Friday, March 17, 2017

Let me eat cake

I got myself into a bit of trouble over the winter nutritionally, but I'm eating my way back out of it.

In the last few months, I've been trying to cut down on my sugar intake. I don't think anyone can convincingly argue that sugar is really good for you, and it is increasingly suspect as the culprit in numerous health issues. I'd still eat some directly before, during or after a hard workout, but I tried to reduce as much as possible outside those times. I didn't totally cut out other carbohydrate sources - I'd still have a sweet potato with almond butter & cinnamon for breakfast (SO GOOD), pasta for dinner once a week, make pad thai on Mondays, have rice with fish and veggies a couple of times a week - but I kept my portions very moderate in an effort to strip off some of the Christmas pudding. I'd make Tanker a bowl of pasta but eat mine out of a mug; he'd have a dinner plate of pad thai and I'd have a dessert plateful.

I fell into two traps - one external, and one internal. The external one was in listening once again to all the dietary advice out there for both athletes and non-athletes alike to eschew carbohydrates in favour of more protein and fat. Whether you're calling it Paleo, Primal, or just low carb, there has been a huge push in recent years to reduce people's intake of sugars and starches in the name of health and weight loss. Many elite endurance athletes have made successful transitions to a low carbohydrate intake with no loss of performance, so how bad could it be? So, in an effort to curb my voracious appetite, I'd eat bushels of vegetables and a fair bot of meat, adding nuts, coconut and avocado for healthy fat sources.

Roast chicken, zucchini, onion, garlic & mushrooms - a delicious low-carb dinner.

The internal trap that snared me was thinking that winter equates to the off season. I tapered a bit after Christmas for the RUN4RKIDS 8-hour in early January, then had to take a few days off afterward for recovery from both the race and emergency dental surgery. I was rebuilding distance as the Frosty Trail 3-hour came 'round later that month, and didn't even take a single day off post-race because I didn't feel I needed it. I generally figure that it takes me 1 week to recover completely (enough for another hard effort) for every hour of racing, so that would mean I was finally back on my feet from RUN4RKIDS by March 4th - less than 2 weeks ago. 

By that time I'd run over 400km since the 8-hour. As of Wednesday I passed 700km for the year so far, and my average for the last month has been over 75km per week. This actually represents about the largest training block I've ever put in. The idea that I "didn't need" the extra calories a slice or two of bread would provide sounds patently ridiculous when put in that perspective, which I finally gained just a few weeks ago.

Just a few kilometers here and there..

I was tired. So freakin' tired. I had just finished that 72.5km week and was ready to lay down dead, before I even started adding back any cycling or swimming to my training. All I was doing is running, walking a bit, and my usual strength work - I was even getting more sleep than usual, but nothing was helping. I decided I needed a recovery week, so that's where the 66.8km bar fits in - I was just too shagged out to do any more.

Throughout all this, though, my weight was increasing. Despite being hungry around the clock and running more than I have since the build for Dirty Girls last year, my clothes were getting tighter and the scale was moving the wrong way. I was chubby, cranky (I have no idea how Tanker put up with me!), cold, hungry and utterly disheartened.

I really do like carrots, though..

Finally it dawned on me - I was in almost the exact same place I'd been in 2011. Having just figured out that gluten and I couldn't be friends (it's not me - it's definitely you) and hearing all about the wonderful results people were getting with Paleo, I decided to give it a try while training for my first half iron distance triathlon. I had the same result the last time: weight gain, fatigue, irregular hormonal cycles, and utter bafflement as to why this wasn't working the way everyone said it should.

Then I remembered some stuff I had read back then, about how females may actually suppress their thyroid function by reducing carbohydrate intake too much. I did some quick searching for "hypothyroid symptoms" and immediately knew I was on to something. The fatigue; feeling cold all the time; muscle soreness/failure to recover from workouts; weight gain; heavy, painful & irregular menstruation (yeah, TMI - sorry guys!); crappy memory and even worse mood...even the outer third of my eyebrows being nearly non-existent and the weird hoarseness (without having a sniffle to explain it) to which I'd awoken the day after a very long, hard was all there on the list.


Having finally put two and two together, I started adding back carbohydrates and dialing back the fat intake. I started on Monday, February 20th with a couple of simple things - a small bowl of oatmeal, a bit more pad thai for dinner - and by the very next day I felt like a brand new person! Enough that I was able to energetically run on my lunch, ride the trainer after work, then hit the pool before a late dinner.

Since then, I've been able to increase my training again, I'm no longer constantly freezing or starving, and the stubborn pudge is finally starting to fall away. Both the scale and the fit of my clothing are showing definite improvement - as of last night there is much less of me poking out from the edges of my swimsuit - and I have much better energy both during and outside of training. I'm also much, much less miserable to be around! My experience is far from unique: searching will yield numerous pages of other women's stories of failure to thrive on reduced carbohydrate intake, and a few brave scientists are finally publishing material about the effect of your sex (and thus your hormone levels) on your dietary needs. There is also new research being done that indicates the Female Athlete Triad (TL;DR: restricting calories resulting in lack of menstrual cycle & bone loss) - traditionally associated with disordered eating and very low body fat levels - may actually have more to do with the body's perception of energy availability regardless of body composition. Since "fat burns in a carbohydrate flame", my poor body may have felt that I was so severely lacking in calories it needed to halt all non-essential metabolic functions.

Muffins to the rescue!

I still wish to keep my consumption of sugar to a minimal level (contrary to the first pic in this post, and really the title as well..), so simply buying a bag of cookies isn't the way I intend to solve this. I'm still trying to restrict simple sugars to before, during and after training, but I've started baking again - the cranberry orange pumpkin seed muffins seen above were last weekend's fuel, and I'll probably celebrate St. Paddy's Day by baking a loaf of soda bread this evening. You may note that there was a drop in run mileage last week (from 84.4km to 79.5km), but that was due to trail conditions being a sketchy mess of frozen and thawed, claggy mud under the snow that fell last week. I was on the trails moving for just as long; I simply didn't make it as far.

The sunshine was super pretty, even though it was cold as hell.

Lest you think I may have impaired my fat burning abilities (which admittedly are highly valuable for ultrarunning, where you're moving at moderate effort for hours longer than your carbohydrate stores and GI tract can provide), Sunday's run was actually 2h20m of trail running & hiking done on nothing but water - I'd had a bagel with a fried duck egg and peameal bacon for breakfast, all washed down with a cup of coffee about 90mins beforehand, but took in no calories along the way.

The hiking because of stuff like this.

I still had sufficient energy in the last half-hour to run sustained on the paved Downtown Trail and CNR Spurline Trail in Guelph after leaving GORBA, too, so I certainly wasn't bonking. That tells me that a couple of weeks of increased carbohydrate intake haven't ruined my ability to use fat as fuel; it's just giving me my life back!


So the lesson here is that what works for one person may not be what works for you. I'm not interested in being told I was doing Paleo/Primal/low carb "wrong" - there's increasing research being published indicating it's a poor option for endurance athletes, and I am pretty solid in my conviction (having tried reducing CHO twice to highly detrimental effect) that a higher carbohydrate approach is the best approach for me personally. If you'd like to take your own nutrition in another direction, I'm not here to say you're wrong; we're all an experiment of one, and I wish you success in finding the best way to fulfill your own dietary needs! If you're not seeing the results you want from a low carb approach, though - especially if you're female - you owe it to yourself to consider that protein and fat may not be the saviours they're touted to be for you.

One last note about weight loss for athletes: I recently read something that really resonated with me, because I have been known to restrict calories as much as possible while attempting to reach race weight. This is a quote from a fellow who is currently experimenting with a pure "calories in/calories out" approach to weight loss by eating nothing but burgers, pizza, ice cream, cake and doughnuts:

"For weight loss, I used to have the mindset of trying to get away with as few calories as possible. This project has changed my mindset to try and get in as many calories as I can while still losing weight. The difference is remarkable just in terms of daily energy and workout energy" - Rob Gray 

So if you're going hard on the trails all day, maybe give yourself the leeway to do a little hard at the dinner table as well.

Who wants to say no to homemade chocolate chip zucchini bread anyway?

Don't get me wrong - vegetables are still the number one mainstay of my nutrition, with my sweet potato breakfast, morning snack of carrots & cucumbers, daily afternoon salad and copious vegetables with dinner. But, I'm really enjoying having french toast and bagels again for weekend brunches, not to mention my homemade goodies. Speaking of which, I'm going home to do some baking!

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