Hydration: So simple, yet overlooked

It was Wednesday afternoon and the office water cooler had already run dry. Delivery of new bottles wouldn’t take place until Thursday morning. Our tap water periodically runs brown, usually smells bad and tastes worse – so we do require drinking water to come in from external sources.

The resulting showdown took place between a colleague and I, after someone had offered to pick up a large jug of water at the local store while she was out that way.

“It’s 2:30 in the afternoon,”, snapped my colleague. “You can’t seriously need more water before the day ends!”.

I gave her the blankest of looks, and  all our other co-workers all stepped back a meter or so, unable to stop watching, just like unwilling witnesses to a street brawl.

“Yes,” I said. “There are two hours left in the day, and some of us need water to function.”

In fact, all of us need water to function. It’s just that some of us are better at getting it.

My nickname at work and at the hockey rink is Doc. People are always asking me about sports injuries, nutrition, and related stuff. In truth, I don’t know how this started, since I don’t offer the info up unless it’s asked for, but I’m generally happy to oblige, always prefacing that this knowledge is really just based on personal experience and a lot of reading.

The simplest and most common advice I’ve given to people, and the one most often scoffed at until they’ve tried it, is that they need to drink more water.

It’s shocking how little water people are drinking. And it’s not even hard to spot the effects. Even without being thirsty, too many of us are walking around in a state of dehydration.

I had a colleague who without fail, would start yawning at his desk by mid-morning, and even worse mid-afternoon. He was drinking the sum total of one cup of water a day – usually after dinner, when he suddenly realized how thirsty he was. Once we chatted, he started a morning glass of water, a lunch glass of water, and an dinner glass. According to him, he felt clearer, and according to us, he wasn’t yawning all the time. When he would forget the morning water, we could all tell, because the yawning would return. It’s that clear.

Someone at hockey was pulling up short in almost every game for a months on end, with a groin muscle that kept pulling. I jokingly asked him once if he was hydrating enough, to which he laughed. And then I said “No, really, being dehydrated results in muscle cramps and pulls”, and he said “Oh?”. He’s now drinking more water before and during a game, and said last week he can’t remember the last time he got that strain. I believe. So does he, now. [Full disclosure: We also discussed that he skate around the ice to warm up a bit before doing better pre-game stretching. That helped too. Thanks, Doc!]

Want a clear head, healthy skin, a happy digestive tract, and some vigor? Drink more damn water.

I honestly see it as the simplest fix to a number of issues. As a juice, soda, coffee and tea drinking society, we aren’t getting enough water. People are so averse to water that entire product lines of artificially-flavoured, artificially-sweetened drops and powders are marketed to us to make our water palatable. Still, people don’t drink enough water.

A full glass of water with breakfast gives you the re-hydration you need after a night of sleep. It helps your body flush the toxins that have accumulated in your filtering organs. By mid-day, the body is prone to dehydrating again, and it manifests in false hunger, grogginess, and the yawns. Water can quench more than your thirst. Feeling hungry though you’ve really already eaten enough? Put down the chips and cookies, and down a glass of water.

Water, simply put, is the fix.

I’ll admit that I drink way more water than the average person, even one who’s properly hydrated. My body dehydrates quickly, so I tend to over-water. But water at my desk also keeps me from drinking yet another coffee, or from snacking when I shouldn’t. On non-workout days, I’m easily drinking 3 litres of water. On workout days, that can jump to over 4 litres. Road trips with the McKnapps involve intense calculations of how much water will be required for two humans and their over-sized canine. And even then, we tend to run out.

To this day, I remember when I started drinking more water. At 23, I had horrible post-lunch grogginess. Cloudy thinking, yawns, and feeling tired stopped when I started bringing a half litre of water with me to work, and drinking it. Just half a litre in a day, and I could feel the change. That was 18 years ago.

Now that I’m training for and racing in duathlons, as well as playing hockey, I can see markers of my hydration very clearly. In a recent race, I forgot that since the first run was longer than I was accustomed to in races, it would put me at risk of dehydrating. I ended up losing valuable time to a calf cramp on the bike portion, despite taking my usual fluids on board on the bike. That was a dumb mistake on my part, but luckily I had the right fluids on my bike to make it through. Valuable time lost on that one, and a valuable reminder that even the most basic of plans can need adjusting. Granted, this was about water with supplements added, but it illustrates the importance of hydration.

Even more recently, I’d had a day of not drinking as much water as usual. For whatever reason, I was likely a touch dehydrated when I went to hockey. Sure enough, I pulled a muscle — badly — just 30 minutes into my ice time, even though I had stretched well before the game. Coincidence? Maybe, but not likely. Again, an important reminder. Hydrating during the game was fine, but a bit late to save my hip flexor.

The short point to this post is that we all need to drink more water. Save the other stuff for extras – whether it’s juice, pop, coffee or sports drinks. Water first and foremost. So yeah, even at 2:30pm on a Wednesday, it’s worth bringing more water into the office.

Whatever the case for each person, it’s safe to say that there’s no huge risk in drinking more water, whereas there’s a lot to be lost for not doing so. Whether you are an athlete or not, good hydration is where good health begins.

Bottoms up!


Adventures In Shopping: A One-Piece Tri Suit

So far I’ve been racing in tri shorts and a tri top, but I’ve been wanting a one-piece suit for some time.

I’m not going to lie, it’s largely to avoid muffin top. My tri shorts are super high-waisted and act like some kind of athletic Spanx, but there’s always a bit of extra Marshal midriff to contend with – and though my racing top is black, it’s also a skin-fit, and doesn’t mask anything.

While I love bib cycling shorts for their girdling effect and comfort, they’re no good for racing – pit stops are difficult and require top removal (Wrassling off your shirt in a hurry in a hot stinky PortaPotty so you can drop your bibs? Awesome.) And the chamois is generally too big anyway.

See, in addition to being über-aero, tri suits have a smaller profile chamois in them. If you’re not familiar with a chamois, it is the padding in cycle shorts. The longer your distance the more you want a good pad. But the thicker the pad, the more your run feels like a waddle. For triathletes, that chamois is a potential source of water retention post-swim. For duathletes, it’s just too much pad to get sweaty and make you waddle through your two runs. So it tends to be thinner and smaller in tri suits and shorts. Like a modern thin maxi pad instead of an old-time incontinence pad, one might say.

The reason we du and triathletes race in tight clothing is primarily the same reason road cyclists wear all that spandex. Flapping clothes are a detriment to speed and efficiency. Why create more drag than you need? For triathletes, there’s the added challenge of the swim — you can swim in a tri-suit as is, or you can put wear a wetsuit over top of it. So skin-tight it is.

If you’re super skinny, the spandex invariable sags and bags and makes people go “whoa, that’s some skinny”. If you’re a bigger person, the spandex compresses in the wrong places, emphasizing all your worst fears. While that’s fine when you’re in motion, ie a whirling blur of speed and efficient form, it’s a bit ugly to face down in your race photos afterwards.

While I’ve coveted them for a while, I’ve been putting off buying a suit while I morphed some more physically. While my weight is only coming down a bit at this point — like a total of 7 pounds from last summer to this summer — the physical changes are more significant. That seven pounds means a 33″ waist instead of a 34, and down two belt notches. I’m no longer a large shirt in any brand – even the tailored slim fits that were great in March were too big by June, and the suits I had tailored very tightly in February are officially too big again this summer.

My own sizing changes aside, tri and cycling gear presents a bit of a challenge for online purchases. First of all, serious triathletes and cyclists tend to be skinny as all get out. And tri clothing, like cycling gear, tends to be sized smaller as a result. While my physiotherapist quite likes to point out that I have a flat ass (though she says “flat glutes like a cyclist”, which she tells me makes it sound less insulting), I’m not a skinny little thing. And second of all, I’m barrel-chested, even after all this weight loss. Buying a one piece suit means matching chest and waist size, and every brand seems to have a different ratio. One brand – one I really wanted to buy – has tiny measurements on the bottom half and room for a barrel chest up top. Others have modest chest sizes paired with generous bottoms. (I wonder if Elvis had this problem buying his jumpsuits? Oh, of course not, he had those custom made.)

I feared that investing major coin in a size large tri suit (between $125 and $225 for the quality options) that would then with any luck be too big next year. I’ve already replaced my wardrobe at least four times over. No need to start doing that in race gear too. But if I ordered a size medium, would I even be able to do it up?

So off we went, team McKnapp-Advil, so I could try on tri suits in person. My wife had nixed my idea of racing at Niagara (“It’s short! It’s flat this year! It’ll be just like a brick workout!”) saying we needed some non-race focused time. So of course she agreed to this trip, which was entirely race focused. Go figure.

We traipsed off to a shop called Du Tri & Run, a small store in the south end of Mississauga (so far south I’d call it Oakville, but it’s rather industrial so I’m sure Oakville would be all like “Nuh-uh, that’s not our turf, there’s no McMansions and the light posts are so very un-ornate!”). Du Tri & Run were actually set up at my last race with all kinds of tri-suits and a teeny tiny triathlete-sized black tent for a changeroom, but I was so sweaty and hot I figured it would be a bad thing to actually get in the little black tent and try on a skin-tight garment that I might not end up buying. Bad for me, worse for the little black tent, and worst of all for the tri suit. So instead, I waited and we went to Mississauga to their storefront on a day when I was showered and clean and mostly not sweaty. [PS: Du Tri & Run get absolute bonus points for including Du in their name. One small step forward for duathlon!]

Though most of the store’s stock was out at another race, they did have some mediums in store in two of the major tri brands, Zoot and 2XU. And lo and behold, to my utter surprise, I fit into a medium. The tops are a little snug around my chest/back, but the bottoms and the waists fit perfectly. And although I feared I would look like a fat guy stuffed into a sausage casing, I must say, the suits didn’t even look too bad. Then again, I was in the change room that doubles as a store room at the back of a tiny store in an industrial area and it was 40 degrees outside with the humidex, and possibly in the store too. I might have been a little delusional.

Unfortunately, as I discovered that Saturday, tri suits tend to feature a weird anomaly that we’ll call the Impossibly Short Zipper, or ISZ. Given that my chest is a bit snug in the suit, and given that my right shoulder doesn’t have full range of motion since forever ago when I had it repaired, it turned out to be very hard to get into a tri-suit. For some reason, the ISZ is about 3″ shorter than a person would want it to be. Maybe some pro once complained about a zipper ending below their sternum and coming too close to their sensitive belly button, or maybe there’s some obscure historical “this old guru of the triathlon raced with his tops sliced open to precisely 1″ above his sternum, so forevermore tri suit zippers have been made exactly 3″ too short” kind of a story behind it.

Barring going to a back zip suit, which is really specific to triathlon and completely incompatible with the aforementioned shoulder issue, thanks to the ISZ, I was faced with the prospect of ripping my suit every time I wanted to get into it — or tried to get out of it, sweaty and hot and possibly in a hurry to use a PortaPotty.

Cue the light, the heavenly music and angel chorus, for a solution materialized.

2XU's full-zip tri suit. Love it. And this is actual size. No, really it is.

2XU’s full-zip tri suit. Love it. And this is actual size. No, really it is.

2XU has come out with a new kind of tri suit. It unzips all the way down the front. Essentially, it’s a one piece suit in which the short portion is almost shorts, the top is almost a top. No ISZ. No muffin top. Easy in, easy out. And it even has a long-distance chamois. Still low profile, but more substantial than a thin piece of fleece.

So far, I’ve found that I love 2XU products. I have two sets of 2XU calf compression sleeves, as well as a tri top and race belt. I find their pricing is in line with what you get – there’s some science behind their gear, and they’re clearly focused on performance. Black fabrics that don’t attract the sun? Check. Strategically placed compression? Check. Chafe-resistant seams? Check. Designs that don’t make a pudgy man look so squidgy? Check.

While I knew I had to order the suit online to find this very new model of suit (sorry Du Tri & Run, but please know I will spend money in your shop in the future), I was at least able to buy from a Canadian source. 2XU was sold out of the size and colour I wanted on their Canadian site, but TriBoutique.ca, based in BC, had the goods. I’ve ordered from them in the past and had no complaints (well, except that I’m impatient, and they’re in BC, so sometimes things take a while to arrive. But that’s Canada Post’s fault, not TriBoutique’s!). So I placed my order Sunday afternoon, and got a shipping notice promptly on Monday morning. Sweet!

I was pretty excited to get the package in the mail just three days later (thanks, TriBoutique for the free upgrade to express shipping!). I was a little shocked to see the box was itty bitty. Like if a pro triathlete was a box, they would be this size of box itty bitty. A tri suit and a handful of energy gels (GU Jet Blackberry: my race flavour of choice!) in that tiny box? Surely not. Maybe the suit was coming later?

But sure enough, when I opened the box, there it was in all its resplendent glory. Much like women’s clothing, it looks impossibly small. Like it might fit one of the guys on the cover of Triathlon magazine, but never a guy like me. Like a squirrel would fit into it perfectly after a week of eating lean. Like a greyhound would find it snug, but not too tight. Well, you get the picture.

At this point, I was questioning my choice of a size medium and cursing myself for buying online (so hard and so expensive to return!). But I loved the colour. My wife could certainly no longer complain that I am hard to find in a race crowd, not with all this flaming scarlet red.

I went for a weight-cutting walk. I dehydrated myself to cut more weight. And when I got back, when I finally got the nerve to try it on, it fit. And maybe even looked okay, if I kept the lights off, imagined myself starving and squinted heavily while I looked in the mirror.

The long-dreamed of wonder suit is now hanging on the inside of my closet door, like some kind of doll-sized spandex superhero costume.

Can’t wait to race in it. And let’s face it, this teeny little garment is going to keep me even more honest than the bathroom scale. After all, it’s a superhero suit, not a miracle suit.


Plowing Through: Pre-Vacation Frustration

We’re about to head on vacation, and it can’t come soon enough.

My races were chosen around the vacation schedule, and I planned to be able to keep training while vacationing. I look forward to it, actually.

For one week we’ll be near Tobermory, and I relish the idea of jumping into the cold waters of Lake Huron after a hot run. During my brick workout last Saturday, which consisted of 42km on the bike and a 5km run in a 40-degree Humidex, I was dreaming of that moment.

Our second week is planned for Ottawa, where I’ll get to run on the national capital region’s awesome trails, and cycle the tremendous and shady hills of Gatineau Park… and likely with my favourite training partner along for some of it.

But it feels like vacation is about a week or two overdue. As we frantically finish up loose ends at work (harder for my wife than it is for me, but still a frenzy on my end) and pack up more stuff than will possibly fit into our vehicle, I’m also trying to squeeze in gym and road time.

Unfortunately, just halfway through Monday night hockey, what had felt like an irritated-from-physio hip flexor exploded into a full muscle strain when I was launching into a fast chase. End of story for hockey that night. And unfortunately, a bonafide wrench in the plans.

Perspective: it’s not the worst injury, nor the longest lasting. I’ve done it before, a little less seriously, and bounced back to riding within days, and running within a week.

But it’s annoying to have yet another interruption to my training. And yet another cause to limp. Not to mention yet another thing to worry about. I’ve practically moved in to the sports therapy clinic already. Am I supposed to literally do that now?!

We have to listen to our bodies and our minds, even as we challenge them. Some days, I’m tired, but that doesn’t mean I am too tired to train. Other days, I really should take heed of the tiredness and either back off the intensity of the workout, or reschedule it. It’s challenging to know the difference. And as a former fat guy, I know I err on the side of carrying on, because I so fear a return to obesity.

What I do know at this point is that I’m overdue for vacation, short on time, and stressed out at work. My workout plans for the week now have to change, drastically. And I can only hope that things get back to full strength by next week, when the next race is that much closer.

What started as a frustrating, injury-plagued Spring has blossomed into a equally frustrating, injury-plagued Summer. I can’t say why — I’ve laid the foundation in the gym, taken great pains to not over-train, and have heeded any warning signs I have spotted — and those that my physio and massage therapist have spotted.

Maybe this is just what it means to be 41. Or maybe I’m not watching closely enough to spot the warning signs. Who knows.

All I do know is that a week staring at the brilliant blue waters of Lake Huron, with my wife, her brother and sister-in-law and our three awesome West Coast nephews, well, that’s surely going to be restorative. Follow that up with another week of family and friends in the gorgeous Ottawa area, and work will be but a distant memory. And if not, I guess there’s always wine.

For this week, though, as frustrating as it is, I’ve graduated from fully incapacitated to dog walking, and an easy spin on the indoor bike instead of the road workouts I’d envisioned. Maybe I’ll even get on the road for a gentle ride by Friday. Arnica, do your magic!

In any event, it’s all better than nothing. And the end is in sight — or almost. Just a couple more days ’til those turquoise waters come into view.

Perseverance: Or, Why I Watch The Tour

All doping and performance enhancement jokes aside, there’s a lot to be learned from the Tour de France – or any cycling tour, actually. Whether it’s La Tour, or the Giro d’Italia, or even the Vuelta d’Espana, watching the pro cyclists grind it out day after day, hill after hill, for weeks on end, is inspiring.

Think you know long workouts? Try doing them back to back for two weeks straight, with just two rest days for recovery. Try riding over terrain that climbs, descends, and climbs again, over and over.

While the Tour is showing, I’ll generally watch a few hours here and there. This year, I PVR’d several days to watch as I did other things — whether it was background viewing for days I worked from home, or to play while I worked out in the home gym.

While four or more hours of cycling can be a bit like watching paint dry, I quite love to watch this footage. Not because it’s particularly gripping to watch a group ride, in real time. But because watching the slog, the suffering and the dedication is truly inspiring.

In this year’s tour, there were major crashes in the first five stages that took out many of the contenders for the coveted yellow jersey – and in one case, the wearer of the jersey, who had to drop out for surgery on his thus broken collarbone. Riders are shown riding alongside the tour doctor’s car, getting anaesthetic spray applied to their knees while they ride, and carrying on with just a few stylishly French Advil to buffer the pain. Riders crash, untangle their bikes, and get back on – ripped cycling jerseys and shorts flapping in the wind to reveal wickedly raw road rash and bruises that would keep most of us down on the ground crying for help.

Just a minor scrape. I can still ride. No, really I can.

Just a minor scrape. I can still ride. No, really I can.

They’re riding in torrential downpours, searing heat, and high winds. Some of it is on beautiful fresh tarmac, but many miles go down on cobblestones and cracked pavement, and even then, with crazy spectators performing idiotic acts of passion as riders fly on by.

Riders can lead an entire race, just to flat in the final 25km, losing their spot. Riders can be caught up in the peleton’s crowded crashes, swept off the road through no fault of their own. Mountain descents can end in a slide that removes more of the rider’s skin than one would think survivable. Or in the case of one legendary rider, a seemingly small injury from an insignificant tumble can lead to race doctors discovering testicular cancer – ending his Tour, but likely saving his life.

When I’m out for a two hour ride, covering a respectable 54 to 60km in the process, I will often experience multiple highs and lows. but nothing compared to that of a distance ride like those occurring each day of the Tour. These guys are riding at average speeds in excess of my top speed, for hours and hours. Four to five hours of high output, and then they often outright sprint for a few kilometres to the finish. Hop off, get on a bus to the next city, all just to stay in a hotel and get back up in the morning to carry on with the next stage. Perspective indeed. All I have to do is get home in one piece, grab a shower and some lunch, and carry on with my day.

With all the support for these cycling teams – team mechanics, athletic trainers and massage therapists, soigneurs and chefs, not to mention some pretty posh team buses for the big guys – it’s still the determination of the riders and their capacity for hurt that make a two week Tour de France possible.

By the time the Tour de France is into its second week, the riders are generally looking more gaunt, sunburnt, and decidedly road-weary. These are the stages I love most. Guys are cycling with broken ribs, tendonitis, road rash that looks downright foul, and inevitably, saddle sores. At this point, they’re significantly down in weight, despite their legendary 8000-calorie a day feeding regimens. And doggedly, they carry on. Five hours a day, up a mountain, at speeds in excess of what the average joe can do on a TT bike with a hefty tailwind.

Sort of makes it easier to hop on the bike for a long session, doesn’t it.

Why I Du.

Finishing the Belwood Duathlon in July. Gorgeous weather and a small but fast field of competitors!

Finishing the Belwood Duathlon in July.

There’s a bad pun out there in the duathlon world: while triathletes “tri”, we duathletes “du”.

In fact, both disciplines are incredibly tough and merit respect. Triathletes face a challenge of becoming strong in three sports, and stringing them together to make a respectable race. For duathletes, the challenge of the swim is gone, but we have to learn to pace on the first run in order to finish strong on the second. While swimming taxes the body in one way, our bodies have to rebound from the first run and do it all over again a second time. Sorry, legs.

I chose duathlon as a pursuit out of a desire to push myself harder. I was enjoying road cycling and covering pretty good pavement as a runner, but competing in either sport on its own didn’t hold any real draw. I don’t know how I heard about duathlon in the first place, but at the end of the summer a few years ago, after getting in some great mileage on my road bike, I declared that the next year, I’d like to try the duathlon. I have a bike, and I can sort of run, I reasoned, so why not try stringing them together?

So while I can’t swim, and readily admit it, my choice of duathlon over triathlon wasn’t based on that little fact. Funny, and yet so typical of me.

In fact, duathlon requires that I double up on my weakest discipline. I’ve come to joke that I chose the sport that tortures me twice. I am not a natural runner, never have been. But that’s part of the challenge that I wanted.

I knew nothing back in the early spring of 2014 about training for a duathlon, nor how races panned out. Thanks to the power of the Interwebs, I was able to put together some semblance of a training plan. That supplemented my years of sports experience, which at least gave me base knowledge of some training principles. And I also learned as much as I could about what to expect while racing. And before my first race, I went out to the site and sussed out the set-up, translating the race organizer maps into real vision.

My simple goal for that first race was to finish, and not finish last (F,DNFL became my mantra). I didn’t want to embarrass myself. Five races in, this remains my goal heading to each start (although admittedly I was so unsure I would be able to battle through my injuries at the first race I did this summer, the mantra temporarily became JFF, for “just f’in finish”. Last would have been okay at that point – as it turns out, it was my best race ever).

For someone who grew up playing various sports, all with a goal of winning, it’s odd to compete in one where winning is out of the question. Triathlon and duathlon events in the series I race are open to pros, elites, and regular folks. It’s quite something to watch the pros and elites go. But their very presence at these races means the top spots are pretty much locked up – barring all of these speedsters having mechanical failures at once, the podium is going to be full of them. So there is them, and then there is the rest of us.

I remember my physiotherapist gently warning me as she taped me up for my first race – because I do have a history of competing injured right from the start – that triathletes and duathletes don’t fade as they hit their 40s. She was right. My age group, the 40-49 group, is rife with dudes who have years and years of experience and competition behind them and don’t appear to be slowing down. At Belwood, my most recent race, the winner was a blazingly fast 40-something who bested the second place finisher, an elite from the 20-29 age group, resoundingly. It was an amazing show of resilience and speed.

I’m simply not that fast. That might be because I’m still 10 pounds heavy, or because I haven’t been doing this since I was 20-something. It might be that I’m competing with injuries most of the time, or that I haven’t joined a club or signed up for coaching. It might be that I don’t yet have an aero/TT bike, although a faster bike won’t help me run better.

It might be all of these things combined, and frankly, that doesn’t matter. What I have to work with, I have to work with. The point isn’t, it turns out, that I’m supposed to be that fast.

What my wise ultra-running friends like to pass along to me at opportune moments is to remember that I’m out there on the course to compete with myself. That racing isn’t about finishing first for the majority of us. It’s about finishing. Other friends, the ones who don’t do marathons or ultra-marathons but are still very wise, say pretty much the same thing. Being out there in the first place is a win. Finishing, in any position, definitely a win.

So when people ask me after a race how I did, I have to stop thinking they want to know my placing. Even if they do, they wouldn’t realize how irrelevent it would be. I’ve placed fourth in my AG, right behind the speedsters, but that doesn’t capture the race at all. Nor does saying I have placed 13th or 20th or Nth overall. What they mean, and what I need to hear, is whether I was able to finish, and was I happy with my effort.

I’m competing in an endurance multisport. That means the challenge is in training hard, in more than one sport. And I do. Hours and hours a week of biking, running, strength training, and physio add up. My cross-training, ice hockey, serves a distinct purpose to support my sport. My weekends are planned around my longer training sessions. I even train on vacations. I make tough decisions on a daily basis about what to eat, what the next workout is, how hard to push it, and when and how to rest. After each race, I put together notes about what I did right, what I could have done better. I track my times, make training plans, and set goals to improve. My investment in this sport is in money, but more so in time, blood, sweat, and tears.

And on race day, it’s just a matter of putting all that investment into action. Sure, running and cycling through these races is hard on the body – but quite honestly, even in my deepest self-doubting moments on a long run in the blazing heat with elites blasting past to finish just as I’m heading out on my second run, I can tell myself half-convincingly that I can likely physically survive. Barring severe on-course injuries, I know that I’ve trained and put in the miles and have already proven that covering the distance isn’t likely to be the issue in finishing.

What I have to win each and every time is this mental battle. There are at least a dozen times during any race where I want to stop, where I question why I’m doing this crazy thing, and where I doubt my abilities to some degree – if not my ability to complete, my ability to do better. When I finish, and see my ranking relative to everyone else, I should not question why I didn’t do better, but rather appreciate what I did accomplish.

Overcoming that mental struggle is a big thing, and unbeknownst to the me of a few years ago, that’s the point of duathlon. For me, at least, what I’m proving goes beyond physical fitness, beyond “look at me 70+ pounds lighter”. I’m proving to myself that I can finish. F,DNFL.

Five races in, and I think it’s getting better. While I would love to hit that podium for an age group placing in the top 3, I’m fully coming to terms with the fact that what’s important isn’t where I place. It’s that I place. The fact that at 40, I chose to pursue  this crazy hobby that sucks up all my time and challenges my body to the hilt is itself a win.

And the fact that at 41, I signed up to “du more”, that’s most definitely a win.

There are, of course, other lessons to be learned in pursuing endurance sports. But we’ll save that for another time.


Things I Love: Peanut Butter Re-defined!

I eat pretty healthy – let’s say that at least 85% of the time, what goes into my stomach is downright healthy. And I can safely say that my diet is well balanced. I know my macros, I know my metabolic requirements, and of course I know that what goes into this body is ultimately fuel for what it can do.

And certainly it is true that I watch my calories. I’m one of those people who puts on a pound of fat in a single weekend and then keeps it for weeks after – no matter how diligent the diet and exercise that follows.

But I can’t – and won’t – resist the allure of peanut butter. Whether in a classic sandwich, or as extra flavour for a smoothie or protein shake, or eaten off a spoon, peanut butter is a staple and a go-to energy booster for me (more later on the awesomeness of a peanut butter and Nutella energy bullet!). There’s nothing unhealthy about most peanut butter, if you can ignore the high sugar content in the regular (read: non-natural) stuff. I just can’t always spare the extra calories it adds. That’s why I was thrilled to discover this nifty little product!

Powdered peanut butter. Yes. It's true.

Powdered peanut butter. Yes. It’s true.

PB2 is a dehydrated Peanut Butter from Bell Plantation. There’s a plain version and a chocolate version, which I haven’t tried yet but clearly will [Because chocolate. And peanut butter. Together.].

To extoll on the marketing front, PB2 offers all the flavour and goodness of peanut butter, with about 85% less fat calories. Still adds a protein punch. And it has a titch less sugar than standard PB. As I’ve happily discovered, while it can take a few extra shakes of the cup or an extra three seconds of the blender whirring to blend smoothly, once it does, it adds a silky richness to the texture of my drink — making it more palatable.

I couldn’t bring peanut butter to work to shake with protein powder at my desk – eww, chunks. But I can add this stuff. With glorious results. One more change-up option in a world of nutrition that can get a little predictable over time.

We still keep jars of peanut butter around, but they’re now sharing shelf space with this wonder. Oh. So. Good.

Check it out when you get a chance at your local fine foods or health food store.

PS: If you camp, hike, or otherwise do activities where you carry your earthly belongings around on your back to subsist for a few days at a time, this stuff is gold. Add water as per directions, and you’ve got instant peanut butter at a mere fraction of the weight. I may not understand the compulsion to backpack, but I am a cyclist, so I get the trim-every-ounce-of-weight issue!

Eye Of The Tiger

While out on the first run of my brick training last weekend, I was starting to experience the mental low that’s far too typical to my running.

It generally looks a little like this: “I’m not feeling it today. My pace is slow. My hips are tight. My foot hurts. That’s a big hill ahead. OMG, I still have to bike 30k and run another 5. Whoa, that dude just looks like running is so easy. Why can’t I feel that? Why do I do this stupid sport in the first place? Who am I kidding?”

As I began to fully wallow in self pity – admittedly a self-limiting feature – I noticed a truck entering the intersection that I was about to cross. It was the kind of truck that usually gives me pause to be cautious. Older Ford F150 with a standard cab. Driver was a guy in a ball cap. Not a fitted cap. Truck smelled like cigarette smoke from the cab and leaded fuel from the loud tailpipe. Lots of rust on the front wheel-wells. All the usual signs that tell me as a cyclist or runner to assume the driver won’t be accommodating a need for space. [If I’ve just described you and your truck, and you’re offended, I’m sorry. For the record, a soccer mom driving a Jeep Liberty or Toyota Highlander is actually worse at this, from my experience.]

So generalisations aside, just as I pulled up to let the truck jump in front of me at the crosswalk without killing me or shattering my femur, the driver shocked me by backing up. Yes, srsly. He cleared the intersection to let me go in front of him. And not to line me up to better run me down.

Recovering from my shock, I gave him a surprised face, a friendly thank you wave and resumed my previous pace, back to mentally willing my watch to buzz and tell me I’d completed another damn kilometre.

Some 500 metres later, the truck passed me on the street, heading the same direction as me along the busy main artery. Blaring from his windows, I kid you not, was “Eye of The Tiger”. Not the Katy Perry appropriation in “Roar” . This was the classic Survivor track that guided all of us 70’s babies through sports of any kind during the 80’s.

Little did this man know that he was giving me a double boost that day. By clearing the crosswalk to let me pass in front of him, he showed me that some motorists are capable of showing courtesy to runners. But he was also playing one track (predictable, yes!) off my “Fast Feet” playlist, which features songs that will either inspire faster cadence through cheesy athletic analogies/references or have a BPM matching the ideal running cadence.

I generally don’t run with any music. I find futzing with the earbuds and the attached iDevice too annoying, and since you can’t compete with these in a Triathlon Ontario sanctioned event, there’s really no point to me getting hooked on the music for my runs. Some sadistic-gosh-I-should-be-mentally-stronger part of me also relishes being alone with my thoughts – as negative as they can be – through my runs. So generally I’ll listen to a track or two from this playlist on the way to a race, or before a run or bike session, to get the songs running through my head to guide my feet.

Hearing a track mid-run, out there in the universe for all to hear, right when the battle to overcome negative thoughts was at a key point? Super bonus.

Right then and there I smiled, erasing the ugly grimace previously on my face. And my feet picked up. I took off like a shot to finish that run. That song was still echoing in my head over an hour later when I transitioned back off my bike to the final run.

“Risin’ up, back on the street
Did my time, took my chances
Went the distance
Now I’m back on my feet
Just a man and his will to survive”

Sometimes it’s the simplest, most random things that guide us to finish. But we have to take it where it comes.

Nice act by motorist? Check. Cheesy-uplifting-rock-anthem-of-my-athletic-youth? Double check.

Taper Week: Not For The Weak-Minded

One of the difficulties I face as an age-group duathlete is that I’m trying to train and compete for the sake of the competition whilst also training and competing to lose weight. Unlike the über-lean classic triathletes and duathletes I line up with, I’ve got extra weight on my frame. Less than I had before, mind you, but at 5’8″ and 177 pounds, I’m easily a bag of dog food heavier than the elite athletes queuing up at the start line.

You might think training and weight loss go hand-in-hand – after all, an average week of training in the lead up to race season can include anywhere from six to nine hours of cardio and strength training, amounting to several thousand extra calories burned. And in fact I do enjoy having more leeway with calories when I’m training hard. Who doesn’t love the idea of being able to eat more without too much consequence?

But the reality is that there’s always a nagging voice in my head counting calories, exertion, and calculating whether I’m achieving a deficit or not. Even on a two-hour bike ride, when I have to eat an energy gel or chews mid-ride or risk not making it back, I feel guilty about the 100 calories taken in – even though I’ll easily burn that in ten minutes of riding.

Achieving a calorie deficit makes for weight loss, but it can also make for a miserable existence. When I train hard, I’m hungry. When I’m hungry, I easily get hangry. And while that’s cute on Betty White in a Snickers commercial, it’s not pleasant for my spouse, my coworkers, or anyone else around me. More importantly, it can also affect my performance. A hungry body can’t perform at its best. No fuel reserves in the tank, no power or endurance.

So each week, I struggle with the balance of fuelling appropriately while also trying to drop more pounds. For the most part, I can achieve this balance – after years of trying, I should hope I’ve got a fair handle on it [I admittedly have less of a handle on the cookie, pie and adult beverages front. That’s an ongoing battle.]

The true challenge, however, comes during taper weeks.

Tapering before a competition refers to the practice of reducing one’s training volume and intensity somewhat to ensure that the body is rested, healed, and ready for competition. For long course distances like a half- or full Ironman, or even a straight marathon, a taper can be as long as three weeks, though commonly, it will be two weeks. For my shorter efforts of Olympic (aka International) and Sprint duathlons, the window tends to be six or seven days. That’s a week of reduced output in order to prime the body for racing.

Taper week doesn’t involve sitting on one’s butt doing nothing, but it does entail a significant reduction in activity.

Last Saturday, I did a somewhat uncommon full race distance brick workout – running, biking, and running again at my next race distances (I really love doing bricks. More on that in another post down the road). It was an endurance session lasting about two hours. That’s my last hard workout until next Saturday, when I race. Everything between then and the race is shorter, less intense, or just not happening. So instead of over seven hours of working out this week, I’ll maybe get in four and a half hours. For anyone using fitness to maintain or reduce weight, this is understandably anxiety-inducing.

I feel anxious during taper week. I am sure I’m not ready to race. I feel like everyone else is out there training. I get blue, for no reason, except maybe a reduction in the usual post-workout endorphins. All classic taper emotions, according to everything I’ve read.

For a person used to working out all but one day of the week, the extra time not working out creates its own anxiety. Too much time to kill leads to time for doubting. And time not training feels like time wasted – I could be working on my speed, or my focus, or my cadence… as if the preceding weeks of obsessing on these details just don’t count. I should be trusting that I’ve established my base, but instead I’m invariably questioning it.

Unfortunately, in these last few days of light workouts and rest, I’ve also got to load up my glycogen stores with some extra carbs. So right when instinct tells me to eat less, because I’m working out less, I’ll be shoving my face full of quality carbohydrates. I don’t normally eat low carb by any means, but for hours 48 through 12 before a race, I switch things around so an extra quarter of my calories are coming from carbs. Right before I dress myself in a bunch of spandex and go stand next to those lean elite athletes.

And so, in the lead up to a race, the struggle goes from being physical to mental.