Apr 06

I’m exactly halfway through a fitness and exercise program I started six weeks ago and figured I’d share some halftime commentary that might be helpful to others considering undertaking such a program.

It’s a virtuous cycle if you can start it

First, this does work. I’ve seen a noticeable strength improvement but more importantly I’ve experienced a significant increase in energy. Before starting I would find myself hitting a wall of lethargy about 3pm and feeling sluggish in the evenings after work. The change in diet and exercise has resulted in better energy during the day and consequently better sleep at night (which improves the daytime effectiveness). The improvements didn’t fully kick in until about the third week so it’s a delayed effect but if you can get through that first bit it becomes much easier to stick with it. I can see how the initial hit in extra work without the energy benefits cause people to bail on the program. But I have a trick to propose for overcoming that New York New York threshold

Commit publicly

The same factors that make the idea of the Open Source Goals meme effective can be put to work for you in this situation. When you decide to commence a program like this, I would recommend going “all-in” and making a public declaration some place where you know people will see it and hold you to it. It could be as simple as a status update on your facebook or a post on your blog but whatever it is, go public with it. I took one of those dorky before pictures when I started (you know the ones where you hold up a magazine in the mirror so it proves what you looked like when you started). I’ll post the before/after pics here when I finish. I don’t even know how many people will see those pics but just the thought of having to do that has motivated me more than once to power through at 6am and make my way into the gym.

iPhone fitness programs can’t match paper

I had done a moderate bit of research to find the most popular iPhone app for tracking workouts. I ended up purchasing one called “.” Unfortunately after trying to use it I quickly concluded that no matter how much they improve the UI on these apps it’s still too much friction to enter the data during a workout. Nothing compares to a paper booklet divided according to how you plan your workouts (and a “combed” binder works best because it’s perfect for holding your pen). You need to be able to quickly jot down numbers and flip back to see what you did the week before. The iPhone interface while beautiful for graphing progress over time is not appropriate for quick data entry while in the gym. You’d be better off doing your booklet and then sending it to India for someone to transcribe it into a google doc or database so you can run reports on it.

BFL is geared towards fat loss

I’ve noticed that this particular program seems to be biased towards people losing weight. While that’s probably the typical use case I’m 70% interested in muscle growth and only 30% interested in fat loss. Accordingly I’ve tweaked the program to fit that goal. The typical workout consists of alternating between cardio and weight training so you’d do upper body, run, lower body, run, upper body, etc… and then reverse it the next week. I’ve found that it’s impossible on the upper body workout day to do adequate justice in an hour so I’ve taken to pulling out a muscle group from that day and throwing it in on an adjoining run day and focusing heavily on it. So for instance I’ll yank triceps from the upper body day and the next day I’ll run and devote 4 exercises to tris. I’ve found this works great (especially given that the cardio only takes 20min so there’s plenty of time left over).

Make a 20min power mix

I’ve not yet done it but I came up with an idea I believe will be very useful. The cardio workouts are supposed to be kept short (20min) and adhere to a pattern of hitting four “high points” during that time. So typically you’d start out with a jog that builds to a full sprint by minute five and then back off to a jog. Repeat that cycle four times and you’re done. The problem is unless you only ever run on the treadmill where you have a LED readout in your face telling you where you stand time-wise, you’ll find yourself constantly glancing at a stop watch trying to keep to the schedule. An obvious solution here would be to create a song mix with audible cues on when to change intensity. I came up with the idea to make a custom 20min song in Garageband that had adrenaline-type music with signals embedded at each switching point. There’s also a guy locally here in Phoenix who developed something called Prime Condition which is an advanced, online version of this concept and worth looking at.

The one good iPhone fitness app

runkeeperSo having said that all iPhone fitness apps for weight training are bunk, I will say there’s a really useful one for running outdoors. I’ve been using Runkeeper now for a few months and it rocks. I’ve found their free version to be exactly what I need. I can launch my iPod music in the background before a run and then fire up this app and have it track everything automatically. It records the route over time and produces a historical record of the run with a map and speed indicators at one-minute intervals. They’ve done an amazing job with this app. It can track other activities as well like hiking and cycling and it sends them automatically to your web account so you can get in-depth analysis of the activity. If you’re doing any amount of running and have an iPhone definitely check this one out.

Foods I never thought I’d eat

I’ve experienced first-hand that when you start eating high-protein foods and exert a lot of energy regularly, you come to have some weird cravings. I’ll share my average shopping list once I get it into a google doc but I’ve found myself making a hard-boiled egg / tuna / cottage cheese / dijon mustard concoction and while it sounds gross it tastes delicious when your body craves protein. The verdict is still out on whether beef jerky is a healthy snack but I’ve discovered all kinds of high-protein snacks like edamame, sardines, cottage cheese and protein bars that are totally edible and even tasty. The flash-frozen fish cutlets at Costco are _awesome_ – I’ll grill them up with teriyaki and lemon pepper and it’s better than stuff I get at most restaurants. I’ve found a little squeezed lemon to be a perfect substitute for butter in almost every scenario. And I now look forward to my frozen strawberry & banana protein shakes in the morning. Bottomline: do not fear the protein crazy foods – they’re actually really good once you get used to them.

Anyways, those are just some thoughts here at the halfway mark. I’ll post those embarrassing before/after pics when I finish. If you are engaged in any kind of fitness program, what useful or surprising lessons have you learned that you can share?

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Feb 22

They say “you can’t improve what you can’t measure.” March is the month I dive into a two-pronged Blitzkrieg assault to put metrics in place for tracking and improving health and wealth. I’ve spent the past couple days working on two projects, namely:

Body For Life Program

This is a 12-week program I did about a decade ago and I can attest that it definitely works if you stick to it. I re-read the book last weekend and printed out copies of the planner today – my roommate and I start the routine tomorrow. My publicly-stated goal here is to return to single-digit body fat by my birthday (May 7th) and to double my strength between now and then.

The program consists of a nutrition and exercise component. You work out six days per week alternating between cardio and weight training. You change your eating habits by increasing the frequency of meals (6x per day) while decreasing the portion sizes and ensuring the meal composition fits a certain profile of nutrients, carbs, fats, protein, etc. You get one day off each week to go nuts, pig out / veg out and you track everything you do down to the individual meal and weight rep (sounds super OCD I know but once you get into it, it becomes habit).

Mint for finances

I had signed up for Mint.com over a year ago and had integrated my bank account and credit card at the time so it’s been quietly tracking my account activity this whole time. I spent the day yesterday learning their system and categorizing a year’s-worth of transactions. For better or worse I now have a crystal-clear view of my negative net worth (woohoo!) and the absurd amount I’ve been spending on eating out at restaurants and going out with friends on weekends. I’m not yet using their “ways to save” recommendations so there’s nothing immediately that saves me money but it’s providing accountability and a big, fat, undeniable motivator for me to make some necessary expense reductions.

This may be a “commander of the obvious” insight but the phrase “you can’t improve what you can’t measure” is simply not true. It is possible to improve in the absence of metrics. To illustrate this take the following example: I could stand in my backyard and curl progressively-larger cinder blocks of unknown weight. My strength would improve over time but I would have no idea by how much. Conversely, I could wire myself up to all kinds of fancy machines that measured muscle density, bicep size, force exerted, body fat, etc. and know everything about my physiology but if I never lifted a weight my strength would go unchanged. The same principle applies to any situation you’re trying to improve: making effective modifications to a web site, reducing wasteful spending, optimizing how you use your time. The metrics are useful insofar as they help you to alter your behavior but ultimately results are the product of one thing alone: action.

On another note, I’ve had writer’s block lately being completely uninspired to write here. For whatever reason I’ve felt I don’t have unique perspective to add to the noisy chatter that is social media. Hopefully the exercise of going through both of these focused efforts will yield some interesting results and tactics that will become fodder for writing. There’s nothing of significance to share today on these fronts but this post serves as a formal declaration of war on sloppy financial and health habits. I promise to post a screencast here of how to get going with Mint.com and the few unintuitive aspects (they’ve got an insanely good UI with only a couple quirks). I’ll also commit to distilling and sharing whatever results and lessons I gain from going through the BFL program again.

Here’s to improving whatever is important to you over the coming months.

Jan 20

Okay, half marathon, but it makes a better title ;-) I completed the PF Chang’s Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon two days ago and wanted to post some random thoughts. Having participated in this event from two angles now (twice as a band playing on the sidelines and once as a runner) I have a few observations:

  • Holy clockwork! The level of coordination to pull this event off is nothing short of miraculous.

    Holding any event involving more than fifty people is difficult enough – they had something like 30k participants. And that’s not to mention the volunteers who staffed it, the bands that played along the route, the fire and police coordination, the road closure crews, the medics in the celebration area, the snacks and drink servers, the t-shirts and medals and schwag hander-out’ers… the list goes on. For all that took place there were only a few traffic jams and no significant mistakes that I saw. I’m blown away by the Elite Racing folks and everyone that collaborated to make this happen. Thank you thank you to the volunteers that donated their time.

  • Pace is key I now wholeheartedly grok that “slow and steady wins the race” adage. Only a few weeks ago I was sucking wind after a 6mi run with a partner and ended up walking a good portion wondering how I was going to somehow double that distance. On Sunday I was able to complete the 13.1 mi race in 2h19m without being winded (sore but not winded). I’m convinced the key to that breakthrough was in consciously slowing my pace. My goal was to finish without walking any part of it and I was fortunate to make it the whole way with the only slowdown being the trot for the occasional handoff with a water cup volunteer. It’s amazing to me what a difference in endurance it made to back off the pace slightly. If you’re struggling with endurance on a run, try reducing speed by 10% and I bet you’ll see a 2x return in both time and distance.
  • A good use of RFID When I think RFID I typically think of chipping passports and animals and big brotherish-type stuff. This was an awesome use of that technology though- the packets they distributed to runners beforehand included this orange plastic band that you attached to your laces. When you passed over the start and finish lines it clocked your times and sent the results to a central system. By the time we got back home (and probably earlier) our results were already online – that my friends is at least Web 5.0.
  • Ahem, sunscreen You can and will get burned by direct sun in the wintertime in AZ. For some reason I was thinking the sun would be low enough that I wouldn’t need sunscreen. Bad assumption.
  • Gu is good I had purchased some of those gel instant energy packs in advance and then promptly forgot them in the car in the early morning scramble to the starting line. Luckily the volunteers at mile eight were handing them out (and even the good flavor, vanilla). While this is probably frowned upon by race purists and akin to using supplemental oxygen when climbing a big mountain, I have to say it gives you a noticeable boost of energy replenishment when you need it. And to me the vanilla flavored one tastes completely fine and a lot like cake frosting.
  • Rolling storage lockers UPS provided a clever and useful service for runners. They had tons of trucks backed up at the starting line and made it so any runner could check a barcoded bag with them to store belongings. The trucks then drove to the finish line and reassembled in the parking lot like a strand of storage lockers on wheels. What a great idea and a simple yet memorable sponsorship service.
  • GPS fail I’ve been using the RunKeeper Free iPhone app to track my runs. It’s 90% awesome and 100% free so I can’t complain. But on raceday perhaps the cell network in that area was overloaded or something because it never got the GPS lock. I would recommend to anyone who plans to track a run on a raceday to acquire the GPS lock well in advance and then simply reset the clock when crossing the starting line. Trying in vain to fire it up once the race begins is a bummer and a distraction.
  • The rah-rah’s do make a difference The cheers of a complete stranger yelling “you can do it” have a surprisingly real effect. This is something that’s puzzled me about sports- I’ve gotten the camaraderie aspect amongst fans but I’ve never truly understood the adrenaline/supportive aspect from the perspective of the athlete until this race. It’s very real and I will appreciate that relationship in sporting events from now on.
  • Run like an amoeba Not quite sure how to verbalize this one but being in this river of bodies with the same goal all running with similar pace but in constant flux as people slowed or sped up- it just felt being an appendage of a larger organism. I was just one set of legs on this distributed human caterpillar that snaked through the streets of Phoenix. I can’t help but think if there were a way to organize one of these races with warring cultures somehow it would resolve a lot. Or maybe it’s the endorphins from the exertion and the high-fives with random strangers that’s the magic secret sauce. Either way, we need to bottle and share this stuff. I recommend participating in a marathon if you ever get the chance – it was an awesome experience I will remember for a long time.
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    Jan 14

    Ever wonder what snowboarding is like? I took inspiration from our friend Matt Asay and shot a video this weekend coming down from the top of Snowbowl in Flagstaff, AZ (beware, it’s shaky):

    I threw the song I just recorded on there as a sound track. Conditions are perfect right now, unfortunately the lift lines indicate that the rest of AZ knows this. More pics from our trip here.

    Jun 20

    dive flag.jpgThe bubbles cascading past your mask at that depth sound like glass beads clinking together. My friend and I just got back from San Carlos Mexico where we just completed our open water scuba certifications. I posted pics and two videos. The night dive and swimming with sea lions were the two highlights for me. A couple things that would have been good to know in hindsight for anyone who’s considering doing it:

  • Contrary to what the study book says, decongestants are apparently no longer contra-indicated before diving. I didn’t have ear troubles but my buddy had problems clearing the first day and she took a decongestant the second day and had zero trouble after that.
  • They make water-tight plastic cases for most digital cameras that let you take your existing digital camera underwater to great depths (~130ft). I have the Canon SD 550 and I could get one of these and take it under water. The disposable underwater cameras you buy at the drug store take fair pics but are only rated to about 30ft, can’t do video and after you pay developing charges end up costing about $30. If you plan to dive a lot, you don’t need to buy a fancy underwater camera- just one of those cases for your digital camera.
  • A hammock would be money the boat. SCUBA is an extremely mellow experience underwater and then you come back up and it’s equally relaxing hanging out on the boat in between dives. The only thing that would have made the boat time even better would be to get one of those cheap nylon hammocks and string it up. Granted, it totally depends on the boat and the size of the group but this is something that would have made an awesome addition.
  • If you’re in AZ and thinking about learning to dive, I highly recommend the good folks at Ocean Planet SCUBA– they were extremely knowledgeable in the water and fun people to hang out with on the surface.

    Feb 08

    kitesurferSunset.jpgFor those unfamiliar with what kite surfing is, it’s a water sport that meshes wake boarding with the art of flying an over-sized kite and using the wind to generate the power that a motorboat would normally provide. Also known as “kite boarding,” this sport is the fastest growing water sport in the world right now. A skilled kite surfer can navigate upwind tacking like a sailboat and launch several stories into the air by timing a jump off of a large wave. I had the opportunity to try kite surfing over the holidays while I was down in mexico and it was an incredible experience.

    So what could kite surfing possibly have to do with entrepreneurship? One is a water sport and the other a occupation right? There are three striking parallels that can be drawn that provide insight to both.

    Finding your “power band”

    In kite surfing you simultaneously manage both the board in the water and the kite in the air. Imagine trying to wake board behind a boat while piloting the boat via remote control. Now add a vertical component to that and realize that your motorboat works more like a sailboat. Oh yeah, and the wind shifts directions and the sea has waves… so there’s quite a few variables to juggle. If we can make the leap of comparing kite surfing to the art of bootstrapping a startup with minimal resources in an environment where:

    1. the wind is always shifting
    2. the terrain of the sea is in constant motion
    3. and there’s other kite surfers in the water to watch out for

    how does one maximize effectiveness at generating power and, consequently, forward progress?

    windWindow.jpgThere is a useful mental abstraction in kite surfing called the “wind window.” The wind window is an imaginary quarter sphere that extends around you and occupies your peripheral vision as you are standing with your back to the wind looking straight ahead (like a big orange slice downwind from you if you are one of the seeds). This is the space in which your kite will fly when its tethered to you. Now imagine a colored gradient superimposed against this quarter sphere where the red zone is that spot directly downwind and the concentric zones of the sphere that radiate outward from there to the edge of your peripheral vision are gradually cooler colors. Weird I know, but if you’re visualizing it you should have something like the picture on the right.

    Now knowing that your kite is essentially a sail at the end of a long rope and that the only way to generate power is by harnessing the wind, where do you think you need to put the kite to produce maximum power? Answer: the red zone or the “power band.” In kite surfing the trick is to fly figure 8’s maximizing the time your kite spends in that power band. Anything you do with your kite outside of the power band has a negligible effect on your forward progress. The only thing that can pull you out of the water is knowing where that critical band is and keeping your kite solidly in it to generate power.

    takeawayThe takeaway here is that, much like with a startup, there are a thousand different things you could do at any moment to improve your situation, but with limited resources it’s all about determining where that power band is at all times. Some startups have blown millions optimizing kite skills with their kites around on the periphery while others have succeeded on shoestring budgets with a small, crappy kite and minimal kite mastery but by keeping their kite in the red zone. At least 50% of this game is identifying the power band.

    If the wind is wrong, walk around it

    Unlike paragliding where you are constantly moving forward through a relatively-stationary body of air, in kite surfing it’s the reverse- you are relatively anchored with the wind flowing past you. This creates an interesting possibility that you don’t have in paragliding which is the ability to manually use control over your position on the ground to change your wind window and affect how your kite flies. They say “don’t fight the wind, learn to work with it” and anyone who has sailed a boat or a windsurfer will relate to this statement. If the wind isn’t doing what you want, you need to figure out which direction you’re trying to go and change the position of your sail and keel to work with the wind. If you’ve ever tried to pull a windsurfer up when positioned wrong, you’ll find you get hopelessly toppled. It’s the same in kite surfing and, from my experience, the same in a startup.

    takeawayTakeaway: when you’re still in the shallows you can always stand up and walk your board around your kite to manually re-orient with the wind. In the same way in a startup sometimes it’s necessary to manually reposition your sail given a shift in the market or newfound knowledge about the competitive terrain.

    We’ve already gone through several skins with JumpBox. Initially the plan was to build hardware appliances and sell those to consumers, then we shifted focus to producing a toolset for vendors that would enable them to convert their applications to virtual appliances and now we’ve finally settled on an entirely different business of wrapping powerful open source server apps as virtual JumpBoxes and selling these apps ourselves to small/medium businesses. The point is as things have evolved shifts in the competitive and market environment prompted us on multiple occasions to manually re-orient our sail to position ourselves where we felt we could generate the most power. While perceived as erratic, this is actually the fastest way to advance while you’re still in the shallows.

    Edging upwind

    kitesurferEdgingUpwind1.jpgThe holy grail of a wind sport is to go upwind. Any jokester with a sailboat can raise full sails and go wherever the wind takes him/her. It takes true skill to know how to tack and travel against the wind – but once you can do that you can go anywhere. In the same way, anyone with deep pockets can start a company, throw up the sail and go downwind. Bootstrapping with minimal resources means you have to learn to travel upwind.

    In kite surfing once you’ve generated enough power to pull yourself out of the water, the next trick is to pick your line and use the edge of your board to carve against the ocean to go where you want to go. Snow boarders and skiiers will be comfortable with this terminology- the equivalent of the “fall line” on a snow slope is the vector of force generated from your kite and the equivalent of retaining maximum height on a slope is making maximum forward progress into the wind. The key here is to pick a line that is as close to perpendicular to the fall line as possible and to keep the kite in the right spot to maintain that groove. Once you’ve mastered that skill, the ocean is your playground.

    What does this mean to you?

    Viewing things in this light, my questions to you are:

    1. Where is your power band? What relatively low-resource-consumptive activities could you engage in today that will have a great deal of impact on advancing your forward progress?
    2. Are you fighting the wind? Have micro or macro trends shifted since you first engaged? Is there any type of manual repositioning at this point that would align you better with the wind?
    3. Where is your fall line? Provided you’re out of the gate at this point and not expending energy to pull yourself out of the water, what are the different fall lines available for you to take? Are you edging with your board, keeping the kite in the right spot and finding the groove with minimal burn and maximum forward progress or is there a better line you could follow?
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