Friday, February 5, 2016

Run drunk

No, that's not a suggestion.

Yes, I know that the beer mile is a thing. That's not what I'm talking about.

What I'm talking about is the effects of endurance exercise on higher brain function, specifically the cognitive impairment that results from long events.

There are a couple of studies that back up what I've been noticing for years: if you exercise for a really long time, you end up pretty dumb.

Why do all these pink elephants keep following me?

Not in any lasting way (well, in my case..), but in a way that could put you in real danger.

Here's the thing: if you've raced any events longer than 90mins (enough to deplete your glycogen stores), you've probably noticed that you're not really in any condition to write your SATs by the end of it. Even basic math like "how many laps have I done" or "how high do I need to jump in o not to catch my foot on that AAARGH" can feel unreasonably challenging.

The problem is that your muscles are working hard and diverting blood flow - and thus both sugar and oxygen -  from your brain. To make matters worse, it's almost impossible to replace as much fluid as you're losing during a long event, so you end up dehydrated as well, which is the same thing that occurs when drinking alcohol. I really do use the term "run drunk" for a reason!

Not only does all of this drop the odds of you joining MENSA before the finish line - it can take some time to recover from the effects of putting your brain on a bit of a starvation diet. The same effect can be produced by exercising at high intensity for shorter durations, but since that tends to dissipate more quickly than exhaustive exercise-induced cognitive impairment, it's not as germane to my point.

I swear I have one, and I really am getting there. For now: courage.

Being run drunk (or cycling or swimming or skiing or multi-sport drunk, since any exhaustive aerobic exercise produces the effect) is usually just a cause of forehead-slappingl dumb moments during a race: putting your aero helmet on backwards coming out of the water at a triathlon, leaving the bike-to-run transition still wearing said helmet, taking a gel every 20mins instead of every 40mins (and wondering why your gut rebels), or being completely incapable of calculating distance/laps completed vs remaining. The sort of thing you laugh about later.

Pretty sure I've been outsmarted by plant life during a long event.

What's no laughing matter is the fact that some of this impairment can continue for hours after the event has ended, leaving a bunch of somewhat loopy athletes packing up their gear and getting into the driver's seat of their cars to head home.

Most of us know better than to get behind the wheel after drinking alcohol, but how many endurance athletes give a second thought to the danger they may pose to themselves and others by operating a motor vehicle after a long race? While I know as well as anyone how much you really just want to get home and scrape off the smelliness so you can put your feet up and eat your bodyweight in sugar and deep fried things dripping with cheese (or not - whatever your jam may be), I'm asking you right now to think about the sheer horror that could await you on your journey.

I know I'm incredibly lucky to have Tanker the Wonder Sherpa to drive me home from all of my events. Between the sheer fatigue and general idiocy that I've generated even from a lousy Olympic triathlon or 25k trail race (to say nothing of the half iron distance tris and ultrarunning events I've done, or the 100 mile, full iron distance and even 24hr events others regularly engage in), I'm sure I'd have killed either myself or someone else on the road home by now if I didn't have my faithful chauffeur. The way in which exhaustive exercise impairs cognition is exactly the way you need to be sharp in order to perform the subconscious analyses of traffic patterns and react quickly to changing circumstances when driving a vehicle.

I'll say it again: you are a danger to yourself and others out there if you're driving while run drunk. The effects are so noticeable and lasting in my own personal experience that I refuse to ride my motorcycle if I've trained or raced for over 3hrs in a day, since it takes up even more mental run time than driving a car. I don't care how beautiful the day is and if it's the only chance I'll have to ride in the next month: my bike stays parked for the same reason it would if I was on narcotic painkillers or had been slinging back shots of whiskey all morning.

Now, I understand that not everyone is lucky enough to have such an incredibly supportive spouse and sherpa - Tanker is one of a kind, and I'm incredibly grateful for everything he does for my pathetic little athletic career. However, I will suggest that there are a few ways that you can avoid getting behind the wheel while still goofy from a race:

1) Carpool. If you happen to know of someone doing a shorter distance race (or better yet - volunteering) at an event you're participating in that is long enough to leave you loopy, why not ask if they're willing to hang out and wait for you to finish up before heading out together? It's better for the environment and creates less traffic/parking congestion, too!

2) Take a cab or public transit. Yeah, I know this isn't always feasible due to distance, cost and availability, and who the heck really wants to deal with public transportation when you're sore and smelly? Still beats never being able to race again because you were hurt in a car accident, though.

3) Stay close by. Many races partner with a local hotel to offer great rates to athletes, and there will often be a shuttle bus to and from the event. You'll typically only be a few minutes' ride away from a hot shower, and even those few minutes will be spent in the company of other athletes high on endorphins who will actually enjoy swapping racing anecdotes with you instead of merely tolerating your post-race motormouth! Even if there's no race-specific hotel or shuttle, you'll be in better range to grab a cab affordably, or possibly even walk or ride your bicycle back to the hotel. You might even be able to work out a carpool with another athlete staying at the same place who will either be in better shape or has their own driver for post-race.

4) Have a friend or relative drive. This is really the best way to go, since it gets you home with the least amount of fuss and expense. I know that most races require you to get up at stupid o'clock in the morning to drive to some gawdforsaken location so far outside of town that you start to hear banjos, but I'm willing to bet every single one of you has at least one person with a driver's license that wants you to come back safely. Explain to them that you'll essentially be a taller version of a drunken circus midget by the time you complete this idiotic thing you're planning on doing, and you don't want to run the risk of hurting innocent people with a couple of tons of metal and glass afterward. Buy them a caffeinated beverage of their choice on the way to the event, preferably accompanied by something hot to eat (the one time I failed to buy Tanker the Wonder Sherpa a toasted bagel with cream cheese or sausage & egg breakfast sandwich on the way to an event, I broke my wrist during the race. Just saying..). Let them nap on the way there if they like, and make sure they have the car keys so they can go get lunch while you're out running around in the woods like a crazed baby deer for hours on end. Offer to buy them dinner after the event, a case of beer, or that Faberge egg they've had their eye on (depending on their tastes and/or your budget). Seriously - show your appreciation for ripping them out of their cozy bed and wasting their day, and maybe they'll even agree to do it again for you in the future.

It seems to work for Tank!

5) Have a nap. If all else fails and you simply must drive yourself home, try to find a way to get your head down for at least 20mins before you depart. Bring a pillow, hop into the passenger seat and lean it back, toss a blanket on and saw some logs for a bit. It's still not a great option, but at least you'll be a little bit more on your game.

Whatever it is you do, I implore you to find some way to avoid driving while under the influence of endurance exercise. Whether it's as simple as the inconvenience and expense of having to repair damage to your vehicle or the crushing heartbreak and guilt of taking an innocent life, the consequences of driving while impaired - whether it's from direct causes like alcohol or drugs, or just the side effect of a long race taking its toll on your higher brain functions - can destroy lives and shatter families.

Please. Don't drive run drunk.

(Especially if this is your idea of a duathlon transition beverage)

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