I hit another milestone yesterday - a training ride on my road bike that easily stretched to 100 miles.
I hadn't ridden my bikes since my race last Saturday but I have been thinking about it quite a bit. As I continue on the path of the Paleo Diet, I have been examining how my body has been responding. I wrote that the symptoms that had been plaguing me (fatigue, stomach issues, throat soreness, sinus infections) have all but disappeared, but the most constant measure I use to evaluate my overall health is how well I am cycling. Am I able to ride several times a week? Am I able to keep pace with other riders? Am I comfortable on the bike and free from too much soreness or discomfort after rides? As I increased my training mileage up to last weekend's event, I have been feeling good on the bike again. Not quite ready to ride with the fastest riders on local group rides but handling distance well and able to stick with guys I used to be as fast as. Last week's race was was a test of sorts, to see what I could accomplish, to see where my cycling body is three months into Paleo. I came away with a couple of observations that surprised me.
First, I survived the race eating only paleo food - nuts, dried fruit, cut whole fruit, smoked turkey breast and vegetables. Without replenishment, your body uses up all it short-term stored energy in a couple of hours. If you feed while you put out an endurance effort (relatively low-load physical efforts longer than two hours), your system can metabolize food fast enough to keep your muscles firing until they fatigue too far and need recovery time to repair and rebuild. In years past, I would have gotten through long endurance rides by refueling with Power Bar energy bars, Gatorade, and sugary treats like Fig Newtons or pastries. Common wisdom was that I needed to continuously take in carbohydrates that my body can quickly convert to glucose to fuel my muscles and there are all kinds of products I can buy supposedly optimized so I can ride longer than the couple of hours our natural energy stores are built to handle. Most of these products contain wheat, rice, and simple sugars. At the race, I rode seven hours on a diet of natural foods and (devoid of all wheat, rice, or simple sugars). And I was perfectly fine. Better than fine.
In fact, secondly, I felt I could have gone longer. What stopped me after seven hours of mountain-biking wasn't that I was nutritionally depleted, but that my muscles were not adapted to the effort. I had some cramping at the six-hour mark and had simply overtaxed my hamstrings on the fifth, fifteen-mile lap. Overall, my body felt fine. My lungs were good. I was still handling the bike well. I was keeping up a reasonable speed. But for the shutdown of my hamstrings, I could have continued to race. Maybe even until the twelve-hour mark (when the race officially ended, longer than I have ever ridden a mountain-bike in my life).
Third, the next day, I was fine. Normally, after a herculean ride, fueled by the factory food from Big Sugar, I would be wiped out, completely depleted. I would expect a raging headache. I would certainly have complete muscle soreness in every part of my body. After most epic rides, I would need a week or so to recover. I would often get sick during that off week. I always thought this was because I really wasn't built for endurance and I was asking too much of my body. Now, I think the truth is that I was just not feeding my body properly and those effects were the inevitable byproduct of forcing my system to handle a large workload fueled with poison.
Something very fundamental is changing in my physiology. Being able to handle the distance of that race without destroying my body on what conventional wisdom says is the wrong fuel was a revelation, a sign that I may just be designed for endurance after all. I needed to test whether the race was fluke.
A friend from the West Valley Cycle Club organized a Thanksgiving Day group ride from (Lifetime Fitness in Goodyear, AZ, an eight-mile ride from my house). A 7:30am start (enough time to ride and be home for Thanksgiving), he planned a 50-mile route. Another friend posted that he was organizing a 5:30 start-time ride to add some mileage to the second ride. If I combined both, as well as the ride to and from my house, I would get in about 80-miles, a good test of my endurance. So I set my alarm, packed a paleo bag of nuts, raisins and a couple of gluten-free Oreo cookies (not paleo but wheat and dairy free, my only concession to the idea I need some simple sugar) and set off early.
The ride was peppy; fast but not too hard. I ate a small handful of the nuts/raisins mix every hour or so starting about fifteen miles in. I drank plenty of water. I rode strong but avoided going crazy hard by riding at the very front of the group. I paid attention to my body and it kept giving me green lights. Halfway through the ride, I started doing the math in my head; by the time I finished the second ride, with the eight miles still left to go home, I would have ridden eighty-five miles or so. So close to one hundred.
A hundred miles is a milestone for most cyclists. Cyclists celebrate the first time they ride over 100 miles in one day as a major accomplishment. Kind of like a marathon is for a runner. For me, a Century attempt (as a one-hundred-mile ride is called) was out sized effort I'd carefully plan and prepare for, out of reach unless I had trained (built up my mileage) specifically. Yet here I was on a Thursday group ride thinking about stretching it beyond the hundred-mile threshold. Crazy right?
On any Century I had ever ridden, the last fifteen miles were akin to physical torture. I remember being so physically exhausted and so nutritionally depleted that it took all i had to just finish the Sea Otter Granfondo, the Tour de Tucson, the Echelon Granfondo Seattle. Yesterday, after riding all day in groups, I braced for a slog in the final miles but amazingly, I felt great in the last fifteen solo miles; as smooth and strong as I had ridden all day.
I made it home with 100.4 miles on my bike computer in five hours and fifteen minutes of ride time (a respectable pace for a cycling Century). I showered and changed and had a normal Thanksgiving; a little sore but free to live a normal life for the day. No headache. No physical debilitation. No energy crash. Amazing.
So why? Why am I suddenly able to handle endurance rides in a way I never have or never thought I would be able to? Why am I now thinking of myself as built for endurance instead of believing I had limits to how long or how far I could ride?
What I think is happening is that the way my body processed energy has greatly improved. I know there is a much more scientific way to explain that the human body has more than one way to metabolize energy to fuel your body but the essence of what I am experiencing tells me that since I am not supplying my body with highly processed sugary, starchy carbs, it is more efficient at the converting long-burn fat energy into fuel. My body is able to use the carb-deficient foods I feed it along with stored fats to produce cleaner-burning energy. Since I'm burning cleaner fuel, my system is not getting clogged up and breaking down. I can sustain endurance efforts longer.
What the Paleo Diet has done for me is to remove what I believed was a physical limitation. I may be capable of longer and more challenging endurance efforts than I previously believed. I want to continue to test myself as a cyclist. I'll take it slow but I am looking ahead to the challenges - the races, the rides, the milestones to be achieved - and I am excited about accomplishing personal growth through cycling. Thank you Paleo Diet.
When a simple picture
Of my motorcycle
Got more likes
Than any mention
Of my many
I learned my lesson
Pictures of my motorcycle
I have been on the Paleo diet for about 3 months and it has significantly improved my quality of life.
Six months ago I was suffering from a range of maladies including constant sore throats, repeated sinus infections, constant fatigue (unable to do more than nap or lay on the couch after four in the afternoon), digestive issues (bloated stomach, constipation), and my blood pressure was higher than it had ever been. After going back and forth to several doctors and being driven down uncomfortable medical treatment paths that didn't seem to be getting at the core issue (just throwing medications at the symptoms), I took review of the times in my life where I've worked through challenges like this before and realized I have always seen immediate impact when I addressed what I know are the shortfalls in the way I eat.
I was laying in bed at night, not sleeping well, constantly thinking what these symptoms all meant. Was it allergies? Was it a virus. Was there is a bacterial infection in there somewhere. Was some part of me diseased? I was not happy and I needed to do something. After careful contemplation about the times in my life where I addressed health issues with diet, and listening to a homeopathic doctor advise me to try eliminating wheat and dairy to see if my core issue was indeed allergies, I decided to overcome my reluctance to let go of the donuts and cheeseburgers and diet coke that I believed gave me please and adopt the Paleo Diet. (I will go into depth on my experience in finding and switching to the Paleo diet in future entries) but I just want to touch on a great experience I had now that I'm at the three month mark.
Just in case you don't know, the Paleo Diet is a way of eating that replicates the foods that would have been available to Neolithic man, at a time where human beings were as genetically adapted to our environment as we could be, prior to the industrialization of food. Food production in the form of farming and factory processing have only been around a few thousand years and Dr. Cordain's premise is that there has not been enough time for the genetic adaptations our system need to adapt to the new foods we're eating more and more of. Read his research on the issue if your curious but I came to understand that it was possible that my body was reacting to all the modern processed food I was eating and drinking (specifically wheat) with an allergic response, creating stress and suppressing my immune system leaving me vulnerable to all sorts of chronic maladies.
Under the Paleo diet, I essentially eat lean meats, lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, and avoid all grains, processed food, sugars - refined food of any kind. I also had to drop my lifelong daily diet coke addiction in favor of green tea and water. It has been quite an adjustment. and according to the master planner of the diet, I eating Paleo for more than 85% of my meals, reserving a small part to enjoy what life has to offer without the restrictions of the diet.
It's been three months since I started and I had a milestone moment this past weekend.
I used to race and ride bicycles quite a lot. Riding bicycles is a huge part of my life. In fact, one of the biggest impacts my lack of health had on my quality of life was that I wasn't able to ride. When I'm healthy, I ride several six to ten hours a week. It's a social act; I ride with friends. Its a competitive act; I enter events and challenges and compete against my friends on the weekends. All that was gone.
Since I switched to the Paleo diet, most of the symptoms that were keeping me off the bike resolved. I started to feel well enough to exercise. I got back on my bike. In the three months since, I've been able to bring my riding back up to my old levels. I can keep up with my friends again. I started thinking about entering races and events for the first time in a while.
The race I entered this weekend was called the 12 hours of Fury; a mountain bike race held at a local park on a 15 mile loop of beautiful rolling singletrack with a six mile gradual up hill start, a sweeping roller coaster-downhill, and a five-mile up and down finishing stretch that wove in and out of a series of ravines. I entered as a solo rider with no ambition to challenge for the win, more to test what my body is now capable of after 3 months of correcting my diet. Temperatures were mild (mid 60s at the start, a high in the mid 80s expected during the day). The format of the race was that you had 12 hours to get in as many laps as fast as possible and along with solo riders like me, there were relay teams of duos and quads on the course competing at the same time.
This longest I've ever ridden a mountain bike, fifteen years ago, was 80 miles. I was younger, much, much fitter, and competitive then. Anything close to that would be an amazing accomplishment knowing that I couldn't have ridden twenty miles on my mountain bike a few months ago. My goal was to complete laps in under 1:30 (a decent pace for 15 miles of singletrack) and finish as many laps as I could.
The hundred or so riders starting the first lap launched from the parking lot into singletrack almost immediately. Which meant there was a long single-file line of riders and speed was dictated by the pace of the riders in front of me. Which was okay because I was starting with no warm up and the backup into single track held the speed at something that was reasonable for me. I held my pace as best I could and connected with a friend who was also racing. We rode together, keeping a comfortable pace. The course, especially the long stretch of roller-coaster downhill, was super fun and we finished the first lap in 1:10. About 12 or 13 minutes slower than the fastest writer period faster than I expected. I expected to average around an hour and a half. So I was pleased.
Even for someone in the best shape of their life, the body requires fuel to go longer than a couple of hours so I had to eat and drink between laps in order to last longer distance so I refilled my water bottles ate a little something and settled in for my second lap feeling good. I was riding with rhythm, was happy with my speed, and completed my second lap in 1:12. Again, faster than I expected.
I ate again. Sticking to Paleo principles, I had prepared wraps of oven roasted turkey breast slices with vegetables, cut fruit, and some nuts, and headed out for my third lap. I could feel the efforts of the first two laps at this point. I was starting to slow down. But nothing unmanageable. My stomach was a little unsettled by the solid food at first but I focused on holding my speed constant, swept along the downhill, focused on the climbs on the back side, and made it back in 1:18.
I took a longer break after the third lap to eat more solid food and give it time to digest. I also refueled on my fluids. The fourth lap was tough. I had to push through the uphill and was definitely slowing down. After the long downhill, at the very first of the six small climbs on the final section, the inside of both my legs (muscles from the groin to the knee) started to cramp violently. Cramping on a bicycle is the least fun thing that can happen. Your legs could potentially completely lock up and you could fall over and crash because you can't move your legs anymore. The moment I started to get that flutter of cramping, I pulled to the side of the trail, jumped off, and started to stretch, hoping my race wasn't over right at that moment.
The spasms slowed and I got back on the bike. On the next climb, I focused on pushing down with my legs, trying not to involve the muscles on the inner thighs that are used mostly to pull back on the cranks and add power to a pedal stroke. It was nerve wracking. I shifted to the easiest gear I could and focused only on the downward push and I made it through. I finished my fourth lap in 1:27.
Back at camp, my friends suggested that dehydration might be to blame so I added electrolytes to my water and drank it down and ate more and gave myself time for this energy to make it into my system. I headed out for a fifth lap. On the long uphill, I started to experience tightness in my hamstrings. Shifting power away from the inner thighs and the front of my legs overloaded my hamstrings and everything is starting to tighten up (my lower back, my shoulders, my hamstrings). I pedaled as easy as I could to keep my speed up and focused on just getting through the lap. My hamstrings are screaming. Every pedal stroke is painful. But I keep going. And finish my fifth and final lap in 1:31.
76.6 miles is the longest I've ridden on a mountain bike in more than 15 years. Despite my legs not really having the muscle development yet to handle the load, I felt like I could have gone longer. I wasn't suffering from hunger. I wasn't overly worn out. I was still clear headed. It was a revelation to feel this way. I'd almost forgotten how good it feels to take on something physical, something challenging, and actually complete it and I'm more impressed with the concept of the Paleo diet than ever. It not only had a very quick effect on the symptoms of that were holding my life back but the longer I stick to the regimen, the longer my body sorts itself out and becomes available to me as a tool to go out there and live my life.
Thanks for listening.