AMA #1: Half-marathons, JFDI, and how (not) to read more

Welcome to the first in an ongoing series of Ask Me Anything posts — where I take questions from friends, readers, and the internet at large and do my best to answer them. While I’m happy to answer literally anything,1With the caveat that my answer may be “I don’t know” or “I don’t want to share that publicly.” this batch tended to mostly be about exercise and nutrition2Anyone who was around for the (sadly scotched, but perhaps resurrected one day) Road Warrior Academy beta may recognize some of these questions — most of this batch are from an AMA I did with that community., and it was fun to dust off my CSCS and get into the nitty-gritty of everything from training protocols to doing the workout in the first place.

If you have a question for a future installment, send it to ama at roadwarrior dot blog.

On with the show.

Question one: Half marathon tips!

By virtue of peer pressure, I’ve registered for a half marathon in about three months. I’ve done many halfs before, but this is the first one in a long time. Tips for a beginner-again?

Generally, running is one of the better forms of exercise for business travelers, given that all you need for it is a pair of shoes and either a treadmill or cooperative weather, and signing up for a race is a great way to get yourself to actually do it. Nice work getting peer pressured.

General tips:

  • Be gentle with the ramp-up on mileage.
  • Don’t neglect stretching and other mobility work, especially for your hip flexors.
  • Consider doing at least one resistance training session in a week, in addition to running, even if it’s quick and bodyweight-oriented.
  • Make sure you’re getting enough protein for good recovery3This is a longer topic for a different day, but aiming for between 1g of protein per kg of bodyweight and 1g per pound of body weight (depending on personal preference) is a pretty good rule of thumb. More than this would be fine (assuming you’re otherwise healthy) but not particularly useful. If you don’t know how much protein you consume on a given day, consider tracking your intake for a few days just to get a sense of it., especially during the first couple of weeks back.
  • If any joints, muscles, or body parts start feeling weird or painful, back off the intensity a bit. It’s better to skip one session and be able to continue your training than tough through it, hurt yourself, and spend the next three weeks on the injured list.

Structuring programming:

Given twelve-ish weeks to train, an ultra-traditional Hal Hidgon (or Hidgon-like) program wouldn’t be totally out of bounds — I don’t personally use his plans for some small reasons that sum to “they could be better,” but if having a strictly written plan helps you, his are famous because they are on balance quite good. Given you’re just getting back into running long distances after a hiatus, stick to one of the ‘novice’ plans, at least for the first few weeks. You can always jump to an ‘intermediate’ one a few weeks in if it feels too easy, but it’s hard to un-injure yourself if you overdo it.

If you’re curious about that “it could be better” thought, my personal plan would look something more like this: I’d start with no more than 8-10 miles per week (again, per week, not per run), maybe even less, and add 1-2 miles to the total weekly volume every subsequent week. Going from only a few miles to a whole bunch of miles a week overnight is a quick path to unpleasant connective tissue issues like a sad lower back, gnarly plantar fascia and grumpy IT bands. It can feel great to get back out there and see just how far you can go, but still, keep some in the tank, especially in the first few weeks.

For example, the first week might just be two sessions of three miles, moving up to three running days a week on the second week, with two shorter weekday/travel day goal-pace runs and one longer weekend/at home “slow long distance” run, e.g. 3 miles for pace, 3 miles for pace, 4 miles for distance (not worrying too much about pace. Subsequent weeks would be 3,3,5; then 3,3.5,6; 3,4,7; 3.5,4.5,8 and so-on, up to 5,5,124The full progression scheme might be something like 3,3 → 3,3,4 → 3,3,5 → 3,3.5,6 → 3,4,7 → 3.5,4.5,8 → 3.5,5,9 → 4,5,10 → 4.5,5,11 → 5,5,12 → 3,3,6 → 3,0,13.1; but this is just an example; there’s plenty of wiggle room within this for how you might feel in a given day. As you continue down the weeks the jumps can get bigger in absolute values because as a percentage of total mileage they’re equal or even smaller. about two weeks out if you’ve got enough weeks to get there gradually.

Given this race is in three months, you may not get to the ‘standard’ 12 mile long run two weeks before the big day (assuming the common ramp up to 11 or 12 and then tapering mileage back down for the last two weeks so you’re fresh for race day).

I wouldn’t actually worry about that too much. Considering you’ve done half marathons before and (presumably) you’re aiming to finish with good time and not a personal best, you could very likely get away with your longest pre-race run being 9–10ish miles and have no problem finishing; I’d even say a week of diminished mileage the week before the race is more important than hitting that magical 12.

You may also notice that this plan has one or two fewer runs per week than ‘ol Hal normally programs. This is for two reasons: first, is he is going for ‘most you’re able to do without running into diminishing returns or injury risk,’ I’m going for ‘minimum effective dose.’ You’re a busy person. And in any case, if you want to train more, I’d recommend adding strength training, sprints, or other cross-training to a three-runs-a-week program, not more running. I’ve even made half marathon plans for athletes with only two distance runs a week, but they were on their feet doing sprints, skill work, or hill work twice a week as well.

The second is a constant suspicion about ‘one-size-fits-all’ programming: I would guess that prescribes more than is necessary with the expectation that workouts will be missed. This three-a-week structure, assuming no other training, does not.

Question two: strategies to boost willpower

What are some good strategies to get the workout / plan in on days you’re just not feeling it?

My personal favorite strategy to this is something that I may not actually recommend for others, especially folks who have a history of being hard on themselves: JFDI — Just Fucking Do It. JFDI is a mantra that I repeat to myself on down days. It means “yes it will probably suck, yes you’re not feeling it. Do it anyway. Do it in spite of not feeling like it, and prove you’ve got more mental fortitude than everyone that already quit when the going got tough. You’ll be glad you did.”

I almost always am glad I did, but for many folks, self talk like this can be more harmful than useful, so be careful.5If you naturally bristle at being told “you don’t have a choice” or regularly beat yourself up about not doing something (and then don’t do it anyway), JFDI is probably not a useful strategy for you.

A more universally useful strategy is to redefine success.

Namely, redefine “getting the workout in” as simply being dressed for working out, in the place you work out (gym, home gym, hotel room, whatever), and doing the first rep of the first activity. Just one rep. That’s it.

This does three things: it reduces the mental pressure and overwhelm of the workout (oh jeez, I’ve got to get there THEN get dressed THEN do this first thing THEN do this second thing it’s just so much to even think about, let alone DO), it shifts the mental question from “is this worth doing?” to “is it worth stopping?”, and it reinforces the habit of going to the gym, which is a separate and distinct habit from exercising once you’re there.

After that first rep, listen to your body and feel empowered to make the call to stop at any time. Is it just one of those days where it’s just not gonna be a workout day? Would it be better to do some stretching or spend that extra time sleeping? That’s fine. Sometimes those days happen. You have successfully reinforced the habit.

But since you’re already there, already dressed, already started, is continuing really that onerous of an idea? If it is, that’s fine. Stop. But it’s just likely that you’ll keep going, because you’re taking advantage of two related logical quirks that we all experience — hyperbolic discounting and the sunk cost fallacy. You can read more about discounting here and the sunk cost fallacy here.

Basically, you’re shifting the “value” equation in your brain uses to decide if it’s worth going to the gym in a way that makes you more likely to go, and then more likely to stay.

For other non-exercise things (and as a second tool for exercise things), you can use a simple technique that exists in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy called reframing.6To be clear: I’ve read a few books on CBT, and many therapists think these tools are good self-service tools, but I am not a therapist and doing this is not a substitute for a real therapeutic relationship with a licensed, trained therapist. Therapy can be massively helpful if the DIY route isn’t getting you everything you need.

Our brains are awful and hilariously irrational, but they’re predictably irrational.7Which happens to be the title of this great book about exactly that. Which we can use to our advantage.

The tactical implementation of this is dead simple: instead of can’t, say don’t.

Whether out loud or in your head, instead of saying “I can’t do the thing that would derail me from the plan, (ie: I can’t eat that, I can’t skip that workout)”, say I don’t: “I don’t eat that, I don’t skip workouts.” Literally, all you’re doing is changing the way you talk about sticking to the plan in your head, but there’s good science that supports it as an effective strategy.

I think this works for two reasons:

  1. It reframes the decision from a restriction to a choice
  2. It reframes a statement of preference into a statement of identity.

Restrictions are limiting — they undermine our personal agency and sense of self-control. We get hung up on restricted or taboo things and even fetishize or obsess over them (this especially happens with food), and then if we fail, we feel bad about it. Lose-lose.

Choices, on the other hand, are empowering: an affirmation of your determination and willpower. You made the choice that you don’t do that, and you’re unflappable in your determination. You don’t do that thing.

Similarly, (positive) affirmation of a consistent personal identity is one of the most powerful motivators we have—put simply, our brains like when we do things that confirm we are who we think we are. Claiming that we don’t do something and following through on that claim is a classic example. (Sadly, this also works negatively: if we suspect that we’re failures, we’re more likely to fail.)

All of that to say, I think the reason this tactic works is that there are implied because phrases after the sentences “I can’t miss a workout” versus “I don’t miss workouts”, and those phrases are different.

For can’t it’s normally something like: “I can’t miss this workout because it would be better if I didn’t.” It’s a preference.8Or even worse, a negative affirmation of identity: “because I’d be a failure if I didn’t”, which then gives your stupid awful brain the opening to say “well actually, maybe I am a failure” if you miss the workout. It ends up being self-defeating in two ways and kicking off a vicious negative cycle. But for don’t, it’s “I don’t miss workouts because I am not that type of person” — a positive affirmation of identity, and not a preference at all. Your subconscious wants a consistent perception of identity, and so even when it sucks to do so, you’re more likely to trudge down to the gym if you really do believe that you’re that kind of person.

In a sense, this is what JFDI is really about to me—I perceive myself as someone with grit and resilience, who is willing to do the hard things to make their future better, even when he doesn’t want to and they suck to do. Personally, saying JFDI and then JFDI-ing isn’t bullying myself into doing something I don’t want to do, it’s a positive affirmation of a resilient self-identity.

Conveniently, believing starts by telling yourself that you’re the kind of person that doesn’t skip workouts, and then reinforcing that belief by following through on that self-talk until you believe it both consciously and subconsciously, then going to the gym because you believe it, kicking off a virtuous cycle. This is, more or less, the psychological basis of faking it until you make it.

Question three: how to read more

How do you get through everything interesting that comes out in a week? I feel like I’m constantly behind on books, good TV, articles, podcasts, and even just Twitter.

In a word, I don’t. I don’t get through it all. And I’m fairly okay with that.

I chug through a decent amount of content in a week, no doubt, and I’ll address some of my tricks for doing that, but to be clear: that is a tiny percentage of the amount of stuff that crosses my path that I’d like to consume — and if you gave me more hours in a day, I doubt that the first thing I’d do with it is devote more time to reading.

I’m pretty content with how much I read in a week, and personally, I find tricks for choosing what not to read (and how to do so without feeling guilty) more interesting than your standard “make the time, find the time” hokum. So let’s start with those.

  1. Don’t feel guilty.
    If you have a long list of things that you want to get to because you think they’ll be enjoyable and can’t seem make the time for them, that’s one thing, but if you’re guilty about not seeing or reading things you don’t really care about just to say you have, my advice is simple: don’t be.
    Ultimately, who fucking cares what you have and haven’t read? We are under no obligation to read or watch or listen to anything, and what you’ve consumed has little bearing on your self worth or ability to be a good, interesting person. The only people that disagree are record store hipsters and other unpleasant people who use taste and media consumption as a weapon, but don’t actually do or make anything, just consume and judge without contributing back to the culture or knowledge.
    If you’re using your time to do things that you care about (or just live a good life), you are under no obligation to replace those activities with more media consumption.
  2. If it’s not fun or interesting anymore, put it down.
    As a corollary to the above, I regularly abandon all sorts of media — I probably only finish ½ of the things I start. To be clear, this still feels a little weird every time I do it. My brain wants me to finish, to know the end, to complete it, but I do it anyway, and the anxiety generally calms down once I get stuck into something else. If it doesn’t and I find myself wanting to revisit something I put down two days or two weeks later? I just pick the book or whatever back up. Stopping is extremely low-risk as compared to wasting your time with something that’s uninteresting or uninformative.
  3. Save it for later, but don’t worry about when ‘later’ is.
    This is my favorite trick for not feeling guilty about not getting around to stuff I want to read: I maintain lists of books, TV shows, and other things that I want to eventually read, see, or otherwise consume. Every time I run across something that looks worth my time, I put it on that list.
    But here’s the trick: after it’s on that list, I promptly and happily forget about it. I also regularly pluck things from these lists, yes, but I’m almost always adding faster than I’m removing. Similarly, my Instapaper and Overcast apps9Thanks, Marco (his wikipedia, for the unaware). are stuffed to the gills with things I know for a fact I will never read unless they become directly, immediately relevant to my life.
    My hunch is that this works because the loss aversion I feel towards not reading or watching something is more about losing the opportunity to do the thing in the future than not having done the thing. Putting it on a list assuages that loss aversion and closes the “oh I should really read that!” loop in my head in a fraction of the time that actually reading it would
  4. Prefer “just in time” over “just in case.”
    This is a concept10An idea that originates with the Toyota Production System, but that I first heard explained in the context of information by (I think) Tim Ferriss that I use when choosing what part of my ever-growing backlog to pick up next: I always bias immediately relevant or useful information (timely things, things that follow on from what I was just reading, things that answer a question or challenge I have in my life right now) over information that might be useful someday. Practically speaking, this means that my “what to read eventually” list is very long and fairly well indexed, but my “what to read next” list is zero things long. When I’m done with one thing, I look through my options and see what else might be immediately relevant, and I consume that.
  5. Cheat.
    With TV and movies especially, the reason I want to have seen something is less to see the thing and more to share in a cultural moment and bond with friends and coworkers. The moment I crave isn’t actually intently watching the thing so much as it’s the social moment of reacting to it around the water cooler (or on a text thread) the next day and week.
    Call this disingenuous if you want, but sometimes I’ll just put a show, sports game, or movie like this on in the background while I’m doing other stuff around the house — packing, cleaning, cooking — and then cheat and read the plot summary on wikipedia (or watch the highlights on ESPN) to round out my understanding of what happened. This gives me enough to banter with without actually spending the time and attention necessary to watch the whole thing intently.
    I also often do this for media that I quit halfway through — it’s an easy way to feel the narrative/cognitive closure of finishing a novel without actually having to trudge through the back half of a poorly paced story.

With that out of the way, I actually only have two strategies for consuming more content (which, to reiterate, you do not have to do), but they’re both big. Without them I’d probably consume ¼ of what I currently do.

  1. Audio is your friend.
    It’s very hard to read a book (or article, or podcast) while you’re chopping broccoli, or driving to a client site, or walking through an airport. It’s very easy to listen to a book while doing these things. Virtually any time I’m doing something that does not require my full attention but does require the active use of my hands and/or eyes, I’m probably listening to a podcast or audiobook. This boosts my content consumption considerably.
  2. Don’t buy the wifi.
    Unless I’m tired enough to actually sleep on the plane (something I’m normally very bad at), I read on the plane. If I don’t feel like reading, I’ll watch a movie or a show I’ve been meaning to watch — that is, that knew I wanted to watch and I downloaded ahead of time, not whatever United could get the licensing for. Air time is one of the best venues for uninterrupted reading or TV watching; don’t blow it by getting the wifi and then spending the whole flight dicking around on social media.

That’s all for this installment. Want to ask a question for the next installment? Send it to ama at roadwarrior dot blog.

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