Post Ultramarathon Funk And How it Sucks Balls

It is pretty well known that the more a person does ultramarathons or marathons, for the most part, the quicker one recovers. Recovery from one’s first 50 miler is nothing like the 10th or the 20th or even the 5th. The body figures out, bit by swollen bit, just what in the bloody hell was laid down upon its bones and joints and muscles and skin and how to look around and pick up the pieces. You’ve Humpty Dumpty’ed yourself over and over again and the king’s horses and the king’s men are getting quite good at this game.

However.

The rest of it, the head stuff, is weird and troubling and kind of common.

After an ultra, I have a day, maybe two days, of a kind of awesomeness. I’m tired. Blissed out. Exhausted. Content. And then, things happen in the brain and it all goes kaflooey. It doesn’t happen to everyone. A few studies have even “debunked” the whole idea of feeling like crud after endurance races. I’m not convinced by one study – maybe familiarity with a mood test taken daily for weeks on end makes you feel better about your life in general, who knows.

At any rate, a scholarly search on this phenomenon gives me some great stuff to work with like theories about amino acid depletion and such, but that doesn’t tell you the STORY. The story of feeling like a old bloated whale with arthritis who never lived up to Moby Dick’s expectations and is likely to end up as lamp oil ASAP. The story that digs into why it might happen, with a little science as background but a lot of first person experience to bring it together in the flesh. I’ll run through the stages, best as I have known them.

Stage One: Finish Day

So here we are. It’s that first day, the day of the finish. There’s a few hours of just shock. You walk around a little bit, making sure you’re warm and fed (if hungry, though that can take hours to come back normally, too) and not bleeding all over the place if you took a trail stumble or bashed up your feet. Mingled with that shock is some bliss, coming from endorphins and a general sense of accomplishment. People are probably telling you ‘great job’ and ‘nice to see you out there’ and stuff like that. What happens from here on out varies, depending on the length of the event and the time of day you finished. After a 100 I generally fall asleep mid-day, often during the awards ceremony. After a 50, it’s evening-ish already and all you need to do is try to eat something and get back to where you’re sleeping.

Stage Two: Sleeping

That night of sleep can vary as much as any night of sleep can. You could toss and turn in pain and get little rest at all, or you could sleep like a baby on benadryl with possible short interruptions for a muscle cramp here and there.

Stage Three: DOMS day(s)

The next stage is a lesser version of immediately after the event. You’re sore, a bit stiff, a bit hungry, and still basking in the congratulatory glow. Maybe you’re back at work with a tan and some trail wounds and someone there actually gives a shit about your weekend. But at this stage, the glow is fading. The muscles are beat all to hell and while they feel better by the hour, the real damage will take weeks to repair.

Stage Four: FML

Ok, so now you’re in the place we came here to talk about. Song lyrics appear in your head full of melancholy: My head is an animal. It’s empty in the valley of your heart. That kind of stuff. Your body is well on its way to repair, though it has a long way to go. You get out for a run, or two. It feels ok, or it doesn’t. Sleep is better. Legs aren’t as twitchy. But you, in your head? You feel like that event was a mirage. It barely happened, the pain was barely perceptible, the joy was fleeting, and it seems like you won’t feel that excited about something again for a long time, maybe ever. THAT’S IT. It’s a funk, or its depression, or its the suck, and you’re in it.

Why does it happen? Here’s a theory, cobbled together from research and experience (my own and others‘). Firstly, some people are more prone to this than others, and those people often seem to have general issues with “lower” moods throughout their life. They aren’t necessarily what you’d call full blown depressives, worthy of medication. I’m simply talking about us who get a little anxious, get a little nervous, get stomach pains, get a little obsessive. The sensitive people. It seems we get that post-event funk/blues/suck moreso than others.

So that’s the correlation, but the causation could be something more real and simple: amino acid deficiencies. See, brutal and prolonged exercise really hammers on a few key amino acids like choline, but depletes them all to some degree, including tryptophan, tyrosine, and phenylalanine. Those three are required to make your happy chemicals serotonin and epinephrine. So there’s one of the big theories. The combination of a person with melancholic tendencies coupled with a huge hit on key nutrients = FUNK. Serious funk.

we got the funk

Now what? Basically, wait it out. Feed the amino acid machine – eat great quality food: eggs, sustainable organic meats, cheese if you want, sardines. Get your levels back up to normal, the real food way.

And, don’t beat yourself up if you engage in guilty pleasures. I’m known to abuse a little of the chocolates during this time, and snack food in general. I just need to remember to eat good protein and sleep lots. And it will end. Really.

 

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40 Is The New Something-Other-Than-40

40-signpost-outside

It’s a great headline: “[insert sort-of old sounding age here] is the new [insert younger age here]!!!” It’s been used by marketing agencies, greeting card companies, and social media acolytes for many years. See what things look like when you just search Google:

40isthenew-googlesearch

There’s certainly the desire to embrace better health insights, younger fashions, and a little bit of silliness. Fashions tend to veer a little bit too young – I’m old enough to have grown up when what your mom wore in her daily life was NOTHING like what her teenage kids wore. Nothing. And both groups were pretty happy with that demarcation.

We also know a ton more about health than we used to, mostly by finally beginning to ignore a lot of the bullshit fed to us (sometimes literally) over the last few generations: that margarine was good, that cholesterol was bad, that low fat was good, that animal-anything was bad, that relaxing in front of the TV was good, that cleaning your own house was bad (or a waste of time), that gyms were good, that getting sunshine was bad . . .  and on, and on. Health is finally beginning, just a little bit, to look more natural. Eat real food. Go outside. Don’t buy all the things. Sit quietly by yourself. Sleep in. We’re starting to get it, and it will only get better. I just hope it gets better before we go broke from healthcare.

Now, the silliness. I cannot tell you how many people in my own life that have stepped out of the woodwork (women, mostly) to reveal that they, like me, have gone through a major life and/or relationship shake-up at the age of 40 or so. Is it a midlife crisis? Is it reaching the end of childbearing years and realizing you’ve got a lot more to squeeze out of life than an 8-lb human through your vagina? I have no clue. Ok, I do, but that’s for another day. Starting “over” at 40 is refreshing even when it is scary. I (we) are still young. Maybe we spent the last decade kind of spinning our wheels psychologically. By cleaving off and pulling up the anchor it can feel like you’ve shed that previous chunk of years. At 40 a person can feel both young in body as well as empowered as all get out with a bunch of young adult wisdom acquired.

Which leads me to . . .

“40 is the new . . . ” works both ways.

Life – your life, everyone’s life – has been happening, even if certain aspects of it were stagnant. Now we have an alternate way of looking at things, something more like:

40 is the new 60!

40 is the new retirement! (If you were lucky and did something smart like Mr. Money Mustache)

40 is the new golden age!

Think of the possibilities when you combine a healthy corporeal space, an optimistic outlook, and the insights from a past that you’re sad to leave behind but couldn’t see it any other way forward. It’s gonna be awesome, this life, and it’s gonna be real interesting.

40isthenew-successkid

I Love To Run Even Though It Could Hurt Me

Hamster in a wheel, running just cuz it's fun. Maybe.

Hamster in a wheel, running just cuz it’s fun. Maybe.

I’ve been running for 27 years.

At least half of those years were “seasonally” around two-thirds of the year or so, in fair weather or around the competitive season. When I was off, I was really off, not doing much of anything for several months (youthful metabolism is what made that tenable for so long). However, the last decade has been year-round training – and not because of slowing metabolism, but rather to be more competitive and get rid of the inevitable training curve/wall after a few months off. I did get faster – and I got skinnier – and how the two are related and not related is another story.

It took many years of those 27 before I had any idea that running was anything but super awesome for the human body. I mean, how could it not be? All that fitness and endorphins and pleasant exhaustion…. Hell, even mice like to run for no reason at all. I looooove this! Some animals, including we crazy humans, like to run just to run. Brain cells grow, stress hormones go down (within some limits), and things are just good. Usually.

Opposition on a running wheel. From https://www.flickr.com/photos/eyesplash/

Opposition on a running wheel. From https://www.flickr.com/photos/eyesplash/

But there’s two sides to the endurance running deal. The benefits of judicious jogging seem to be pretty clear: all the stuff mentioned above like better thinking, lower disease markers, lower stress, better cardiovascular fitness, et cetera. But when you get into territory like many habitual runners – an hour or more every day on average, with more on weekends or race days – that’s when the benefits rocket down to zero or below.

Net Negative Benefits?

Why? Right now I think there are two main areas of concern: atrial fibrillation and movement monotony.

Atrial Fibrillation

In some adults – those with a predisposition, it seems – endurance athletics will bring out their latent Atrial Fibrillation (“AFib” to the cool kids) where it might have been dormant for a lifetime of less vigorous movement. Only a few years ago it was easy to dismiss the folks who collapsed and died during marathons as pure probability given the population numbers. Those fatalities are still explainable by demographics, BUT there are likely a lot more runners out there with ticking AFib bombs in their chests. A google search for “atrial fibrillation endurance athletes” turns up 3190 results. Yowch.

So, this is just like the misconception that running will GIVE you knee problems when in fact it is slightly protective of your knees in general. What happens is that your knees – if they’re normal – will be benefited from running. If you are prone to knee problems like arthritis or degeneration, you *might* notice those issues sooner because you as an athlete are more in tune with your body and you demand more of it. Running does NOT cause knee problems.

Likewise, running does not seem to cause heart attacks or sudden death, but for some people it functions as a very sobering “stress test” and can make their life quite a bit shorter.

Finally, many, many years of running might actually contribute to AFib. That’s the thing that as a runner you should know about. Not necessarily worry about, but definitely consider it if you are actively choosing to be a runner instead of taking up other pursuits. The research is still ongoing, but it does not look like a win for running when it comes to AFib. Aside from the medical research, there are some runners and medical professionals blogging about the nexus of AFib and athletics, like Michael McCullough’s site AFibRunner, a great reading for all endurance athletes. I also like the site Athlete’s Heart by Dr. Larry Creswell – he is looking at the issue as a very interested 3rd party point of view. Good stuff.

Movement Monotony

Trust me when I say I will have a lot more to write about this, so this little paragraph is but the beginning. Here’s the nutshell. Many endurance runners like myself have desk jobs. We move from the coffee pot to the chair to the bathroom and back just a few times per day. Then we sit down to eat. We sit down to read. We go to sleep and we wake up and run for an hour and think we’re OK. We are not OK. I repeat – we are not OK.

In the always spot-on words of Katy Bowman, we athletes are doing the equivalent of saying to ourselves, “Hey, oranges have vitamins! I’m gonna eat 20 and then have some milkshakes!” We are taking in movement nutrients that are vastly inadequate and unvaried. We should be getting up from the chair every 20 minutes to bend and stretch and focus on the wall 20 feet away. We should take walks in the sunshine and squat down to pick up our groceries and kids. And then, maybe if we want, then we can do something as ‘crazy’ as striking the ground at 2.5x our body weight for 6000 reps (the amount of footstrikes in a 6 mile run)!!!

Ok, more Katy to come. Don’t worry.

After all that… why in the heck do I and we run?

Here’s what I know: the main benefit to me is in my inner world. What I mean by that is I get good shots of positive neurotransmitters (the runner’s high) in addition to mental calming and the ability to brainstorm and daydream while out there. This is why I don’t listen to music during 99% of my training time. Now, the runner’s high is real and can be proven by lots of research. But – and this is a big but – the rest of it might just be a self-reinforcing addiction. I get to daydream and clear my head because that’s what I expect from running. It calms me because I haven’t figured out any other way to calm my caucophony.

THERE ARE OTHER WAYS. There’s gentle yoga (not that power/hot stuff – that’s also addictive). There’s just daydreaming while taking a long walk. There’s meditation. All of these involve minimal exertion while having proven mental benefits.

And, I love my running friends, all over the country. I am able to go and experience beauty and connection and soul-crushing fatigue in myself and in those around me, and we get through it. When it’s almost over, we see our families and cross that line and it’s magical. How could you not love my 2 year old niece running to catch me in this photo???

Andrea and Howie finishing Wasatch Front 100 2014, family and pacer in tow.

Andrea and Howie finishing Wasatch Front 100 2014, family and pacer in tow.

I know all of this. If someone new to exercise or fitness or general lifestyle health were to ask me “what should I do?” I would NEVER tell them to take up jogging or running. If one is starting from scratch or starting over, everything I know suggests that we should do three major things with our time. In order from most time spent to least, those three would be: tons of general movement and walking, meditation, and power bursts (sprints, climbing, jumping, weights).

Running is for becoming a better runner. Period. And becoming a better runner all by itself just might make you a more fragile organism if movement monotony isn’t balanced with really well-rounded movement nutrients in the rest of your life. Here’s to a long and movement-filled life.

How to Hug For Introverts: The Non-BuzzFeed Way

Do you have friends who give really great hug? I hope we all do – at least one, for cryin’ out loud. One of the best way to up the ratio of meh-huggers to great huggers is to *become* a great hugger. Easy, right?

Unfortunately, the practice of hugging has a terrific load of baggage in our culture – Shane Snow wrote about the dilemma of male/female hugs in a professional setting, and The Wire even has a roundup of different types of huggers (woe to be the “Hug-fectionist” type of hugger – that’s just bad, and you’re a needy person! Or, be careful of those “hug activists” out there – just in it for the oxytocin!)

High schools have even been taking notice of this disturbing trend amongst their students – that of expressing human affection and friendship through touch – and are clamping down on that “very dangerous territory” ASAP, says an article in the New York Times: “Comforting as the hug may be, principals across the country have clamped down.” That’s real, and seemingly the newest example of old time-honored restrictions on physical contact by kids, just like using rulers to judge how far apart they dance. See what I mean? There is so much stigma on what constitutes a good and appropriate amount of physical contact between humans.

I’m calling bullshit, and I don’t even need to invoke bonobos (thanks, Christopher Ryan!). Hugs are awesome and the sooner you get that thought in your head, the better you’re going to feel – and the better hugger you will become. The Daily Love agrees with this idea and has created a wonderful tutorial on hugs – read it as a complement to mine.

Writing a “how to give good hug” crossed my mind about a month ago, for fun and incremental betterment of the world. And then, Buzzfeed came along with their cutesy video demonstration just two days ago. Take a peek:

Their video is cheeky and entertaining, and I can launch off from their overly snarky how-to into something a bit more substantive. Learning how to hug is easier than a properly contextual handshake – boy, that is rife with problems, especially when many of the handshake tutorials out there are how to NOT screw it up.

Hugging is easy

I say that as an introverted and somewhat socially-awkward person. When I was a kid and young adult, I never saw the value in hugging, nor did I give or receive many hugs. They seemed to be special occasion only kinds of things. Not that there’s anything wrong with special occasion hugs, mind you:

Yay! We won! Awesome hug of joy!!!

Yay! We won! Awesome hug of Canadian joy!!!

Three hugging tips

Here is my super easy peasy way to hug like you were born doing it. Go forth and make happiness.

1. Evolve your hug to the receiver. This tip takes a little practice, but the benefits are huge. Essentially, you adjust all variables of your hug moment by moment DURING the hug. Some of the best hugs in my memory are those with people I like and respect, who give me a slightly warmer hug than I was anticipating (see the next tip), and I reciprocate with an even warmer embrace and we both peel away with shiny unicorns singing and farting rainbows. It’s glorious.

2. Be 1% more affectionate than you think you can get away with. This is a way to reassure the other person that you value them, you value human touch, and that you won’t go overboard into inappropriate territory (see #1).

3. HOW TO ACTUALLY DO IT. Use both arms, gently wrap them up, pull in, close your eyes, smile, and squeeze following tips 1 and 2. Go with the flow and giggle if you smack arms or something. That’s it!

Perfect hug: both arms, smile, eyes closed, joy!

Perfect hug: both arms, smile, eyes closed, joy!

Finding practice opportunities (with little social repercussions in your own peer group)

This is super simple but obviously a little weird if you are an introvert. Even I need practice sometimes, as evidenced by this photo-op awkward hug with a dear friend in Austin:

Side-hug. Not very warm or intimate!

Side-hug. Not very warm or intimate!

That’s OK – Juan Mann has been there before you. He’s the guy who created the “free hugs” campaign in 2006. He was a recent convert to the world of hugging, after spending many years as one of those ‘dead fish’ kind of huggers. His free pdf ebook about hugging is seriously awesome and you should download it right now.

Practice on strangers!

Practice on strangers!

The Spaghetti Approach to Achieving a Breakthrough

Let’s say you’re stuck in your progress toward a goal. Doesn’t matter what goal – it could be a physical feat or it could be getting your homework done. There are two generally accepted ways to make progress: incremental change (ideally with tracking) and jumping off a cliff (not literally).

Incremental change is the preferred method: it can be tracked, measured, and reproduced. When you make progress you know WHICH thing enabled the progress. You know that it was the fact that you started flossing your teeth right after eating that made you less likely to snack, versus putting an alarm on the fridge door. You know which behavior change you are in the middle of, and therefore you know what is working. Incremental change gets much love, partly because of how sciency it is, probably also because it is easier chunks to bite off if you’re the person making the changes.

But here’s the problem. It’s fucking slow. Sometimes you need or want the end result to happen very soon, or at a particular point in time rather than just “when it happens”. This is where jumping off a cliff becomes useful. For clarity’s sake, let’s alternatively call this method the Spaghetti Approach.

Oh please.... stick!

Oh please…. stick!

In the spaghetti approach, you simply change a whole BUNCH of stuff all at once. In the snacking example, you padlock the fridge, take herbal appetite suppressants, floss after eating, drink water before meals, AND buy a dress a size too small. You throw all the spaghetti against the wall at the same time. If enough of it sticks, you have made your breakthrough in record time. The only drawback (if you can even call it a drawback – it depends on how sciency you like your life to be) is that you won’t know for sure what really worked, and which pieces of spaghetti you can ignore the next time around.

BUT, here’s why the drawback might not be a drawback. The next time around, things might be totally different. Knowing exactly what worked before might not even be useful. This is especially true with things involving the human body or even relationships. Humans are just a mess of ever-shifting potential. It’s true you can generalize, of course. If you take up weightlifting, you will almost certainly get stronger. But generalizations are for generalized results. Doing MORE weightlifting, and MORE, and MORE, will not necessarily move up your maximum squat by 20 pounds. When things get detailed, humans get slightly less reliable results.

What works today or this month or this year or this decade will not necessarily work again.

This is why my 2014 Wasatch Front 100 race is getting the spaghetti approach. I am going out for a breakthrough, and I’m going to try a lot of new things. New things that I have not tried before, or things I have not done in an ultra in awhile, but all things that I have reasonable confidence will not be utter disasters. I’m not going to just decide to go keto-adapted and eat only macadamia nuts. That would be truly nuts.I am happy to share my plans. So here is what I *am* going to do:

  1. Use music. I never, ever, run with music. But I know it helps a ton of people and has sciency research to back up its effects on performance. (See, science!)
  2. Bring back my gaiters (woo, Dirty Girl!). Haven’t worn these in several years and dust/dirt is a big issue for my feet on this course.
  3. My own hydration drink, always. Preloaded dry into bottles or baggies in drop bags. Tailwind, if you’d like to know.
  4. MOAR calories. I undereat at ultras and I suspect that it has an effect on my pace, even if I don’t feel like I’m bonking.
  5. New food (to adjunct to #4) – rice balls. Many, many rice balls.
  6. Swap hydration pack at mile 82 for bottles.

Of all of these, the one with the most potential for bad effects is #4. That will have to be monitored closely so I don’t hurl all over the trail (at least not more than once, anyway). All the rest should have minimal side effects and if they are annoying I can stop or change course in moments.

Wish me luck and sticky pasta.

spaghetti-stuck-on-wall

One Almond equals 1.1 Gallons of Water

Almonds, almonds, the non-musical fruit.

Almonds, almonds, the non-musical fruit.

Almonds are yummy. Almonds have vitamins and stuff. Almonds are (horribly abused to be) made into almond milk.

But.

Almonds are actually kind of shitty for anything resembling sustainable agriculture. Not just kind of shitty. I mean really totally crappy shitty disgusting ick how-did-that-happen.

San Joaquin - soon to be NOT known for agriculture

San Joaquin – soon to be NOT known for agriculture

A recent batch of blog posts by Tom Philpott, Alex Jones and Julia Lurie in Mother Jones highlights this issue as well as other water-sucking crops like grapes, pistachios, and more.

Tom’s almond article delves into some disturbing statistics:

Why? Why the f why??? Because we (the US and Asia) love almonds. And when we love almonds, it keeps their prices high. It’s a 4.8 BILLION dollar crop. Almond milk consumption is going freaking insane.

California is potentially in a drought bigger than any in 500 years, and any rains that fall are too little, too late.

I like this Tom Philpott guy. Basically, he read about this stuff, he wrote about this stuff, and then he got pissed off enough that he started really DOING things with his knowledge, like start Maverick Farms and become a living advocate for sustainability.

Yeah, this is a little bit of a chicken little kind of post. BUT. There are things we can do. There are things we SHOULD do. Treat almonds like a treat. Stop fucking drinking almond milk. Drink pasteured kefir – it’s (so far) more sustainable and has no lactose.

And tell people. Passion is what reaches those that are interested.

Pernicious (or persnickety?) Anemia: Round One

I’ve felt fat and slow for a long time now.

Years. Part of that is not that I’m fat, but that I do actually weigh more than I did 4 or 5 years ago. What happens when I run is just physics: it feels different to hit the ground at 2.5x your body weight with an extra 12 pounds. Strength and experience can get through a lot of that. Good weight training, endurance work, neuromuscular development – all of these contribute to performance even when not at the featherweight category.

And yet. Feeling like you’ve strapped on a soggy wetsuit when going out for a run or trying to bound up a hill and gasping like two decades just jumped on your back ain’t fun.

So I turn to my red fluid of life: blood. Specifically, the known condition deep in my tissues that has lie in wait for years without too much bother: anemia. Uh-Knee-Me-Uh. Sexy, huh?

What is anemia?

Anemia (or anaemia for the fancy) means a lot of things, just like being overly warm can mean a lot of things. You might have a parka on. Or it might be 100 degrees out. Or you might be feverish. Or you might have just eaten Thanksgiving dinner.

With anemia, generally there’s something going on with the available red blood cells and/or their ability to give you oxygen when you request it, either by bounding up a hill or by getting out of bed.

I’ve learned craptons by reading the overview on the Merck site, which delineates different kinds of anemia and how one might get them. Anemias that I am extremely unlikely to have: excessive bleeding, sickle cell disorder, certain other genetic diseases.

Candidates for my own anemia, from lifestyle and bloodwork:

  • footstrike hemolysis (basically when my feet hit the ground the red blood cells get smooshed and die)
  • B12 deficiency (mine is low-ish but not that low, also I get numb fingers sometimes like Reynaud’s)
  • “simple” iron deficiency (caused by malabsorption – gut issues)
  • G6PD deficiency (genetic mutation, can be triggered by infection or fava beans. Yes, fava beans.)

So…. there are a lot of moving parts. But one thing I can start with is to try to increase nutrient absorption. I eat in a manner that does not explain my low nutrient levels – seriously I should be super high in damn near everything, and I’m not.

First experiment: HCl

From scdlifestyle.com – an awesome HCl resource!

Poor absorption of nutrients can be simply because there ain’t enough acid in one’s stomach. Supplementing with Betaine HCl will increase stomach acid and lead to better breakdown of food. It’s not crazy. (In fact, LOW stomach acid, not high, is the most common factor in heartburn and GERD. Weird, huh?)

I’m excited to try this, even though I’ve known for years about HCl. No time like the present, I suppose. I’ll follow some good guidelines about how to do it right, and let’s see how it goes.