Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Catabolic Effects Of Being A Dirtbag

Every dirt bag dreams of living out of a van and travelling from one climbing area to another. It's a grand dream, but I think the reality can be a little less positive than always portrayed in social and other media. However, I am beginning to think that most things are a little less positive than portrayed in social and other media. Along with all of us wanting to present ourselves in the best possible light looking like true a badass, I think there is also a tendency, particularly in social media to only showcase the positive and never reveal the negative. No marathon runner ever snaps a selfie of themselves limping like a pimp to the toilet the next day, nor does a sea kayaker snap a picture of themselves falling out of the boat at the end of a long day because they can no longer stand up. 

Being on the road is great fun, but there is no doubt it is not good for your long term health. I have certain things I do which I consider basic "health maintenance," some of which are easier to continue on the road than others. It's not that hard to have a pretty clean, albeit somewhat invariable diet. We can always buy and store staples such as bacon, eggs, cheese, vegetables and protein. Some protein and a big ass salad gets you through lunch, and the same, perhaps with cooked vegetables makes up dinner. Not too exciting, not hyperpalatable, but healthy. We've even successfully managed to keep our kefir alive on multi-day backpacks and sea kayak trips with no difficulty. 

Stretching and mobility work can be done fairly easily, most easily if you are settled in one place and can get outside while the sun is still up and it is still warm for lying on the ground. Cold nights are not conducive to stretching outside nor is our small caravan conducive to stretching inside. We do carry a foam roller, hard rubber ball and yoga mat. As I now pass over the half century mark, mobility work has become even more important and I make it a priority to lay the yoga mat out in the sun and work on mobility for an hour a day. Long days in the vehicle, which we try to avoid, make mobility work even more important requiring as a matter of course, long periods sitting inert.

Maintaining muscle mass is the most challenging aspect of living on the road and, since leaving Cairns five months ago, Doug and I have both watched our hard earned muscle mass decline. Doug is getting skinnier, while my muscle just seems to turn to flab. It's all very discouraging. 

Recently, I was chatting with a fellow who did a lot of hiking but also wanted to get into sea kayaking as he thought (not totally incorrectly) that he was doing a lot of work on his lower body but none on his upper body and sea kayaking would, he thought, counteract this. I didn't want to be negative so I focused on the positive aspects of sea kayaking but, truthfully, if he really wanted to build/maintain muscle mass the most effective strategy is focused weight lifting. 

Doug bouldering back in Cairns

The sad truth is that all these endurance type activities, whether it is running, hiking, or sea kayaking do very little to maintain or build muscle mass and, in most cases are catabolic. Long distance runners are the extreme example of the catabolic effects of endurance activity, but, as Doug and I have discovered to our chagrin, those endurance activities don't have to be done at a highly elevated heart rate to catabolize muscle. Hiking and sea kayaking at relatively low levels of effort are almost as effective at stripping off muscle if you do them for a long enough period of time. 

Climbing could be an anabolic activity but it's actually tough on the road to climb as hard as you would in your local climbing gym, certainly it's hard to climb hard enough to be building muscle. In Australia, the climbing is almost always on dodgy carrot bolts or run-out gear routes so you tend climb below your maximal level in order to maintain a reasonable degree of safety. So, while not strictly catabolic, climbing isn't exactly an anabolic activity either. 

When we first planned this long trip we were on, I considered buying one kettlebell to haul about so we had one heavy weight to lift. In the end, kettlebells proved more expensive than I thought and difficult to transport and store, so we never bought one. In retrospect, I doubt the kettlebell would have been used that much as time on the road just gets eaten up so quickly that it is difficult to make time for a regular session with any kind of weight, particularly if you've just walked or kayaked 30 km that day. We have a set of rock rings which we hang in trees for pull-ups, A2B's and various types of hangs, but even finding time and energy to do that proves difficult at times. 

So, we struggle on. I try and do some body weight exercises - pull-ups, push-ups, squats, etc., on as regular basis as I can, but, none of it is near enough to counteract the catabolic effect of our endurance activities. Ideally, I think, an off-season of a few months a year when you could get into the gym and train hard with heavy weights, supplemented with some sport specific training (like bouldering) and only very light low level endurance activities (pretty much what we were doing in Cairns for five months) would result in a much better level of performance than is achieved by just travelling about doing your sport - whatever that sport is.

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