N=1: The Best Laid Schemes of Mice and Men

N=1. A sample size of one: you.

You are the test bed. You are the lab rat. The results are your own. This blog is intended to help you improve your health and performance with information and research on new methods and parameters, and as a ground-zero for getting dirty. We want to empower you to test things on yourself; to explore the possibilities and extract what works for you and what doesn’t. You may find that adding turmeric is groundbreaking in your life, but don’t just trust the tests or the guru. Be your own guru. Feel your body, respond to it, keep what is good, and discard what is bad. It’s that simple.

By Cody Burkhart

“The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry” — Robert Burns

Today you are expecting to receive the fifth and final tier to understanding your own personal experiment: The Analysis. Unlike the future experiments we will be covering in this blog, I developed this one to be performed live with you instead of completing all the work in advance so that we can talk in-depth about what we are learning from the results. For this experiment, we would both be in the trenches together.

Then fate provided a misstep in my journey with the passing of a family member. The result was an inability to be around the equipment necessary to gather enough data points for the Training Mask experiment to demonstrate value added to our conversation. The silver linings, though, are where the magic comes from all this.

I will still keep my promise to deliver the analysis conversation, the excel spreadsheet, and my own data for you all to piggy back off of, but we are going to take a tangent in our journey to talk about something that often happens in life: the unexpected. We must be honest with ourselves and realize that there will be times that the rest of our life, outside our little human experimentation projects, presents scenarios that require quick adaptation. Adaptation may come in many forms.

Perhaps you forget your digital pulse oximeter at home on a testing day? I did that exact thing on my baseline test day for our training mask experiment and ended up driving all the way home and straight back while on a telecon just to pick it up. I could have, instead, elected to postpone my baseline. Yet another option could have been self-checking my HR using my two fingers and a clock. There are all kinds of options if we take a moment and examine the situation before letting it stress us. Each of these options comes with it its own risk-to-reward balance. By properly understanding how I built my experiment, though, I can make even smarter choices because I have a clear layout of my intent and impact of each, and every, element. For instance, had I elected to measure my own HR I would not have had my SAO2 data, but with only one missed data set I could still, likely, see the trend over time (benefits of deciding on a combination of my “Re-test v. Real Time”). Under the same investigation, I also could accept that the SAO2 was, simply, part of my supplementary data and was, by nature, not required to answer my initial question. I could still record the quantitative performance metric of my distance on each interval (remember I was rowing for meters) along with qualitative measures of how I feel during each session.

Analyzing the impacts above is just an exercise we can run on our experiment before getting started. It verifies that we have concise reasons for what we are doing and, justifiably, weight the importance of each component. At the same time, this exercise is also meant to keep testing fun and low stress.

This desire for reduction in stress is especially important in a case such as the one we are investigating. Why? Let’s engage you a bit… I want you to imagine the last time you were stressed out. What did it feel like? What did you notice? As Eminem would say “palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy; There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti.” We can both agree you also notice the changes to your heart as it pounds on the inside of your chest like a caged animal; the blood rushing past your ears, its pressure making your mind fog over with thumps. That may all sound a touch overdone and cliché, but at the same time, it really isn’t. We know there are exact physiological processes going on that make my storybook tone accurate as to the intensity of stress and its changes to our heart.

This relates to our experiment because we know that we are examining implications of our diaphragm on our breathing. If breathing changes, then we are directly impacting gas exchange of fresh O2 in and toxin CO2 out, performed by pumping blood through our lungs’ alveoli. It’s accurate, under these connections, to see how our heart rate and breathing have a deeply personal relationship. Don’t believe me? Interactive moment of the day #2: Find your pulse right now. Start huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf and see if you notice any changes to your HR. The best part of our situation is that the same connections work in the reverse order: anything that impacts our heart rate impacts our breathing in return. Stress directly impacts the results of our experiment. Avoidance of stress through preparation, then, is crucial.

We could be done right there.

Many writers would be happy with the result to their reader: you learned that stress is bad for this test and maybe picked up some techniques to reduce it. Sounds like every self-help blog on the internet. This is not one of those blogs. I, instead, can only imagine that you are still wondering to yourself, “But Cody, what is the stress actually doing? What am I really trying to control by reducing my stress levels?” I wondered the same a few years back when one of countless positive message spinners in my life told me: “reduce your stress levels.” This is how the mind of someone immersed in the #nequals1 game gets: you don’t just want to hear it or feel it or understand it. No, no, no… you want all three.

I hate the “one thing led to another” concept, but this is a massive topic so we are going to define an origin for the sake of simplicity…

Our story begins as a camera chase scene behind a stress signal at it arrives in the hypothalamus: the body’s homeostasis “Grand Central Station.” This region of the brain has many functions including the link between the endocrine system and the nervous system by way of the pituitary gland. In synthesizing and secreting neurohormones (release hormones) to the pituitary gland, the hypothalamus can also control many metabolic processes and command pivotal tasks like fatigue, hunger, and the balance of your fluids and electrolytes.

Under stress, one particular homeostatic function directed by the hypothalamus is an increase in cardiovascular tone; a fancy way of saying, vasoconstriction: reduction in the diameter of blood vessels. Remembering back to our work with Boyle’s law, we determined that if pressure increased in our system then our volume decreased. This means that constricting the blood vessel, aka adding pressure to the system, reduces the volume of blood in the same length of vessel (think soda can vs. coffee can… similar height but vastly different volumes). By constricting peripheral vessels we keep more blood flow away from unnecessary tasks and redirect it to the big muscles required to get us out of danger. Examples of peripheral vessels affected include those provided to our skin, which is why you turn into Casper the ghost when you are in shock or people say you look pale when you are stressed out. Along the same lines as its ability to change the dilation of vessels, the hypothalamus goes as far as causing the chain reactions that manipulate the dilation of your airways to allow you to extract more oxygen with every breath.

Pause. Go back.

“Did he just say that I get more oxygen from every breath? Isn’t that helping to support improvements of breath on my body’s performance and recovery?”

Yes and yes, but… you had to know there was a catch coming. There is an optimal stress for performance, the whole “getting into the zone” element (we will be getting to in this more in the future with our research into the world of groups like The Flow Genome Project) is a great output tool. The “but” comes in over-stimulation. If we bring in stress from our day, it’s only adding to the stress of testing and the stress of our actual physical workload. All thanks to the fact that the more stress we build up and carry with us, the more our hypothalamus releases CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone) and triggers ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) in the pituitary gland. Just by looking at these precursor hormones names you may already know the problem child. Can you guess what the pituitary and ACTH are telling the adrenal glands to dump into our bodies like it’s a store closing sale? That’s right… glucocorticoids: hormones that are responsible for glucose metabolism.

Oh… not what you were thinking? Perhaps you were thinking about, arguably, the most popular of this class of hormones: Cortisol. Take the arterial constriction properties of cortisol and mix them with the increased the heart rate caused by the epinephrine from the fight-or-flight response. Now we are trying to have our cake and eat it, too.

This is where the thumping begins to go from a nervous-ready state to an overwhelming “DEFCON 5”. Suddenly, I feel like I’m running in sand or lifting with a weight vest on via the culmination of many common systems acting in response to a threat, resulting in a massively higher heart rate over a long period of time (“you know, because hitting your red limiter continuously is a good thing and all,” he says, dripping with sarcasm). Why the massive increase? In order to move more blood through my body to handle the extra oxygen intake of my dilated airways, I have to overcome the reduction in total volume in each “inch” of my constricted vessels. If I have less blood in the vessel from my pressure increase (going back, back to Boyle, Boyle) but still have to increase my overall flow rate (the amount of mass – but let’s assume uniform density so we can simplify it to volume – moving through a specific point in a common length of time like one second) what major option does my body have up its sleeve? Your body turns to the engine and increases the heart rate. If I pump harder and faster, I can overcome the changes to my vessels.

Looping back to where we started, we identified that breathing is directly related to heart rate. With this in mind, if we see stress increasing our heart rate, without knowing anything else, we know there are direct impacts of stress also on our breathing and, therefore, our experiment. It is exactly why there was a silver lining to my stressful life event. In dealing with stress I can noticeably see the impacts to my mental clarity and my physical performance. I can hear my heart beat pounding through my chest and I can feel my breath pattern changing. I know the impacts can invalidate my test. Either I work to mitigate them or I fix my moment, lock it up, and get back at it later, when I am ready. This is the game I want to teach you to play: the one that doesn’t just accept a bad performance or an outlier data point as trash. This is the game that screams at you to dig deeper and find out what Alice knows.

It’s not about becoming a scientist. It’s about becoming the experiment. It’s not about dealing with your shit. It’s about learning from it … every day, every joy, every pain, every success and every defeat.

Now you are starting to get a taste of where we are headed…

As we head down this road, you, too, will collide with both small and large adversities. I say collide because, quite literally, impacts with these events will directly change your speed and direction in life. It’s why we call them life-altering events. You and I get to decide how to manage those deviations to our journey and, ultimately, we will also experience the fallout (consequences) of those management choices. I want to be transparent with you in this process because doing so builds your respect and trust. As part of this transparency, I want you to know that right now, I hurt. I am stressed. The pain of losing someone is immense. The past couple years has had a trend of loss for me, but it does not make this one easier. Fact is, the idea of saying goodbye to someone younger than myself, someone I loved, shared life with, and in whom I saw so many gifts and talents… it’s devastating. My hypothalamus has been on overdrive and the random places/positions I have “nodded off” into a micro nap today alone are just traces of the impact it is having on my body and my mind. I get to, however, decide how to mitigate these feelings of grief and disappointment. I choose to embrace her life and my own. I choose not to weep for how she left, but for how she lived. To not be mad at my own loss, but feel a warm embrace in knowing her pain is over. I will empower myself with action. I will take the things I wish I had said and give that knowledge to my own son and anyone who will listen. So if you are listening…

Love hard, it’s not easy. Laugh often, it’s contagious. Cry with your whole soul, it’s cleansing. Never take for granted the gifts you have to share with the world. Being a hero to one person means everything to them. Change a life. Let these kinds of thoughts dance through your heart and mind. They are the cures to the stress, the preventative maintenance to everything else in your day. The body does not work without the mind. If you are leaving yourself in pain, fatigue, and stress over the problems of the world it’s like leaving your command center full of non-essential personnel. Good luck trying to get anything worth putting your name on done under those conditions. And if you ask me…. If you don’t feel like putting your name on everything you do… I suggest you start re-examining your priorities. You can be lost and never even know it. It’s a big world out there.

“I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.” -D.H. Lawrence

Mackenzie… this one is for you, little sis. I will cherish the moments we had, always. I love you.