The best vegan-friendly places to eat in Cambridge and Somerville

Lists of vegan- or vegetarian-friendly restaurants often have serious omissions since they draw mainly on places that specifically advertise themselves as veg-friendly; they overlook ethnic eateries that draw on mainly vegetarian traditions and places that serve mainly non-vegetarian food but have one or two amazing veggie options. After living in this area for five years in MIT, Cambridgeport, Inman, Harvard/Porter, and Teele, I’m attempting a better list. Items are formatted as “name of restaurant – location – category – number of restaurants I’ve been to recently in Cambridge or Somerville in this category”. For example, you can see from the Rod Dee listing that I picked it from 8 Thai restaurants. The last number should help you decide when to trust me. For instance, I can’t comment confidently on upscale restaurants since I haven’t been to many, and I seem to be too easy on food trucks since half of the ones I’ve been to made the list.

I generally don’t ask servers exactly what’s in my food, so it is possible that some of these places don’t actually have food that is 100% vegan, but they should be pretty close.


Great places to eat in Cambridge and Somerville:

  •  Rod Dee – Porter – Thai – 8. I like to recommend Rod Dee to people whose food preferences I’m not familiar with, since everyone seems to like Thai food. There are a lot of mediocre Thai places around here, but Rod Dee is really good.
  • Amsterdam Falafel – Davis – falafel – 4. At Amsterdam Falafel you assemble your own pita or falafel bowl from a variety of toppings that are far more delicious than the toppings offered a typical falafel place.
  • True Bistro – Teele – upscale vegan – 1. Seasonal vegetables, ingredients you can’t pronounce, “Can I grind you some pepper?”, etc.
  • Punjabi Dhaba – Inman – Indian – 12. I used to get takeout from Punjabi Dhaba after a long run or for TV night, so I never really paid attention to the food. But everyone else says it’s great.
  • Guru – Teele – Indian – 12. Guru is more of a take-out place with a small amount of seating, but you can eat there.
  • Dosa ‘n’ Curry – Somerville Ave – South Indian/fusion – 1. All vegetarian and about half vegan, and the menu very clearly marks vegan dishes.
  • Felipe’s Taqueria – Harvard – Mexican – 4. Cheap, fast, delicious burritos.
  • Bon Me – Harvard  – food truck (Vietnamese-ish) – 6.
  • Savory Food Truck (“the Chinese food truck”) – Harvard – food truck – 6.
  • Momogoose – MIT – food truck (“Asian”) – 6. Many options! Lots of food! Delicious! $5!
  • JP Licks – Harvard and Davis – ice cream – 4. The only ice cream place that consistently has vegan ice-cream-like offerings instead of just sorbet. Sorbet is lame.

Places that would have easily made the list if I had been there more than once:

  • Kebab Factory – Inman/Harvard – Indian – 12.
  • Fasika – East Somerville – Ethiopian – 2.

Overrated or overpriced places:

  • Clover – MIT/Harvard/Inman – food truck. The portions are too small. I always have to get another lunch afterwards.
  • Anything in Harvard Square that is not Felipe’s or a food truck.
  • Life Alive – Central – food that is good for you and for the planet. Everyone loves Life Alive, but everything I’ve eaten there has been boring. People insist that I’ve just been ordering the wrong things.
  • Fire and Ice – Harvard – pick-your-ingredients-and-watch-it-get-made. This tourist trap is for people who haven’t figured out that it’s best to let highly trained professionals judge what ingredients go well together, because you will just invent something weird.

Places that serve good food and are quiet and calm enough to leave space for great conversations:

  • House of Tibet – Teele – Tibetan.
  • 9 Tastes – Thai – Harvard.
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Writing that has influenced me

Most of these pieces seemed surprising and weird the first time I read them. Instead of being forgotten, they seemed more and more true as they percolated through my mind until I can hardly remember that they once seemed odd. I would like to say these are essays that made me smarter and more moral, but most of you will probably identify these as having made me more resolutely eccentric.

  • The Acceleration of Addictiveness“, Paul Graham. “Already someone trying to live well would seem eccentrically abstemious in most of the US. That phenomenon is only going to become more pronounced. You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don’t think you’re weird, you’re living badly.”
  • What You Can’t Say“, Paul Graham. “If you believe everything you’re supposed to now, how can you be sure you wouldn’t also have believed everything you were supposed to if you had grown up among the plantation owners of the pre-Civil War South, or in Germany in the 1930s– or among the Mongols in 1200, for that matter? Odds are you would have. [....] What can’t we say? One way to find these ideas is simply to look at things people do say, and get in trouble for. [...] If a statement is false, that’s the worst thing you can say about it. You don’t need to say that it’s heretical. And if it isn’t false, it shouldn’t be suppressed. So when you see statements being attacked as x-ist or y-ic (substitute your current values of x and y), whether in 1630 or 2030, that’s a sure sign that something is wrong. When you hear such labels being used, ask why.”
  • Leah Libresco’s covenant marriage series.  I’ll attempt a possibly-inaccurate summary. Libresco promotes defining marriage as an institution “centered on responsibility and commitment, rather than on rights and affection”, and focusing more on what a married person can give to his or her parter and especially the broader community rather than what she receives.

It’s easy to abandon morals you once held, and it’s hard to notice morality drift. Libresco writes about marriage as a sort of commitment device: attach yourself to someone who shares your morals, and you won’t stray. I think this is a great idea, but I don’t think it recommends covenant marriage (which is harder to extricate oneself from) over regular marriage, since a marriage that one person wants to leave but can’t is unlikely to be morally edifying.

Reading this two years ago, I didn’t understand why this idea was specific to marriage rather than to friendship. I still don’t, but I’ve found that my boyfriend is very useful for making me a more moral person, and most people are not. My boyfriend is willing to criticize me and make constructive suggestions, has thorough knowledge of what beliefs I hold, and is close enough to agreement that we can have productive discussions. I try (and usually fail) to be open about my beliefs with my friends and invite them to criticize me when appropriate, but being the angel on someone else’s shoulder is a job few will take on. [1]

There are ethical commitment devices besides friendship and marriage. My boyfriend and I are members of Giving What We Can, whose members commit to donate some percentage of their income, or all of their income above some amount, to cost-effective charities.

  • The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle“, Peter Singer. What do we owe to other people? To whom do our obligations extend?
  • Aaron Swartz on productivity.
  • The Pervocracy on social skills: You can learn social skills. Being friendly, observant, and willing to listen goes a long way.
  • squid314 on creepiness: There’s a series. Google “squid314 creepiness”. Some general ideas: We write off men who ask women out in the “wrong” way with the crushing term “creepy”, but a lot of these men are well-intentioned but clueless about what actions make women uncomfortable. The standard advice for learning a new social skill is “do it wrong until you get it right and nothing bad will happen”, but men aren’t afforded space to learn to ask women out the right way through trial and error. Asking someone out is terrifying; let’s not make it harder.

Another point: Maybe “Burning Life-Consuming Crushes” are common. [2] “But if women make a policy of excluding guys who show strong feelings for them, then logically they will end up with either guys who have only a vague and temporary preference for them, or Machiavellian liars.”

I’ve been asked out exactly once in my life and hit on exactly once (by a super-drunk guy on the subway) so it’s not like I go around shaming men for hitting on me in a “creepy” way, but reading this series was a good exercise in compassion and understanding.

[1] If anyone wants a friend to help them be more ethical, I’m willing to try to do this. Maybe we could discuss what you believe and in what circumstances I should tell you off for violating your principles?

[2] I think these are somewhat common among my very close friends. I extrapolate that hopelessly intense and persistent crushes are also common among people who are not close to me.

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143 days of training for the Wapack

Preamble

Through my first semester of grad school this fall, I ran less and less, since I hadn’t figured out how to fit running into a schedule that involved classes that went far into the evening. The problem worsened the sun set earlier and earlier. However, it wasn’t until the end of December, when I started collecting data on my daily habits, that I noticed that I hadn’t been running much at all.

I had been running about ten miles a week, doing my thirty minute round trip bike commute several times a week, and doing a lot of Blogilates videos. I wasn’t sedentary or unhealthy, but I wanted my exercise to feel less directionless,  and I wanted to eliminate nights in which I had to choose between running two miles at 10 pm and staying home. So I signed up to run Wapack trail race* on May 10. I ran the 21.5 mile version of the course; a fifty mile race took place on the same day. You can read about the trail and see some pictures here: The trail is very rocky and is “very hilly”, slightly short of “mountainous”. The course record is somewhere around 3 hours 20 minutes; even very, very good runners walk a large fraction of the uphills.

That's me. The trail was pretty wet.

That’s me. The trail was pretty wet.

Amble

Around mid-January I decided to to get serious about my running training, but running is dangerous.  I’ve read that about 50% of runners suffer from overuse injuries in any given year. A review article says that the only reliable way to reduce injury risk is to run less, and studies on beginning runners show that the more slowly runners increase their mileage, the less likely they are to become injured. So my plan to get into shape for running a long way couldn’t involve a lot of running.

A rule of thumb says not to increase one’s running mileage more than 10% a week. I increased my mileage by about 10% a week, with a slight decrease every fourth week. If I had just been running this would have been a frustratingly low level of mileage, and I would have gotten bored, run too much, and gotten injured. So I cross-country skiied, swam, and went to the gym to lift weights twice a week.

Image

Serious strength training was the most unconventional part of this plan. Runners don’t generally do a lot of that, and often only focus on their legs if they do, but the two studies that have been done suggest that all-body strength training can lead to huge efficiency gains even in well-trained distance runners.  I suspected that lifting weights would be especially useful for mountain running; going uphill takes strong hamstrings and glutes, rocky trails take strong leg and core stabilizing muscles, and rushing downhill takes strong quads. I’m pretty sure that this helped a lot, as my running form improved, the hills in my city stopped feeling like hills, and running with a backpack got a lot easier.

Despite the gradual increase, this was a pretty aggressive training plan.

  • I averaged a 9% increase in miles per week from December 26, 2013, to May 2, 2014. (That’s including the big dip in the graph around day 110, the result of an unfortunate digestive mishap that left me in bed for 37 hours straight and feeling sick for several days longer.) When people say 10% a week, I don’t think they really mean endless exponential growth.
  • I did five long runs of 10 to 17 miles, which averaged 49% of my weekly miles on the weeks I did them. Those were big runs compared to what I had been doing, and they were typically on more difficult terrain.
  • I did seven track workouts, about one every two or three weeks.
  • Going to the gym twice a week and working pretty hard meant that I was sore almost all the time.

The most surprisingly pleasant aspect of this plan was that having a plan made me much more motivated and made it much easier to get regular exercise. This may have gone a little too far by the end:

Boyfriend: You’re tired and busy. Why are you going to the gym after our run?

Me: It’s Monday.

Boyfriend: That doesn’t make sense, and your calf hurts.

Me: It’s Monday. I go to the gym on Monday. It says so on my spreadsheet.

 

Having a schedule had helped me so much that it was hard to abandon it on the one or two days I should have, although I did significantly pull back my mileage while I was sick.

Scramble

Spotted at the race.

Spotted at the race.

By race day, I felt pretty prepared. UltraSignup.com assigned me a “target” time of 5 hours, 50 minutes. I knew that if I ran at the same pace I ran the 18 mile fall Wapack Trail Race I would finish in five hours flat, but since that course doesn’t include the two biggest climbs I didn’t think that was a realistic target. I wound up finishing in 4:58, good for 23rd out of 80 entrants and 4th our of 18 women. I’m thrilled with that.

Some big things went right during the race:

  • My hamstrings and glutes, the muscles doing the most work in this race, didn’t start to hurt until close to the end.
  • My abs and back muscles didn’t hurt either; my back was a serious problem when I ran a trail marathon last spring. My shoulders are just a little sore after holding my arms out (or flailing them around) for balance on the downhills.
  • I have enough experience with long distances to know which physical sensation corresponds to what I need top put in my mouth. I drank enough water without getting hyponatremic, fixed cramps with a salt pill, and fixed sudden waves of tiredness with sugary GU gels. I ate a little bit at each rest stop. I never “bonked” or “hit the wall”. I would guess I took in 500 or 600 calories.

Some small things went wrong:

  • I started too fast. In fact, I ran instead of walking up the first and biggest climb. I felt fine going up that mountain, but it probably took a lot of out me, and I needed to walk most of the rest of the steep ascents. The nice thing about a race this hilly means that burning out your uphill muscles means you still have your flat and downhill muscles left!
  • My calves hurt. I hadn’t practiced walking uphill, which uses the calves a lot more than running uphill does. This is probably a general risk of substituting training on mountains with strength training in the gym: You might miss something big, and one weak muscle group can ruin a race.
  • My stomach was upset for most of the race. I don’t know why. I had to run off the trail and “go to the bathroom” around mile 16, but my stomach still hurt. I patched it over with ibuprofen.
  • The race started foggy and drizzly. The sun came out around mile 12, and I got moderately sunburnt on my shoulders and upper back. I should have put sunscreen on, but I would have had to put it on about four hours earlier, so I’m not sure it would have helped.

Post-Ambulatory

After past races I’ve felt exhausted and my whole body hurt. This time, my legs hurt but I otherwise felt great. I find that the more I eat after a race like this, the faster I recover**; in that spirit, my boyfriend (who placed third in the race!) and I ordered a ton of food  from the wonderful Guru and ate it while watching Game of Thrones. We then made brownies and ate them with sorbet. I highly recommend this plan.

It’s currently 1 pm on the day after the race. My legs hurt, but I’m feeling pretty good, rather hungry, and ready to get back to work. I’m excited to train for another long race, although I can’t imagine voluntarily running up another mountain in the near future. I hate being in a car so I have a personal rule that I won’t do a race where I’ll spend more time in the car than running. Let me know if you know of a trail race, 20-35 miles, that fits the bill!

* It’s actually called the “Wapack and Back Trail Race”. Runners in the 50 mile version run the entire Wapack (Watatic to Pack Monadnock) trail, turn around and run the other way, then run a bit more. Runners in the 21.5-mile race I did park at the end, get bussed to the start, and then run back.

** I felt like I was running at a significantly harder effort level than 9 minute miles, and trail running uses more of your body than road running does, so let’s say the calories I burned are equivalent to running 9 minute miles for 5 hours. That would mean I burned 2,700 calories during the race while eating about 500. My previous experience with this sort of thing is that my body will keep yelling at me and not wanting to move until I fix the calorie deficit.

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Productivity Hacks Part 2: Increasing Willpower and Promoting Clear Thinking

A follow-up to Productivity Hacks I’ve Discovered Since College Part 1: Commitment Devices. Here are habits that have helped me make better decisions.

Setting budgets to make trade-offs more intuitive.

It’s hard to decide what is a worthwhile expense and what isn’t. Is eating out tonight worth spending an extra $10? What’s $10 worth, anyway? One reason this sort of question is so hard to answer, as suggested in Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s book  Scarcity, is that it’s unclear what exactly I’ll have to give up if I spend $10 today. It will chip into my savings and mean that I’ll have less to spend in the future, or maybe it will increase the risk that if a health catastrophe hits, I won’t be able to pay for the medical care I need. These costs are abstract and far away, so it’s hard to make smart tradeoffs. [2]

After graduating college, I figured out how much I would need to spend on rent and taxes, allocated 10% of my income to charity and $5,000 a year to savings, and subtracted how much I estimated I would spend on food and necessary home and school supplies. What was left over was for “fun”. I initially allocated myself a “fun budget” of $100 per month, and dropped this number to $70. [3] Up to $70, I spend money as if it doesn’t cost me anything except using up my “fun budget”, and over $70 I’m done.

Over time, it became much more clear which activities have high funness per dollar. I now know what I would do with a marginal fun-directed dollar, which helps realistically evaluate the costs of the tradeoffs I face. Seeing a $5 comedy show? That is much better than spending $5 on anything else I can think of. $18 for a few hours of rock climbing? That’s a few delicious meals. A trip to visit my cousin in Providence… now that buys a lot of falafel!

Costs and cognitive constraints

The main drawback of this policy is that I can’t budget optimally. Some months I don’t have much use for spending money on fun, but I spend it anyway. Some months I could use a lot more fun money, but I don’t have it. Large expenses are nearly impossible. I do permit myself to borrow and save between months, but I try to avoid it: $70 per month is much easier to think about than $8,400 decade, so I think about it on a monthly basis.

Planning in advance and writing everything in a place I look at frequently

I put everything on my Google Calendar on Sunday nights, print the calendar, and carry it around with me for the rest of the week. Now I almost never miss appointments; in the past I missed at least half of the appointments I scheduled that didn’t happen repeatedly.

I also keep a to-do list, which I have been doing for years. However, it’s not very helpful because I haven’t been able to get into the habit of frequently looking at my list the way I frequently check my calendar. When I need to remember something really important I write it on my hand, but it’s amazing how often I don’t notice that something is written on my hand. It’s more amazing how long I can walk around without anyone going “Hey, Liz, what’s that on your hand?”

Setting exercise goals to increase motivation

I exercise because it usually enjoyable, makes me feel better, and will extend my life. Accordingly, I used to exercise however and whenever I felt like it. I was a competitive athlete in high school and was on several teams in college, but for the last few years I’ve avoided taking exercise too seriously, constantly reminding myself that it is only useful insofar as it makes me happier or more productive.

This year, I signed up for a difficult trail race (May 10!) and started training for it. At the beginning of January, I had only been running ten or fifteen miles a week since I was recovering from an injury, so I made a plan to slowly build up to the 40 miles a week I wanted to be at a couple weeks before the race. I planned how how my weekly mileage and long run distances should increase, and I planned to periodically run intervals, hill repeats, sprints up Harvard Stadium, and lift weights in the gym. I wrote down what I did and how I felt every day. I started out motivated, and having a plan to follow and data to track has kept me motivated. On the rare days that I’d rather stay inside, thinking about placing well in the race gets me out the door.

The moral of this story is, pretending that sports is important makes me feel like it’s important, and feeling like it’s important makes it more fun.

(Aside: I’m eight weeks into slowly and reasonably increasing my running mileage. I’m not injured, I’m up to 25 miles a week with a 12 mile long run, and I barely notice hills that used to feel hard. I’m four weeks into lifting weights twice a week. I’m a lot stronger and can do thirty-five consecutive nose-to-the-ground push-ups. You serious athletes can snicker, but I’m proud of myself.)

Failures and Unsolved Problems

These are discussed at greater length above, but I think it’s worth pointing out that “life hacks” have costs and that not everything I try works.

  • I don’t remember to look at my to-do list. I write things on it and then don’t do them.
  • When I initially started setting a “go home and go to bed” alarm, I set it too late by about 40 minutes. Once I got home, I wouldn’t have time to hang out with my boyfriend or even chat with him while getting ready for bed, and I would leave dishes unwashed. Setting the alarm earlier fixed this, but neither the problem nor the solution was immediately obvious.
  • My monthly “fun budget” is inflexible and means that I will basically never go on an airplane for anything other than work or a family emergency.
  • My apartment is usually messier than I want it to be. I feel like I clean it all the time, but I guess that doesn’t happen as fast as it gets messier.

And a final caveat:

  • The fact that everything has been going well for me at once makes me worry that some other variable than good organizing is driving all this.

[2] This is an example of the absence of scarcity and is not really what the book is about.

[3] For people on the same stipend as me following along at home, I overestimated my taxes by a lot. This number could be higher and I’m going to rebudget after I find out exactly how much I’ll pay in taxes this year.

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Productivity Hacks I’ve Discovered Since Graduating College Part 1: Commitment Devices

I maintain a regular sleep schedule and almost never procrastinate. This is a huge improvement. I struggled for years to make this happen with willpower (hey, self, get off Reddit! go to sleep!) and was mostly unsuccessful. Over the past year, I’ve used external tools to turn me in the right direction. Sometimes they work by making the “right thing” much easier to do than the “wrong thing”, and sometimes they block me entirely from doing the “wrong thing”.

A theoretical framework: Discounting and time inconsistency.

Say that you have to choose between getting a marshmallow today and two marshmallows a year from now, and you choose the marshmallow today. Then say you have a choice between one marshmallow in five years and two in six years, and you choose two. If I wait five years and again ask you the “now or a year from now” question and you say you want one today, you’re being inconsistent: That decision reverses your choice from the initial “one in five years or two in six” question. This is the quick version of David Laibson’s model of quasi-hyperbolic discounting, which describes a person who treats the present as if it is special, but doesn’t value the future dramatically higher than the slightly-farther future.

I used to think about problems like procrastination as if I have two different preferences at the same time. I want to look at funny pictures of cats, but what I really want is to get my essay done early, and then have free time to look at funny pictures of cats. [1] The quasi-hyperbolic discounting model proposes something different: I only have one preference at a time. In the future, I want myself to be a good student and get essays done early. But right now, the benefits of another five minutes goofing off seem well worth the costs of cutting out five minutes somewhere else.

This way of looking at inconsistent behavior suggests a natural solution: If I know that I and my future self won’t agree on what she can do, I should try to constrain her actions. A way of constraining my future actions is a “commitment device”. Here are a few commitment devices that help me.

Leaving my laptop at school overnight.

I used to spend way too much time on my laptop in the evenings: In between tasks I would get distracted by a New York Times article that looked really important, checking the weather, or answering emails. I would get to bed much later than intended and was much less efficient than if I had tackled necessary tasks earlier and left unnecessary ones to a time when would be more alert.

Now, before I leave for home at the end of the day, I check the next day’s weather, print anything I need to, and jot down a plan for the next day. Then I leave my laptop in my locker and go home. This hasn’t just saved me from inefficient end-of-day laptop use; I also get cooking and cleaning done more quickly once I’m home.

Setting an alarm to remind me to go to bed.

This one is a reminder, not a rule. I figured out what time I would need to leave work in order to be able to get up at 7 am each day and set an alarm for that time. Then I head home once I wrap up what I’m working on and get everything organized for the next day.

Melatonin for healthy sleep habits.

The best way to be alert in an 8:30 am class is to regularly go to bed eight hours before the time I need to get up for my 8:30 class. If I go to bed early but am not used to going to bed that early, I will sleep poorly and feel groggy in the morning. When I need to be alert in the morning but haven’t been maintaining an early sleep schedule, I take 1 mg of melatonin, the hormone your body makes at night, about half an hour before bed. I will wake up about seven or eight hours later feeling quite peppy. It is also helpful for the first few days of shifting to an earlier sleep cycle. The drawback is that if I take melatonin and am woken up too early, I will feel bad until I can go to sleep again.

This one goes under “commitment devices” because once I’ve taken melatonin, I will become very sleepy and dysfunctional within an hour, so I have to head to bed without procrastinating or trying to get more work done. However, aside from the transition off Daylight Savings Time, I haven’t needed to use melatonin as a commitment device since I’ve started leaving my laptop at home.

Blocking distracting websites.

I block Reddit and Facebook using the Firefox add-on LeechBlock. It allows these sites only between 9 pm and 9:30 pm. I customized it so that I can’t easily disable the app, and uninstalled Chrome since, last time I checked, Chrome doesn’t have a productivity app that is difficult to disable.

CSA share as a vegetable commitment device.

I get lots of vegetables from Enterprise Farm every week. In addition to being fun and teaching me about what grows in my area in different seasons, this forces me to eat vegetables since I’ve paid for them ahead of time and would have to pay a lot more to eat something else.

Using friends to stay on task

I make a point of telling people my plans: “I’m going to go for a run and then work on the micro p-set, so let me know if you want to talk about that. I’ll be here tomorrow afternoon by 1 pm.” This is usually enough by itself to get me to follow the plan, since I don’t want to look like a flake or let someone down. I’ve also told some of my friends that they should feel free to chastise me when I don’t look like I’m using my time well. Most of them are too polite, but feeling like the productivity police are nearby helps me anyway.

[1] I think that the model of having two preferences at once has some truth to it, but it hasn’t been useful for me in generating suggestions to improve my behavior. But here’s a technique from Paul Graham that implicitly uses the “multiple preferences model”: “If you have two choices, choose the harder. If you’re trying to decide whether to go out running or sit home and watch TV, go running. Probably the reason this trick works so well is that when you have two choices and one is harder, the only reason you’re even considering the other is laziness. You know in the back of your mind what’s the right thing to do, and this trick merely forces you to acknowledge it.”

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Results from one month of collecting data on myself

Summary: I started collecting data on my habits. This will help me design control phases when I start experimenting with changing my habits. I learned some interesting things about myself, but the largest benefit was that I have learned more about the best ways to measure my life.

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On December 19, during my last final of the semester, I started developing a list of health- and happiness-related questions that I could answer better after experimenting on myself. (I also found a few questions that I could answer better by reading more, and did a lot of reading.) Here are a few questions where research is too thin or personal experience too variable for me to answer without collecting personalized data:

  1. How much should I sleep? How do mild amounts of sleep deprivation, like sleeping seven hours a night, affect me?
  2. Would consuming mostly Soylent make me feel worse?
  3. How does the amount of exercise I get affect my mood and energy level? Does it matter what type of exercise it is?
  4. Is polyphasic sleep a good idea?
  5. Would stimulants like caffeine or Modafinil enhance my mood or productivity?

As I wrote these questions down, I noticed two big difficulties for constructing good experiments. Changing any of my habits might be beneficial in the short term but harmful in the long term. If I start sleeping seven hours a night and feel good for a month then start getting frequent headaches, can I really blame the sleep change? Surely many other things will have changed in that month. I think the experiments should follow the pattern “control phase – intervention phase – control phase” and, ideally, repeat several times. Due to the time this will take, I think that producing reliable data using self-experimentation is possible but would be incredibly costly, and I should probably just study interventions that will have an immediate effect with little risk of long-term harm.

In addition, in order to run a good experiment I need a control that is similar to the treatment phase in every respect except the variable I am studying. Take the question, “How much should I sleep?” I could collect baseline data on variables like my mood, start forcing myself to sleep from midnight to 7 am every day, and see how my mood changes. But having such a regular sleep schedule is quite different from what I do now. The regularity itself could be helpful or harmful. I wouldn’t be answering “How much should I sleep?”, but rather “How does sleeping from midnight to 7 am compare to whatever I was doing before?”  I should instead compare consistently sleeping 7 hours per night to consistently sleeping as much as I tend to sleep now. The problem is, I don’t know how much I sleep now.

I realized that wanting to start experimenting on myself was jumping the gun. I needed good baseline data, just to set up the control phase of an experiment. In addition, I know little enough about my usual habits that I wouldn’t know if they were far out of line with standard medical recommendations. So I kept track of what I ate, what I did, when I slept, how I exercised, my mood, and my mental functioning for most of a month. This had unanticipated benefits: I found out new information about my habits, and I learned what methods of tracking my own data are useful and what need improvement. Except for a couple of online tests, I collected most of my data by writing down what I remembered about my day before I went to bed, which took less than five minutes. Here’s a category-by-category account of what worked, what didn’t, and what I learned.

Sleep

Tracking the amount of sleep I got was easiest of the measurements I made. I wrote down what time I got into bed, what time I turned the light off after reading, when I woke up, and when I got out of bed. I used an alarm clock on four out of thirty-one nights, but excluding those nights doesn’t change the results much. I spent an average of 7.69 (with a standard deviation of 0.97) hours asleep, and, on the nights that I read before going to sleep, 29 minutes reading (with a standard deviation of 17 minutes).

Surprise one: How much I sleep varies hugely. I wonder whether I actually need more sleep on the nights that I naturally sleep more; would allotting myself eight hours of sleep a night be harmful?

Yeah, the frequencies don't add up right.

Yeah, the frequencies don’t add up right.

The other surprise: I’m in the habit of reading in bed until I feel very sleepy, than turning the light off and dropping right to sleep. I thought this took five or ten minutes . In reality, it took about thirty. This would be justified if reading were displacing time I spent lying awake in bed. If that were true, I would have a longer “lights-out to wake-up” time on nights that I didn’t read. There was actually no difference on that measure between nights I read and nights I didn’t, but the amount I sleep is so variable that this doesn’t mean much.

Where to go from here: There are lots of questions I would like to answer about my sleep, mostly involving sleep quality. The main problem in running sleep experiments is how to measure sleep quality. Possibilities for measuring sleep quality:

  1. Write down how well-rested I feel when I get up in the morning. Unfortunately, something that makes me sleep more lightly (like leaving my curtain open) might also make me feel less groggy when I wake up.
  2. Track the variables that I actually care about that I think sleep affects, like working memory, mood, sleepiness, productivity, or running speed. Unfortunately, I would expect these variables to be a very noisy measure of sleep quality since they are affected by so much else. In addition, they probably drift over the the time span that I would need to run an experiment: If I try sleeping while wearing ear plugs for two months and find that my mood is consistently brighter at the end of the month, couldn’t that be because it is warmer and sunnier outside?
  3. Use something like a Fitbit to track how much I move in my sleep. This would be expensive, but seems like the best option.

Tasks and Food

I wrote down what I got done and what I ate every day in a very rough way. Unsurprisingly, this did not produce data I could analyze. An example entry in “Tasks” is “Ran, delivered veggies, dropped off and picked up prescription, bought groceries, interviewed MIT applicant, wrote interview report.” Two consecutive days of food data are “Oatmeal, frozen mango, sambar, quinoa, lots of bread, sauerkraut, vegan sausage, Ben vegetables, buttered toast” and “Tofu scramble with peppers, frozen strawberries, jar of kimchi, egg drop soup, Ben veggies, Buffalo Brussels sprouts, fruit cake”.  I think I will stop tracking food data until I find a better way to do it. As for tasks, I will go back to my old method of keeping a to-do list and crossing off completed tasks.

Exercise

I wrote down how far I walked, how far I ran, and which Pop Pilates videos I did. I walked for transportation, ran infrequently since my IT band has been bothering me, and spent about as much time on Pop Pilates videos as I did running. I didn’t find any surprises, but now that my IT band is feeling better I’m glad to have an estimate of how much I’ve been running (about 14 miles a week) so that I can increase my mileage slowly and regularly as I resume more regular running.

I meant to do regular tests of my physical ability but didn’t really get around to it. I have some idea of how many consecutive pull-ups or push-ups I can do and how fast I can run a mile, but no time series data.

MoodEvery day before bed, I wrote down how I felt over the day and what I thought influenced my mood. I meant to record my mood using a little game on moodscope.com every day, but I only remembered to do so twelve times. Moodscope was somewhat helpful in identifying what affects my mood; since my mood affects my actions, I don’t want to read much into any correlations. The only variable that I don’t control is whether my boyfriend around, and I think I’m happier and more productive when he is.

Moodscope consistently surprised me; almost every time I evaluated questions like “How enthusiastic do I feel?” I would think “But this is how I always feel, right?” I was wrong. My mood fluctuates moderately, and without data I can’t tell when I’m having a worse-than-average day.

Cognitive Functioning
I took cognitive tests on quantified-mind.com. These tests involved simple but difficult tasks like memorization of words and numbers, judging whether two patterns are the same, and quickly responding to stimuli. I liked them, but the manner in which I took them didn’t generate usable data.

On Quantified Mind you can’t just sign in and start taking tests; you need to either join an experiment that will give you a new battery of tests every session or create your own experiment. I joined the experiment “Time of Day” and had a set of tests that varied every day. Each test (such as number memorization) ocurred about three times over the twelve times I used Quantified Mind. Unfortunately, since the tests were different each time, it’s really hard to analyze this data to find out how different variables affected my mental abilities.

I think that in the future I will keep using Quantified Mind, but I will use the “design your own experiment” feature to construct a set of tests that is the same every day.

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Strength Training and Running

In which I turn to the evidence to ponder why my IT band hurts, whether all the Pop Pilates videos I’ve been doing are helping, and whether I should start lifting. I mostly used running-physio.com as a sort of review of review articles in order to find links.

IT Band Syndrome

I thought there was good evidence that runners with iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) had weaker hip abduction, meaning that they had weaker muscles of the sort that help you lift up your top leg when  you’re lying on your side. I now think this is unlikely. Some studies on ITBS and strength:

  1. “Hip Abductor Weakness in Distance Runners with Iliotibial Band Syndrome”, Fredericson et. al. 2000. This study is the most widely cited. It compares a group of 24 club and collegiate distance runners with IT Band Syndrome to 30 distance runners from the Stanford cross-country and track teams. The injured runners had slightly weaker hip abductors than super-elite Stanford athletes on their non-injured legs and had significantly weaker hip abductors on their injured legs. All of the injured runners (no real control group!) spent six weeks rehabilitating their injuries. They strengthened their hip abducion, stretched, took anti-inflammatories, and stopped running. After six weeks, their hips were stronger and 22 of 24 were pain free. I think it’s obvious why this study is not convincing evidence for “weak hip abductors cause ITBS and strengthening hip abductors fixes it.”
  2. “Hip Abductor Weakness is not the Cause for Iliotibial Band Syndrome,” Grau et. al., 2008. I can only access the abstract, but it basically says that runners with ITBS don’t have weaker hip abduction.
  3.  “Prospective study of the biomechanical factors associated with iliotibial band syndrome,” Noehren et. al. 2006. This one doesn’t have to do with strength, but its methodological soundness is so unusual that I included it anyway. Runners with ITBS seem to run slightly differently, but it’s hard to tell whether this is the cause of or a symptom of their IT band problems. So Noehren et. al. found 400 healthy runners, took data on their running mechanics, and watched to see which ones developed ITBS. The eighteen who developed ITBS did have different running mechanics, even while they were healthy.
  4. I had ITBS a few summers ago and spent about two months doing hip abduction exercises regularly. This didn’t seem to help. I developed ITBS again recently when I had been doing a much higher ratio of strength training to running than I usually do, including some hip abduction exercises. I know n=1 doesn’t count for much, but there is a meme that fixing weak hip abductors fixes ITBS and this worked for 22 of 24 in Fredericson et. al., so my experience leads me to doubt that claim.

Other Injuries

In “Prevention of running injuries,” Fields et. al. identify two innate anatomical factors that contribute to running injury, cavus feet and leg length inequality, and also review “strength, biomechanics, stretching, warm-up, nutrition, psychological factors, and shoes.” They write that “Many factors influence running injuries, but strong evidence for prevention only exists for training modification by reducing weekly mileage.” In general, “I’m going to fix my injury by strengthening my X” doesn’t seem to work, or, more charitably, we don’t know which exercises will help  yet. This includes core strength exercises.

Speed

In “The Impact of Resistance Training on Distance Running Performance”, Alan Jung reviews the effect of resistance training (moving heavy objects) on the general biological factors that are known to improve running performance. These factors are VO2 max, which is “the highest rate at which the body can consume and utilize oxygen” and is a general measure of ability to do endurance exercise; lactate threshold, “the point at which blood lactate accumulates above resting values”; and running economy, which is a measure of efficiency describing how much oxygen is needed to run at a given speed.

Looking at the studies in Jung’s review, resistance training seems to improve VO2 max only in sedentary people, although I would guess that anything would improve VO2 max in sedentary people. There are few studies on lactate threshold. The three studies that measured running economy, however, found big gains of 4%, 8.1%, and 22% in efficiency. In “Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power”, Paavolainen et. al. study a treatment group of ten elite male runners and a control group of eight elite male runners. For nine weeks, he treatment group replaced 32% of their training with “explosive-type strength training”, and the control group replaced 3%. These exercises included sprints and various jumping exercises. The treatment groups’ 5k times decreased by about 40 seconds, and this is statistically significant, while the control participants’ 5k times increased slightly (it was the off season).

The other study that measured running economy is “Strength Training in Female Distance Runners: Impact on Running Economy.”, by Johnston et. al. Over ten weeks, six female distance runners who had been running 20 to 30 miles a week and had not engaged in regular weight training for at least three months participated in “traditional strength training” in addition to their usual running, while a similar control group continued doing what they had been. They did these free weight exercises: parallel squat, seated press, hammer curl, weighted sit-up, lunge, bent-leg heel raise, and bench press.

Both of the studies on running economy look legit to me, but it’s not possible to say which exercises are the most helpful.

Conclusion

I expected to have more suggestions, but the research is pretty thin. If you want to get faster, do some squats and plyometrics, I guess. If you don’t want to get hurt, run less.

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