Fitness is a matter of sweating and thinking
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How to Read 5 Impactful Books in 2 Months’ Spare Time
Feb 17 2022 | Yiyang Ma www.linkedin.com/in/yiyangma
My New Year resolution is to read a book every two weeks or so. Thanks to Audible and Running “dual play” lol I am on the right track, at the right pace – five books between Christmas and Valentine’s. This “lunch break article” really is to share my learning so far, like I did in How to Become An Ironman: My Triathlon Story. Busy readers can jump to the third paragraph, where I challenge my succinctness to one-sentence book summaries.
Why read books as busy working professionals? We are already swamped with work and life obligations, on-job training, structured learning such as certificates and online courses. The short answer is that independent learning (including reading) is vital to your career health. Today’s working professionals face the dual challenge of developing depth and width, as coined in the term “T-shaped talents”. The reason is that our work environment increasingly demands “doing more with less” (efficiency) and also “game-changing” technologies and operating models (innovation). Both are often from adjacent or foreign fields. One man’s trash is another’s treasure. Convention in one field may be innovation in another. Numerous examples have shown that – insurance companies and hotels use Toyota’s JIT and lean. Tennis coaches now find jobs from Uber-like apps. On-job learning, certificates, courses add much value however imply a set course of learning and a relatively static body of knowledge. Innovation comes from free minds. Reading frees minds.
How do we find good books to read? Practically you can start with one most interested subject (book), then find the next best book by discussing/ applying the learned. The principle at play is the adjacent possible. According to Stuart Kauffman, biological systems are able to morph into complex systems by making incremental changes. Revolution is exceptional; evolution is common. Get in touch with like-minded people during this process and put the ideas at practice.
My journey in last two months. I started with a question “How people reach excellence in their field?”. My friend and professor Dr. Kendall Giles recommend a book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Author Cal Newport echoes Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule of purposeful, progressively difficult practice to reach excellence. Also thanks to Dr. Giles, I found a “contrarian book” lol – Range Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Author David Epstein reasons that early and lonrg practice is key in a “kind” learning environment (rule-based, with immediate feedback), howeer your range of experience is most valuable in a “wicked” environment (dynamic, confusing, without near-term feedback). My reading of two contradictory books encouraged me to find a few empirical examples to put them under test.
It turned out both David Epstein and Cal Newport made good points. My friend Peter Knox suggested INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love. It reveals that in the “wicked learning environment” technology product managers operate, only the products that meet “value, usability, feasibility, and business viability” survive and prevail after numerous rounds of practice to reach “product market fit”. In other words, both product depth through numerous iterations, and a wide range of customer experiments underpin a prevailing product.
I decided to find a book similar to Inspired but gave practical advice for the non-tech audience. I found The Start-up of You, co-authored by LinkedIn Cofounder Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha. Authors provided an entrepreneurial system to concurrently monitor a range of interesting projects worth investment, and only prioritize those survived a period of intense focus. Finally I finished my 2-month learning with HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Innovation so that I learn systematic/ organizational innovations from Fortune 500 examples.
Path forward. Ideas produce experiments. Experiments, failures. Failures, learning. Learning, successful innovations. I regard reading as thought experiments that trigger learning. And learning matters most if converted into impactful innovations. I appreciate the last two months’ learning and the phone/ Zoom discussions with my learning circle. This short lunch break writing is to give back. In the appendix, you will find my book recommendations. I welcome any ideas/ questions.
Glass is half-full and half-empty. We need depth and range. Hope everyone a prosperous year of exploring your next possible!
Check out Dr. Giles’ podcast and above books here:
So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Author Cal Newport
Range How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World & The Sports Gene By David Epstein 2 Books Collection Set
INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan
Thank you for visiting.
Founder and Editor
5 Organizational Transformation Principles Inspired by Ironman
Oct 12 2021 | Yiyang Ma www.linkedin.com/in/yiyangma
My favorite business writer Ray Dalio [i] suggests that everyone comes up with their own work and life principles to crystalize personal learnings and share freely for the common good. I can’t agree more with Ray.
As summarized in my first principle article , I found striking parallels between an Ironman[ii] and a professional career – both require the right attitude, appropriate planning, and juggling of multiple priorities. In this new principle article, I have more learning to share based on my experience in organizational transformation and my recent Ironman 140.6 race (link). This article is a living document to be refined by readers’ feedback and my own personal journey of transformation. I hope it serves as brain foods for people who are either leading an organizational transformation or personally experiencing it.
1. There is no individual transformation in the world. Though results may be “credited” to individuals and organizations, the efforts are never individual. Elite Ironman triathletes salute their coaches and crews. Amateurs thank their families and friends. Even competing athletes become friends on the Ironman course. I have vivid memory of seeing people making allies in the hardest hours of the evening marathon: some are running shoulder-to-shoulder to keep the same fast 8 min/ mile pace; some are walking steadily together for moral support. Similarly, all transformation programs must identify their stakeholders within and outside of organizational boundaries and acknowledge that dynamics may change – previous competitors can become allies.
2. Transformation must be supported by a strong infrastructure. My Ironman coach Ed played an integral role in co-creating training plans with each of us 20 Ironman athletes. The training is structured in phases of progressively harder goals to build fitness; within each phase, weekly and daily goals are reviewed and mutually agreed. Though individual buy-in and actions are essential to the race performance, the coach and peers provide a transformation infrastructure from techniques, recovery, external experts, to social hours. A Strategy Realization Office (SRO) and its predecessor Program Management Office (PMO) are the corporate equivalents of coaches, crews, and peers to empower individual teams and projects to reach their best potential in alignment with the organizational vision.
3. Quiet evolution is the norm. Dramatic revolution is the exceptional result of continuous evolution. Incremental improvement (evolution) is the improvement an athlete and an organization can make every single day, rain or shine. The glorious “You are an Ironman” moment cannot happen if an athlete does not pay attention to individual improvements such as the subtle running posture, the execution of every swim stroke, and the quality of the meal after a strenuous workout. The way you do one thing is the way you do everything. The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step (Lao Tzu 571 BC). This applies to the transformation we consultants help corporate and governmental clients realize: we co-create the vision of a glorious future and a systematic approach to manage the changes happening on the ground. Tools include but are not limited to the development of strategic objectives, roadmaps, milestones, KPIs, and centers of excellence to encourage continuous learning.
4. Organizational/ systematic optimization is greater than regional optimization. As a triathlon common sense, there is no such thing as a good swim followed by a bad bike; or a good bike followed by a bad run. To successfully complete a 140.6 miles Ironman, one must use her psychological and physical resources wisely. A head coach should ask the athletes to set desired heart-rate zones and paces for each discipline of their race. A relay coach should look at the strength and weakness of the individuals and match each discipline with the best athlete. The same principle applies to organizations who hope to sustain and optimize organizational success through smart teams and resource allocations. Large transformation initiatives particularly require a deep understanding of the interdependency between individual teams, projects, and programs to maximize organizational success. Like sport teams, transformation efforts only succeed when team members are enthusiastically engaged. When there are disagreements (which are natural as “part of the business”): creativity outshines compromise; compromise outshines imposition. In certain business negotiation settings, walk-away may be the best option.
5. Address risks before they become issues. Strategic transformation requires periodical assessment of the internal and external environments so that opportunities can be captured and risks can be mitigated. Running a sport team shares the same principle: before injuries and nutritional issues happen, coaches actively educate the team on related topics through training sessions, articles, clinics, and webinars. Mentors are crucial in growing the participants and the camaraderie. A successful SRO /PMO should actively monitor risks and use available tools to preempt risks. Peer-to-peer forums such as community of practice and digital platforms such as internal training/ knowledge clouds are effective ways of identifying risks, disseminating knowledge, and encouraging creative solutions.
Hope this short article serves as brain foods for people who are either leading an organizational transformation or personally experiencing it.
[i] Founder of the world’s largest hedge fund Bridgewater Associates and author of books Principles, The Changing World Order.
[ii] A full Ironman is a triathlon of 2.4 miles swim, 112 miles bike, and a full marathon under 17 hours.
How to become an ironman: my Ironman Maryland story
Oct 3 2021 | Yiyang Ma www.linkedin.com/in/yiyangma
After 13 hours and 40 minutes, I completed my first full Ironman: Ironman Maryland (IMMD, 9/18/2021). A full Ironman requires 2.4 miles swim, 112 miles bike, and a full marathon under 17 hours. 1 grey hair, 2 big blisters, 3 lost pounds, and so many emotions. Before I dive into the details, I want to thank those who supported me during this LONG journey – my family, friends, colleagues, and fellow athletes Ying, Yinghua, Fang, and Dan. If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
Accomplishing the Iron distance has been a dream since 2020. I signed up IMMD right after New Year’s Day, also the March Rock n Roll Marathon, and the June Ironman Virginia 70.3 to steadily build up my fitness and confidence. For obvious reasons, all races were cancelled in 2020. I deferred my entries to 2021 however wasn’t sure which race(s) will still happen. Only after my inoculation in April 2021, did I formally commit to the deferred 70.3 Race. I only had 8 weeks to prepare for the race so I put together a training plan to self-coach. I completed the race with 6 hours and 44 minutes, 709th place out of 1,380 finishers. It helped me gain much confidence and connect with a couple triathletes. I also decided to join Team Z so that I can train for IMMD with a group. Looking back at both races, the 70.3 was a somewhat unexpected 8-week “meeting engagement” and IMMD was a well-planned 15-week Campaign. The 23 weeks were hard however extremely fulfilling. I gained fitness and changed my mindset: no matter how difficult it gets, you should always keep your proud chest and lean forward. This is true for running and life.
Swim 2.4 Miles
Swim is a relatively short part of a full Ironman but challenging and fun. Since freestyle primarily uses your upper body, the training helps triathletes develop full body fitness and coordination. Swim also has psychological benefits: my COVID “sanity strategy” has been “eat well, sleep well, exercise well, close to nature, and practice positivity”. Swimming is the perfect workout that check all boxes – you can’t possibly make a 530am group swim if you can’t put down whisky bottles. The moment my chest touches the crispy water is the moment I forget the work from home “trap” and remember our human origin from the deep ocean. My L4 swimming teammates are chill, carefree people – “You don’t swim backstroke? I suck at that too!” Laughing at my mistakes and improvements has been fun, though swimming can be frustrating at times. It’s a process of much patience and persistence. I take notes of coaches’ points and my own intuition on Strava. After weeks of practice, my freestyle got smooth – 1 hour 36 minutes for 2.4 miles. Not fast but good enough to save my legs to pass people on my bike and run.
IMMD course is in the Choptank River, close to a wildlife conservation and the Chesapeake. The beautiful Heron bird on the medal is common in our area. On the flip side, there is a HUGE jelly fish population in the water. I took allergy pills and used Vaseline/ Safe Sea as protection. However the 20+ stings on the face and arms weren’t too fun: numb, hot, stimulating, and a bit painful. Can’t remember how many times I swore at those little demons, but thankfully I shook off the discomfort when I started my bike. If I race IMMD the 2nd time, I will switch to a long sleeve wetsuit. All is well when it ends well.
The course map includes two rectangular loops. You won’t be lost if you follow the red buoys. My overall swim strategy is to preserve energy for the bike and run through efficient and relatively slow strokes. My biggest fear before the race was water panic: it was uncommon but possible- especially when I got sleep-deprived and under much work pressure. The symptoms were difficulties in breathing, broken strokes, and overreaction when people pass me. Luckily, I was able to intentionally train my sighting through drills such as Alligator drills taught by Ed/ Mark. I also swam open water in Lake Arrow Head and National Harbor. To not overreact to passing swimmers, I self-seeded to a slower group. It wasn’t fun to be the underdog however beneficial. Good mental preparedness and race tactic allowed me to finish the swim in a reasonable pace and started my bike strong: I was able to pass 6-7 people every 10 minutes or so in the first few hours of the bike race.
For those who haven’t done self-seeding: you join a wave (group) based on your planned pace and start when your group is called. Some “dog fight” in water isn’t a big deal. Keep some distance if needed and have an extra pair of goggle.
There will be photographers at the swim finish. Somehow I was not lucky with my swim pictures (IMMD on the left and Virginia 70.3 on the right). There always was someone to share the lens lol. When I rushed to the transition, the person next to me looked so chill. Maybe he knows this better: sport is for life; sport is for fun.
Bike 112 miles
I believe that bike requires most investment in time and gear. Firstly bike is the longest discipline for most Ironman athletes, including myself in IMMD: 6 hours and 16 minutes, about 17.9 miles per hour. Given its significance, bike requires tactics. Triathletes should remember the goal is to get you to the run start safely and reasonably fast. Staying in the right heart rate and pace is crucial. Many triathletes started the bike leg too fast and too enthusiastically. They ended up dropping speed in the 2nd part of the bike and the overall race. Find your sustainably fast pace and heart rate -you will crush the bike and run courses like a pro.
Secondly, bike training can be time consuming. There are many aspects to train such as cadence, observation, endurance, and strength. Observation and endurance can be steadily improved through long rides (70 miles to 120 miles for Iron distance) preferably in a group setting. Not only are group rides safer, they also are a good way to get social sometimes with a glass of beer. Cadence and Heart Rate require self-control/ tactic. Most people can be trained to maintain an efficient, 80 Revolution per Minute cadence.
Strength training isn’t necessarily done in the race season. When you aren’t racing, leg workouts like squats, compound lifts like deadlifts can help you grow your power to climb those difficult hills.
Last but not least: bike gear investment. I have seen a few impressive $4,000+ bikes. They can be reasonable investments if you are in tri for the long term. It is like having a good car, whose cost spreads out over the time. I have also seen triathletes do quite well with $1,000 bikes. Price of your bike is not as important as loving your bike and continually improving it. My Pinarello is a mid-tier road bike and has been with me for 2+ years. Gradually I replaced aerobar, water system, seat, crank, and did bike fitting. Now the bike fits me like a glove lol. I doubt another person will feel the same comfort riding it. Looking back at the pandemic, my bike is a great friend to help me stay fit and sane. We have crushed many miles together and seen mountains and flowers. Fitness and nature – no wonder many people started biking during the pandemic.
Now let’s summarize IMMD bike course: the map is mainly two large loops and a few extra miles in the north. It is flat, windy, and without road closures. Wind might be the most challenging aspect of this course: it takes extra energy and tests your core power. It would be smart to have a bike fitting a few weeks before the race so that you are in the most natural position. In comparison to the hilly Blue Ridge Mountain (Virginia 70.3), IMMD course has less flavor. However you need to stay mentally sharp because the police did not close the roads. In the middle of the course, I heard a gunshot from distance. I looked over and found a group shooting targets near the wildlife conservation. I sped up since Ironman isn’t really made from iron!
Run 26.2 Miles
The marathon course has three loops. The scenery was gorgeous – you can watch the Colonial-style houses and the dawn near the lake (though you will miss it if you are a super-fast pro). Road condition is generally good, except the bricks near the pubs and restaurants (on the Eastern/ right side of the map). Because there are three loops, you will run into athletes of very different paces. Like all marathon races, you must have your own pacing strategy.
Since IMMD is my first full Ironman, I decided to set both conservative and stretch goals and err on the safe side. My running heart-rate was targeted at 130-140 BPM in average. However I was unsure at what pace I could sustain. I decided to experiment with 10 min/ mile pace. First three miles went well – I was able to enjoy the scenery and the road. Miles 4-6 were OK– I lowered my pace to 12 min/ mile which was my conservative pace. However my stomach started giving me issues at mile 7 – I had to rush to the porta potties. I ended up going 5+ times in the race. As a result, my miles 7 -20 were lowered to 13 min/ mile.
In miles 21-26 I decided to get things back under control again. It was getting dark but the course was well lighted. I started repeating two words to myself: 11 (min/ mile) and 175 (strikes per minute) to nudge my mind and my body! With some chicken broth from the aid station, I was able to finish the last 6 miles without stomach issues.
I didn’t have much (if any) fuel left in the tank, but I decided to sprint to the finishing line because I wanted to hear the magic words: “Yiyang Ma, you are an Ironman!”
The result: Swim 1 hour 36 minutes 20 seconds, Bike 6 hours 16 minutes 28 seconds, Run 5 hours 28 minutes 43 seconds. 2,900+ people signed up, 1,692 finished, I made 851. I felt I could do better on my run if I didn’t have the stomach issue however nutrition is really the 4th discipline. Overall I am quite satisfied with my first Ironman.
After the storm
The next morning my friend Fang and I went to Ironman village. I also watched the award ceremony.
My eyes were moist when I saw men and women 18 to 81 year-young winning their hard-earned medals. Life is hard during COVID, but your smiles were beautiful. Run, walk, or crawl – don’t give up until you cross the line.
Ironman Technical Tips
- Think about a finishing line picture before the race.
- Have race goals and stretch goals before the race.
My race goals are to race without injury and meet goals below
while eyeing on stretch goals:
And my actual result was
- Be confident. Yeah it’s long and challenging at times but think about everything you have done so far. I was admittedly uneasy one week before IMMD. It’s completely natural if you feel this way. Accept. Let it be.
- You might not sleep the night before IM 100% so what about the night before and two nights before? Sleep well when you are still home and reduce things like alcohol and coffee for deeper sleep. Accept the fact you may not get 7 or whatever hours sleep. There is a reason they give caffeinated gels lol
- Time before swim start can be short. If you plan to use the restroom GO EARLY because everybody will be there.
- Deal with changes. I made my plan around HR/ pacing goals, nutrition schedule, and course research. In the race, I realized that HR is not necessarily indicative of your MUSCLE readiness on the course. My legs were tired much earlier than my cardio. Heart Zone 2 lost meaning five miles in my run. So use perceived efforts besides your watch.
- I have seen guys turned around on swimming course because they missed a turn. So asking staff is fine – in fact I asked three times on the swim since my sighting is so so.
- Protect your body. Wear dry and comfortable shoes. I learned it the hard way. I used to think extra pair of socks is unnecessary until I found my feet blisters after the race. I rarely had these and think a possible cause was my wet shoes. I love “dancing” under those sprinklers to cool down -they are probably fine most times until I accidentally stepped into a pond of water. Healthline has good tips about keeping feet dry and reducing frictions: https://www.healthline.com/health/blisters-on-feet
Five PRINCIPLES shared by Ironman and Corporate Athletes
June 21 2021
Author: Yiyang Ma
As a working professional and amateur triathlete, I have found striking similarity between a lifelong career and a lifelong sport.
1. Start with SMART Goals – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Tangible. Goals must be SMART so that you plan ahead and continuously receive positive reinforcement through incremental success. Allow yourself to have slower days, plateaus, and injury recoveries with the mentality of “fail, learn, and come back again”.
2. Go beyond the comfort zone. Throughout our career and fitness journeys, there will be times that you are comfortable, without reaching your potential. After you succeed in the initial SMART goals, consider “upping your game”. Everyone starts somewhere. If you cannot run at all, start with 300 meters. If you can already run a 10K, consider running a half marathon. It is the same science and mentality at work: look for bolder but attainable goals each year and quarter and dare to “push the envelope” that others don’t.
3. The biggest distance is between head and heart. You can have the best plan in the world for your business and your Ironman, but fail to find the fuel which is the passion about your goals. You will need the passion to punch in – every single day, rain or shine. The distance between head and heart may be the distance between status quo and desired future. Make a plan. Follow it. Adapt and keep showing up with or without immediate results.
4. Leave your ego at home. The best and brightest in Ironman and work are level-headed. It is VERY tempting to chase down the runner ahead of you when you are supposed to run at a planned slow pace. It is also tempting to argue on a non-essential matter at work if the ego is in your chest rather than in your closet. Look at the big picture; listen to your coach and advisors with respect and humility. Listen, adapt, and execute.
5. Balance work, social life, and recovery. You can’t and shouldn’t have your 100-mile bike workout every day. Recovery is an essential aspect of your fitness gain. Same thing can be said about our “corporate and government athletes” – working 60-hour weeks to get an important project done is glorious and rewarding however you are unlikely to sustain this pace without deprioritizing other aspects of life and fitness in the long-term. Last, as an African proverb says: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – Find the right groups of people in both places who share your passion and are willing to work hard, play hard, and rest smart.
Ironman 70.3 Virginia Blue Ridge Report (VBR 6/5/2021)
June 18 2021
Author: Yiyang Ma
As a follow up, here is a summary of my latest triathlon – Ironman 70.3 Virginia Blue Ridge (VBR).
COVID: Are things different because of the pandemic? The Ironman experience is largely the same with a very supportive group of organizers and volunteers. For IM VBR, you are expected to wear masks in the athletic shuttle and swim start. Otherwise masking is uncommon in/ out of the race, since vaccinated individuals are not required to do so. Ironman gives you a free cloth mask in the athletic package; there are also free disposable ones available. The Athletic Guide says that the volunteers will keep water and food on the table but not hand over to you.
Food: Maurten Gel and Quantum Energy Squares are offered. I like both and can eat later for regular breakfasts without problems. A good practice is to check out your races’ specific nutrition and ideally experiment before the race so you won’t have stomach issues.
Swim: VBR is hosted in Roanoke. The swim venue is a reservoir not open to public except Ironman. One lap swim gives everyone more space. I enjoyed the clear water and crispy morning weather. Only downside is that they shuttle you from the Ironman Village /Parking lot to the reservoir. That means you have less sleep before the race.
Bike: This may be a major attraction or discouragement for folks to sign up – 3,950ft elevation gain; and a lot of that happens between mile 23-28. You are rewarded with an awesome downhill ride in the last 18 miles so you can relax your legs.
Run: It is hot and crowded. Two laps in a medium-sized park with 1,500 participants are no joke. Volunteers tried their best to aid us. I “invented” my cooling mechanism which is to store ice cube cups in my tri-short’s back pocket. I basically put one cup on top of the other, squeezed them, and put in the pocket. Based on which body part needs more help, I either poured the ice on toasted legs or chew them for hydration. It was also a race that I had to eat very intentionally to keep going (60 grams+ carbs per hour) and the first time I had to walk time by time during a race.
Bonus: The Starr Hill Brewery made a special Tri beer! The Ironman village also offers non-alcohol Athletic Brewery IPA. I enjoyed both.
Should you tri here? I think it is a race worth checking out. VBR has a unique character – you race in the middle of the Applachian. The reservoir and the mountains are gorgeous. Safety is top-notch: the local government and volunteers went out of their way to support the athletes. Get ready for the early shuttle and the hot run in the park.
Part of the gallery is sourced from social media. If there is copy right considerations please reach out.
Thank you for visiting.
How to build fitness and eat smart despite the pandemic
An amateur Ironman’s story of setting fitness goals and building nutrition plans
June 9 2021
Author: Yiyang Ma
“You are the only one who knows a) your goals and the necessary steps to reach your goals, b) how much you already put in, c) where and how fast you continue going.” – Yiyang Ma, Washington DC
Racing and cooking seem to bear little resemblance: the passion to put on an apron sounds differently from the passion to wear a bike jersey. In this article, I share how racing a triathlon and cooking a three-course serve the same purpose – a healthy and robust life.
I signed up for Ironman 70.3 Blue Ridge (Jun 2020) and Ironman 140.6 Maryland (Sept 2020) as my third and fourth triathlon races. I have vivid memory of running on my neighborhood trail and listened to Washington Post’s March report ofCOVID outbreak in the Far East. So much suffering and so many deaths. My heart dropped on the trail and my tears came out.
The rest is history. Here in America, we faced the reality and acted on masking and vaccination (of course after numerous back and forth, which is not the topic of this article). Not surprisingly, the 2020 races were cancelled; and I chose to defer both to 2021.
The reopening and re-commitment
With the expansion of vaccines, the silver lining started showing up in Spring 2021. At the time this article was written, CDC has
reported a low daily new cases of 12,663 as of May 29, 2021 (Source: https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#trends_dailytrendscases)
After my second dose at the county government (taxation with vaccination in my words), I officially commited to both races and necessary trainings.
You may ask why now? Why Ironman (which has multiple distances including the longest “Ironman 140.6” combining a 2.4 mile swim , 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run)? If asked in 2020, I would say it is an opportunity to combine my June graduation ceremony with a race, a bucket list item, and a convenient way to eat unhealthy food without fears. But the time has changed; and I have changed too.
I graduated virtually from Virginia Tech.
I no longer regard sports as accomplishments only but a way of life.
I am committed to eat healthily.
As a working professional and amateur Ironman, I learned that for everything difficult, you either choose a rational, optimistic, humane reaction or a flustered, pessimistic, and biased one. I re-committed to the races and trainings at the tail of this pandemic (knocking on the wood) because working towards challenging but achieveable goals is the most effective way to build yourself inside out (through planning and reflecting) and outside in (by adapting and innovating). This pandemic is a pressure test of our national health system strength. The two upcoming races are a pressure test of my personal fitness. Overwhelming pressure can crush you; progressive overloading however builds you up.
The essence of fitness
Fitness is the ability to adapt and thrive in a given environment. A person who lifts more than an appropriate target weight (e.g. certain pounds, certain reps of a deadlift) is considered fit in the weight-lifting/ strength setting. A person who runs appropriate miles within certain minutes is considered fit in the running/ aerobics setting. The word “appropriate” indicates that the definition of fitness depends on the environment (i.e. the condition and task given to the individual) and personal and internal factors, most notably the individual’s demographics, medical conditions, and individual goals. The goal setting part is often where most people struggle: for person A, not having illness can be the goal of fitness. For person B, running a half-marathon (aerobics) is the goal of fitness. For person C, finishing 300 pounds of bench press is the goal of fitness.
Everyone has a goal of fitness. Even if you don’t have a clearly stated one, acceptance of current status is the goal you unconsciously chose.
Our modern society gives us the freedom to choose where we live and how we make a living. We are much less bound to the external environment and tasks imposed by it. Ancient Mongolians must be fit enough to ride a horse and aim a bow given the need of hunting and herding. Nigerians had to be fit enough to stand the heat and grow economic crops such as yams to keep food on the table. We are now free to make our fitness goals thanks to technologies, but not free to choose the consequences that came from those goals. Just like younger versions of ourselves ate, drank, and socialized in the 1st year of college and put on the “Freshman 15” pounds, we recently saw the phenomenon COVID 15. Researchers coined this term because sampled individual gained 1.5lb per month during COVID-19 likely due to high-stress eating and less activities (source: CNN).
In short, your appropriate fitness level is defined by the circumstances and goals you chose. To reach your desired fitness, you will want to think through largely three aspects: a) your exercises, b) your recovery, and c) your nutrition. In this article, I will use myself as example to explain how such goals can be set.
Despite the numerous challenges in 2020, I was lucky enough to re-define fitness goals and learn the science and art of nutrition without the (still-welcomed) distractions from happy hours, birthday parties, and travel foods.
On the goal-setting part, it firstly was a struggle since COVID abruptly put a stop on my work commute and training routines, most notably my master’s swim program. Through a few weeks’ struggling, I redefined my fitness goals, to include less aerobics/ triathlon volumes and more strength/ weight-lifting volumes. This is a result of balancing the pros and cons of differnt workouts:
Two major types of workouts to be adjusted for the pandemic
I still ran weekly and biked occassionally however as scientists /coaches generally admit: it is unrealistic to have a large volume of aerobics and build up muscles in an optimal way. My workouts must align with my fitness goals proportionately.
Last, fitness programs in a pandemic must practically improve your immunity against COVID19 . A continuous and adapted workout routine boosts immunity however is not the sole factor of success. The other aspect of achieving fitness goals is Nutrition and Cooking.
The “brainwork” in nutrition planning
In general, your body needs two major categrories of nutrients to meet fitness goals: Marco and Micro-nutrients. There are many ways to approach this topic; and Healthline has provided a comparison between the two:
In layman’s language, macros determine a couple very visible bodily functions such as how fed or hungry you feel (according to total calories), how energetic you are (also total calories and your body digestion), how fast you build muscles (mostly due to protein intakes and total calories), and how fast you burn or accumulate fat (again, total calories and also your exercise loads). Among all three categories of marco’s, protein is analogeous to the materials to build a high performance race car. If you have little protein intake, even large volume of weight lifting won’t help “build” the size. For triathletes, a good amount of protein is essential for bodily recovery especially after strenuous activiies where your muscles and bones need “repairs”. Fats and Carbs are analogeous to the fuel of a vehicle. Both were unfairly mis-represented in past few years – many of us have heard marketing slogans that boast about “low carb” or “zero fat”. In fact, they are both acceptable and good sources of calories to fuel up your body and play other roles such as help absorb micronutrients. The primary concern shouldn’t be finding the magic food but setting nutrition goals to advance your fitness goals:
- For a body builder who wants to grow muscles, eating more calories than you “burn” is effective.
- For a triathlete who needs to fuel up before/ during/ after an activity, a much larger total calories intake is effective.
- For a body builder “on cut” and anyone who wants to loose weight, eating less calories than you burn is effective.
Bottomline is that you eat to advance yoru fitness goals and enjoy their natural tastes.
With the brainwork explained, here is an example of how I planned my “pandemic fitness” meals:
- Micros: I created a morning combo with fish oil, probiotics, Vitamin C, Zinc and Magnesium to boost immunity. During weight lifting, natural creatine is part of the bundle; now that I switched from lifting to primarilly triathlon, I also have glucosamine (joint health) as part of the combo.
- Macros: my goals of fitness is to have well-balanced and highly-functional body and mind to a) stay sharp and creative in long work hours, b) survive tough situations that require endurance and skills (such as swimming 2 miles in a flooded area), and c) push and pull a good amount of weight in common life situations without injuries: e.g. lifting a heavy trash can and replacing a big tire. I personally prefer distance sports such as triathlon which supports all three goals above, but mostly a) and b). To reach goal c), I allocate a few months in a year to weight lifting. There is no cookie cutter approach since everyone’s situation and personal desire is different. Mine is an example to encourage your indepenent and creative thinking.
- During weight lifting period (when I was in middle of the pandemic), I planned larger portion of protein to boost muscle growth and immunity – I was eating ~1 gram of protein per pound. In my case, this translated into 160 – 180 grams of protein a day. Can’t go too high with total calories otherwise fat growth outweighs (literally) lean muscles. No one formula to fit everyone’s body type and goals but a rule of thumb.
- During triathlon preparation, I cut down protein a bit (at approximately ~150 grams a day) to retain the muscles. Eat more calories to compensate for what I lost. Pro athletes may have a more strict plan but mine is as simple as “eat planned protein, have fat/ carb to satisfaction, and be responsible with drinks.
Nutrition is also important in long training sessions and actual races, I typically consume 36 ounces of water and 60 grams of carbs per hour to refuel my body and avoid “burning muscles”. As a result of deliberate nutritions, I was able to reach my strengh-building goals and get ready for triathlons. I also no longer worry about how I look, how much I weigh because I know I am eating sensible and well-thought amount of food. As an example, I used to lose body weight likely including some lean muscles in preparation of marathons and triathlons. With above triathlon nutrition plan, I did not lose weight in my Ironman 70.3 preparation and felt energetic and under-control despite a condensed training plan: the chart below shows a starting weight of 166.4lb (by 4/12, week 1 of race prep) and an ending weight of 167.3lb (by 6/1, week 8). The difference is insignificant, and could be driven by an actual body composition change and/or the foods I had the previous night.
Cook towards your goals
Planning your macros and micros is the bulk of your nutrition planning work. What remains to be done is the selection of natural and nutritious foods in right portions. The following actual cooking part is really an art, with a bit science too. It is true that cooking process and additives (such as spices, oils) will change the outcomes, it is less crucial (at least in my case) than the planning and food selection part.
For Examples: chicken breast and fish paired with pasta can easily help you achieve the right balance between protein, carb, and fat.
You can also reach the same outcome by replacing pasta with rice and lentil as the main carb. It’s also OK to have meat with higher fat contents such as beef and chicken wings though you may want to dial down your carb a little bit given more calories now come from fat.
In a busy day, you can conveniently mix a spoon of whey into your diet. A spoon is ~30 grams of protein, roughly 4 ounces of cooked chicken breast contains.
Again, nutrition is highly personal and should be adjusted according to your changing needs. Adaptation is the key to athletic growth and cooking. So adapt your total calories and macros according to how hard a day you had at work and in the gym.
Inagural blog post
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