Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Long Ramble About Nutrition

One of my good cycling buddies, Alex, reads my blog fairly regularly. (I know, right? I think he's one of three people who actually read my blog regularly, parentals included.) The other day, he pointed out that I hadn't really written a post about the excruciatingly dull diet I've been struggling with for parts of the past six months. So... here goes! Prepare to be all like, "WTF?!"

I was a swimmer in college. Actually, if you read my recent post about my first swim coach, you'll remember that I've actually been swimmer for the almost two-thirds of my life. And for 53 54th's of my life, I haven't given a crap about the food I put into my body.

Scratch that: I've given a crap... that I refused to eat most green things. Actually, if it came from the ground and wasn't a potato, I probably wasn't a fan. And if that potato'd been chopped, sliced and fried, well, that's even better. I was the anti-vegan.

Back to being a swimmer in college. During those years, I was packing in roughly 50,000 yards per week. The team would bust out eight or ten grand in an afternoon and then we'd camp out in the corner of Rathbone, the closest dining hall. We'd stay there for hours. We'd go for seconds, thirds. Chicken-Finger-Wednesday was THE BEST. At that point especially, I just didn't care what I ate. I was burning it off. Whatever. It didn't matter.

More recently, I'd become a compulsive snacker with a serious sweet-tooth and easy access to peanut M&Ms. I'd noticed a dependency on sugar, junkfood, the works -- and I didn't like it.

Now that I'm out of college, I've come to realize something. Sure, you can work hard, bust your ass and burn off all of the calories you consume... but you can do so much better if those calories are good calories and not shitty ones. And the more I read about this, the more I regret not being conscious of it back in the Lehigh days. I wonder how much further I could have pushed myself had I put that last puzzle piece in place.

So anyway, when I set out to do this Ironman, I made a deal with myself that I would try to do just that. I bought a book co-written by training guru Joe Friel and read it once or twice. I probably don't follow it as strictly as I should, but hey, I'm doing my best.

The base diet I'm on is what's known as the Paleo diet, which may sound similar to the Atkins diet, but I assume there are differences. It's called Paleo because the foods prescribed are the same foods that the Paleolithic hunter/gatherers used to eat. It's what your body most easily processes. (Coincidentally, it's the diet that they recommend for most centenarians. The key to a long life?) The diet discourages the consumption of starches (pasta, rice, bread, etc.) and dairy (milk, cheese). Essentially, you're supposed to replace those lost calories with additional proteins (meat), fruits and vegetables. I think this is all based on the idea that the calories (and fiber, etc.) you get from a good, crunchy head of broccoli are actually way better for your body than the equivalent calories of spaghetti.

The book's primary focus is on what kinds of foods to eat when; how should your pre-workout meal be composed? What should I be eating during a short ride? How about a long one? What's the best thing to eat immediately after a workout? Two hours after? Six hours after? The book adapts that diet for athletes and prescribes carbohydrate and protein intake before, during and immediately after workouts - times when your body is most receptive to the simple energies that kind of food can provide.

Adapting the diet isn't easy. As I said before, I think my body became slightly dependent on periodic junkfood fixes and the first two or three weeks after quitting them was not fun. I was tired and irritable. I wasn't recovering well. It was definite withdrawal.

But after your body adapts, good things start to happen. You feel better. You sleep better. Do you recover better? I don't know, to be honest. Are you stronger? Faster? Don't know that, either. But I know I'm not worse. And I'm healthier. Just all-around healthier - and that's a good thing, Ironman or no. So maybe it's a wash, except now I've a little peace of mind - and that's not a wash at all.

At this point, I've replaced most of my snacking with snacking of a different sort. Peanut M&Ms have been replaced with cashews and pecans. Other sugary snacks have been replaced with raisins, craisins and other dried fruit. I seriously must consume more dried cranberries than any other person on this planet. (This is actually where one of my biggest cheats comes into play; you're really not supposed to eat dried fruits like that any time except after rides. The high glycemic load of raisins is great for recovery. Anyway, whatever, let me enjoy this ONE THING.) I eat two or three apples a day. Lunch now consists of a massive, protein-rich salad. It's pretty awesome.

And what's funny is, I really even miss the stuff I've cut out very much. Cheese? Yeah, cheese is pretty awesome, but I don't sit here wishing I could chomp on my own personal wheel. And I'm not starving, either. In fact, I might be doing the opposite: because I know what I'm eating is all good for me, I might actually be over eating. Too much of a good thing is the kind of problem you want to have, though.

I will say this, though: I am definitely looking forward to a bad-ass Chipotle burrito and a pint of hoppy beer after this Ironman's through. Mmm, beer.