Friday, April 30, 2010

4/30 Neanderthals & joggers

In "Born to Run", author Christopher McDougal spends a chapter describing the hunting strategies of early hominids.  Early man is commonly thought to be Neanderthal, a species that was similar to Homo sapiens in that it walked upright.  Neanderthal man was beastly in size.  It had stronger bones, a hulking structure, a larger brain, and bigger muscles.  However, it competed in parallel with (and eventually lost to) Homo sapiens, which was much smaller and nimbler.  McDougal poses the question, if Neanderthal was so much bigger and stronger, how did its smaller, weaker fellow hominid actually win out long-term?

The answer apparently lies in their hunting techniques.  Neanderthal was stronger, so it could certainly stand up to some of the beastly mammoths and cats that were hunting them.  They also had bigger brains, meaning they were likely better at eluding the bigger beasts.  Homo sapiens, on the other hand, had the advantage of speed and a light frames.  By now, you should be making the connection between Homo sapiens and runners, Neanderthal and linebackers.

Although Homo sapiens couldn't take down the bigger beasts, they could in fact chase down smaller prey because of their lighter, nimble frames.  Think about the deer that you saw in your yard as a kid growing up (assuming you lived in the northern top half of the United States).  There's no WAY you could catch it even if you were Usain Bolt!  However, when a deer sprints, it simply dashes through the brush out of earshot, then stops to catch its breath.  If it's spooked again, it would sprint for another 50-100 yards then stop to catch its breath again.  If you continued to chase it for several miles at a jog, however, you might actually be able to outrun the damn thing.  Applying this concept to stone-age Homo sapiens, you could imagine a group of nimble, little hunters jogging patiently behind a pack of antelope until one is sequestered from the pack.  The hunters continue to jog after it, forcing the antelope try to keep up its pace.  But the antelope wasn't designed to run long distances, just short sprints.  Eventually, the hunters, who were designed for distance running, come across an antelope that has literally fallen over with exhaustion, and they kill it.  This is what Dr. Dan Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist, proposes in McDougal's book.

This seems like very rational logic to defend our tendency to go out and run for hours for the sake of fitness.  But there's a problem with this, and it didn't occur to me until I listened to a recent EconTalk podcast. Russ Roberts interviewed Art De Vany, an economist and a generally thoughtful guy about evolutionary fitness, about his opposition to the current running trend.

Now, before I go any further, I want to point out the obvious elephant in the room.  Yes, I'm about to try to bring into question the hypothesis of a very reputable SCIENTIST, and defend the theory of a guy that works out independently and has (at least from what I get from his website) zero credentials as any form of scientist.  However, De Vaney looks like a million bucks and he's 72.  Plus, his argument is extremely logical, as are most arguments made by economists.

De Vaney's theory stems from Lieberman's hunting hypothesis, only he describes the runners as sprinters rather than joggers.  They were more fit than bigger, bulkier Neanderthal because they were constantly challenging their hearts and muscles to move faster multi-dimensionally.  When you think back to the hunting picture created by Lieberman, it seems unlikely that a bunch of paleolithic hunters are running after a pack of antelope, casually strolling along at a constant eight-minute-mile pace, keeping their prey within eye-sight for miles at a time until finally stumbling upon the exhausted animal, killing it, maybe sitting down to squeeze in a deep groin stretch, then carrying their booty back to the village. 

My vision is very different.  Instead, I picture a group of nimble, little hunters taking off into a pack of antelope until one is sequestered and running in a different direction from its brethren.  The hunters then sprint in various directions to keep the antelope running in a generally straight direction.  They would be strategically ducking, crawling, sprinting, strafing, side-shuffling in addition to jogging in order to prevent the animal's escape around their advance.  An aerial shot would look much like it does when you try to catch your puppy who is running around the yard like a maniac.  Each member of your family takes a post in a semi-circle, and you shift your positions accordingly as you close in on the frisky pup so that the dog can't escape.

This seems like a more accurate description of how a paleolithic Homo sapiens hunter could chase down an antelope. Rather than maintaining a generally slow pace for miles, such a hunter would be doing very dynamic movements, both linearly and laterally, at varying speeds throughout the hunt.  Logically, De Vaney's hypothesis makes better sense than Lieberman's.

So, looking at the running industry, it is silly to continue to beat ourselves up for hours per week jogging gracefully through the park.  The fittest hunters were those that could move dynamically, not constantly in a straight line until a desired mileage was obtained five days per week.  Evolutionary fitness - the specialty of both Lieberman and De Vaney - can tell us a lot about how we got to where we are as a species, so why not respect what has worked to help us knock species like Neanderthal?

Not only has it helped us in life's survival of the fittest, it's also clear that faster, more intense, but shorter workouts are better for our bodies than slow, boring, knee-agitating long runs if you have ever worn a heart rate monitor during one of your long runs.  I use the Garmin 310XT, because it's superb to all others on the market!'s the only one I've ever used, so I don't care if you think it's great or not.  It cost me one and a half fingers to buy it, so I'm shamelessly plugging away!   I digress.  Looking at my data output, I notice that my heart rate climbs steadily for the first few miles of a 20-miler, then it slowly falls to maybe around 150bpm, and it stays there for the remainder of my run.  I could run at this heart rate for hours on end without fatiguing.  On the other hand, I could run one-mile repeats, and it would leave me feeling like I was hit by a semi traveling 80mph down I-279.  Some of my Crossfit workouts, which can take as little as 5 minutes, make me feel like vomiting, while 2-hour runs have become annoyingly easy and simply leave my knees hurting.  Crossfit, track workouts, and hill runs are shorter, yet they make me work much harder.  Forcing your body to work harder than it's accustomed to leads to fitness gains.  We didn't win in the evolutionary race because we were joggers, we won because we were better able to deliver three-dimensional motion and fast- and slow-twitch muscle response.

I'm not trying to bash the running industry, necessarily.  I work at Fleet Feet Sports Pittsburgh, the city's best running specialty store and part of one of the United States' most-renowned running specialty chains.  Some exercise is better than no exercise, but the weight-loss potential, joint-saving, energy-boosting, and time-saving benefits of short, yet intense exercise shouldn't go unheeded.

Don't believe me?  Head down to your local Crossfit gym for a WOD or over to your local track and bust out five 800m sprints and you'll see what I'm talking about.  Save the slow stuff for recovery.

Come, come children! Antelope soup for dinner!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

4/28 Tomato & Mushroom saute

In my quest to raise my daily servings of vegetables to 10, I executed less than perfectly the following recipe:

It tastes great.  I always whipped up the rest of the kale that I purchased yesterday.  The first round, I tried sauteeing it, but it was REALLY chewy, as I'm told kale is supposed to be.  However, this time, I boiled it, and it softened up surprisingly well.  I boiled in a 2:1 water:vinegar mixture. It tastes even better if you sprinkle it with crushed red pepper flakes.

I'll take photos of final products from now on before I eat them.

On an unrelated note, the Washington Capitals just lost to the Montreal Canadiens in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs.  The Canadiens were seated in 8th place in the conference (out of 8), and the Capitals were seeded 1st.  Suck it Ovechkin.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

4/27 Artichokes are weird-looking

I've been taking a lot of cooking inspiration from my friend and Crossfit workout partner Nicole.  She's the author of Primal Kitchen Chaos, a sweet blog devoted to the mastery of cooking foods that conform to the standards of a "Paleo Diet".  More on the Paleo Diet in a future post.

Anyways, she inspired me to try to cook some different veggies for once: kale & artichoke.  I had never before tried kale, which has a very rich GREEN taste (you know what I mean...I hope).  Artichoke is just plain good.

How to Cook Kale (by: Sarah Sandori)
How to Cook and Eat an Artichoke (by some chick named Elise)

If you are going to try it, don't use too much soy sauce for the kale.  It will become way too salty.

These two veggies pack a ton of nutrition.  Kale has probably the best calorie-to-nutrient ratio of any veggie on the planet.  Sauteeing kale will keep the nutrients from leaking into the water in which you are boiling it.  Having said that, look at the shit-ton (metric) of nutrients in this stuff!

You would also have a hard time coming up with a good excuse to not eat artichokes.

Eat 'em up.


The world has many problems.  In reflecting on these issues, you have two options: 1) You can play the blame game (unproductive); or 2) You can change yourself.  You might be right if you think that your actions won't directly correct the many injustices in the world.  So, why urge you to reform yourself?

First of all, the only thing you really do have control over is your own actions.  Second, your actions are - to some degree - unconsciously influenced by those of others. Lastly, little things can make a huge difference in the world.  Here are two examples to illustrate how small things can cause big changes:

Example A: Imagine yourself walking down a street with garbage being blown hither and thither.  If you pick up a piece of newspaper blasting past you, and a whole bus stop full of people sees it, it's likely going to stick in their heads, and they're going to be more inclined to do the same if they're ever in a similar situation.

Example B: If you shape yourself into a well-tuned, fit, well-read intellectual with a lot of friends, you might actually rub off on people that cross your path, and they could think "Hey, what a cool cat!  I want to be fit too!" (this scenario is unlikely, but I've seen crazier things happen)

The point here is to not accept your surroundings as they are but instead to try to change them.  And the change starts with you.  A little fellow named Gandhi once said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."

I'll leave you with a personal anecdote of my own.  I traveled around the world via Semester at Sea when I was a student at the University of Pittsburgh.  By the time I returned, I had developed a new appreciation for the synergistic effects of other disciplines on health.  Being a pre-med student, this fascinated me, and my new global perspective led me to start a group called Student Leaders in International Medicine (SLIM) at my home institution.  The organization was meant to a serve as a forum for like-minded students to discuss the relationship between economics, politics, agriculture, health, and other topics as this type of environment was not available at the time on Pitt's campus.  That was in 2006.  Today, SLIM has grown from my original eight members sitting around chatting to a group of nearly forty students planning annual trips to Malawi, hosting an annual 5k/10k to raise funds for projects proposed by community-based organizations in Malawi, and organizing campus-wide lectures at Pitt that draw hundreds of people.

On my blog, you'll find information (primarily) on the following topics:

1) Triathlon
2) Crossfit
3) Fitness
4) Books
5) Nutrition/Diets
6) Healthcare reform/Politics
7) Technology
8) Culture
9) Medicine
10) General health

I don't consider myself an expert in anything, but I do my best to inform myself whenever I discover something that I don't know.  Plus, I'm open to learning anything in which you consider yourself an expert.  

My name is Nathan Riley.  I'm a medical student at Temple University.  I'm training for an Ironman triathlon.  And I have a particular interest in nutrition and health care reform.  I will eventually change the world. 

Reform yourself.