A few weeks ago I received an email confirmation from REI stating that my brand spankin’ new Marmot sleeping bag was on it’s way. On the day of its arrival, I flew out my door, stumbled down my very precarious apartment steps, almost breaking my ankle in the attempt, and limped to the front porch to receive my shiny new package (well, actually, it was a very un-shiny brown box). Upon tearing it open like an eager child on Christmas morning, and strewing the package contents all over my living room floor, a certain realization hit me like a brick to the face: Me? Heading to the field? Less than one month? Woah. This realization was then followed by some very distinct emotions. Excitement (obviously), apprehension (that I do my best to conceal, but am not convincing anyone), and a very real feeling of unpreparedness (all those “to-do” lists are seemingly unhelpful). Now, I’ve been to Madagascar twice before and have had this same roller coaster of emotions thrust upon me both times. Each time, these emotions are slightly assuaged, and each time I work out a different strategy to make coping with the first few days in the field a little bit easier. This field season’s strategy? Excessively working out to get my butt in shape.
Instead of attempting to cross off all the items on my ever-growing “to-do” list, this may seem, at first glance, like a very wasteful approach. To help explain, let me paint you a little picture of how the first day or two in the field usually plays out. My team and I finally arrive in Antananarivo, the bustling capital city, sometime in the afternoon after an incredibly exhausting 24-40 hour travel itinerary. This is followed by dropping off our gear at the hotel and heading out to barter for random objects like bananas, Malagasy rum, and motorcycle batteries to make field life easier. The next morning around 4:30 am, we are jarred awake by the “most annoying alarm clock any manufacturer has ever mass-produced” (these are my words, not the marketing strategy of the manufacturer, I swear) to meet the car that will take us to our field site. After spending a nauseating eight hours in the death mobile, we are plopped down amongst the charred remains of a “controlled” forest burn gone wrong to begin our two hour trek to the field site. Severe jet-lag, high altitude (and thus thinner air), relentless Malagasy sun, extreme dehydration, a heavy pack laden with gear, and a forest-scape of gently rolling “mountains” are not ideal conditions for an self-proclaimed out-of-shape pasty white girl to have a pleasant first experience in the field.
So, how does one combat this? High intensity interval training. And now for your daily dose of random science. Today’s topic is one of my favorites. Exercise physiology! High intensity interval training (aka, HIIT) is one of the best ways to get your body on the fast track to “field ready” fitness. A beautiful physiological process can begin to explain the answer for why this is–excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC. Working out requires that oxygen provide the fuel for your Popeye-like muscles to continue working at their peak performance (I promise you, Popeye did not get that look by eating spinach alone, much to the chagrin of your parents). This is why breathing rate goes up as you continue to amp up the intensity of your workouts. Your body is creating an oxygen debt that needs to be replaced after your workout is blissfully over. In addition to filling that deficit, excess oxygen—and thus excess calorie burn—is involved in other physiological processes like restoring muscle glycogen and cellular repair. These restorative processes are the bread and butter of how the EPOC effect occurs. But excess oxygen isn’t the only thing that is essential for bringing the body back to homeostasis. A fuel source is also required. Can anyone guess where said fuel source comes from? Fatty acids! Stored fatty acids are released, mobilized, and metabolized by tissues that need them for repair, leading to increased fat burn after you’re done with your workout. There have been several studies that suggest a direct positive correlation between exercise intensity and degree of the EPOC effect. And the beautiful thing about this? This correlation is not linear—it’s exponential! In layman’s terms: Working out twice as hard won’t give you twice the results, it will give you multiple times the results. BOOM! Physiology is a beautiful thing, is it not, folks?
Another thing I love, love, LOVE about HIIT is the tabata training that the Duke Group Fitness HIIT class incorporates into each class. Tabata training is excellent for building cardiovascular endurance. It is essentially periods of high intensity cardio drills like burpees or plyometrics for 20 seconds, followed by a resting period of 10 seconds, repeated 8 times. Think that sounds easy? Incorrect. During the last few sets, heart rate is maxed out, it’s almost impossible to catch your breath, and your muscles are screaming so loudly that you fear they will give out just to spite you, leaving you in a pathetic, gasping heap on the floor surrounded by a pool of your own sweat. Now, doesn’t that sound like fun? It does to me! Bring on the fatigue!
So, to recap: My field prep strategy involves spending copious amounts of time with my new found love–high intensity interval training, coupled with a brand new sleeping bag to battle the near freezing temperatures that can be experienced overnight in July in Madagascar. In addition, I’m filling my belly with foods I will be severely missing in the field (lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the ever-satisfying peanut butter and banana sandwich) and brushing up on my watercolor skills. Intrigued? Stay tuned! A new adventure awaits…t-minus 19 days!
It’s a jungle out there!