08 February 2010

Jordache vs. Levi's: Some Thoughts on Genes, Pt. I

Apparently, I was blessed with some pretty decent genes. At least, I think my parents have bestowed upon me some satisfactory genetics. However, I did not always think so. Growing up, I had some serious concerns about whether I was in the shallow end of the gene pool. I was never particularly gifted athletically. Don't get me wrong, I was athletic. I played baseball throughout grade school, and I played football and ran track through high school. Not to mention, I have been lifting weights consistently since I was fourteen years old. However, I  never really excelled at any one sport. Luckily for me, triathlon does not require a lot of coordination. Now, try not to be offended hardcore triathlon junkies; I did not say triathlon was not a difficult sport to train for, and to perform at a high level. Much to the contrary. I am just indicating that when it comes to coordination, you roughly need that of a four year old to swim, bike, and run. Trying to hit a baseball square with a round ball and round bat is arguably one of those most difficult things in sport and requires a considerable amount of hand eye coordination.

I would argue that my genes are the Levi's 501 Denims of the jean world—no frills, efficient, dependable. Clever, right?  Genes...jeans. Get it?  The one glaringly obvious difference, of course, is that my genes were not manufactured in Malaysia, or India, but were the product of two average Italians. Wait, stick with me here, I am trying to make a point. More data is transfered through our genomic sequence than just coordination. The locatable region of our genomic sequence corresponds to specific units of inheritance: coordination, eye color, weight, height, etc. One look at my father, and I can immediately tell where I acquired my "clydesdale-like" cycling legs and abnormally springy, gigantic calves. My height—6"2—is another story. My father is only 5"8. My mother, the same—which is semi-tall for a woman—especially one who was born in 1938. Okay, I know what you're thinking—don't go there. You can lay off the all too frequented "milkman" theory. We did not have one. Our postman was a woman, and unless there was some other man that looks exactly like my father, we could pass for twins at the same age. The genetic marker I am most interested in these days is one that determines your propensity for weight gain or loss. 

Lately, a few of my friends have been talking to me about their struggles with weight, body mass index, and diet. I have to admit, I have never had a problem with my weight. Even at my heaviest—when I was strength training all the time—I was a mere two hundred and five pounds. I tried putting weight on my frame to be stronger in my mid to late twenties, and into my thirties, until someone asked me a pivotal question: 


"Why what?" I answered. "Why do you want to gain weight to be stronger? He then went through a list of arguments challenging my notion of putting on weight to gain strength: 

1) You do not play a competitive sport, nor do you have any desire to train to become a professional body builder. 
2) Strength to weight ratio is more important than pure strength. 
3) Eventually, the weight would come and I would have to work on staying lean and on my diet.

It was then that I decided to abandon the pure strength training exercises I was engaging in the gym in favor of incorporating some endurance training. The payoff with endurance training was that I could still continue to strength train, participate in races that would fuel my competitive nature, and reshape my body in the process. Little did I know then, that triathlon was about to become a way of life, rather than just a sport. 

When it comes to training for triathlons, pumping iron, or writing music, my belief is the same. I do not adhere to so called "expert" advice just because someone has a few letters next to their name. I look at where the advice is coming from. Heck, I have a few letters next to my name, but I am NO expert!  When I was strength training, I still wanted to look a certain way. I did not want to put on any weight that would make me stronger, but immediately go to my mid-section (where I have a tendency to store excess weight.) I look at the bodies of the people that are trying to coach me to become a stronger athlete, and their results. That is what determines—in my mind—how to gauge their advice. If an athlete in the gym is super strong, but built like a gorilla on steroids with a pot belly—whose diet consists of protein shakes, a chicken breast every hour, and a bag of broccoli they carry around the gym—you can talk to me until you are blue in the face, but I am not listening. Now, if a clydesdale triathlete is talking to me, but they can run like a jack russell terrier who has been given one too many shots of espresso, I want to know exactly how the hell they are training to make that body move so fast. If it works for a frame with more than a few extra pounds, I am listening. However—and I am at risk for going here—when it comes to nutrition, I generally take the advice of people who are lean. Does that mean that heavy athletes do not eat healthy? No. To the contrary. There are plenty of athletes who are lean and muscular, but eat like Sid Vicious and their performance suffers as a result. Then, their are larger-framed athletes who eat healthily. Very healthily, but eat a lot of healthy food. I know it sounds insensitive, but I know some of these people. I have been out with some of these friends who say they do not understand why they are putting on weight, or are not losing any weight. I recently went out for sushi with a friend who easily consumed at least twice the amount of food that I did. I had to wonder—although I did not ask—does she have any idea how much food she's consuming?

Then, I have friends that suffer inexplicably to try to lose weight. They seemingly do everything, by the book. The eat healthy, train hard, and count calories, but have trouble taking little, if any weight off. Is this purely because of genetic predisposition?  Here we go again... I am NO geneticist. For the record, I am neither a registered dietician, certified personal trainer, or NASA trained astronaut, but I could make some arguments against genetic predispositions for weight gain. I only need to look at my wife's family. It is no secret. I am not offending anyone here. She is the only one in her immediate family who is not obese. I know how hard she works to stay in shape though. As a dancer, she is always conscious about her weight and her food choices for her and our family. 

When I started to train for triathlons four years ago, I shaved twenty pounds off my frame in a matter of two and a half  months. My diet did not change. It has consisted of the holy trinity of Italian cooking for quite some time: tomato, garlic, and basil.  I eat a lot of carbohydrates. I am not sure when complex carbohydrates turned evil in the endurance community, but they are a staple of my diet. I am here to tell all of you that you can eat your pasta and still lose weight. It can be done. I do not deprive myself of too much. My family eats healthily 95% of the time, but I want to enjoy a cheeseburger and a beer, pizza, a chicken wing or two, a frothy chocolate milkshake, and all of those wonderful things that remind me that I am still alive without guilt. And I can, If I work my ass off! 
I also believe that our bodies let us know what we should be eating. Aren't there times when you just say to yourself "Wow, I could really go for some romaine lettuce with some shaved parmesan and olives." Perhaps I am just projecting right now. I think our bodies are pretty decent barometers for understanding what we should be eating. We should all listen to them more—even if they tell us to eat the occasional piece of chocolate cake. Note: I said occasional!

Okay, I have been extremely busy as of late writing music, so be patient for the second, brief installment of:

Jordache vs. Levi's: Some Thoughts on Genes, Pt. Deux

Also on the docket: Still writing and interviewing Jeff Henderson, famed race director of the Musselman Half, Portland Triathlon, and Watkins Glen Du about race entry fees. I will have some really interesting information to share!


Swim Coach Finder said...
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Trevis said...

My wife turned me on to your blog after she and our daughter spoke to you in java junction a few weeks ago. I am also an early morning gates Y gym rat as I attempt to prepare for my first half ironman. Would love to chat sometime. Great site!

Mark said...

Trevis, thanks for swinging buy and thanks for your kind words. I look forward to meeting you some morning. Perhaps we can meet next door for coffee and talk shop after one of your workouts. Are you ever there on the weekends?