Semantics for better fitness

In my five-month and counting quest to get in shape through biking, I’ve found it helps to get some definitions straight. I owe most, if not all, of these to Jacob over at Early Retirement Extreme.

  • Strength: the ability to lift X weight once, or a small number of times
  • Power: the ability to lift X total weight in a short period of time (example: 5000 pounds by lifting 100 pounds 50 times in two minutes)

Strength is marginally useful  – power is ultimately what you should be after. Bodybuilders have strength. They’ve spent countless hours toning and bulking, isolating individual muscle groups to get maximum definition. They are probably relatively fit, but their bodies aren’t optimized for actual work. How many times do you have to lift 400 pounds twice? Not many that exist outside of a gym. By contrast, there are numerous scenarios where you need to lift 40 pounds 10, 50, or 100 times over a short period of time. Gardening, childcare, moving books, being a machinist, etc.

When doing aerobic training, it’s hard to know just how hard to push oneself. Rides I complete with a smile and barely a drop of sweat totally exhausted me five months ago. There are, however, two different kinds of ‘walls’ you can hit.

You can exhaust either of these, but rarely at the same time:

  • Exhausting endurance means that, given a short period of time, your body will replenish itself. You need to catch your breath and allow the lactic acid buildup in your muscles to go down. Give yourself a breather and you can keep going, if you want to.
  • Exhausting stamina is another thing entirely. If you keep pushing yourself, you can collapse and/or seriously injure a joint because your muscles are totally ‘gassed’. It will take a day or more to recover.

Endurance and stamina both increase as you start training. At different periods I’ve run into both walls, but rarely at the same time. It’s hard to know what exhausting your stamina feels like until you’ve actually hit it and collapsed, but once you do you can recognize the signs your body gives you.

Past a certain point, however, your stamina can’t improve until you truly push through the wall. The reason for this is that, by default, the human body isn’t very good at burning pure fat. We’re used to burning the glycogen stored in our livers, which amounts to around 1600 kilocalories. The first few times I depleted my glycogen, I felt awful. Nausea, dizziness, lethargy – not fun things when you’re still a few miles from home. I had to eat constantly for fear that my body couldn’t digest and replenish the energy stores fast enough for me to use them.

Now that I’ve done this repeatedly, my body has learned how to do this efficiently and effectively. I’ve broken through one element of the stamina barrier. I can burn 2,000+ calories on an empty stomach and feel great. My stomach rumbles with hunger but I lose zero mental capacity. I know my stamina isn’t infinite, but it’s a great feeling to have.

I’m in the best cardiovascular shape of my life and I’m only getting better.


One Comment on “Semantics for better fitness”

  1. Gero1369 says:

    Doing any physical activity is great. Just starting and getting moving at least 30-60 minutes per day can, quite literally, work miracles! I do need to up my average per day, but for several months I was walking the 19 floors of stairs where I work four times a day. I now have better stamina than I used to and I generally feel pretty good as well.

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