... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Friday, October 25, 2013

Feed Your Workout (Or Feel the Consequences)

One of the biggest challenges of training seriously for a new, challenging sport is learning how to change your eating habits to fit the increasing demands on your body. Even if you have always been a healthy eater, there are some very specific needs that will have to be addressed. Some of these may seem counterintuitive, especially if you're used to the modern idea that carbohydrates, especially starchy ones, are the spawn of Satan.

I have never been a proponent of the "carbs are evil" mentality, instead favoring an "everything in moderation" state of mind. Carbs, my organic chemistry experience reminds me, are not evil. They are simply a chemical structure, and one that is actually quite necessary to our survival. What is not necessary to our survival, however, are the plethora of disgusting, highly processed pseudo-foods that we have created (e.g. Twinkies, cookies that can be left out in the open air for years without going bad, etc.). Even with this mindset, however, I have had some challenges figuring out how to eat to accommodate my new training schedule. Add to this the challenge of finding things that I can bring to work (even when I leave the house at 5:20AM) and it's basically recipe for a giant nutritional disaster.

What I have been focusing on is eating simply and well. Minimal processed foods, lots of fresh vegetables and fruits. This is a great approach except that fruits and vegetables don't have very many calories. Not such a problem if I'm just sitting at my desk all day, but when I upped my workout intensity in the last week before my surgery I completely forgot to adjust my diet accordingly. I pulled through okay until Wednesday before it all came crashing down.

I started my day Wednesday with a swim, as mentioned in a previous post. I did my usual one mile distance and felt fantastic. When I got to work, I ate a banana (all that I had easily available at home), and on my way to meet Sean for a bike ride after work, I ate a tomato. (I am weird. I eat tomatoes plain, like an apple...) What exactly I was thinking, I don't know; perhaps I wasn't thinking.

An apple has about 95 calories. A tomato has about 16. Swimming vigorously in the ocean for half an hour burns approximately 175 calories and cycling for 36 miles nets 1250 calories burned. How I thought that a caloric intake of 111 was going to allow me to make it through a burn of 1425 I have no idea. It didn't even cross my mind. I am an idiot.

The first signs of trouble started quickly, around mile 10. Sean dropped me and I could not for the life of me speed up. My legs felt dead. I was immensely frustrated, but didn't think to attribute it to anything other than just being weak and lame. By the time we stopped at the turnaround point (mile 18) I was feeling a little woozy and sick to my stomach. Again, I blew it off, assuming I was just tired.

The real signals that something was seriously wrong kicked in on the way back. I started losing my breath, gasping for air in a way I never have before on the bike, even on flat stretches. No matter what I did I couldn't seem to breathe normally. Then the dizziness started. I fought to stay straight and steady for a while, the shortness of breath causing me to feel disoriented and even to cry for no apparent reason. I finally lost control of the bike, wobbling and zig-zagging, almost going off the edge of the road (a 7-inch drop off into sharp lava fields), my leg muscles started shaking when I attempted to engage them, and I knew I was in trouble. I immediately pulled over, got off the bike, and laid down on the side of the highway.

I have never felt like I did lying on gravel on the edge of the Queen K. I was dizzy and nauseated and mentally fuzzy, and although I knew why it was happening, I was scared. It took five minutes for me to feel steady enough to get back on the bike, an idea which seemed unwise but with eight more miles to go to get back to anything resembling civilization, there was little other choice.

I pedaled slowly, solely focused on staying upright and steady with steady breathing, without a thought for speed or technique. I stayed in the lowest gears and tried to ignore the hills making life difficult. My legs ached in a deep, dull way I've never felt before and every cell in my body screamed at me to lay down and go to sleep, but I kept moving. I have never been so relieved to reach Waikoloa.

As soon as we got back to the parking lot I laid down in the grass. I knew I needed to eat, but I was so nauseated and shaky that the thought of food sounded horrible. After lying there staring at the sky for ten minutes, I walked slowly into the market. Anything too crunchy or difficult to chew sounded impossible to deal with. Anything sweet sounded like it would make me vomit immediately. I bought a sushi roll and a bowl of chicken noodle soup, both of which sounded manageable, and joined Sean outside.

I tackled the soup first, taking small bites and waiting several minutes between each one to let my stomach settle. Salt tasted amazing. It took 10-15 minutes after eating for me to start feeling better, but eventually I felt less shaky and nauseated and more steady. The mental fuzziness lasted for over an hour. The sushi, with its refined carbohydrates and protein and salty soy sauce, tasted fantastic and acted like medicine.

So what did I learn from my little wayward nutrition adventure?

Fuel fuel fuel fuel.
If you plan on doing a long workout, EAT. It doesn't matter if you don't feel that hungry or you are short on time. EAT. If you truly don't have time to eat, then cut your workout down. It is dangerous to push through. If I had crashed, there's a good chance I would have been out of commission for weeks or even months. It isn't worth the risk, and it's not good for your body to run on empty like that.

It also made me realize that I need to truly reexamine my nutrition plan and food intake, because as I keep upping my mileage I need to be looking more carefully at what I'm eating to fuel the distances. It has become much more clear to me why such tiny differences in food and drink choices can have such dramatic effects on Ironman performance, and when I'm being totally honest with myself I know that I am very ignorant about this aspect of the sport.

Basically, don't be an idiot like me and think you can do ambitious things without any fuel for your brain and the muscles that will carry you through.

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