Peaceful Dragon

Everyone has their coping strategies for cubicle life. I like to travel and chase goals. I also enjoy pursuing various physical challenges to keep me sane. The last 2 years it was the 5.25 mile Cross Bay Swim. Previously it was bodybuilding, flag football, kickball, soccer, kayaking, hiking, or any number of other things. This year I decided to return to studying Martial Arts.
China wuhan mountains tai chi

Previous Study

One of my first memories is of a karate class. When I was very young my parents brought me to a karate class I believe taught by my godfather. Mostly, I remember playing with other kids on a mat in a gymnasium and having a great time.

Failure to Prepare is Preparing to Fail

I’m not certain if my parents ever took another class but later on they enrolled my brother and I in karate in a hole-in-the-wall North Babylon studio that had mirrors on the wall and pictures of students in full 80s greasy curled hair. Despite a love of 80’s-riffic fighting movies with training montages (Karate Kid, Rocky, etc) and the dot matrix print outs of workouts and belt-testing requirements they sent us home with, we never practiced. Our instructors covered and re-covered the same material so often I’m sure they thought we were “special.” No matter how much we learned, we earned a few belts for attendance. I think the most use our uniforms received were as stand-in Halloween costumes. After maybe a year either my parents got tired of paying for this glorified day care or the instructors got tired of taking their money and our lessons ended. I think that was when I started my education.

Self Study

There’s something about having knowledge (or more accurately, access to knowledge) taken away from you to make you want to learn something. At least that was how it was for me. The end of those (lack of) lessons led to me getting every book in the library on karate, kung fu, and related disciplines. I even think I bought a few from the elementary school book sale. I’d arrange my GI Joes in the stances, forms, and strikes I saw in those pages and practice them as best I could. Those 80’s movies came in handy as I did my best to imitate Daniel LaRusso, the Best of the Best fighters, and the likes of American Ninja. This probably went on for longer that I would care to admit. At least until I was able to take formal lessons.

A Good School

Serious study came when I entered to win free lessons at a nearby school – Fred Vilari’s karate. Surprise! I won. (It’s a marketing technique, everybody won!) I was in about 8th grade and I really took to it. I loved going. Many birthdays, Christmas’s and other gift-giving occasions led to me taking private lessons, learning weapons, getting more books, etc. Some friends joined and soon I was going with them, competing with (and against) them, and having a good time. We all marched lock-step in belt advancement. That irritated me. I really thought I was putting in a lot more effort (and was a lot more effective) than several of my peers.Eventually my peers petered off one by one. We had other concerns. Soccer, cross country, track, girls, boy scouts, church, etc all got in the way. I am not sure when I stopped my longest run of instruction but it was after a few years. I would re-join time and time again through out and even into college. I would do tournaments, try out other schools, practice with other friends but never for more than a couple of months.

Recently I looked up the school – a lot of those friends that I made inside the studio are now masters in their own right. They stayed with it. They became instructors and now they own their own shops. That made me kind of wonder ‘what might have been.’ I guess if you get old enough a lot of things make you do that.

Why Return Now?

The last few years have seen me in a cast of some kind or other. Mostly on my feet. Broken foot bones, collapsed arch, torn rotator cuff, dislocated toe, torn cartilage, surgery… the list goes on. Someone recently asked me why I thought that was. The easy answer would be Flag Football – after all that’s what I was doing when I had all of those injuries. The real reason I believe is that I let myself go.

As freshman ectomorph I stopped doing any kind of cardio in college all in an attempt to put as much muscle as possible on a very thin frame. After competing in a natural bodybuilding show to close out my college career I played after work sports for about a year before falling off that wagon. Lifting (and dieting) would go in spurts from that time but I have fallen short of my goal of discovering a way to keep in good shape for an extended period of time. After (relatively) mastering a subject (competing in a bodybuilding show, swimming 5.25 miles, etc) I think I get bored in further pursuing it. Martial Arts is something that I don’t think can be mastered. Plus, the stretching, movement, balance, coordination and mind-body balance all appeal to me as skills I sorely need work on. Doing martial arts will be fun for me in a way that lifting and swimming have ceased to be!

More than Physical

There are a number of other things that I like about this particular studio. For one, it is an unbroken line from THE Shaolin monastery to this school so it certainly has the romance and prestige of history going for it. Secondly it is as much a cultural institution as anything else. They have travelled to China before to that Shaolin monastery. (can you imagine this group as a tour guide???) They do travel to other places, celebrate holidays I don’t know of. They teach languages I don’t know and they hold study sessions on philosophies I grew up studying.

When I was looking for a martial arts schools I had thought I had wanted to find a new way to exercise. What I have realized is that I was looking for many things. A way to work out was just one of them. A way to heal up and continue physical therapy is another. Cultural pursuits a third. The list goes on.

Of course, after you make a decision to follow one course of action one tends to find corroborating data to back it up. The Peaceful Dragon may not end up being what I’m making it out to be. But like that old Chinese proverb, ‘a journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step.’ My journey starts tonight.

How to Lose 50lbs Hiking

The following is an interview done with one of my friends over email. It was a reluctant interview so the play may be a little choppy here. But it’s a good story. The guy finally had enough of being out of shape and decided to do something about it. He’s a private sort of guy so he chose solitary hiking as his outlet.

I like this story because it is a unity of goal setting, travel, and getting in shape. Good stuff.

My questions are in the headers or denoted by a CW:

What made you want to start hiking last year?

– I had enough. (of everything). Fat to me is potential energy that needs to be turned into kinetic energy for sanity and health.

So why hike?

CW: In opposed to other things – scuba diving & tae kwon do, my gym & swimming, etc?

– I wanted to be outside and not in a group activity. I needed some alone time to gather my thoughts as well as burn calories.

Had you ever hiked before?

CW: I know that you have not camped. How did you get started? Just leave work one day and head to Crowders (local Charlotte mountain)?
– A friend and I went to Crowder’s before my two week vacation. I felt better and slept through the night after that hike. I decided to see what I could change in two weeks.

CW: So, he had been to Crowders before then, huh. I bet you slept well. You were in awful shape before.

How did that first hike go. Any injuries?

– No injuries. Just lots of breaks and sweat.

CW: And then you just hiked Crowders every day for 2 weeks of vacation? Your body could handle that? Mine couldn’t. I miss having feet.

– Just about every day. It was my boot camp. either complete it or die trying (literally).

How did you feel at the end of those 2 weeks?

CW: Did you end up changing your diet, too?

– I felt great. changed diet

So how much weight did you lose those first 2 weeks?

-10 lbs or so. I didn’t really keep track. It wasn’t so much about weight loss versus starting the machine. Getting blood sugar levels leveled during strenuous exercise.

Ever pass out? How did you mitigate crazy blood sugar levels? Snacks?

-I came close. I carried performance sugar drinks as well as peanut butter and jelly. over time I adjusted to where I would take water and food breaks and gave up the sugar drinks.

How did your life change (if at all) when you came back to the rigor and schedule of work?

-I was determined to keep up with what I had accomplished. I was not going to go back to the habits that had made me miserable. I found a way to balance the stress of work with the stress of the new routine, until the routine became part of the normal day.

What do you mean by ‘stress of the new routine?’

-As with all changes it can be stressful. Not getting enough calories at the right time makes some people cranky and emotionally taxed.

What was your biggest challenge after the 2 week vacation?

-Maintaining the intensity of the workout. I had to work, then travel to the mountain for a workout. The schedule put me in late and eating late. The idea that you can’t eat after 7:00pm is bunk. I was eating at 10:00 pm most nights. Calories in and calories out.

CW: Yeah, I can imagine that distance would be an issue.

How did you mitigate it?

CW: I’ve seen your trunk. It looks like you manage very efficiently now. How did that come about?
-I use to carry everything after I left work – a cooler with sugar drinks, sandwiches, power bars and change of clothes. It is mostly trial and error. It started with a big day pack full of stuff. After awhile you finally carry only what you need.

So what essentials are you down to now?

-Water is essential as well as a power bar – just in case the blood sugar levels drop. not as likely now if I have been eating properly. Flashlight if close to dark and bug spray.


I never got to finish the interview as my friend stopped hiking. He’s on to a new quest now; studying German. Still, he’s displaying the same kind of focus pursuing that goal as he did while hiking. And I’d imagine he’s receiving the same benefit as he’s only serving one master.

What do you think? Could you drop 50lbs hiking? Have you ever done something like that? How did you apply those lessons to your next goal?

How to Swim One Mile Nonstop

On the flight back from Tel Aviv in the spring of 2008 I decided that for my next adventure I was going to swim 5.25 miles in the ocean. I had no idea how but I knew there were people I could count on to help me through. My own ego and force of will featured prominently in this decision, too. Now April, I had 14 weeks to learn to swim 5.25 miles non-stop in the ocean by mid-July. In pool terms, that is 324 25-meter-pool-lengths or 162 laps. When I made the decision I could do only one without stopping.

One Down, 161 left to Go.
The stroke of choice for long distance swimmers is American Freestyle. In New York where I grew up learning the stroke, it is referred to as ‘crawl.’ For the sake of this blog assume that these terms are interchangeable.

Crawl is difficult. Disconcerting for beginners, your head is in the water so that your face is down. You breathe by rotating on your body axis trying not to get a mouthful of water. This is very difficult if you aren’t what I call ‘swim flexible.’ Also complicating matters is the fact that you can’t really see straight ahead to where you are going – in the pool you must rely on bottom markers to know how close to the wall you are. Finally, crawl is very easy to do if you are efficient and have excellent form. It is exhausting if you are not. The more tired you get, the worse your form providing an asymptotic decline in performance.

The first thing I needed to work on was my breathing. After 1 lap of crawl I was panting for air. A decade of bench presses left me muscle bound – not muscular but literally inflexible to stretch well enough to rotate and breath. I practiced stretching constantly. In the pool, out of the pool, morning, noon, and night.

In the ocean I assumed that I would need the ability to breath as well on my right side as well as my left so I would alternate lengths of the pool breathing on my right side with a length breathing on my left. This also forced my to work both my right and left shoulders evenly further helping me strengthen the muscles around the previously torn rotator cuff.

5.25 miles is a long, long way. Especially in water when you can do only 1/162 of the distance without stopping. I created an incremental improvement program to get better.

Basic Program
I knew that a mile was 64 lengths of the pool. I was determined that no workout would ever be less than one whole mile. My first sets of workouts were dividing that into 7 sets like I would in the gym. My first 6 sets would be 10 lengths of the pool. Not much but better than 2. At the end of that, I would rest for a bit. The rules were simple, do 10 laps, of any stroke, kick board or not without stopping. I think my first workout took my entire night.

Basic Plus
Once my body adjusted to swimming for a mile a night, every other night, I stepped up the intensity. Breaststroke has always been very easy for me as is sidestroke. I would swim one set with only crawl and breast stroke and the next set after a short rest with the kick board and sidestroke. The focus was on getting as many laps of crawl in as possible.

The Breakthrough
After I knew that I could swim a mile without issue, albeit very slowly, I eliminated all rests between the sets. Now I was doing 64 straight lengths with no stopping. My next step was to eliminate the sidestroke and kick board laps making the entire workout only breaststroke and crawl.

At this point I would alternate every length or every lap of crawl with breaststroke. Eventually I was able to be more consistent with my freestyle numbers. I would swim 1 lap of crawl for every 1 lap of breast, then 2 laps of crawl for every one of breast. I had worked up to 5 crawl laps to every one breast when I decided to go for broke and do 8 laps of crawl – the equivalent of a quarter mile without stopping. I was overjoyed when I realized that I could! I remember the rest of my workout being an absolute joy I was so proud of myself!

After that progress came quickly. A quarter mile of crawl became a half mile of crawl. I would alternate a ‘fast quarter mile’ with a long, slow quarter mile. The night I did a full mile of freestyle without stopping I was criminally insane from the effort and oxygen deprivation but I grinned ear-to-ear! I think I told everyone about my accomplishment that I could reach via cell phone. I slept the sleep of the dead that night.

Dieting is Less Work

I was wondering how many calories I burn doing squats. If I did the calculation right, it’s not nearly as bad as it feels 🙂 . I figured I’d burn off 50-100 kcal. But then I calculated…

My squat is about 1 meter in length, roughly half my height. A 1-kg weight exerts a downward force equal to gravity, 9.8 m/s2.

Work = force x distance = 9.8 * 1kg * 1 meter = 9.8 for a 1 KG weight

Now multiply for the number of kg i’m lifting. Let’s say 135 lbs = 61.4kg.

Then add the amount of my weight I’m also lifting (est) = 180 lbs = 82kg.

So the total mass is about 143.4kg.

Work = 9.8 * 143.4 * 1 = 1405.32 joules for 1 squat.

Convert to calories (1 cal = 0.239 J), that’s 335.8 calories per full squat. Note that these are *regular* calories, not kilocalories, as food is measured. So at some point I’ll have to divide by 1000. Also note that I’m only calculating the upward motion of the squat. Obviously the downward motion takes effort too, but for now I’ll assume that effort is not greater than the effort of the upward squat. So at the end we’ll at most double the estimate of calories burned to account for this.

Say I do 12 squats of 135lbs. That will burn 335.8 * 12 calories = 4030 calories. If I do 4 sets of this, that’s about 16000 calories burned. If we assume that the downward motion of the squat is half as difficult as the upward motion in terms of energy usage, we get a total of 24000 calories burned for a full squat exercise.

Now I know I feel equally wonderful and terrible after doing squats, but I also know I didn’t burn 24000 calories. I guess this is where that kilocalorie calculation comes in. Dividing by 1000 gives us 24 calories (in terms of food) for a full squat exercise at 135lbs. Still feels like more to me!

Some other estimates:

  • 135lbs: 24 cals
  • 205lbs: 29.5
  • 225lbs: 31
  • 275lbs: 35

And now, since squat is my hardest lift and I feel the most exhausted after it, I can use it as an upper-bound for calories burned on any exercise. So if I do 6 exercises in a day at the gym, and each of these is < = 4×12 squats at one of these weights, then the most I can be burning in a day is…

6 exercises X 25 cals = 150 cals.

Which is like a single can of soda or beer. Wow, I’m suddenly rededicated to dieting!

How to Choose a Workout Plan that Works for You

The Constitution of the United States is wrong; all men are NOT created equal. If that were the case, I’d be cast for Bond in his next movie, swim like Phelps, and ball like Tebow. Sadly, this isn’t the case. While I may never be a movie star, Olympian, or Heisman winner, I can choose the workout that’s right for me.

Above all else, know thyself.

You know you. Your desires, your current state, your likes and dislikes. We need to take that data and cross check it against what you want to be.

Step 1. – Physically Measure yourself.

This comes in 2 shades; A) What you are that will not change (age, height, physical limitations, etc) and B) What you are that you’d like to change (gain muscle, lose fat, gain endurance or speed or flexibility)

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What is your current state?
  • What’s your bodyfat?
  • What are your measurements?
  • What is the end state?
  • What do you want to look like?
  • What is success?

Step 2. – The Mental Equation

Fitness may be physical but attaining it is an entirely mental exercise. Quoting Cubicle Warrior fav ‘Boondock Saints’

“The question isn’t whether ; it is whether or not you posses the constitution necessary to see it through”

You and your habits are the limiting factor in getting in shape or not. No system in the world will work if you don’t make the necessary life-style changes to enable it.

If you are a procrastinator (like me), like to get up early (like me), have a demanding office job that prevents you from eating properly and getting to the gym regularly (again, like me), YOU must account for it.

Take stock in yourself, examine what has caused you to fail in the past, and create a strategy that works for you.

Step 3. What Do You Like to Do?

No workout plan will work if you hate doing it. If you hate working out at a gym in front of people, getting a membership won’t help. You’ll find every excuse not to be there. If you hate biking, don’t bother signing up for spinning classes, you will never be Lance Armstrong.

Instead, make a list of what you like to do. Personally, I love lifting weights. But that gets repetitive – especially on clear and sunny Carolina days like today! Martial Arts was also a passion of mine, but that is also indoors. I have a love of everything aquatic so long distance swimming is a natural complement to any other workout I do.

Step 4. – Match Like Terms

Remember in step 1 where you identified what you wanted to be? Now you have to find someone who looks exactly like it. You should find a group of athletes that have the same constraints as you (age, bone structure, physical constraints). This is another way of saying if you’re built like a sumo wrestler, running marathons may not be for you. If, however, you are constructed in the mold (albeit much less muscular and flabbier!) running back – those kind of workouts may work for you.

Try to find a mentor that matches your likes (step 3) with your constraints (step 1) but also comes out like your ideal image (also, step 1). If you are 6′ plus with wide shoulders and a thick bone structure, you can look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you’re a bit narrower in physique, check out Tony Horton.

Step 5. – Make the plan and go.

Follow Cubicle Warrior’s guide to everything else. Make a plan, make a habit, and reward success. Find training that coincides with what that mentor does. Do that training, follow those recommendations, and achieve your dream.

Complete these 5 steps and you’ll know where you are, where you need to be, what challenges you have, what success looks like , and a fun plan that you can stick to to get there.