Your Own Brain Is Making You Run Slowly And What You Can Do About It

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No matter how serious a runner you may be, you don’t give 100% on your runs. Your unconscious brain is keeping your body from hurting itself, and preventing you from reaching your physical limit. Science has good evidence that this is how fatigue occurs in endurance sports.

Mental calculation

Fatigue is a Mental Calculation

Exercise science used to advocate peripheral fatigue theory. This states that you decrease your physical exertion when your muscles get tired. But it has problems. The biggest is that as runners approach the finish line they are often able to produce a burst of additional speed to cross it. This is observed in races of 800 meters or longer. It doesn’t jibe with peripheral fatigue because if their muscles were exhausted then proximity to the finish line wouldn’t affect their performance.

In the 1990s an exercise scientist named Tim Noakes overthrew the prevailing wisdom. He posited the central governor theory of fatigue. The idea is that your brain unconsciously regulates exercise performance. It attempts to prevent exertion-caused damage to your body. It makes calculations about how fast and far you can safely run.

The term “central governor” has fallen from favor since there is not one single physical area in your brain that is responsible for this effect. The preferred name is now anticipatory regulation of fatigue though it is sometimes referred to as teleoanticipation or psychobiological model of fatigue. The idea remains the same.

As you start to approach this mentally-imposed performance limit your brain makes you feel awful. Each moment seems an unbearable eternity. Excuses for stopping come readily to mind. You will slow down well before the physical need arrives. This is often seen to be true because after running stops it can be resumed with even greater intensity almost immediately. The “need” to stop was a mirage. While you are experiencing this agony your brain will decrease your muscle activation against your will. So willpower can’t override anticipatory regulation.

Your brain is an amazing effort calculator. There are many inputs to the calculations, including the distance yet to be run, heart rate, oxygen consumption, lactate threshold, core body temperature, muscle fatigue, and so on. Thus it’s not accurate to say that fatigue is only mental, clearly the body is an input. The brain seems to combine all of these factors into a single value that becomes the best predictor of athletic performance: the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE). In short, the more effort you feel you are exerting, the shorter the time your brain will allow you to maintain that pace.

Slow down!

Don’t just take it from me. Some of the best evidence for the brain’s role in endurance involves studies of muscle contractions. Exercise scientists have compared quadriceps contractions controlled by the brain versus external magnetic stimulation. They measure the force of muscle tightening in an individual by both methods before and after exercise on a stationary bike. This allows them to compare the physical and mental contributions to fatigue. In a rested state the external stimulation produced contractions 17% stronger than the voluntary ones. But when fatigued the magnetically-caused contractions were 29% stronger than the normal contractions. The brain is clearly unable to fully use the muscles as fatigue occurs.

Fatigue!

The worst part is that your brain’s anticipatory regulation system will slow you down before the physiological fatigue starts. This has been shown in studies with subjects on stationary bicycles in hot rooms. The riders would slow their pace down from the very beginning, before their muscles were fatigued and before their core body temperature approached the safety limit of 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius). Interestingly, hot rooms with thermostats that were tampered with to give cooler readings do not see this effect to the same extent.

Your brain’s anticipatory regulation can be manipulated in other ways too. It’s been shown that merely rinsing your mouth with sugar water without swallowing it gives your brain the sensation that it has more fuel. Your brain in turn allows the body more effort. Likewise feelings of anger, the act of physically smiling (as opposed to the facial contortions of suffering), swearing, and false information about the duration of exercise can result in the brain allowing the body to push itself harder. Also it appears that certain drugs, such as Wellbutrin or acetaminophen (AKA Tyelonol) can effect anticipatory regulation.

Even performing mentally tiring tasks before a run causes worse performance due to mental fatigue. Subliminal messaging on-screen while cyclists performed “time to failure” trials on stationary bikes has shown that riders shown happy faces or “action words” can exercise for longer than those shown sad faces or “inaction words”. Brazilian researches have shown the same thing with weak electric currents being applied to certain brain regions, creating a 4% improvement in time trials.

What Can You Do About It?

All of this goes to show that endurance has a huge mental component. Perceptions, feelings, and beliefs matter for athletic performance. The question is, how should this knowledge affect the way in which you train? Fortunately, this has been written about more deeply by more accomplished athletes than myself. Matt Fitzgerald in his books, How Bad Do You Want It and RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running By Feel and [Alex Hutchinson](www.twitter.com/sweat science) in his book Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights and Sweat Science blog on Runners World are great resources. They have both done an excellent job of digesting the technical scientific research of others and explaining it in a way that a layperson can understand. What follows are some of their thoughts. In fact, this entire post I owe to their work.

  • Train yourself to better withstand suffering. You should be pushing yourself hard enough on some training runs to experience serious suffering. In fact, experiencing as much misery as you expect to feel during your race is the goal. Exposure to this misery will increase your tolerance for it. This gradually gives your anticipatory regulation system a new baseline for perceived effort. Not only that but it allows you opportunities to develop strategies for coping with discomfort.
  • Make your performance personally significant. The more important an event is to you the more agony you will be willing to endure. Carefully choose some key races and workouts and elevate their significance. People can almost always run faster in races than they can in training because they are seen as the culmination of all their hard work.
  • Set concrete performance goals. Having clear goals can also increase your capacity to exert yourself. As Fitzgerald points out, “There is no such thing as exercising as hard as you can.” Goals can create an anchoring effect for your brain to take into account with its calculations.
  • Get real time performance feedback. On days where you are running faster than expected you can see your good time and use it to spur yourself onward to a PR. Matt Fitzgerald gives a great example of a demonstration he gave at a CrossFit presentation. He asked an attendee to hold a dumbbell at shoulder height with arm extended for as long as possible while Matt silently timed him. Then Matt had him do the same thing with his non-dominant arm. This time he told him the duration of the first attempt and he updated him on his elapsed time. With the real time feedback he held the dumbbell up much longer.
  • Assess your mental toughness after runs. Did you ever go slower than necessary to reduce suffering? Write this down in journal or spreadsheet and monitor it over time. The power of writing things down cannot be overstated.
  • Perform in front of an audience and compete with other runners when training. Studies have shown that both an audience and the appropriate level of competition affect athletic performance. Since the presence of spectators or other athletes doesn’t cause physiological changes, this is obviously a mental hack.
  • Learn to find enjoyment in tough runs that result in improved performance. Steadily getting better at something through hard work can be enjoyable despite the self-torture. It is important to realize that suffering and fun can happen together. People are willing to exert themselves more at things they enjoy doing. Enjoyment makes misery itself more tolerable as has been shown in studies involving exercising mice and chocolate.
  • Perform mental exercises before going on a training run. This can help train you to handle mental fatigue during endurance exercise without having to add the wear and tear to your body in order to induce that mental fatigue. This often involves 90 minutes of tedious mental attention on computers.
  • Brace yourself for pain during runs. Sometimes athletes look beyond their next race toward other goals and expect to breeze through what is thought to be a routine outing. When they encounter greater than expected suffering this can cause them to have reduced tolerance for it.

Summary

To improve at running you need to train your body and mind. Even though fatigue is largely controlled by the brain you cannot override your anticipatory regulation by willpower or a “mind over matter” approach. That’s because anticipatory regulation is an unconscious process. Instead, you can gradually teach your brain what your body is safely capable of doing through deliberately training to suffer.

 

If you have already tried out some of these ideas I would love to have you comment on how they worked for you. If you are interested in implementing some of these techniques I would love ve to hear how that works out. Maybe you think all this stuff is irrelevant hogwash. That’s fine, I want to know that too.

Happy miserable running!

For further reading you might want to start with Alex Hutchinson’s article What Is Fatigue? in the New Yorker.

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The Exercise Nut’s Guide to the Apple Watch

Apple Watch

The Exercise Nut’s Guide to the Apple Watch

I am a serious fitness enthusiast. Some might say “fanatic.” Despite having two kids under 4, I still exercise 5 days per week. Failure to workout leaves me twitchy–and crabby. Every week I get in some HIIT on the treadmill and rowing machine as well as a good mixture of weightlifting, and tough outdoor running. I also should mention that since April I have tracked virtually every calorie that has gone into my mouth.

Apple Watch is my always-on fitness tracker. The step and workout data that it detects get saved into HealthKit on my iPhone. Then MyFitnessPal pulls in that data to take into account my activity for my daily caloric intake. The more active I am the more I get to eat. I’m way more motivated to move by gaining calories for the day than I am by the Activity Rings that Apple uses to gamify exercise.

I believe the Apple Watch is the best smartwatch available. It has the best combination of utility and style on the market today. I love notifications on the wrist, the Digital Crown, and complications. But I am going to ignore all that stuff to focus on the Apple Watch as a serious fitness wearable.

Style Meets Comfort

I have a 42mm Apple Watch Sport with a white sport band and silver case. I also bought a black sport band. Initially I ordered it with the black sport band and space gray case, but I found them too dark together. I quite like the contrast between the black band and the silver case. To my surprise I also really like the white band. Yeah, it doesn’t look as impressive as a $5000 Swiss watch. But I have no use (or budget) for that.

How is any of this relevant for fitness? The Apple Watch simply looks better than any other running watch or wrist-worn activity tracker. The ability to easily switch out the bands makes it versatile enough for most dress up occasions. Also the sport bands are insanely comfortable. I can wear mine all day without wanting to take it off. When I wore my FitBit Surge full time I had to take it off for an hour every day to let my skin breathe. The combination of comfort and style means Apple Watch is an activity tracker I can wear all day. That sets it apart. It even sets apart from other Apple devices that aren’t very comfortable to use, cough, iPad Pro, cough.

The sport bands are made out of fluoroelastomer. That’s Apple-speak for “fancy plastic.” It’s a great choice of materials that doesn’t promote extra sweating. Also, the sport bands don’t become stinky with all the sweat contact. They are my favorite thing about the Apple Watch.

Watch Face

There are a number of decent watch faces, but I prefer the Utility face. I like it because it’s clean, simple, and highly customizable. Where Utility really shines is that you can use the largest complication slot on the bottom for the Activity app. Doing so displays the active calories burned, minutes of exercise, and number of stand goals met. I hate squinting at the tiny complications with the activity rings on the other faces, so this is a nice alternative. Also, I am just not that fond of the rings. They don’t tell me much (even full-screen in the Activity app) because virtually every day they wrap around a couple of times.

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Utility face with long Activity complication

You can do something similar with the Modular face if you are willing to use up the one humongous complication in the center of the face. The problem with that is you are stuck looking at the odd layout of the Modular face. Side note: I’d prefer to use a digital watch face, but Modular is too painful for me to use.

Water Resistance

Apple downplays the water resistance of the Watch. I’m not much of a swimmer, but I wear mine in the shower all the time. I wear it whenever I go paddleboarding out on the lake because I am completely unconcerned about submerging it. I have worn it for some light swimming too. It has handled it all well, although when the screen is wet it doesn’t detect screen touches.

Stand Up Paddleboarding
Stand up paddleboarding

Many times I have taken the Watch off my wrist and held it under a stream of water from the faucet while twirling the Digital Crown to clean it. That’s per Apple’s instructions for keeping the Digital Crown working smoothly. Zero problems. I wouldn’t take it scuba diving, but otherwise you will be just fine.

Heart Rate Monitor

The Apple Watch has the standard LED heart rate monitoring technology that most wrist-based wearables have. It works pretty well, provided your band fits correctly. I initially used the large-sized band and frequently got spurious readings. Later I discovered that the small-sized band has its holes offset so that they fall in between the holes of the large band. By switching to the small band I get a better fit with more accurate readings.

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Utility face with long Activity complication

Normally the Apple Watch only measures heart rate once every 10 minutes (and only then if you and your wrist aren’t moving.) During a workout it tries to measure it “continuously.” When I am not working out and I bring up the Heart Rate glance my last reading was often 5–10 minutes ago. Despite this limitation there are stories of the Apple Watch saving people’s lives by uncovering health problems. I would like to see the non-workout heart rate get measured a little more frequently or be user configurable.

Like other wrist-worn heart rate monitors it gives bogus readings if you bend your wrists much, say while doing push-ups. In fact doing push-ups sometimes results in the back of my hand inadvertently long pressing the Digital Crown and activating Siri. That would be fine if she would help motivate me to force out another 10 reps!

I have also found that the heart rate monitor is wildly inaccurate for jumping rope, it frequently gives me insanely high readings. In fact the high end of the heart rate spectrum generally seems less accurate. When I do sprints it gives readings that are about 10% higher than other heart rate monitors.

It is more accurate than a chest strap heart rate monitor for certain kinds of activities. Things that make chest straps slip like sit-ups, back extensions, or rowing. That said you can pair your Apple Watch with a chest-mounted heart rate monitor if you desire.

While using a Polar chest strap, the FitBit Surge, and the Apple Watch simultaneously on several occasions I have observed that the Apple Watch is usually the least accurate of the three. It is also the slowest to acquire an initial measurement. But in my opinion it’s still good enough and usually it was pretty close. In my experience all heart rate monitors give flaky readings sometimes.

My biggest issue with the Apple Watch and heart rate is in the software. Only the most basic information is shown for your heart rate after the workout. You are shown average BPM but no have sense of heart rate zones or any kind of visualization of your heart rate over time.

Avg BPM after a workout on the Apple Watch
Apple’s inadequate workout data

Apple’s Health App is no help here either. I have found one third party app that gets me closer to what I want. Contrast this with what FitBit gives you:

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Utility face with long Activity complication

Workout Types

Apple Watch supports the following activities in the Workout app:
* Elliptical
* Indoor Cycle
* Indoor Run
* Indoor Walk
* Other
* Outdoor Cycle
* Outdoor Run
* Outdoor Walk
* Rower
* Stair Stepper

This is a good start. As with most wearables lifting weights gets relegated to Other. Weight workouts can vary tremendously by pace, variety of exercises, and heaviness of weights. So heart rate monitors are not very insightful in the data they provide about resistance training.

Otherwise these workout types are pretty good. I’ve found that hybrid workouts that involve weights, rowing, and treadmill are best lumped into a single Other workout. If I break them out into separate workouts inevitably I forget to change it when I switch activities.

GPS-less

I refuse to take my iPhone on a serious run outside. Having it bounce around in my pockets is intolerable. Also I’m unwilling to wear my iPhone in an arm band. I find arm bands uncomfortable and performance-inhibiting.

I live in Minnesota and run outside year round. This means that I’d be bringing my iPhone with me on sub-zero winter runs on icy trails. Oh yeah, and because the days are so bloody short I’d be running by the light of my headlamp. With my $800 pocket-sized computer. What could possibly go wrong?

These are the local trails
Here’s a typical Minneapolis trail in winter

But as a serious-ish runner I need GPS for pacing, elevation change, split times, and interval runs. The Apple Watch offers none of that, without the iPhone coming along. Apple claims that if you take your iPhone with you for a few runs the Watch learns your stride length and thereafter you can rely on the Watch’s accelerometer without the phone to tell you your distance.

I’m here to tell you that’s mostly bunk. Yes, if you keep a very steady stride length like an automaton the Watch can give you within 0.1 mile of accuracy if you’re lucky. But if you run up hills, do intervals, run into a stiff wind, or vary your speed those distance estimates are useless.

Further, just like with your heart rate during the course of a workout, Apple’s first party apps do not nicely summarize your run with a map, splits, and the like. That information is nowhere to be found. Contrast this with what I get from a run with my FitBit Surge (and it’s way cooler in a desktop browser):

Heres a lap run on the FitBit Surge
Note the option to choose between lap splits and mile splits

So what’s a data-crazed tech-nerd chasing a 20 minute 5K to do? Why, wear two smartwatches on runs of course! I look like a complete tool when I’m running the trails of Minneapolis with a FitBit Surge on my right wrist and the Apple Watch on my left. But it gives me everything I want. “Having” to wear two smartwatches to get all the data I want is the ultimate first world problem.

Me with my dueling smartwatches
Dueling smartwatches

The Surge has GPS and tracks split times and pace. The Apple Watch logs my workout for the purpose of counting steps. It also adds to my daily calorie allowance in MyFitnessPal (if you earn more calories you definitely want that to show up.) It also allows me to always see my heart rate at a glance. I can’t do that without scrolling around on the Surge when running intervals with the lap run.

Until the Apple Watch has onboard GPS, it won’t be viable without the iPhone for serious runners. I’m defining a “serious runner” as someone who wants to improve their race time and trains accordingly.

I do take my iPhone in my pocket for Outdoor Walk “workouts.” That works great, the iPhone bouncing around doesn’t bother me and I listen to podcasts. I can use the Watch’s Now Playing glance to skip the ads and the phone stays in my pocket the whole time.

Outdoor Cycling

Regarding biking outdoors: the activity tracking is just fine. But I find that it’s quite dangerous and annoying to use the Apple Watch while biking. Raising your wrist to look at the time is irritating because you are steering with one arm and it doesn’t always wake the Watch. Having to raise your arm multiple times while biking flat out sucks.

If you need to touch the screen or dictate a message you are jeopardizing the safety of yourself and others. Those kinds of interactions require taking both hands off the handlebars and taking your eyes off the road. I tried to raise my left wrist to wake the screen, quickly regripped the handlebar, and then used my right hand to tap on the screen while biking, but that worked terribly. Even simply raising my wrist and using “Hey Siri” to set reminders is tricky because you need to check the dictated reminder text for accuracy.

Tuneage

If you like to listen to your favorite jams to get pumped up (or to distract yourself from your suffering) Apple Watch has got you covered. Playlists can be stored directly on the flash storage onboard the Watch. Transferring music playlists from the Music app on the iPhone to the Watch is done wirelessly over Bluetooth. It takes a while, and will likely require the Watch to be in its charger.

The Watch does have a tiny external speaker, but that won’t get it done for you. Instead you can pair the Watch directly to a pair of Bluetooth earbuds, like Jaybird X2’s which works quite well.

Two quick caveats: this only works with music rented or purchased through the Apple Music app. You won’t be playing your offline Spotify tunes directly from your Watch.

Also, it only works for music, forget about listening to podcasts unless you want to jump through iTunes hoops to make your podcasts look like really long songs. They would probably take up too much of the flash storage on the Watch anyway.

Cold Weather Performance

I’m eager to see how the Watch deals with sub-zero outdoor runs. In the past I would take my iPhone 5 on walks on very cold days so I could listen to podcasts. I would frequently get the message that my iPhone had overheated and needed to cool down before it could be used.

iphonetoocold
I doubt if it needed to cool down–it was about -15 Fahrenheit that day

I guess those Californians assume that if the weather is impairing the operation of your iPhone it must be due to extreme heat! Hopefully they haven’t made the same mistake with the Watch.

Apple seems to have made it very durable. I accidentally bang it on things all the time with no marks, chips, or scuffs. So I am optimistic that they have considered cold weather environments.

Conclusion

Don’t get the wrong idea, I really like my Apple Watch. I feel like I am missing a minor appendage when not wearing it. Comparing a general purpose first generation smartwatch to purely fitness-oriented wearables from FitBit or Garmin isn’t entirely fair. Certainly things like Apple Pay and the ability to dictate iMessages and emails from your wrist add huge value that dedicated activity wearables can’t touch.

But for people who are serious about fitness data, the Apple Watch is just not there yet. This group will likely need a second wearable device. That’s true even for people who aren’t as averse to working out with their iPhone as I am. For the fitness-obsessed I would hold off a generation or two until Apple adds GPS and richer activity capabilities in the software. There are rumors that the next generation of Apple Watch hardware will drop in 2016, so at least wait until then. I am confident that Apple will do what it always does: steadily iterate and make significant improvements with each generation.

Many of the problems around workout data visualization, lap runs, and split times can be fixed with software updates. I for one am eagerly looking forward to using my Apple Watch as my sole wearable. Then I won’t look so moronic wearing a watch on each wrist out in public!

How I Lost 20 Pounds Without Giving Up Pizza

Tracking my food intake freed me to enjoy pizza. The guilt, self-punishment, and even physical discomfort after eating pizza is now gone. It’s counterintuitive, so how is this possible?

pizza
This stuff is my kryptonite

In a word, budgeting. I budget my calories every day. If it’s dinner time and I still have 1,000 calories left for the day, I can eat up to 1,000 calories of pizza without remorse. If I caved and ate a doughnut during a meeting at work, I track those calories and adjust my subsequent calorie intake down. A little planning lets me eat some very tasty “unhealthy” food and still lose weight.

Budgeting calories helps me make smart trade offs. Imagine I’m not tracking food but imprecisely trying to eat healthier. I know that I can save calories by ordering my sub without cheese. But the benefit to doing this seems vague. If I do it often enough all else being equal I should lose some weight eventually. But that might not motivate me when I am starving and seeing other peoples’ subs coming out of the oven smothered in delicious, melty pepperjack.

If I am tracking calories small changes like skipping cheese or having fruit instead of chips make a big difference. Enough of them might allow an ice cream sandwich for dessert that night because I saved the calories that day. The immediacy of benefits from sacrifices is increased. This makes it easier to consistently make better choices.  I will explore this topic in more detail in a future post.

Full disclosure: I also work out 3-6 days per week. That wasn’t the key to my results however–I’d been exercising like that for 10 years with unchanging weight (in the overweight category by BMI). I’ve heard it said that diet accounts for 80% of results and exercise for only 20%–that seems right to me. Clearly paying attention only to the “energy out” side of the equation and neglecting the “energy in” side was self-defeating.

Mindless Eating

My problem has always been mindlessly eating. That is my natural tendency in social situations or with salty, crunchy junk food. I am only semi-aware of how much I eat until I am uncomfortably over full. I’m not alone in this.

In a 2011 study “The Pull of the Past: When Do Habits
Persist Despite Conflict With Motives” mindless eating was addressed. Two groups of people were given popcorn and a movie to watch in a theater. One group had delicious buttery theater popcorn and the other group had 5-day-old stale popcorn. Both groups ate the same amount of popcorn even though the stale popcorn group reported that they didn’t even like their popcorn! That’s mindless eating at its worst.

popcorn

When the stale popcorn group was instructed to eat only with their non-dominant hand they ate less than the group with the fresh popcorn. Using their other hand snapped them out of their pattern and demanded attention. Additionally when the movie was watched in a conference room the stale popcorn group ate less too. So it appears that environmental factors play a role in “eating on autopilot.”

Restrictive Diets

In the past I have lost significant weight with a different approach. I dropped 50 pounds using the Body For Life plan after my college weight gain. I didn’t count calories but I did have one fist-sized portion of approved complex carbohydrate, one fist-sized portion of approved lean protein, and one fist-sized portion of vegetables per meal. I failed miserably at the vegetable part.

I will always be grateful for the weight loss I attained that way. Unfortunately over time I slowly started eating “unapproved” food in “unapproved” portions. I gained 15 pounds back and pretty much stayed stable at 195–200 pounds for a decade–and that was with working out 3–6 times per week.

Having any plan is better than no plan. But cutting out entire food groups and eating unsweetened oatmeal and cottage cheese for breakfast every day was not sustainable for me, despite the weekly “free day” built into the plan. If you dislike carbs, by all means choose a restrictive diet (I’m looking at you Paleo), it may be sustainable for you. For people looking to drop weight quickly for a wedding, movie, or photo shoot it can also make sense.

That’s been the big advantage to counting calories, I don’t have to cut out entire types of food that I enjoy. For me, that’s the difference between an unsustainable diet and a lifestyle change.

My Plan

I used the free Myfitnesspal app on my iPhone to track my calories. It’s free on the App Store and always with me when I need it. Myfitnesspal has a huge database of food so you easily find what you’re eating, or a decent approximation. It also scans barcodes from food boxes to save typing. In practice, most of us only eat a few different things and in 1-2 weeks it knows what those things are. Then it’s very quick and easy to log your food.

The Myfitnesspal app icon
The Myfitnesspal app icon

I gave Myfitnesspal my height and weight (6 feet and 1/2 inch and 198 pounds) and told it my activity level (Active, based more on workout frequency than job activity.) I tied in my FitBit Surge’s calorie burn estimates, which are quite accurate because I am wearing a heart rate monitor all day. Myfitnesspal slurps in that Fitbit data and adjusts my calories for the day up or down based on my physical activity.

Every day I start off with 2400 calories. If I barely move all day that’s all I get. If I run 7 miles I might be granted as many as 700 extra calories for the day. Turns out eating 3100 calories in a day doesn’t feel too restrictive.

That’s about it. Even though all my micronutrients and macronutrients get tracked, I mostly ignore them. I generally try to emphasize getting a lot of protein and vegetables, but calories are king. I have heard it’s a good idea for weight lifters to get 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight to avoid losing lean body mass so I try to get close to that.

Results

Measuring is my antidote to mindless eating. Tracking everything I eat forces awareness. My eating is less rigid than on other diets because no kind of food is off limits. This has given me a nice balance between enjoyment, sustainability, and control.

That’s not to say I eat perfectly all the time. I have binged late at night a few times and gone way over my calories for the day. But even in those cases I am sure to log my best guess of those calories. I want a record of those failures. Measuring them helps me keep a healthy perspective on their significance. The good thing is that I have always rallied and resumed following my plan afterwards.

I don’t have to be perfect–just consistently good. It reminds me of this quote:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle

It turns out that consistent, intentional action over time has a tremendous amount of quiet power. There is another great quote that concisely expresses the idea:

“Long term consistency trumps short term intensity.” – Bruce Lee

I started tracking my food in March of 2015. In 3.5 months I have lost 20 pounds and went from wearing pants with a 34 inch waist to a 31 inch waist. My body fat percentage has gone from 20% to 14%. I have been able to follow my food intake goals very well even on vacations. I am confident that this will be sustainable and look forward to continuing to wear these in the future:

jeans
My new jeans

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank my sister, Kiersti, for her inspirational role. She lost a lot of weight using Myfitnesspal, and her success was the extra bit of motivation I needed to overcome my visceral distaste of past diet experiences to embark on this journey.

Update: 4 months after starting this I’m down 25 pounds and those 31 inch jeans are getting loose!

12 Quick Tips for Success With Myfitnesspal

Really, you don’t know about Myfitnesspal? Are you living in a bunker? Pick up your machete, assault rifle, and spare ammo and come out into the sun to get the scoop.

bunker
Nice bunker.

Myfitnesspal is a free app on iOS and Android for tracking calories. I have used it to lose 23 pounds in 4 months. You can read more about my journey here.

Here are some practical tips I have learned using Myfitnesspal for several months. Some of these tips aren’t specific to Myfitnesspal and will work for LifeSum or any other food tracking system.

They should work from a bunker too. At least if you’ve got wifi down there.

1. When in doubt overestimate.

If you aren’t confident in your calorie estimate, pad it with extra calories. That way poor estimation won’t set you back. It’s not rocket science, but most people vastly underestimate the number of calories in their food.

2. Use the Quick Add Calories button

If you graze on handful after handful of chips at a party and don’t know how much you ate, just tap the Quick Add Calories button. Use a number of calories that is higher than you would like by 30–50%.

Even if you’re way off at least you have some constraints for the rest of the day. Also, you want to record your failures to stay within your calorie goals too. Denying their existence by not entering the data is tempting, but you should know How often mistakes happen and how severe they were.

The hassle-saving
The hassle-saving “Quick Add” button.

3. Use nutrition calculators on websites for chain restaurants.

Chain restaurants like Potbelly, Chipotle, and Papa Murphy’s have slick nutrition calculators on their websites that let you customize your order exactly the way you get it. Doing this ahead of time can bring excellent insights. Getting your Papa Murphy’s pizza with thin crust can save 120+ calories per slice, which means you can eat more slices!

In lieu of nutrition calculators many restaurants have PDFs with nutrition info. That’s how I know that the Picasso Roll at Kona Grill runs 390 calories of scorching jalapeño and Sriacha-drizzled delight.

4. Add your own foods with descriptive names, like “Josh’s burrito bowl”.

Most of us tend to prepare the same meals at home and order the same things at restaurants. You can add your own food to Myfitnesspal, prepared exactly as you make it with a nice descriptive name to make data entry easier. I’ve added “Josh’s Burrito Bowl” with the calories and macros for a Chioptle Burrito Bowl with black beans, onions, peppers, and chicken. It’s 345 calories if you were wondering. I can enter that by typing “bur” and Myfitnesspal fills in the rest.

My customized burrito bowl in all its savory glory.
My customized burrito bowl in all its savory glory.

5. For home-cooked meals scan ingredients from packages, enter them manually when needed, and omit insignificant calorie ingredients.

I love using the scanner via my iPhone camera to scan a bag of chicken breasts and have their nutritional information slurped right into Myfitnesspal. If you don’t have access to the package then ingredients can be entered manually, but that’s only needed the first time you use that ingredient.

Items like salsa, lettuce, and grapes are very low calorie items and won’t break the bank. I skip tracking them. Micros and macros are very secondary to me (with the exception of protein). If you care about sodium intake or need more detailed info, you can still add that in Myfitnesspal.

6. Measure cups and ounces of food at the beginning to learn estimation.

I don’t do much cooking. I had no idea what a cup of Kashi Go-Lean Toasted Berry Crumble would look like, so I actually measured out 1 cup the first few times I tracked it. Now I know how full my cereal bowl looks with a cup of cereal in it, so I don’t need to measure. These estimates are close enough.

The same goes for weighing food items like meat.

7. Do a sanity check for similar items in the Myfitnesspal database.

There’s a mom and pop restaurant near my house with a killer chicken salad with goat cheese, walnuts, and blueberry vinaigrette. They have no nutritional info whatsoever. I could try to eyeball the calorie-significant ingredients and add them individually but that’s too much work, especially for a salad.

I did a search for a chicken salad with blueberry vinaigrette and goat cheese in Myfitnesspal and found one sold at PDQ convenience stores. I know my fresh salad is far superior to some day-old, wilted gas station salad-in-a-package, but calorie-wise it’s pretty close. The upside is you get micro and macronutrient estimates as well.

Convenience store salad-in-a-cup
Convenience store salad-in-a-cup

I have done similar things for lasagna and other pasta dishes.

8. Track your food when you consume it.

You will never remember exactly what and how much you ate as well as you do right afterwards. I find that if I’m running low on calories or trying to save some for an indulgent treat I enter my calories before eating so I can better regulate them.

9. Rotate the food diary to landscape mode to see micro and macronutrients.

The Myfitnesspal iPhone app shows your daily food diary items and calorie counts in portrait orientation. What you might not know is that in landscape orientation you see all your macronutrients and micronutrient totals and goals. I go here to check on my protein status.

Food diary in landscape.
Food diary in landscape.

10. Make sure Myfitnesspal knows your weight every day so tip #11’s complete awesomeness works.

Either let Myfitnesspal pull your weight from FitBit, Apple Health, or enter it manually. If it knows your weight it has a great motivational feature (see Tip #11) that worked wonders for keeping me on track.

I personally have a FitBit Aria wifi scale that logs my weight to FitBit every morning. You can then set up Myfitnesspal to suck in your FitBit data quite easily.

11. Use the Complete Entry button each day on your food diary.

Do Tip #10 first. Then tap the Complete Entry button at the bottom of your diary at the end of the day. Myfitnesspal will extrapolate 5 weeks into the future and tell you what you would weigh if every day of eating were like today.

This is super motivating to continue to eat well when you see the significant weight that can be gone in 5 weeks. Also if you’ve had a bad day and you see a message that says “If every day were like today, in 5 weeks you would weigh your weight +10 pounds” it motivates you to make sure every day is not like today.

What you see after completing your diary entry at the end of the day.
What you see after completing your diary entry at the end of the day.

I will have more to say about the psychology of this in a future post.

12. Show negative adjustments if you have an always-on tracker, especially one with a heart rate monitor.

If you have a FitBit, Apple Watch, Jawbone, or similar that ties into Myfitnesspal it will use it’s calorie burn estimates from your activity that day to adjust your ideal calorie intake. This motivates me to get moving because if I want some ice cream tonight I need to maximize my allowed calories for the day. It really shows how small bits of activity can add up to big differences.

These are all things I have found to help me. Happy tracking!