Why oh why? The anatomy of a bad week

I had a bad race. It came at the end of a bad week. The upshot is I think I’m over trained, and I think I need a few days proper rest. Wokingham Half marathon was never going to be great for me: cold, flat, winter half marathon on boring roads (two motorway bridges being the highlight of the course), but I don’t think I realised quite how bad I would feel. I had not been well earlier in the week, and bailed out on a hill session as my kegs said a resounding “no”. I have a deep fatigue and my stomach has been awful. I ended up running the half at my target marathon pace, and my only flicker of encouragement is that my last 5k was quicker than last year- I sped up instead of dying. But I had strange numb feet and leg pains, and was sick for a good few hours after the race despite it not being a full on effort. Confidence is currently at rock bottom and I really don’t want to run at all. A few days off might lift me up a bit, if I can take them without feeling bad about myself. 

Comparison really is the devil: I felt slow and rotten, my friend ran a huge pb. I’m useless. That’s what my brain tells me. But I know I’m not really- it was just a bad day. It was so cold, I was so fatigued. I’ll be back (I think). 

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Bingo! Of course!

A lesson: if you are running a lot, as I am, you are burning through quite a lot of calories. It is a simple fact that if you allow yourself to get into a calorie deficit, you will not function well. I had a bad few days of running, and looking back I’m sure it was caused by a small calorie deficit that had a knock on effect on my training. My heat rate was elevated and I felt quite unwell, but wasn’t actually sick or ill. Basically, you can’t run over 100 km per week, plus strength work, and not eat sufficiently. It just isn’t a good idea.

We are surrounded by discussions of food and diets. Mainly, they are focused on helping inactive or moderately active people lose weight. Calorie restriction, carbohydrate limiting diets; the message is restrict, don’t eat between meals, cut your portions sizes, use smaller plates, stop eating before you even start to feel full. All appropriate of course, but NOT for athletes in full training. If you are training, you need to fuel your performance.

Like so many women, despite many years of athletic training, I’ve absorbed the discourse around dieting and calorie restricting as part of every day life. I’m used to constantly looking for areas where I can cut, I’m used to reminding myself not to eat. I look on Facebook and see countless diet tips encouraging people to cut back on the amount they eat. I am also totally aware that for the vast majority of the population, this is an important way of living, as the percentage of people who are over weight and inactive far exceeds those who aren’t. But for someone like me who objectively isn’t overweight and absolutely is extremely active, this discourse is not helpful. I still feel a slight sense of embarrassment if I’m seen eating a large portion of food, as though it is sort of wrong to be eating according to my appetite, because socially women aren’t “supposed” to eat heartily. And it is true, no one should eat a large amount of unhealthy or nutrient-free “junk” foods. I eat very healthily, in terms of quality of ingredients and nutrients. But I need to eat quite a lot to fuel my running. I see descriptions of an daily diet of a non-athlete and my first response is usually that it is so much less than I eat! I have to remind myself all the time of the difference in energy expenditure between me and an inactive person. This is a simple lesson that is strangely difficult to internalise.

My normal day’s eating when training:

A big bowl of uncooked oats, mixed with chia power, maca powder and flaxseed, soaked in almond milk, with a few spoons of full fat Greek yogurt and some berries on top. Eaten around 6am, this fuels my morning workout, which is usually my big work out of the day, and will keep me full until lunch.

I am not a huge lunch fan, and when not in training, I’ll happily skip or skimp on lunch. When training, I try to eat a salad type dish for lunch, with avocado and feta cheese, for example, and some protein where possible (tuna or chicken). I tend not to eat many grain based carbohydrates during the day as I find they can irritate my stomach.

Before my second run, I might have a small energy ball (home made with dates and coconut) for some sugars and carbs.

Dinner usually involves meat or fish, vegetables, and whole grains or sweet potatoes. I might have a handful of raw nuts as a snack to keep me going if I am very hungry. I eat a lot of apples and try to have a banana after a hard run where possible. I don’t eat after dinner at all, and in practice usually fast from 6pm until 6am every day.

I have absolutely no idea how many calories I eat in a day. Breakfast is probable quite calorific, sometimes more so than lunch, but that is how my body seems to like it. I find that if I don’t eat enough I’m hungry, and if I’m hungry to internal compulsion that says being hungry is “bad” gets very loud. If I manage my energy equilibrium properly, I feel so much better, because I don’t get to the point where I’m hungry and feeling the need to quash that hunger. I am learning!