Making Measurement Count

There’s a saying I’ve heard many times that goes something like this: what gets measured gets done.

And though I completely agree with that saying, I think it misses a crucial point: that before measuring anything, we have to make sure that what’s getting done is what you want to get done.

After the army started testing for push-ups in their standard physical fitness tests, I started training for it. After they stopped testing for pull-ups, I stopped training for it.

I now do 50 push-ups without too much difficulty. I used to struggle at 30.

I now do 8 pull-ups with difficulty. I used to be able to do 12 with both hands tied behind my back.

Both were intended to act as proxies to my fitness. So, can someone tell me: am I less fit or more?

To answer that question, I propose we ask two further questions, the answers of which will then determine the answer:

    • What’s the definition of fitness?
    • Which exercise, pulls-ups or push-ups, is more closely correlated to that definition?

It would be great if fitness could be measured directly, but t can’t. So we use proxies or indirect measures such as pull-ups, push-ups, or running times to help approximate it. Sometimes these proxies make sense, but sometimes (many times) they don’t (e.g. how high or far you jump is often used as a proxy for fitness, but it’s actually probably more technique than anything else).

Proxy measures are used all the time in business as well: the performance of a business is often measured via financial proxies (revenue, costs, profit) and these often make sense – when there’s no profit for too long, companies go bankrupt and fold.

But many companies don’t stop there (nor should they). Things like staff turnover, lead times, number of customers and more are also used as proxies as well to determine if a business is “doing well”.

I do worry sometimes though, that in our quest to measure everything in order to understand where we’re at and seek “improvement” in some process or activity, we forget to ask what our true end-goal is (the formal definitions of what we’re trying to achieve), and whether or not the measurements we have in place are truly correlated to that goal.

What does it really mean for a business (or business unit or employee) to be “doing well” (in the context of this organisation)? And are the measures we have in place to measure if the above are “doing well” really correlated with what we have define as “doing well”?

Because if we don’t, we could well be working hard at improving the proxies without improving anything of real value.

Towel pull-ups improved my pull-up max by 50%!

Since completing my full-time national service in the army in 2006, I haven’t managed to do more than 12 pull-ups, generally fluctuating between a max of 10 and 12 (I could just about do about 13 in 2006), though I’ve maintained a pretty decent ready-for-eight-at-any-time standard (i.e. if you asked me to do pull-ups I’d be able to crank out eight with relative ease).

Back while I was still in the army, I’d noticed that one of my major pull-up weaknesses was forearm strength and endurance. I found that though my arms felt like they could probably do a couple more, my grip would let up and I’d drop.

In the last couple of months though, I re-discovered the towel pull-up (re-discovered because I’d read about it before but didn’t do anything about it then). And I believe it single-handedly allowed me to finally break my 13 pull-up barrier, giving me a ready-for-twelve-at-any-time standard, and a max of 15.

After a few weeks of making it part of my after-run pull-up routine (I’d generally end my runs at “fitness parks” where pull-up bars were available), I realized that I could do crank out 12 with relative ease. One night, feeling rather adventurous, I decided to see just how many I could do, and found to my astonishment that I could do 15; two more than my all-time maximum, and three more than I’d ever managed to do I the last seven years.

By improving my greatest pull-up weakness (grip/forearm-strength), I improved my pull-up max by about 50%. What is even more exciting is the fact that breaking down this barrier seems to have unlocked a lot of my pull-up potential.

For example, I’d previously avoided this thing called “ladder training”, where I’ll do multiple sets of pull-ups, with each set “climbing” up in the number of pull-ups being done (here’s more on ladder training).

I’d often had to give up halfway because of painfully fatigued forearms. But for the first time last week, I tried it  and had to give up because my whole damn upper body was killing me. It was beautiful.

It’s like playing a game where I was required to gain “tickets” to unlock a stage, and after seven long years I’ve finally gained the tickets, unlocked the stage, and finding I’m in a whole new world of pull-up fun.

Yes, it’s that exciting.

PS: Happy 2014 and happy training!

Onwards and forwards to a 20 pull-up max in 2014!

Which has a higher Glycemic index: Sugar or Whole-wheat Bread?

If I’m asking, you probably already know the answer. It’s counterintuitive, it’s downright illogical, but whole-wheat bread, not sugar, causes a greater rise in blood sugar.

It blew my mind, but it’s one of those things that makes you rethink what you thought you knew, and makes you wonder what other self-evident truths you are wrong about.

From the fantastic book Grain Brain, by David Perlmutter:

When I give lectures to members of the medical community, one of my favorite slides is a photo of four common foods: (1) a slice of whole-wheat bread, (2) a Snickers bar, (3) a tablespoon of pure white sugar, and (4) a banana. I then ask the audience to guess which one produces the greatest surge in blood sugar—or which has the highest glycemic index (GI), a numerical rating that reflects a measure of how quickly blood sugar levels rise after eating a particular type of food. The glycemic index encompasses a scale of 0 to 100, with higher values given to foods that cause the most rapid rise in blood sugar. The reference point is pure glucose, which has a GI of 100.

Nine times out of ten, people pick the wrong food. No, it’s not the sugar (GI = 68), it’s not the candy bar (GI = 55), and it’s not the banana (GI = 54). It’s the whole-wheat bread at a whopping GI of 71, putting it on par with white bread (so much for thinking whole wheat is better than white). We’ve known for more than thirty years that wheat increases blood sugar more than table sugar, but we still somehow think that’s not possible. It seems counterintuitive. But it’s a fact that few foods produce as much of a surge in blood glucose as those made with wheat.

Grain Brain is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and one that has opened my mind to the many possibilities of nutrition and the impact of modern methods of food sourcing on our health. The couple of paragraphs I’ve highlighted above are just two of many mind-blowing, counterintuitive findings he has in store in the book, many lamenting our focus on carbohydrate-heavy and fat-light foods.

IPPT Gold Revisited

The future missus said she was proud of me, and you know what? I’m plenty proud myself. So here’s the IPPT result slip that I still keep in my wallet to remind me that I’ve still got what it takes :)

The Gold IPPT result slip I got

I had made it a point to try to keep a diary or record of events for this IPPT. I’d trained pretty hard for this, and had wanted to bring home at the very least a “learning experience” if the gold wasn’t achieved this time round. Here’s an extract of the post-run analysis, completed with adjectives to make for a more enjoyable reading experience:

The IPPT went well, though I had some serious doubts earlier on as to whether or not I’d be able to achieve the Gold due to weather conditions, which was one of three things I felt were transpiring to prevent me from my gold achievement.

The three things were: firstly, that I was suffering from what was probably the most intense sore throat I’d ever had, which prevented me from sleeping and eating well. Secondly, that the IPPT was pushed to Tuesday from Wednesday (I’d psychologically been readying myself for a Wednesday IPPT, which it was supposed to be on as of Sunday night and Monday morning; this would have given me an extra day to recover from my illness). And lastly, as mentioned before (and this was probably the worst),  that the IPPT was being held at 4PM rather than in the morning, when the temperature would have been much more forgiving (I’d specifically trained for a morning IPPT).

Other than the pull-ups where I felt a little soft, the other static stations went smoothly. Especially encouraging was the shuttle run where I ran to a very comfortable 9.1s, possibly my best ever and certainly one of the easiest, even though I was exhausted for a while after that (as I suppose would be the case with any anaerobic push).

After the static stations I had anticipated a 20 minute cooldown before the 2.4. Unfortunately, it seemed that the stations were being handled slightly differently this time, and the cooldown seemed to be voluntary as opposed to mandatory. Within 5 minutes of submitting my 11B, my fellow runners and I were called up to prepare for the run.

I was by this time still feeling the effects from the blistering 9.1s of the shuttle run, and would have preferred to have had a slightly longer wait. Nevertheless, I accepted what came my way and formed up to prepare to run. Thankfully I had, by this time, managed to douse myself with plenty of water, wetting my head in preparation for the heat that was to come.

The sun was shining brightly, and had been for the past couple of hours. It was good that it rained in the morning, with the sky overcast till late morning and mid-afternoon. I suppose this might have shaved off at least half a degree of heat (an encouraging sign even if it could well have been insignificant, but I’d take all the help I could get), and it wasn’t until about 2PM that the sun had come out full-blast.

Lining up for the run I readied myself by focusing on how the run was going to go – the last couple of days I played out how this run was going to go, where I was going to increase my pace, where I’d slow down, where the turns would be and how I’d handle runners in front of me. For my pacer I had my Timex – I didn’t trust anyone to pace me (nor did I trust myself enough to pace anyone else for that matter, though I was asked a couple of times).

Right off the bat I sprinted off, though perhaps due to excitement, perhaps due to a lack of practice, it was most certanly too quickly. By the time I got to the supposed 400m mark, my watch showed 1:09. At 21 seconds off my target pace, I knew I had to slow down or risk early burnout. What was worse, by this time I was already feeling very tired; the heat was getting to me, and my throat wasn’t feeling too good either. I tried to slow down my pace, but was worried I’d slow down too much; so I maintained a hard pace but one slower than the one I had for the first 400m.

The next time I checked my pace I was at the 1.2km mark. I vaguely recall seeing my time as 4:38, though I cannot be sure. At 22 seconds faster than what I had hoped, I knew I could slow down slightly and still make it comfortably through. I slowed down even more at about the 1.6km mark, even refusing to overtake at a turn behind an ostensibly slow runner for want of recovering my breath. I had half the mind to give up, but realised I was so close (and comfortably close!) that I’d be letting many people down if I did that. In my mind I was thinking, “for [pet name of the future missus]!”

At close to the 2km mark I shouted out to some of my men who were walking, “come on guys!” though I knew it was more for me than it was for them. Just after the 2km mark, I saw Dominic (a crazy army buddy) standing by, shouting me on, telling me that he’d pace me. I looked at my watch, and from my calculations I still had time (it was by now about 7+ minutes, and I knew I could comfortably go through if I maintained this pace and sped up just before the end). But Dominic would have none of it.

He tried using scare tactics, telling me I wasn’t going to make it unless I picked up my pace; but I maintained my comfortable pace for a while. Then I tried to run with him, but I was getting plenty exhausted and worried I might fall out before the end. So in the next half a minute or so my pace was pretty indeterminate, as I wasn’t sure how far nor fast to push. His scare tactics though, were starting to scare me.

In the end, as we approached the parade square, I picked up my pace and sprinted for the finish; not once did I slow down. I crossed the finish line at 9:43, faster than I’d anticipated, though slower than I’d have hoped (8-minutes, anyone?). Still, at the finish I felt like a King, and for only the second time in my life I managed to get the Gold.

My training had paid off, and to think it came when all the cards were stacked against me. With spectacles (not contact lenses for want of saving my $3), admin shorts (as my running shorts weren’t available), and the army-standard PT shoes (as I didn’t want to waste my money on them by not wearing them), as well as a lack of caffeine and other performance-ehancing substances (like the NO2 that I had during my previous Gold), this Gold though having been achieved with a slower paced 2.4 than my previous one, felt really special

Mistakes Weight-Watchers Make

An article appeared in today’s Mind Your Body section of The Straits Times which listed down a number of mistakes that weight-watchers make. Of the seven mistakes they listed, here are the ones I personally found worth highlighting:

Weight watchers mistake #1: Underestimating how much you have eaten — the newspaper quoted a study by Dr Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, that found that people who went for the “supersize” or (in Singapore) “Up-sized” portions of fast-food meals tended to underestimate the amount of calories they were consuming by more than half.

The thing is, so much literature on the nutritional value of food (and their caloric values) is focused on a small subset of the world’s available food: namely western cuisine (and even then we’re mostly only enlightened on fast-food, a sub-subset of this). What happens is that even though many of us Singaporeans know fast-food is bad for us, we’re still ignorant about the host of other delicious local food available everywhere. Chicken rice, roti prata, nasi lemak — oh, sedap! — do we really know how many calories we’re consuming?

Weight-watchers mistake #2: Overestimating the calorie-reducing effects of exercise — I must admit, I’m guilty of this one. Exercise doesn’t consume as many calories as we often think it does. If walking up the stairs seems difficult, it’s often not so much a sign of that we are burning many calories as it is a sign of our deplorable fitness levels. Many people who exercise tend to think they are “entitled” to eat additional calories for the day, often eating more than they used for their exercise. What’s even worse, exercise tends to make you hungry, causing you to eat even more.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for exercise. Exercise can help you burn calories hours after you’d stop. And by doing strength-training, those muscles you build will help consume many more calories than your fat does.

Weight-watchers mistake #3: Eating too many different foods — the more variety the food in front of you contains, the more you will tend to eat. It’ easy to underestimate how much you’ve eaten when all you’ve had is a “little” of each. A little bit of everything, when everything is a lot, is still a lot.

Weight-watchers mistake #4: Not weighing yourself often enough — it seems that people who weigh themselves every day lose more weight than those who don’t, at least according to Dr George L., author of Break Through Your Set Point. The reason given is that “people who watch their weight are more likely to closely monitor their eating and exercise behaviours and regain control of their diets quickly if they gain weight.”

I hope you find this list of mistakes weight-watchers make useful. Pass it on if you do, here’s the shortlink:

Saucony Singapore Passion Run 2009

Today I ran an impossibly difficult 15km. An impossibly difficult 15km. Who would have thought? I’d always considered myself a runner (not a jogger, mind you), and one who was as serious about running as recreational runners got.

15km? It’s a short distance. 21km is a middle-distance run, and 42km and above is long-distance. Unfortunately, by my present falling standards, these distance categories may not hold for long — 15km does seem awfully far…

I think I had better either start changing my perception of my running abilities or start increasing my running abilities to match my perception.

As I ran, I recalled the earlier days in my running life when 15km was a weekly affair, and not, as it happens to be now, a yearly one. Running has just slid in to the background of my life in recent months, holding an increasingly less important role. I think I had forgotten what value running provided me, but today I was fully reminded of it.

Today’s run, as difficult as it was, provided me plenty of moments filled with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow — that state of mind where you feel a suspension of time and space, where you’re so into the moment the world disappears and you’re concentrating fully on the task at hand.

Though holding a relatively slow pace throughout, whenever Sean and I approached the water points we would increase our speed, zooming toward our cups of 100-Plus and water. These bursts of speed allowed me to partake in the exhilaration of overtaking our running peers, even if only for a while. Every time we did this, it was as if some Godly force was calling out to me, telling me that I had to reconsider running’s role in my life. Do not let go of it, I thought I heard it say.

By the end of the race, I found myself realising that this was the beginning of a beautiful renewed relationship with running. By the time my next race comes up, be it the Wave Run or the Army Half-Marathon, 15km will be, once more, a short run for me.

Enough of that. Please excuse me now. I have pavement to pound.