One Thing Leads To Another

Deeper and deeper. Kind of a Fixx sort of morning. It’s coming up on nine months since we started up Valkyrie. I think the biggest change can be seen in my morning coffee. I’ve somehow become the kind of person who adds creatine to his coffee. I also enjoy taking a sixteen hour fast three days a week, and I break that fast with a berry and protein smoothie. My body is changing slowly…glacially slowly, but also changing with glacial power.

I took a vacation last week, both from work and from working out. My six day a week, sometimes twice a day workout schedule was starting to show up in pain in my partially-regrown (I can hope, can’t I?) knee, so I’d stopped running the previous week. And I started to relax my eating. Chips and cookies, restaurant food, beer and wine. Expensive chocolates. We walked a fair bit, but that’s not exercise for us. We did one completely brutal kettlebell session of one one minute lifting, one minute resting for ten repeats. It was a pleasant twenty minutes but the next day turned out to be a serious rest day. I think I even bit the bullet and took an ibuprofen.

I learned some interesting things about my body on that vacation. Over the first week, I gained about five pounds. I also learned that I now eat a lot. I stopped counting calories when I did my nutrition certification about two years ago and learned about variances in calorie estimation and consumption rates…there can be up to a fifty percent difference between what the package says and what your body does with the food. I try to eat good foods, I eat till I’m satisfied, and I try to eat for what I’m going to do in the next while.

Working, and working out, on a strict schedule makes that fairly easy. I need to lose weight, and I’ve been doing so at a rate of about a pound a week or two. I’ve done that by reducing calories and increasing my burn rate. I don’t really pay attention to how much I eat, or how often. Workout days I try to eat a lot, rest (running) days I eat less. On vacation, with no schedule I just ate when I was hungry. Apparently I eat all the time. So gaining five pounds made sense. Except this week, back to work but not back to class until tonight, I’ve lost all that weight. I’m right back to where I was before my vacation. No change at all in diet (maybe slightly more cookies and chips) and five pounds dropped off of me? What’s happened?

I think one of the worst things I’ve ever heard about fitness is the continuing misconception that you grow muscles by making micro-tears in the muscle which then re-grows into a stronger and bigger muscle. While true, it’s also only a tiny part of a much bigger complex of actions. People like shortcuts, so the tendency is to focus only on the muscle tear part. No pain no gain, right? This leads people to think that a workout somehow lacks value if they aren’t sore during and after. Pain is not the same as effort.

It’s much better to think of the whole process, which is better summed up by “protein re-synthesis.” When a muscle is used, it gets used up to a degree. Anabolism is the process of muscle growth, as most of us know from the use of anabolic steroids. Catabolism is the other side of the muscle lifecycle, and is the process of muscle breakdown. Catabolism is the process by which the muscle consumes itself. If we think of growth as happening from the repairing of tears, then catabolism is a very bad thing. We want growth, not destruction, right? That’s what I thought when I first learned about catabolism and catabolic hormones. Those are the stress hormones, bad things that break the body down. Evil. Nasty. Avoid. Except…why do we have the damn things if they are so bad?

Protein re-synthesis. Effective muscle growth is not a process of injury and repair, but of muscle re-purposing…muscle optimization. When you lift a heavy weight or go for a very long run, the muscle body is inadequate to the task. It cannot easily perform. Extra resources are required to accomplish the task, and that’s bad news for the super-survival machine that is our body. Our bodies abhor anything less than perfect efficiency. We re-build ourselves constantly throughout the day to suit whatever task we are doing at the time. Catabolism is the process where the muscle body breaks down it’s existing structure in order to re-use the components, the building blocks, to make a newer and more efficient structure. The muscle will eat itself in order to build itself into a newer and better shape.

With this in mind you get a better sense that a workout should be a challenge that trains your muscle to grow in the right way. And you can see that eating correctly is an absolute must. All that growth needs fuel. Energy and amino acids to build new proteins, vitamins and fats to make it all work together correctly, bulky fiber to make sure the transport and digestion is working right…so many compounds and bits that have to combine to make your bicep just a little bit bigger, or your calf able to make a few thousand more contractions. Learning how to train the muscles right for the kind of growth they need is a non-trivial task, and why athletes have coaches.

So why did I gain and then lose weight? Momentum. When I stopped working out but continued to eat the same and a little heavier, my body went nuts on the riches and built a ton more new muscle. My waist actually tapered a little more, and my shirtsleeves got a little tighter. After a week of no serious demand, my body has started to become efficient again. All that new muscle is sucking up calories and not using them, so we can start to strip them down. Catabolism is starting to rule my system, as the body rushes to make things optimal again. The excess food coming in is not going to muscle anymore, so it can be shunted to fat eventually. Right now it’s helping to fuel the catabolic process. Weight drops, and I’m slightly thinner for a day or two even though I’m overeating. I can tell that catabolism is high, because suddenly my joints are aching again. This is what happens when the body is full of catabolic byproducts. I’m losing muscle.

Of course, I’ve got a brain that understands all this is going on and why, so I’ve countering the worst effects by having a nice long fast today. This brief famine boosts select hormones that will eat some fat and stop the muscle breakdown (as long as I keep it short, no more than sixteen hours) and when I workout again tonight I should be primed to start a new cycle of fat loss and muscle gain. Good thing it was only a short vacation. I guess. Sigh.

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