How to Fuel (and How Not to Fuel)

            There was a moment this past spring when I came to the shattering realization that if I was going to reach my ceiling as a runner I was going to have to scale back my beer consumption. After cycling through the five stages of grief I came out on the other side deciding that, in the run-up to the Charlottesville Ten Miler, I should do an “Early Lent” and give up beer for forty days. This idea occurred to me after looking at the calendar and realizing that there were exactly forty days between the Super Bowl and the Ten Miler (without going into too much detail about the night of the Super Bowl, I’ll tell you that I was raised in Quincy, Massachusetts, City of Presidents.)

            I’d been training with Ann since the fall; she wrote my workout plans in the run up to the Richmond Half Marathon and helped me shake off the rust that accreted after I celebrated breaking 90 minutes in a half-marathon for the first time by eating food-truck food and training sparingly for several months (shockingly, my fitness fell off.) I’d attended her clinic on dietary nitrates and knew that her knowledge on proper fueling for training is deep, so I pitched her my 'Early Lent" idea. She suggested that it wasn’t a bad idea, but that it might be a tad over the top, as beer has antioxidants that are good for recovery (though it yields diminishing returns once you get past 2). So, rather than tee totaling completely, I allowed myself a beer a day; the results were spectacular, at least in as much as I no longer produced the epic levels of sweat that I typically do (plus I beat my old PB by over 8 minutes.)

            In addition to less beer, I also managed to largely clean up my diet before the race. That being said, I still got plenty of delivery dinners during the training cycle. I was sure that there was another level I could get to if I could dial my nutrition in further. So I decided, in the interest of science, to put myself through a pair of hard workouts on the Woodway; the first I would do having eaten “whatever I wanted” the night before, and the second having followed a day of dietary prescriptions from Ann. All in the interest of science (editor’s note: this is all breathtakingly unscientific.)

            The Friday night before the first workout an old roommate of mine was DJ’ing at the local biergarten. The menu consists of German food and American variations on German food. There’s also beer. Lord, there’s beer. I enjoyed a Flemish sour, a north-midwestern IPA, and I’m pretty sure I took down a pilsner as well. My solid food came in the form of a chicken-schnitzel sandwich. The sandwich consisted of a 6-7 oz. cut of thigh meat, breaded and deep-fried, topped with sauerkraut and mustard, sandwiched between slices of pretzel bread. I was, however, disciplined in that I didn’t order fries with the sandwich, gleaning all my carbohydrates from the beer. So, you know, a finely balanced meal. After stopping off at the local brewery on the way home to get dessert (in the form of an 11% barleywine) I had all the nutrients I needed for the workout.

            The workout Ann devised for me was a V02 max threshold workout. Following a 15-minute casual warm-up (with 3x30 second pushes) I was to run 6x3 minute intervals at 9.7-10.7 MPH on the Woodway, with the incline set to 2.3% (~6:00 min./mile-~5:27 min./mile.) For some reason I woke up the morning of the workout feeling thin and fat-deprived, so I put a helping of heavy cream into my morning coffee. My thighs were still feeling a little heavy from the “chill fartlek” I did three days prior, and I was acutely aware that the next hour of my life was going to be rather unpleasant.

James is filled with anticipation (?) as he gets ready for his VO2 Max workout

            It was a Saturday morning, so the gym was largely abandoned. In fact, I was the only person working out on a Woodway when I started. Ann checked in with me as I got started with the warm-up, “wished me luck”, then went off to work with other clients. After the warm-up I got off the machine to do some dynamic stretches. At this point prerace jitters had set in, and post race sweat levels had been achieved. I hit the fountain to take a swig of water. Ann, seeing me already fairly drenched, asked ”was that the first set?” I responded, “No, that was the warm-up!” She started cackling like a hyena and clapping her hands like a little kid at a carnival; I was happy that someone was getting a kick out of this.

            While the first three sets were, of course, difficult, they were garden-variety difficult, nothing I’m not used to when attacking a workout. That being said, I wasn’t able to do the pace progression in a clean and easy way; more often than usual I found myself having to knock the speed down a notch after trying to accelerate. I also caught a glimpse of my reflection in the TV screen (I’d decided that ESPN or CSPAN or the like being on wasn’t going to help me today) and I noticed that my face looked normal when inhaling, then would turn into a grimace on the exhale. The sweat had built up to the point where little flecks of it were flying off of me and on to the screen.

            By the beginning of set 4, I wanted to quit. As set four was coming to an end, I had actively made up my mind to quit. All the tissue in my torso felt like it was being attacked by a thousand invisible demons wielding mini pitchforks, and my sweat level had gone from comical to farcical. I hopped off the Woodway to take water and let coach know that I was tapping out, but then I remembered that this was all in the interest of science, so I soldiered on.

Midway through his VO2 Max workout James decided to experiment with the settings. The results? Highly entertaining!

            As I got on to the Woodway for set five, I was struck by inspiration; I would start with a speed of 10.5 and descend in speed as the set went on. I’m sure there’s ample evidence on oxygen debt in runners leading to poor decision-making during workouts, but that literature was not available to me at the time. So I got about 75 seconds into the fifth set before I had to pause the ever-living hell out of the machine. I then restarted, lowering the speed to 9.7 and ascending up .1 MPH every thirty seconds like a sane person.

            Set six was, mercifully, a bit of an anticlimax; I knew that the workout was coming to an end, and that I didn’t have to conserve anything. That being said, I kept it dialed back for the first two minutes, then blew it out at 10.5 for the first thirty seconds of the last minute and 10.7 for the second thirty seconds. I probably looked like a man who had been marooned at sea as I clung to the handrails while lowering the speed after the last set. Normally at the end of a heavy workout I feel full of accomplishment. On this day, I was flooded with regret:

James finished his VO2 max workout and was feeling strangely emotional.

            I weighed out 4 pounds lighter than I weighed in. Figuring (conservatively) that I burned 1,000 calories during the workout, and there’s 3,500 calories per pound, then I lost 3.71428571 pounds of sweat during the workout. It showed.

            For workout number two, I submitted myself to a superior knowledge base and spent the day before the workout eating a strictly prescribed diet put together by Ann. Breakfast consisted of overnight oats (oats and chia mixed with almond milk and refrigerated overnight) topped with blueberries, bananas, and Greek yogurt (I normally detest yogurt, but, again, I did this in the service of science), sprinkled with cinnamon. Lunch consisted of quinoa (I used a mix of red and white quinoa) with vegetables. I was given some room to improvise with the vegetables, so I sautéed some chopped asparagus, tomato, shallots, and garlic in Kerry’s Gold butter. Dinner was supposed to be coconut kale, coconut rice, and grilled salmon, but I was working my night job and wasn’t going to have time to properly prep two big meals, so I improvised by ordering food from a local Mediterranean restaurant. I got a kale and brown rice mix, with grilled chicken, shredded carrots, hummus, and steamed beets. The beets I added to account for the beet root juice shot that Ann recommended I have the morning of the workout, another item I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get my hands on (don’t worry, I had tzatziki sauce and hot sauce with the dinner, and I drank 1.5 beers before heading home; I’m not a monster.)

            I felt more even and less rubbery when I woke up the morning of the second workout. I took down an Almond-Cherry energy bar from Speedy B’s on top of my three allotted cups of coffee. I neglected my scientific duty by not wearing the same clothes as the previous workout and not weighing myself in before the workout started, which I chalk that up to being amped for the workout.

            So, no, the workout was not easy, nor did I make it through sweat free. That being said, at no point during the workout did I feel any desire to bail out like I consciously wanted to after set 4 the previous week. Not only that, but after 4 sets I’d gradually ascended to 10.4 MPH and was, quite frankly, feeling myself. I caught my reflection in the blank screen and it projected back no grimacing, just steady concentration.

            My performance in the second workout is all the more remarkable for the fact that I actually had a gnarly cold germinating in my system at the time; I got progressively more congested as the day went on and spent the better part of the next day in bed. It didn’t matter because I had so much juice in my muscles and heart from proper fueling that I was still able to blast through it, at times barely able to stifle a smile.

            I weighed out .8 pounds heavier than after the first workout, probably because my body didn’t have to work quite so hard to cool itself this time.  Emotionally, I was not filled with regret, but rather relief; the experiment had gone essentially the way I expected it too, and I’d not totally embarrassed myself in the process.

            Going forward, I believe I’ll be enjoying my schnitzel and beer on the nights before rest days and employing the Formula nutrition strategy for the days before workouts and long runs. The level of physical energy and psychological confidence I had striding into the second workout was miles apart from where I was headed into the first one, meaning my performance during the workout was better, meaning I came out of the workout stronger and ready to attack the next workout even harder, setting up a positive feedback loop. For anybody who’s looking to “level up” their fitness, nutrition has to be a part of the equation, and keeping your diet balanced, with an eye toward hitting the proper ratio of macronutrients is going to give you the leg up you need. Oh, and you won’t need to sacrifice flavor; that brown rice/kale/chicken jam was righteous.