What are you willing to give up for more performance?

Performance has many metrics.  Sharper. Faster. Brighter. More resolution. More snap. More speed and more endurance.  And it seems inevitable that for every push forward in one of the performance metrics something somewhere has to be sacrificed.  For instance, if you want a faster lens you'll need to accept the trade-off that you will have a bigger, heavier lens.  If you want a full 35mm framed digital camera you'll pay a higher price and have less depth of field.  If you want bigger image files you'll need more storage and perhaps a computing system with a faster processor.

The trick is to narrow down your choices and figure out what you really want (need?) and what you're willing to give up to get it.  If I wanted the ultimate in photographic resolution would I be willing to give up part of my retirement fund or to go massively into debt to buy a Phase One 180 eighty megapixel digital system with incredibly expensive glass to go with it?  It would mean doing without lots of other things and the trade off might only have temporary benefits that might get lost in several quick generations of new camera/sensor designs.  What would I be willing to trade?

Recently I confronted two "wants" in two different fields that are strangely linked by one strong addiction.  I wanted to swim faster and I wanted to be able to handhold my cameras at longer exposures at least as well as I did in my "fresh and happy" twenties.  I also wanted to reduce my hereditary propensity for anxiety and all its nasty symptoms.  What was I willing to give up that would accrue me advantages in all three areas? What beloved ritual/habit/addiction would I be willing to abandon in order to become faster, steadier and calmer?

About four months ago I realized that I had some anxiety when I tried to go faster in the pool.  Increased anxiety manifested itself as tighter muscles (which cause a certain amount of physical resistance) and more difficulty effortlessly breathing as well as an elevated heart rate which slows down recovery between sets.  Even as a college swimmer I was plagued with a certain amount of performance anxiety that could degrade my overall speed and endurance.  Around this time I also realized that I was slowing down.

In my other world, photography, I noticed that I had developed more shake in my hands and body and that I wasn't able to hold a camera as still as I had before.  While image stabilization worked fine not every camera and lens I want to shoot with has image stabilization built in. (Hello.  Hasselblad...).  Often I like to shoot on the edge of what might be possible.  I like to get lucky shooting candid, available light portraits with medium telephotos like the 85mm 1.4 lenses; handheld.  Wide open.  The longer lenses magnify any sort of operational shortcomings and not being able to hold a camera still is a big operational shortcoming.

I made the (for me) momentous decision to stop drinking caffeinated coffee.  Yes.  You read that correctly.  Kirk Tuck no longer drinks super strong, deep black, potent caffeinated coffee.  The physical transition was quick enough, a few days of crabbiness (but I'd been so crabby on caffeine that no one really noticed a change...) some mild headaches and of course the standard bleeding from the eyes and ears and the grand mal seizures (just kidding about the last two symptoms..) but the psychological addiction was harder to shake (ha. ha.)  I've read about addiction and overcoming addiction and I realized that I couldn't do this halfway.  I couldn't vacillate.  I mean, look at what I had at risk: Faster swimming, better photographs, more patience.

After the first two weeks I noticed that my swimming improved.  Slowly at first and then more radically.  People I had never been able to hang with in workout suddenly came into my sights.  I no longer feared sets of 200's and 400's.  My butterfly stroke endurance increased by leaps and bounds.  But most important to me, my performance anxiety faded and then snuffed itself out altogether. I became both faster and much more relaxed in the water.  During this time I was also able to concentrate more on the mechanics of my freestyle stroke.  I watched an amazing swimmer named Kristen and began to copy her longer and more aggressive arm extension at the front end of her freestyle stroke, her perfectly delineated forearm catch and the decisive and powerful hip roll that kept it all rhythmic and flowing.  Just this weekend my times for 50 and 100 yard repeats dropped again.  I was muscle sore at the end of yesterday's workout but that was because the increase in my speed and endurance added another 1,000 yards to my usual workout.  My fellow swimmers and coach noted and commented and that was nice.

But I know most of you don't really care about swimming and that's okay.  In the realm of photography I started to notice that, in the first few weeks after my caffeine abstinence, my calmness (bordering on drowsiness) was yielding a diverse menu of positive results.  My grip and hold on cameras gets steadier and steadier.  At this point I feel as though I've regressed to my early thirties.  A 50mm 1.4 is generally sharp for me down to a 1/30th of a second when I am mindful of the process.  The bigger reward is more patience.  More proclivity to wait for the right moment instead of hurrying through a shoot or a scene or a moment.

A surprising side benefit of eliminating the liquid speed and slowing down my brain is a calmness in other work situations. The best example is my recent portfolio show where I was able to be less guarded and more affable.  I wasn't overly worried about the outcome and it translated into a better engagement with all the people I met and showed to. In all honesty, it was my first non-anxious portfolio show of my entire career. (that's sad just to read).

So, what did I really give up?  The psycho-chemical effects were easy to give up.  After two weeks all of the cravings were gone, physically, but I realize that I'd been drinking juiced up coffee religiously and with reckless abandon for the better part of thirty five years with very, very few breaks.  The culture of coffee was interwoven in everything I did.  I made extra time to get to shoots so I could drop by the coffee house and get a big cup of hot speed.  On the way to track meets and swimming meets and other events with my son, Ben, the coffee cup was a constant companion.  And I can't remember business meetings that didn't somehow revolve around the intoxicating elixir.  Locations were sometimes determined by their proximity to the best coffee in town.  And a bad shot (of espresso) could ruin my morning.

But I quickly learned that if I could get over my visceral repulsion to decaf that the meetings would still go on.  I've saved over $7,000 in the last three months on coffee purchases (just kidding, my habit was maybe $5 a day) and that's enough to buy a new camera and a couple cool lenses.

The biggest benefit is that fact that I now sleep like a baby, don't yell at bad drivers, and I can handhold a camera steadier than I've been able to in at least twenty years.  If that's not worth giving up an anxiolytic substance I always have my ace in the hole:  The best set of 100 freestyles I've swum in nearly a decade.  All for free.

What would you give up for better performance?



Dave Jenkins said...

I can still hold my camera steady, and I was never any good at swimming anyway. About the only thing I'm willing to give up is weight, which I'm happy to do. I'm transitioning to lighter cameras and lenses.

As for coffee? Nada chance. They say coffee is a preventative against Alzheimer's. That's good enough for me. Not that I need a rationalization...

amy said...

now we're going to see you move way up in lanes! nice job, sad i wasn't there to see your new improved times :)

kirk tuck said...

Amy, I'm just trying to keep up with you!!!!! But no way am I ready to bike across the entire country in ten days. Get back in the pool.

Frank Grygier said...

Nothing can compare to that tingly feeling you get in your cheeks after a couple espressos. I can't give up coffee. If I did I would not be able to talk till noon. Get an OMD and the shakes will disappear.

Michael Matthews said...

OK, now I can finally submit a comment based on years of experience. And no, this is not the voice of Resistance luring you back to caffeine.

Consider these two propositions. 1) Not all decaf tastes bad. 2) The Aerobie Aeropress, a completely absurd looking device, can produce coffee almost as tasty as espresso.

First, if you like dark roast coffee -- even though friends don't let friends drink Starbucks -- try decaf Caffe Verona. It and the high-test version of the same blend can be absolutely indistinguishable. The difference in whether it tastes good is influenced by how it's prepared. Starbucks over-the-counter waters it down way too much.

Second, observe the Aerobie Aeropress as displayed on Amazon.com. This ungainly plastic device looks like a cartoon version of an enlarged hypodermic syringe. Given just a bit of patience in adapting to using it, the Aeropress can reliably provide the best tasting coffee you've ever enjoyed. Even with decaf.

Ignore any claim made in its advertising or on-package promotion that it produces espresso. It does not. It will make, if you choose, a highly concentrated form of coffee that can rival espresso in taste satisfaction. It also makes superior coffee of a more normal density and will provide the base for sublime cappuccino.

You can take it with you when you travel; you just can't take it in to a business meeting and brew your own. People will think you are nuts. I mean, really, just look at the thing.

If decaf Caffe Verona doesn't meet your personal taste don't discard the Aeropress. There are plenty of decaf coffees available from specialty roasters.


John Krumm said...

I dropped coffee last year for similar reasons, switching to decaf. Eventually I started sneaking a 1/2 cup of regular in here and there, and now I'm back up to around 2 normal cups a day, which feels about right for me. No real sleep interference, nice morning pick-me-up. Hard to maintain the balance though. If a social situation pops up, I have to remind myself to opt for decaf or I will drink way to much of it. Anyway, good to hear you found something that works for you too. What I really need to give up are my overly casual mornings so I can do some squats and other exercise so that when I hike with my wife she doesn't leave me panting a mile back...

DGM said...


It is wonderful to see an example of analytical reasoning meshing with introspective observation to yield such a positive outcome. Bravo!

Want to add another dimension to your swimming performance? (as well as general life performance)

I have no idea what you are doing for your nutrition, but here are some secrets that I stumbled upon in my diligent panning for gold nuggets in the Internet wilderness.

These products are available on Amazon, and you can save 5% by "subscribing" for regular delivery. They are all from a company called Vibrant Health:

Green Vibrance - A wide variety of organic vegetables that are ground up or juiced then dehydrated into a powder form. I chose this route because I could not afford to purchase these vegetables at the market in these quantities and varieties. In addition, even if I could afford to purchase the produce, I was not willing to devote the huge time investment to prepare, juice, consume and clean up. This powder does it with sinful ease and is much easier on my wallet. The vendor is also one of the most respected.

Pure Green Protein (vanilla flavor) - I have been a fan of ultra pure refined protein powders for years, in particular, L-Argenine. I never cared for the whey protein stuff that body builders seem to use in huge quantities. I was also looking for a vegetable sourced protein, to avoid health risks due to animal vectors for nasty stuff. This protein powder is what I use for a meal replacement and for between meal snack boosters. It gives me a smooth and very stomach comfortable source of energy with no "crash". I am also losing fat and gaining strength at a surprising rate. (at age 60, this is no small feat, especially since my exercise regimen is what I would call minimal compared to yours.)

Rainbow Vibrance - This is another collection of vegetables and berries that are also reduced to powder form. When added to the other powders and mixed in a shaker cup with a little water (4 to 8 oz), it adds a wonderful fruity essence to the flavor.

I added each of these products in stages, to see if I could feel the difference. Indeed, I found each one added something special to my overall sense of well being. You may not feel the need, and in fact, your diet may be perfect as it is, but the vast majority of Americans really need to move toward more micro nutrients. I have not felt this good in decades. Your mileage may vary. :)

All the best, and congratulations again.

Michael Ferron said...

I once had similar coffee symptoms including headaches if I didn't get my fix. Weened myself down slowly to one cup of good coffee a day. If I miss a day there are no longer any side effects. Just one morning kick to get the motor running. Best of both worlds.

Tom Devlin said...

To quote a politician - I feel your pain. Totally gave up caffeine in April. It worked for me also. However, I still like VR on my lenses.

Pseeker said...

Two weeks ago I was diagnosed with diabetes. Talk about forced change in diet and lifestyle. Try giving up surgar and carbohydrates. My natural energy level is returning with dietary supplements, better diet and more excecise.

From Madison Wisconsin, the Austin wannabe capitol.

Don Schulte said...

Timely post, gives me hope. I have spent the last three days crabby, tired and unable to focus... Friday morning I decided to go on a seven day abstinence from coffee. Thursday I had my morning coffee (two mugs of coffee), while out I had a shot of espresso, had lunch with my wife and on the way back to my office had a mocha (as customary a "triple" meaning an extra shot) and then before CrossFit my wife (not knowing my already high caffeine intake) suggested a cup of coffee before our workout; gladly I said. I felt juiced and ready to kick ass in CrossFit. Ten minutes into my workout I had the worst case of indigestion/heartburn with a case of the shakes and had to stop my workout. Day Four tomorrow...

Bill Beebe said...

“Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
― Oscar Wilde

I understand where you're coming from and where you're headed. I've been working on something more fundamental, the control of my sweet tooth. By sweet tooth I mean both regular sugars and artificial sweeteners. I have discovered that by controlling both I control what appears to be sweet and in the process control my appetite. And that, in turn, is allowing me to really loose weight. What's more significant is that it's staying off.

The need to loose weight is more than just vanity. My joints (hips, knees, and ankles), specifically the cartilage in the joint, can't handle the stress and tearing, especially after spending years running cross country. That leads to lots of pain, and an inability to do something as simple and fundamental as going on an enjoyable walk with a camera. Yes, I can have the joints replaced, but I'd rather not have to do that just yet if I can relieve a lot of the stress and pain by loosing weight.

What am I willing to give up? A bad habit that goes back to when I was a little kid eating all my mom's home-made Nestle chocolate chip cookies. They told me long ago it would come back to get me, and they were right. It has.

Paul Glover said...

My current job has me in an office right across the corridor from where the coffee machine is. Recently I realized I was up to half a dozen or more large cups of coffee per day and was feeling kind of lousy by the end of the work day.

I've cut back to one or at most two cups in the morning and water the rest of the day (I drink plenty of water at home) and I do feel better overall.

Phillip Harris said...

I, Like Kirk; have started drinking decaf. I have tried before but had always gone back to the real McCoy to get the real bitter hit to the taste buds and a satisfying taste.

This time however, I tried a new decaf from the supermarket shelf I had not had before.
To my surprise it tastes pretty good. I would say 80-90%. It is a few weeks now and I am still enjoying the caffeine free brew with all the benefits alluded to by our Host.


Unknown said...

And what might that decaf from the supermarket be?


Phillip Harris said...

Keep this in mind Gordon, this is in Melbourne Australia.
It's Fairtrade Organic decaffeinated rich earthy coffee.


D said...

I have been a cyclist for years, occasionally participating in amateur races. (Yea, the guys who enjoy road rash and the occasional concussion. Explains a lot, perhaps.) As you likely know, coffee---or more specifically caffeine---is known to boost performance, but as your body gets used to it, more is required to get the same effect. Perhaps you were way above the level to derive any benefits as far as swimming goes.

I used to be a much heavier drinker of coffee too, 8-10 cups a day. The only effect that I noticed was the first cup in the morning. I cut way down to perhaps 3-4 on an average day. It hasn't helped my speed in any measurable way, but it hasn't hurt, either. I haven't noticed any other effect so far except for saving money. I couldn't give it all up to see if I get other benefits though. It's one of those pleasures I don't think I could replace.

kirk tuck said...

I think it affects everyone differently. Made me too anxious. It was the anxiety that was the heart of the performance hit for me. In the pool and out.

kirk tuck said...

That's next on my list...

Travis said...

Bill, way to go. I gave up sugar, grains, and starches, as well as 80 pounds along the way. I've literally never felt better, even when I was younger.

Brad C said...

Thanks for the post, I always enjoy it when you manage to link swimming and photography !

kirk tuck said...

Me too.

Brian said...

So Mr. Tuck who is making the best decaf in town?

kirk tuck said...

The dark roast Mexican decaf at the downtown Whole Foods is the best I've found. The Starbucks is in second place, so far, but those coffee merchandizers only offer decaf until noon. Then you'll have to succumb to their "pour over" technique which is far, far inferior to mass brewing. I'm not liking the drip decaf at Medici, which makes me sad.

atmtx said...

WOW, I've never drank coffee in my life. I suggest wine or other alcoholic drinks. It makes me happier. And if I shoot worse, I usually don't care.

Rudi said...

Like you, I have been drinking coffee for most of my adult life. Then, about a year ago, I gave it up. Cold-turkey style too, because when I decide something, I just do it (no weaning myself off gradually, that's for other people. ;) ). I had a slight headache for about two days, and that was it. No other side-effects (and I used to drink a LOT of coffee!). I did find that I was more "relaxed", for lack of a better word (and I am pretty laid-back, even when I drink coffee).

I am lucky because I drink coffe *for the taste*! I drink it black, and without sugar. I actually enjoy and appreciate the taste of coffe, it's not about the caffeine hit for me. Once I found a nice-tasting decaf, I was more than happy to drink that instead of full strength coffee. And recently I made a conscious decision to be a little less concrete about my "no-caffeine" lifestyle, and have the occasional coffee. That said, I am more aware of all the caffeine that is in soft drinks, etc, than I was before! So while I am not strictly caffeine-free, I am now staying well under the daily recommended caffeine intake because I can get my coffee fix the healthy way (finding a good decaf is the key).

Bill Beebe said...

Here's another reason to give up diet soda:

"People who drink a diet soda a day may up their stroke risk by 48 percent. A Columbia University study presented at the American Stroke Association's 2011 International Stroke Conference followed 2,500 people ages 40 and older and found that daily diet soda drinkers had 60 percent more strokes, heart attacks, and coronary artery disease than those who didn't drink diet soda. Researchers don't know exactly how diet soda ups stroke risk—and are following up with further studies—but nutritionists are cautioning anyone concerned about stroke to cut out diet soda pop.

What to do: Substitute more water for soda in your daily diet. It's the healthiest thirst-quencher by far, researchers say. If you don't like water, try lemonade, iced tea, or juice."

Link: http://health.yahoo.net/articles/nutrition/photos/5-foods-can-trigger-stroke#3

kirk tuck said...

The Tuck family is artificial sweetner averse and has always been so. I don't think my 16.5 year old has ever had a "diet" drink, knowingly. He's too much of a nutrition snob. The spouse is an organic gardening mostly vegetarian who considers chemical additives to be poison. My advice to everyone: water.

amy said...

I am in the pool!! But now you've moved up! And coffee makes me anxious and jittery too. Hence why I never drink it!

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