Monday, October 22, 2012

Fat to fit

A few people over the last couple of years have asked my how you get from being fat to being fit enough to complete Ironman. Usually this happens right after being told what the distances are, when they are thoroughly appalled.

So let's break it into pieces. Fat. I was, though most people didn't notice because I'm fairly tall and it was fairly evenly distributed. Being fat does not automatically mean unfit and unhealthy, though in the general population it's usually a pretty safe bet and was in my case. Even so, there's a difference between an unfit fat person, and a fit fat person. They carry themselves differently, their skin looks different, and typically you can see some muscle. There are some people that look fat that have completed ironman.

Fit. I had a vision of what fit looked like. It's what you see when you look at an Olympic or World class athletes. Outside of curling, it almost doesn't matter what sport. I'm sure the Greek gods that posed for all those statues are crying with jealousy as they look at, say, the swimmers.

Fit enough to complete Ironman. Let's talk about that in a while, because the mental aspect is far more important than the physical.

So how does one get from fat to fit? There's a list. Here it is in it's complete entirety:

  • Gradually
That's it. If you remember nothing else, remember that the change has to happen gradually. You didn't become unfit overnight, and you can't get fit overnight. You can't. Anyone who says so either hates you and wants to break you, or they want your money. Maybe both, and get your spouse at the same time.

If I had a dollar for every time I read a blog written by someone full of piss and vinegar that is GOING TO GET FIT!!!, well, I wouldn't need to work anymore. It doesn't work like that. I don't even know your spouse (with a few exceptions in my regular readers) but I'll tell you how it works, in the full graduallity of it all. That's a word I just made up for the occasion. For the purposes of this discussion I'm going to assume you are really, really unfit. (If Dara Torres is reading this, well, it doesn't apply to you, even if you are feeling unfit these days.)

The Full Graduallity 
  1. You start by building the habits that will build fitness. Your first task sounds simple, but the simplest things are only simple when you are not relying on them as you do more complicated things. Your first task, every day for a month, is to go for a walk outside. Nothing more, nothing less.
    Depending on how out of shape you are, that first walk might not be very far. It doesn't have to be. Even if you feel pretty good, this need not be a long lung burning walk. In fact, it shouldn't be. If you go as long as a half hour, that's plenty. You need not wear any special shoes, unless you already have them; they need only be comfortable to walk in. Wear whatever clothes you feel comfortable in and are suitable for the weather of the day. Do not wait for nice weather.
    No need for anything special at this point, because you likely are not going to be working up a sweat. In fact, you shouldn't be. To sum up, go for a walk, every day, for a month, outside. Rain or shine, hot or cold, humid or dry. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what time of day, but about the same time every day is good. Consider your personal security, and walk with a buddy if it makes you more comfortable. Someone should know where you are. Do the walk, then put a check mark on a calendar. Every day, without exception, for a month. Yes, this is simple and seems easy. Shut up and do it. Come back in a month.
  2. They say it takes 3 weeks to build a habit. You are going to do things for a month, to make sure the habit is built. You've been out walking every day for a month. You are going to continue that, with the following additions. Now you are going to start keeping notes. Yes, after every walk instead of putting a checkmark on a calendar, you are going to make an entry in a notebook.
    It doesn't matter what kind of a notebook. It can be on a computer if you wish. Every day, after every walk, you will write down how long you walked, an estimate of how far, and how you felt. Three simple things. Oh, and the date too. How long, to the minute or so. At this stage it still doesn't matter if you are walking for 5 minutes or 65 minutes. The distance estimate need not be in units but it does have to be repeatable. By this I mean you aren't likely to know you walked 3.6 Km during your half hour, but you will know you walked to a particular corner from your house and back. That's fine. How you felt is purely subjective. Write down how you felt to be walking outside. How did your feet feel about it, or your legs? Were you warm or cold? Were you starting to get sweaty? (Hint, feeling a bit moist is ok, but at this point you should not be getting sweaty.)
    At some point you will be wanting different shoes, it could be now, or later. Go to a local running shoe store and tell them you are on a walking program and need comfortable walking shoes. Go in after your daily walk, and let your feet pick what is comfortable. You won't need the most expensive shoes, and you almost certainly should not buy the cheapest ones. Do not cheap out on shoes.
  3. Now you have been walking for about 60 days, every day, and taking notes every day for 30 days. Let's review. If you were walking so far, or so fast that you felt you needed to have a "rest day", then you have not fully grasped the word GRADUAL. After every walk you should be feeling like you could walk further. Maybe at the end of the 60 days you are walking further, or a bit faster, and that's fine, provided it feels natural.
    Now you are going to make a change. You are still going to walk every day, and you are going to still take notes every day. But now it gets more complicated. You have to read your notes and pick two kinds of routes, because now you are going to be doing two kinds of walks.
    The first kind is to walk a known distance just a little bit faster than you have previously. Stop. Go back and read about gradually, then read the instruction again. As an example, if you have been walking a particular route in 30 minutes, your goal is to walk it a minute faster. Only a minute. Be sure to note how it feels.
    The second kind of walk it to walk the same speed as usual, but go a little bit further. When I say a little bit further, if you're going the same pace as before, then walk for 31 or 32 minutes instead of 30. Take notes. Make that small increase, and maintain it for a week, then try to increase it slightly again.
    The point of this is to gradually (that word again!) build your walking speed, and your walking distance. Again, you do not want to increase either so fast that you have to take a rest day. Review your notes regularly, and see how you feel after your walks. Spend at least a week at each step, before going a little bit faster on one day, and a little bit further on the other days. 
  4. Now you have been walking for 90 days. Time for review. You've probably got a number of routes you like to walk. You've probably explored the neighbourhood much better. Your legs are probably feeling stronger, and probably a little bit tired now after walks. This is a good thing.
    You'll notice I haven't said anything about diet, or weighing yourself, or quitting smoking, or pushing weights, or anything else. The point of changing habits is that you change one thing at a time, and nail it down. Then add another thing and nail it down. One more change, and we'll start to talk about those things.
    There will have almost certainly been a day or two where you didn't want to go for your walk. Maybe it was crappy weather out, or maybe you didn't sleep well, or whatever, it doesn't matter. If you've been going every day, about the same time of day, and you haven't been overdoing it, your body will get in the habit, and you won't even think about. One day you'll be putting on your shoes, even as you were wondering if you were going to go out. You've built the habit of regular activity, and it will carry you through on the days you feel weak. They will happen.
    Here's a hint. There's no such thing as crappy weather, just poor clothing choices. Up till now you've been making do with whatever was in your closet, unless you had to go and get something. Well, now you're getting to the point where you are beginning to work up a bit of sweat. You'll need to start getting clothes that are more appropriate for brisk walking, and dealing with different weather than what you started in. There are no shortage of places with suitable clothes. If you're big, don't spend lots of money. You will be smaller surprisingly soon.
    Now that you've walked 90 days straight, gradually building your distance and your walking speed, you're probably champing at the bit wondering what the next step is. Review your notes! How are you feeling after the gradual build? If you're finding it tough to go faster, or further, maybe the next step is to continue one with step 3 for another month. If you've been really unfit this is entirely possible. Your notes about how you feel will tell you.
  5. If you've gradually built speed and distance by tiny little bits, and you're feeling good after your walks, now is the time for you to start taking control of your own progress and add another step. On day one go further and faster. You want to be walking a little bit faster than your previous fast pace, and a bit further. Next day, take it easy, how easy will depend on how you feel. Then a bit faster, maybe the same pace, or a bit faster again. During this step take really, really good notes about how you feel during and after. While you should never be gasping and wheezing out of breath, you should be breathing deeply and regularly at this point. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to keep track of how you are feeling during and after your walks. You are getting to the point where you are starting to actually push yourself a bit, making your body actually work. Well, it has been all along, but it's been gentle enough to get it used to recovering. Now you want to push yourself a bit, to force your body to exert itself, and to recover by building new muscle tissue and cardio capacity. The idea is to push yourself a bit, and then back off a bit. You cannot push every day. By writing about how your walk has felt during and after each one for several months, you'll be in the habit of listening to your body. You'll know when something is not normal, and you'll back off or stop to check it out. This is really really important. 
By the end of step 5, you should be up to a brisk walk for an hour or so. It doesn't matter how long it takes to get there. Remember gradually. A brisk hour walk every day will do amazing things for your health. Maybe you've already noticed. You're probably sleeping better. Your appetite might have changed. You might have lost weight, but more likely you've changed shape. Your clothes might not be fitting the same anymore. 

One can lead a perfectly healthy life doing nothing more ambitious than that hour long brisk walk every day. Once you've got that habit nailed down, you can work on other things. Quit smoking if you haven't already. Make more healthy eating choices. Enroll in a supplementary fitness routine such as yoga, pilates, cross fit, Tai Chi, or any of a zillion other such things. Try one and see if it's fun. If not move to something else. Maybe you just want to play ball with your kids. Walking every day can help make these things possible.

But maybe you want more. Maybe you want to run, and swim, and bike, and (gasp) do an Ironman someday. If you've had the discipline to walk every day for several months, gradually building speed and distance, I am here to tell you that you can totally do an Ironman. Eventually.

I'll tell you a secret about doing Ironman. You need not be fast. In fact, it's probably better if you know you aren't fast. What you MUST be is determined and disciplined. Like I said, if you can gradually build through the walk program, and apply the same discipline to learning the skills for triathlon, you can be an Ironman.

I could write a whole blog, a whole series of blogs on how to swim. It's my best thing of the three sports. I'll summarize. Start gradually, with whatever you can do now. Take notes after every swim. (where have you heard that before?) Gradually build swim distance and speed. You are aiming to swim a 25 minute Km pace without being knackered. It's really easy to get out of breath while swimming, and it's really good, periodically, to do that. It will push your lungs to increase their capacity. Attend a swim camp where they promise to video your swimming, and analyze it afterward. There is no better tool to improve your swimming than to see for yourself how badly you swim. Yes, that includes me. I was astonished at my swim flaws. If you don't know how to swim at all, sign up for lessons. It's probably one of the most valuable life skills you can have anyways. Swimming is one of the single best exercises you can do.

You'll need to swim 3.8 Km. At 25 minutes per K, that's 1 hr and 40 minutes, what with a bit of thrashing around at the start and end. Lots of margin for the 2:20 cutoff. For the moment, don't worry about a wetsuit. 

It is easily possible to spend serious amounts of money buying a tri-bike. Without leaving Calgary, and without doing a special order from a manufacturer, I'm pretty sure I could drop $15,000 on a bike and various accessories. But you don't need to. At first, it almost doesn't matter what kind of a bike you have. Get on it and start riding. You are aiming for 25 Kph on average, up and downhill, into the wind and downwind. As you gradually (that word again!) build speed and distance and bike confidence, exactly how you started with walking, you'll realize the shortcomings of your particular bike and bike skills. Yes, you'll want a fancy bike, but at this stage of the game an expensive bike is wasted on you. Take a class and learn to spin; it's harder than it looks. Buy a good quality bike, sized to fit you. Go back and read those four words again - sized to fit you. That means you now, flabby thighs, belly, and stiff back and all. These things will improve, but there is no point buying setting up a bike for a position you can't ride comfortably in. A fit will gradually change over time. Women, you have special anatomical issues. Do not be embarrassed to discuss the fit of the bike saddle with the sales person. They've heard it all. There is a ton of stuff to know about riding safely on the roads. Ask Mrs. Google, she knows everything, and that includes bike safety.

You'll need to bike 180 Km. At 25 Kph that is just over 7 hours. Call it 7 hours 20 minutes what with transition and potty breaks.

The steps that built your walking speed and distance are exactly what you need to do to transition from walking to running, only the word gradually is even more important. It is very, very easy to overdo it running. I started by running gently for 1 minute and walking 4 minutes to recover. My wife insisted I wear a heart rate monitor to know if I should back off sooner than that because it drove my heart rate too high. That one minute at a speed that seems laughably slow even to me now, was enough to drive my heart rate into dangerous territory. Do not run every day. Run every other day at most, and maybe every third day. Do your walking in between. I strongly recommend you find a running program. There are any number of learn to run programs put on by various organizations. You can run with people at your level of fitness, and you'll make friends. Children run naturally, but adults typically run very badly. Get coaching before you nail down bad run habits. 

Depending on just how unfit you were, it might take a year of regular walking before you try running at all. Again, depending on your level of unfitness and other factors, you might well want to get a doctors physical first. Running is one of the single best exercises to help deal with weight, but have some consideration for your knees and feet if you are big. Muscle can be build fairly quickly, but it takes a long time to build up your bones to deal with running stresses. Do not skimp on nutrition.

The run is 42.2 Km. If you've done the math, you did the swim in 1:40, the bike in 7:20, which is 9 hours. You have 17 hours, which means you have 8 whole hours to travel 42.2, which is just over 5 Kph. Many people can walk that fast, and almost everybody is going to be walking during their Ironman. I did. Just don't stop.

Right now those swim and bike speeds might seem impossible, but trust me, they are not fast, and quite reasonable goals to work towards. Provided of course, that you don't try to go out and ride 180 Km in 7 hours the first time on your bike. That would be stupid. It might take years to build the strength and stamina to even think about doing Ironman. Do the shorter distances first, and see how that goes for you. 

Now I'll tell you why the building of habits is so important. If you've built the habit of gradually increasing your speed and your distances, you have also been training your mind to stick with it. Your body will do what it's told. If you haven't been training your mind, it will be the weak link. You'll give up because you're bored, or you think you're tired, or because your feet hurt, or because you're hungry, or a zillion other reasons. The training will take years. You'll gradually build to the point where you take rest days because you've had some huge training effort peaks, and you need to recover. Your mind will learn that your body is stronger than you ever dreamed it could be, and your body and mind will learn to trust each other. 

You'll learn that you can keep going to finish that slow cold crappy workout that felt like shit and it's only when you get home and start writing it down that you'll realize a couple months ago that was a peak effort on the best training day of your life to date. You'll put your head down on a gusty windy day and keep those pedals turning. You'll love the day when the high school swim team has 8 kids in the next lane, and there are 5 other people in your lane because it starts being choppy like an open water swim. You'll have the discipline to let that person pass you and not chase them because you'll know you are right in your sweet spot for aerobic effort and you know you'll need to be there for hours yet. If someone else is faster, then they're faster. If your mind is weak and makes you do stupid things it doesn't matter how fit or strong you are, and you're likely to blow up before the finish line. When your mind is strong, your body will be strong, and you'll cross that finish line with the biggest smile of your life.

There are some people that say anyone can do an ironman, and that's flat out not true. What is true is that most people don't think they can, and therefore they won't. Gradually starting with the simplest things is the most important step because it starts training your mind, and that's what really takes the longest to train. The hardest thing is to overcome that voice in your head that says "you can't", and replace it with one that says "I will."


  1. Great post Keith.

    My journey to fit has seemed incredibly slow at times, but looking back, it's great to recognize, that for the first time I didn't slide back. So, the fact that I am where I am now, three years later, means a heck of a lot more then having fast results in the first couple months would have been.

  2. It's been slow for me, and it's a good thing I'm not driven about the number on the scale, because it's oscillated up and down within a pound range for months now. I've had various of the blog thoughts burbling in my head for a while and I thought it was finally time to write them out. I was looking at it on screen while Linda was reading, and I hadn't quite realized what a wall of words it is.


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