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Sep 14

Experiment: Video Games, Kettlebells and a Half Marathon

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I know that title doesn’t make sense right now, but it will in a minute. The blogposts have been kind of serious and heavy these last few weeks, so I thought I would lighten it up a bit with a ridiculous experiment I dreamed up the other day. It’s been while since I’ve done any experiments with my life. Previously I have drastically changed my diet, become sober for half a year, dabbled in meditation and quit half of my job, but honestly it’s been a couple of years since I’ve done any intentional experimentation. That is officially over as of today.

 

Recently I did an all-day relay race (running) with some friends. Since they are all faster, younger and better looking than me, I decided I needed to get into my top running form so I didn’t embarrass myself too much. The problem was I just could never really get motivated to train. I made some halfhearted attempts and I would say I averaged about one decent run a week for the two months or so before the race. Not really an optimal training plan. I expected disaster. Here is the thing though; I was not that much slower than I would have expected to have been had I really trained hard. I found this fascinating, and it begged the question, did I really need to go on training runs before running an actual race. Conventional wisdom says yes. You guys know how I feel about conventional wisdom around here! Now, my relay legs were pretty short, only about 4 miles each, and the next day my lack of training showed as I hobbled around the house looking for ibuprofen and sympathy from Mrs. Happy Philosopher.*

 

I felt pretty good about the run though, and it was nice to be back in the saddle so to speak. This would be the spark I needed to get back into the groove. So of course I signed up for the next half-marathon I could think of. It would inspire me to train…but of course it hasn’t. I haven’t run once since that race a few months ago. Sure, I’ve kept up my daily walks and the occasional bike ride, and maybe some halfhearted yoga a few times, but I just cannot get motivated to actually run. What the heck is wrong with me? I have been starting to think I will have to change the #runner from my Twitter description so people won’t be misled by deceptive advertising and potentially unfollow me when they figured out I was such a hypocrite.

 

Well, I’ve decided to turn my laziness into a half marathon experiment that we can all learn from, possibly at my expense when I’m lying incapacitated at mile 11 and left to be eaten by a bear. I really hope that does not happen. So what do video games and kettlebells have to do with this?

 

I used to play a lot of video games when I was a kid and young adult. I loved them. Until one day I just kind of got burned out and stopped playing. This was somewhere in medical school or residency, I can’t remember when exactly. It turns out my life was fine without them. Just like when I quit watching television, I didn’t miss them a bit after a while. My son is just like me as a kid though; he loves them. I was foolish enough to let him talk me into playing with him and now, let’s just say the habit is back, and after a few months I’m ready to let it go. The thing is though, I like it. I find them relaxing, but holy rusted metal batman, they are a time waster!

 

This brings me to the topic of habit (yes this post does actually have a point to it). Whenever we have a habit we are trying to break it is best to disrupt that habit and replace it with something healthier. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg describes this much better than I can so read that book for an elegant description of how habits are formed and broken.

 

Basically a habit has three parts:

Cue → routine → reward

 

The reward results in a bath of neurotransmitters that result in some satisfying feeling (pleasure, happiness, satisfaction, etc). When we get the cue we are reminded of that feeling of well-being and it all starts over again. Habits are necessary to our existence because if we didn’t have them we would forget to do things that are in our best interest (like eating, having sex, watching the entire extended version of the LOTR trilogy in one sitting, etc.).

 

For me the cue is thinking about the satisfaction I will get from crushing some random stranger’s ego on the internet by killing him again and again in a first person shooter game. I can see him now cursing my name and throwing his controller on the ground in disgust. The routine is actually playing the game, and the reward is basking in my awesomeness at my kill stats after the game, which, in turn makes me want to crush someone else’s ego, and on and on. It’s a vicious cycle. I’m not sure I can just quit cold turkey, but I CAN insert another routine into the habit loop after the first one which actually benefits me: exercise.

 

So the new improved habit loop looks like this:

Cue → routine 1 (playing the game) → routine 2 (difficult physical exercise) → reward

 

Each of these games takes maybe 5 or 10 minutes to play, and between each game I will force myself to do a combination of pushups, kettlebell swings, air squats, burpees, maybe even a 2 minute plank or something in between each battle. I will start with 10 reps and work up to 20 or 30 so I don’t injure myself. I will rotate exercises between the games in a more or less arbitrary fashion. I will adjust depending on how things are going. My goal is to start thinking twice about playing another game once I get to about an hour for fear I won’t be able to get out of bed the next day. I will link my video game play-time to becoming physically stronger and associate the reward with hard physical work. Take that habit loop!

 

So what the heck does this have to do with running?

 

It is assumed that in order for one to run a long distance race there needs to be actual running involved in the training plan, but is this really true? How much is actually mental? Can we achieve the same running fitness through a program of core strength work and maintaining good flexibility and mobility? I don’t know, but I’m going to find out. I want to see if I can pull off running a 13.1 mile race in a respectable time (for me) with zero running specific training. **

 

So my half-marathon training program will consist of:

 

  • Playing video games (see above discussion)

  • Walking (I usually go for walks on the days I’m not working).

  • Occasionally riding my bike to the store, library, work, etc. ***

  • A few minutes a day of stretching and mobility work.

 

That’s it. No running. Let’s see what happens. I will report back with the results. Wish me luck.


*I did manage to find some ibuprofen.

**I wouldn’t recommend this course of action to anyone. I’m an experienced runner with thousands of high intensity miles under my belt. I know my body well and know how hard I can push before risking injury.

***Mainly so the next time I run into Mr. Money Mustache he doesn’t make fun of me for being a car dependent wimpy pants.

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  1. Andy

    Good luck sir! A unique training plan indeed. Definitely out of the box thinking. Hopefully you post a post race update.

    1. TheHappyPhilosopher

      There will be a full report should I survive the ordeal.

  2. Physician on FIRE

    I haven’t played video games much in recent years, although I was on an Angry Birds kick for awhile. Back in college, my roommates and I would schedule NHL ’94 games as study breaks. A good Best of 3 series was just the distraction I needed when my nose got buried too deeply in the books.

    Cheers!
    -PoF

  3. ChrisCD

    I blame video games for not finishing college, so be careful there for the younger folks reading this blog.

    Another key, which I really wish you hadn’t put in a footnote is the fact that you have run quite a bit in the past. This may work for someone with experience, but for someone with none, a recipe for disaster. About 4, maybe even 5- years ago, my son and I trained religiously for a road 1/2 marathon. But couldn’t run the original one planned so just signed up for the next one I could find. Unbeknownst to me, it was a trail 1/2 marathon. It practically killed me. It was my first foray into long-distance running.

    So I hope your experiment goes well. I think most people can tolerate a 1/2 with reasonable training. A full would be another matter. I do look forward to the results. I have been training for 8-mos for a Spartan Ultra Beast and that will be in10-days.

    cd :O)

    1. TheHappyPhilosopher

      Video games are not a great habit and they are probably best avoided, just too darn addictive!

      You are very right, running a 1/2 marathon cold with no running experience is not a good idea. At the marathon distance you are almost guaranteed a stress fracture or some other bad outcome. Horrible things start happening to your body at about mile 20 and unless you have a solid base you are probably not going to love life for the next few weeks.

      The Spartan Ultra Beast looks absolutely insane…

      Good luck!

  4. Jeff

    If you don’t already follow Mark Sisson @Marksdailyapple.com, you would find some great advice for training. His mantra is train low, race hard. If you’ve got the aerobic base this sounds like a perfect training regime for you. But then again I’m a guy who just did a super sprint tri cold so what do I know. Good luck JD

    1. TheHappyPhilosopher

      Mark has some great stuff on his blog. When I was experimenting with my diet (http://thehappyphilosopher.com/food/) I read quite a bit of his stuff. I know so many runners who over train and have constant low level (or sometimes serious) injuries.

  5. S.G.

    ‘This rock is made of metal, and the salt water has rusted it so it’s, you know, hole-y’….

    You’re my new favorite blogger [sorry, JD]. I can’t tell you how often “holy rusted metal Batman!” comes into my head and I have to hold it in because no one gets it.

    I trained for a half, but unlike you I am in horrible shape and it was torture to train up to every last bit. But my husband ran with me for support. But rather than train he jumped on the treadmill a couple weeks before the race, pounded out 8 miles without a problem and said “I think I’m good” and he was, in brand spanking new shoes he bought at the expo. I still hate him a little bit for that, but at least he ran with me rather than going for time. However he wasn’t a runner. He just plays lots of basketball and stays really active.

    1. S.G.

      Hm, forgot my end quote. Doh.

    2. TheHappyPhilosopher

      Hahaha! I’m just glad anyone gets any of my obscure geeky references.

      Congrats on finishing. A half marathon is nothing to sneeze at, it is a very tough distance. When I race now it is against myself, I just kind of tune out everyone else. I realized for me it was about the journey and learning something about myself in each race rather than the actual outcome. Of course this may be my fragile male ego rationalizing the fact that my wife is now so freaking fast at these longer distances she routinely beats me 😉

      1. S.G.

        The half marathon consumed a year of my life (almost two actually when you consider that I trained for a year for my first, then did 3 of them over the course of the following year). It had many years of mental energy and my general antipathy toward exercise tied up against proving to myself that I could do it. I have always hated running and I wish I could say that over the course of that time I hit a runner’s high, or at least learned to appreciate the peace of racing no one but myself…but I can’t. I now I hate it with a passion only achievable through familiarity. I picked it because I am really slow, and I have tried to be faster with not mixed results but more along the lines of epic failure. Therefore I rationalized that if I couldn’t be faster than anyone I was going to go longer than most people can. I’m glad I did. There were at least some really nice body mechanic benefits. But running is now like my mother in law: It is part of my life. I will suck it up and interact with it because I don’t really have the fortitude to write it off. But every time I am forced into interaction I will count the seconds until it’s over.

        I envy you your enjoyment of it (or at least your peace with it). I might have hated you for it, but you used a great Robin quote so I can’t, though maybe JD will be back in the running as my favorite blogger.

  1. The power of Incremental Change | The Happy Philosopher

    […] up, the degree of fitness and training increase quite a bit. Injury risk is elevated. You have to take a half-marathon seriously. She ran another 10k just for good measure as a hard training run a month before the big day. She […]

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