.

Jedi life isn’t about mastery or stunning achievements, although there are amazing masters. It’s about progress. It’s the little efforts we do every day that contribute to massive changes over years. It’s about cultivating a mind free from the engineered dissatisfactions of marketing and random dictates of the Zeitgeist. It’s about creating a heart big enough to love not just another, but also yourself and the whole world. It’s about tuning in to that mysterious One that shapes and holds the Universe together. It’s about making your body the best vehicle it can be to carry you throughout this life, rather than letting inertia and sofa cushions shape it for you. It’s about becoming yourself, your best self, your true self, the self you don’t even know yet, not the self shaped for you by so very many people.

I’m enjoying the journey, and hope you do, too!

Thrive, Paleo, or Other? Planning My Experiment

What’s the best whole-food diet?

A carefully-crafted plant-based diet emphasizing only nutritious, alkalizing, and energizing foods?
The Paleo diet, based on the eating patterns of humankind over the last two million or so years?
An omnivorous diet of whole foods with high-quality meat and dairy?

Which is best? Undoubtedly, that depends on the person. But it is possible to determine which is best for *me*. Next Friday, I’ll begin an experiment which could potentially take up to 39 weeks: a 12-week trial of three quality whole-food diets in turn, each beginning with a 1-week transition period.

Why? First, I need to lose weight. Although I’ve come a long way in the four years since I began running, I’m still overweight, and I want not to be. More than that, I want to be lean. Running lighter is simply more fun! Although these diets aren’t meant specifically for weight loss, I believe that Thrive’s nutritious vegan approach will very likely help me lose weight. Second, I need to find what best fuels my running. Although I’ve been a near-vegetarian for years, after reading sources for athletes that encourage a lot of protein, I began eating far more eggs over the last year. However, my results were mixed, and I want to investigate. Hence, my three-step experiment outlined below.

  • Diet I: Thrive-inspired plant-based whole-food diet

    I’ll largely be following the plan presented by Brendan Brazier in his wonderful book Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life. Thrive is much more strict than most vegans eat (there are lots of junk-food vegans out there). Thrive is concerned with eliminating dietary stressors, acid-forming foods, and non-nutritious foods. Thus, processed carbs, wheat, corn, and many forms of soy are out, as are high omega-6 vegetable oils, refined sugars, and coffee. Did I really say meat, dairy, eggs, wheat, corn, soy, cheap vegetable oils, sugar, and coffee? Isn’t that at least 90 percent of the Standard American Diet? It is, and Thrive is almost the antithesis of SAD.

    What’s left? Nearly all vegetables, all fresh or frozen fruits, most nuts and seeds, plus more exotic fare like sea vegetables, ancient grains and pseudo-grains. Special attention is given to the balance of Omega 3, 6, and 9 fats, and reducing inflammation. Strict as it is, Thrive is still less restrictive than some other diets like Timothy Ferris’s slow-carb diet which eschews all fruits and grains.

    However, its restrictions do concern me; sustainability is key for any long-term strategy, so I’m going to allow myself two mild “cheats” per week. These are not going to be a license to eat a pint of ice cream or a half chicken. These will be reasonable cheats, like a sushi lunch). And I’m not a fanatic—I won’t sweat it if I eat a wrap with mayo that might have a couple of grams of egg in it, or have something sweetened with honey instead of agave nectar. Beside the “vegan cheats,” I’ll also allow myself a few optional “Thrive cheats”–foods that, though vegan, fall outside of the Thrive world (white rice, some nachos, etc.)

    In spite of my premeditated cheating, I am really looking forward to this exciting approach to eating. Who can resist a recipe called “Wild Rice Yam Pancakes”?

  • Diet II: Paleo

    After I’ve given the Thrive diet a 12-week test, I’ll probably begin a test of the Paleo diet, Loren Cordain’s modern-day adaptation of humanity’s pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer diet. Paleo consists of meat, eggs (in moderation), vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds only). The condition is that if Thrive should feel so perfect that I can’t imagine eating any other way, screw it—I’ve found what’s right for me. However, if I’m still interested, Paleo is up next. Again, I’ll be emphasizing whole-foods, and will strive to eat the best, closest-to-wild meat, fish, and eggs possible during this time. Looking at Cordain’s recipes, they seem rather, um, mundane compared to Thrive’s, so I’ll likely continue my vegan meals as before, but will incorporate at least one animal-based meal a day, whether eggs or meat. I know some of you are wondering how could anyone have LESS that that, but for me, that will be a dramatic change.

    Note: I will not hesitate to end the experiment early if I feel a dramatic loss of energy, or any other strongly negative effects.

  • Diet III: Whole foods with dairy: omnivore or lacto-vegetarian

    Assuming I still haven’t been won over by Thrive or Paleo, I’ll try a third alternative, incorporating high-quality grass-fed dairy, and possibly eggs and meat, contingent on my experience of Paleo. Again, I might cut the experiment short based on my experience.

UPDATE, May 12, 2013
How did it go? Read about it.

Believe

This is a guest post from Mark Haynes, DC. Mark practices chiropractic medicine in Southeastern Virginia, and is a frequent speaker on matters of healthful living. Mark lives in Virginia Beach with his wife Celeste, and children Hannah and Emerson.

After watching Yoda use the force to elevate his Xwing fighter out of the swamp waters and deliver it safely to land, Luke exclaims… ‘I don’t believe it’. Master Yoda replies ‘That is why you fail’.

In order to feel the force, you must first believe.

First you must believe that there is a force to be felt. The same force that lights the stars, moves clouds and causes flowers to bloom – animates each of us. Whether you choose to name that force GOD or simply prefer the acronym for Grand Organized Design, the presence of a universal organizing force cannot be denied.

Believe.

Second, believe that your choices in life affect your ability to connect with and feel the force. You see, ultimately, your beliefs drive your behaviors. If you think that a happy meal really makes your body feel that way – you will eat lots of them. If you believe that your food does matter – that eating whole foods, full of natural nutrients nourishes your body then they will. If you think it is plenty of exercise to point and press the remote – you will be a couch potato. If, on the other hand, you believe that your body will work better if worked – you will exercise and enjoy the benefits. If you believe that your attitude affects your physiology for better and for worse, you will adjust it accordingly. If you believe that your mind, body and soul need time to restore, repair and recharge through rest then you will carve out enough of it.

Believe.

The power that made the body heals the body – it simply needs the right raw materials.

Believe.

So renew the body: eat right, stay fit, rest appropriately and think well.

Feel the force. It is you!

How to Recover Quickly from a Running Injury

I was running in the Norfolk Freedom Half-Marathon. A few miles in, something felt wrong in my left knee, as though my left leg had suddenly grown a half-inch or so. Soon it became worse, with an internal “clicking” or “catching” sensation in my knee. By mile nine, I was reduced to mostly walking. I finished in pain, wishing I had been smarter and dropped out when I realized something was wrong.

The next day, I saw a sports physician who informed me I had a torn meniscus, cheerfully handing me a depressing pamphlet on meniscus surgery. He prescribed a painkiller and a month of physical therapy visits, and a follow-up visit for possible surgery. I had some dark thoughts before I was able to begin therapy … would I need surgery? would I be able to run again as well as I had before? Or would I become one of the many people I’ve met who shake their head sadly and say “Yeah, I used to run, but then my knees gave out…”

My fears were allayed as soon as I began therapy. My PT told me that he also has a torn meniscus, and that surgery didn’t help him but he was going to show me what did.

Over the next four weeks I had nine sessions of physical therapy, doing exercises designed to strengthen my muscles and align my joints properly. I learned a quad press to provide quick pain relief after the knee has been stretched. I learned the world’s greatest stretch for warming up which is widely known as—wait for it—“The World’s Greatest Stretch”. And I learned that I had to get out and start run/walking again with very gentle paces at first, gradually working up to my previous level.

The results were amazing. One month later, and I am back on my marathon training schedule. I’ve already nearly equaled my previous best Cooper test, and I’m doing speedwork better than ever before. I’ve also acquired valuable skill and knowledge in self-care and injury prevention and recovery.

What should you do if you become injured?

1. Don’t panic. Sports medicine has come a long, long way. Very few people should ever need to say goodbye to running due to knee injuries. Physical therapy can assist with a tremendously wide variety injuries, and when surgery is truly necessary, it can help in most other cases.

2. Get qualified help as soon as possible. Don’t wait, don’t be a “hero” (a fool) and continue to work out knowing that something is seriously wrong, without knowing what it is or how to cure it. Also be aware that sports injury and rehabilitation is not your family physician’s field of expertise. “Qualified help” in this case means an expert in the kind of injury you suffered.

3. Take charge of your recovery. “Hire” the therapist or other sports-injury expert to guide you in rebuilding your body to health and fitness. Many people take a passive role as “patient” in the healing process, and most health-care providers are accustomed to that. Don’t be passive. Break the pattern. Actively engage the expert you’ve hired in how to get back to doing what you want to be doing, as quickly and safely as possible.

4. Follow the treatment. Don’t slack. If you have a concern about the appropriateness of a specific movement or exercise, or if it causes unexpected pain, ask about it. But your recovery time is not “rest time,” but time to devote yourself fully to task of repairing your body.

5. Ask questions. Communicate. Ask your therapist for what exercises you can do at home to assist with the healing process. When is appropriate for you to begin training again, and at what level of intensity? Ask for what you can do after the therapy ends to continue to improve. Ask what exercises will help prevent future injuries.

6. Make the new routines part of your overall training. Some may be appropriate for warmup/cooldown exercises, while others might be better at other times. But the important thing is to continue with the exercises that help you as long as you benefit from them, which in some cases, may be the rest of your life.

7. Expect the best. Eat right. Gradually increase your activity level. Go forward, slowly and cautiously. Listen carefully to your recovering body.

Running and inner strength for life

Editor’s note:

This is a guest post from my ultrarunning friend, Jon Olszyk. Jon is a dedicated ultrarunner who has finished over 30 marathons and 15 ultra-marathons in the six years since he started running. He is without a doubt the most passionate runner I ever have had the pleasure to know personally. Jon lives in Virginia with his wife, Carrie.

I really don’t think of myself as any type of great runner at all. I tell people “I can’t go the furthest , nor do I go the fastest”. Most people tell me that they admire my mental toughness, strength and fortitude. I don’t know if I believe this is true either. I mean, am I mentally tougher than a Navy SEAL? No. Am I mentally tougher than a cancer patient undergoing chemo? No. There are probably thousands of other situations where I don’t feel like I mentally stronger than the people going thru them. I just know that in training and on race day, I am going to do whatever the hell I can to finish what I set out to do. If it means first, great. If it means last, great. Why? Because if you commit to something, you finish it!

How do I accomplish this?

  • I train in every condition imaginable. I am going to run in the heat, humidity, pouring down rain, freezing cold, windy and many other conditions. Why is this? I know that come race day, I am prepared for whatever comes at me. I love it when people are freaking out about the weather a week before race day. If it’s calling for rain, well, I know that I have trained in the rain. I know what it’s like to run with wet clothes, wet socks and heavy shoes. Do they? Or were they whining about how (insert weather condition here) it is outside so they didn’t run or did the treadmill?
  • If, and this is a big “if”, it’s bad enough to not go outside (I am not a fan of ice, sorry), then I use the treadmill. My treadmill is set up against two walls. No pictures, No windows, No TV, No music. Why? It’s me vs. my mind vs. the stop button. I am alone in my thoughts and when I’m hurting and tired, can I overcome the mental hurdle to hit the stop button? Knowing you can hit that button at any time is a blessing and a curse. I know that come race day, I cant just stop because I am hurting or tired.
  • Running is not easy. It’s hard, damn work. That’s the bottom line. Do I have my bad days? Yes. Do I have my days where I don’t want to run or a run just sucks? Yes. Those days were you get a mile or 2 miles into a run and say “this sucks, I am feeling miserable” are the days where you keep going and what make you, not as a runner, but in life in general. It’s easy to give up when times are tough. You may not realize it during that run (or situation in your life) but somewhere down the line you will use that experience to make yourself a better runner and person.

The 10 best and worst holiday habits

From Dr. Phil Maffetone:

The Best Holiday Habits:

  1. Maintain a healthy lifestyle
  2. Be with those you want to be with
  3. Stick with a holiday budget
  4. Balance work and pleasure
  5. Get enough sleep
  6. Stay at home and have fun
  7. Do things you’re passionate about
  8. Shop locally
  9. Buy & receive only healthy gifts
  10. Share healthy food

The Worst Holiday Habits:

  1. Spending money you don’t have
  2. Visiting people you don’t like
  3. Going to parties you’d rather avoid
  4. Eating things you don’t want
  5. Drinking too much alcohol
  6. Last minute shopping
  7. Holiday travel (especially at peak periods)
  8. Going on a diet January 1st
  9. Gaining weight
  10. Buying unhealthy gifts