Well, Jammer finished Tough Sucker II strong and sound. I finished. We had a fun ride — especially after hooking up with Jodie & Sonny and Chris & Anna around mile 12 — but it wasn’t my most painless ever.
At the start, Jam was impatient but cooperating. I held him in as we walked to the start, chatting with another rider…and then I flew through the air! No gathering. No ear shift. No warning at all. Just a big, huge, double-barrel kick-buck that sent me sailing right over his head without so much as touching the saddle or grabbing for mane.
I was up on my feet again almost as soon as I hit the ground. Where’s my horse? Is he ok? What the HELL just happened?
Jam had stayed put, looking surprised and alarmed (in retrospect, he could have had the grace to throw in some guilt), and seemed unharmed. Despite all the people around, nobody really seemed to have any ideas why he bucked. His tack looked fine. It hadn’t felt like a spook. I dunno. My best guess is that it was a combination of his interference boots (which do make him stompy until he calms down a bit; I probably shouldn’t have put them on until the second loop) and sheer exuberance.
Ahem. Inappropriately expressed exuberance.
Anyway, I mounted back up and started trotting while I assessed my injuries. I seemed to have landed on my back-left side. It gradually became apparent that my elbow and hand got the worst of it. Something was moving strangely in my middle knuckle, like a tendon snapping back and forth across the joint when I flexed my fingers. Fortunately, I was able to hold the reins without much trouble — and good thing, because Jam was full of vim and vigor.
I worked to control his pace for most of those windy, blustery 50 miles. We finished in 6:35 and pulsed right down, trotted out, and walked back to the trailer with all A’s.
Well, Jam walked. I limped.
It wasn’t just the fall. True, my hand and elbow still hurt (especially the hand, which refuses to do things like remove tupperware lids) but X-rays say nothing is broken. My bigger concern was the now-familiar ache in my shins.
For quite a few 50’s now, I’ve had trouble with shin pain. It occurs in both legs, though the left is always worse. By about 20 miles, they are swollen and sore along the outside of my shin bones, and after 50 miles, they look like someone beat them with a 2×4 — only there was no impact. All that swelling and bruising is from pressure and bleeding on the inside. It hurts like hell, and it takes a couple weeks to recede.
So, as long as I was at the doc getting my hand X-rayed, I asked about the shins. They ruled out my #1 suspicion of shin splints because the injury was higher and more to the outside of each leg than you’d get with splints. No apparent stress fractures, either. I had to move on to a sports medicine doc (actually two, because I’m big on second opinions) to get a diagnosis:
Compartment syndrome. Specifically, chronic exertional compartment syndrome. Anterior and bilateral, in my case.
One of the sports med docs actually treats another endurance rider with the same issue, though it is much more commonly associated with runners. Basically, the muscles in the calf are bundled into four “compartments” bound by fascia. Fascia isn’t particularly flexible, and in certain people, the muscles can get too large for their fascia sheaths, which results in pain, bruising, and compromised circulation (from the swelling) when they participate in certain activities.
Great. Even better, this particular malady doesn’t come with a cure. There’s a surgery available in which they slit the fascia in order to relieve pressure on the muscle, but results are mixed and the condition can recur. Fortunately, neither doc thought I was a candidate for surgery just yet. They suggested a variety of more conservative approaches, the most important of which are calf stretching (so the muscles in the front of my shin have less tension against which to fight when I drop my heel to ride) and orthotics (because I overpronate, which puts extra strain on the affected muscles).
Management with ice and ultrasound are also on the table, though of course that’s impractical during a ride. I’m looking into compression sleeves (Doctor Google offers mixed opinions on compression sleeves for compartment syndrome) and foam rolling. I already eat an anti-inflammatory diet, but I’ve added some additional nutritional support — most notably, cod liver oil — to assist further.
I’ve found very little on the web regarding compression syndrome in endurance riders, or equestrians in general, though shin pain comes up a lot in forum discussions. I wonder if most people assume, as I did for way too long, that it’s “just” shin splints. (If this is you, it might be worth getting checked out, because the circulation issues associated with chronic compartment syndrome can eventually cause long term issues like foot/ankle weakness.)
Anyway, the orthotics and stretching seem to be doing a lot of good; I’ve put in long hours conditioning lately and haven’t had any trouble. The real test will come next weekend at Fandango, where Jam and I plan to attempt his first back-to-back 50’s.
Jam, by the way, looks fantastic. He positively inflated with muscle after Tough Sucker, and is raring to go. (Not not literally this time, I hope!) We’ve been focusing on polite pacing during our rides because as we increase distance, we’ll need to slooowwww dooowwwn. It might be a bit of a battle during the first loop on Day 1, but tough tarts. He’s gotta learn.
When it comes to supporting our hard-working horses through miles of endurance conditioning and competition, strength is as important as leanness.
As we discussed in Part 2 of this series, nutrition is primarily responsible for a person’s body composition; that is, his or her ratio of lean to fatty tissue. If I had to choose between eating well and not exercising, or eating poorly and exercising to “burn off those extra calories,” I’d choose the former.
Fortunately, I don’t have to choose.
Good nutrition, they say, makes you look good with your clothes on. Exercise makes you look good with your clothes off. Why not have both? But seriously, aesthetics aren’t the point. Fitness is more than fitting into your skinny jeans. Fitness is choices.
Think about it: Your level of fitness is the difference between the most you can do and the least you can do. When no difference remains, you are dead.
Where do you fall on the spectrum? Can you jog the downhills and tail the uphills on a 50? Do you stick to LDs because your core gets weak if you ride farther? Have you the ability to lead your horse 10 miles to the next vet check if he goes lame? Can you haul water across ridecamp? Trim your horses’ hooves? Hold a tired horse together at the end of a ride?
You needn’t be a keen observer of society to observe that most of us could stand to increase our fitness; that is, broaden the range of effort of which we are capable. There’s no shortage of advice on the subject, either. Books, magazines, blogs, podcasts, workplace fitness clubs, advertisements…
And yet, many people don’t realize that all exercise is not created equal. Like different foods, different types of exercise incite different types of hormonal responses, which in turn affect our bodies’ tendencies to build or tear down muscle, and to release or store bodyfat.
Contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, exercise does not help us get lean simply by burning calories. You’d be surprised by how small the difference is between the number of calories you burn while jogging for 30 minutes and the number you burn while reading this blog for the same amount of time. It won’t even buy you a pack of M&M’s. Or a banana with almond butter. Or a pancake.
So why bother? Because the right kind of exercise 1) builds muscle, which spends its days burning significantly more energy than bodyfat, even while you sleep and 2) increases the fat-burning capacity of the average muscle. Muscle mass is a Very Good Thing. Loss of muscle mass correlates strongly with shortened life expectancy. And, contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to lose muscle mass as you age. (News flash: Common =/= Normal.)
Aside from choosing healthful foods, building muscle is about the best thing we can do for our long-term health. In fact, muscle mass is directly correlated with biological age. The more muscle mass you have, the “younger” you are, the more bodyfat you’ll burn, and the healthier you’ll be. Smart exercise builds muscle and sends hormonal signals that improve health and leanness.
When most people think of “getting fit,” they think of running, cycling, elliptical machines, or aerobics classes at the local gym. Some kind of steady-state, moderate-to-difficult work performed for 40-60 minutes, at leat 5 times per week. Right? That’s what we all grew up being told was the best way to exercise.
Depending on duration and intensity, however, “aerobics” tend to send a hormonal message that is less-than-ideal at best and downright harmful at worst. The more aerobic work you do, particularly if you restrict caloric intake at the same time, the more messages your body receives that “Gosh, life is tough right now! I’d better conserve energy (bodyfat) in case things get worse, and let’s keep muscle to a minimum.”
Muscle, you see, is metabolically expensive tissue. Your body will keep and build it only if it feels it can afford to do so. This means that you must take in plenty of good fuel — no calorie-restricted diets, please, just optimal food choices! It also means that you shouldn’t beat your body into the ground with a high volume of moderate-to-high intensity exercise. An exercise program focused on running, for example, actually incites hormonal direction to store bodyfat and minimize muscle building because times are obviously tough and we need to conserve, conserve, conserve!
If you happen to love distance running for its own sake, the advantages of doing it may, in your case, outweigh the downsides. But for those of you who run (or cycle, or whatever) because you think you “should” even though you dread and despise it, quit! There’s a better way.
By “better,” I mean more safer, more efficient, and more effective. It is entirely possibly to achieve greater gains in less time by exercising smarter instead of longer.
First, we need to understand how the body fuels itself. At any given time, the body uses a combination of sugar and fat for energy. Sugar is more accessible and best for bursts of effort, while fat is more of a slow, steady, long-lasting fuel source. In a very simplistic sense, you could say that the body burns sugar preferentially. As a result, until you run low on sugar (which is stored in the muscles and liver), your fat stores aren’t going to be tapped much.
Another goal of smart exercise, along with building muscle, is to reach a level of intensity that burns through that high-octane sugar, thereby opening the door for bodyfat to excuse itself from your belly and thighs. This is best accomplished through two means: strength training and occasional sprinting.
We already talked about how muscle is expensive tissue. The more you have, the more energy you’ll burn 24-7, and the leaner you’ll be. You will also find yourself better able to support your horse through long hours on the trail.
Fortunately, strength training doesn’t require a barbell and a pile of iron plates (though if you’re like me, you might fall in love with bodybuilding and go buy them anyway!) An astonishing amount of progress can be made, even by very fit individuals, using bodyweight alone. See the resources below for programs that adapt well to beginners and more advanced athletes.
A couple cautions: We are talking here about lifting heavy things. 3-pound pink dumbbells are not heavy things, even if they look like “weights.” We are also talking about lifting heavy things more than once a week. Hauling one bag apiece of beet pulp and Strategy from car to tack room isn’t enough. (The good news is that 20 minutes or so, several times a week, probably is enough.) Finally, ladies, although even the mainstream media now has the sense to tell us this and you probably don’t need to hear it: You will not turn into the Terminator. I promise.
Sprinting is working as hard and fast as you can for brief periods of time. My favorite method is doing hill repeats, in which I run as fast as possible up a 100 meter hill, then walk back down. 8 repeats makes for a killer workout that takes less than 15 minutes. You could also use a stationary bike — 20-30 seconds sprinting, 2 minutes easy pedaling, rinse and repeat — or do Tabatas, stair climbs, whatever you can do at max effort.
The goal is to push yourself HARD, so your lungs burn and there isn’t enough air and your muscles scream. Sounds lovely, eh? Well, it is intense. It is also very satisfying and extremely effective because your body will need to spend hours afterward upregulating fat use to restore its reserves. It will also stimulate the release of human growth hormone, which is critical to all sorts of things that boil down to good health and youthfulness.
More good news: You only need to do one sprint workout every 7-10 days to see impressive results.
There’s one other piece to an ideal exercise program to accompany your improved nutrition: Moving slowly. This is the easy part, physically, but can be tough in terms of time. The more low-level, varied activity we can engage in, the better off we’ll be, both emotionally and metabolically. This is not intense exercise, or even moderate “aerobic” exercise. It is strolling with the dog, feeding the horses, checking the fenceline, cooling out your horse on foot for the last mile of every ride, cleaning stalls, scrubbing water buckets… We horsepeople are fortunate to be “forced” into at least some low-intensity activity on a daily basis.
Okay, resources. I’m going to link you to a couple basic programs, because I’m guessing most TBW readers don’t have a lot of experience with bodybuilding and sprinting. (Five years ago, I didn’t either.) I’ve used both of these resources personally and found them to be very approachable, not to mention adaptable to a broad range of starting fitness levels. Equally important, they require little to no equipment that you won’t find sitting around your average hotel room.
Primal Blueprint Fitness is a FREE e-book (scroll down a little on the link) by Mark Sisson.
You are Your Own Gym by Mark Lauren is really cool because you can pick up an inexpensive smartphone app along with the book to provide you with portable workout programs, timers, etc.
Robb Wolf’s book The Paleo Solution also includes a good introduction to strength training, as does Mark Sisson’s The Primal Blueprint. These are go-too books for those who want to understand the science behind the recommendations in this post. Jonathan Bailor’s free Smarter Science of Slim podcast is a good one for those who prefer to listen than read.
Finally, for those who have read along thinking “yeah but…yeah but…”, please understand that this post is intended to address fitness under the assumption that the majority of your body parts are, more or less, fully functional. I’ll talk about dealing with handicaps such as old injures in another post.
Straight into it, then! Those who agree that we should — for practical reasons if not moral ones — endeavor to be as physically fit as possible in order to support our equine partners, must first ask how a person goes about getting lean and strong. Most people’s minds will leap immediately to exercise.
Here’s the bad news: You can’t out-exercise the effects of poor nutrition.
No matter what the editors of Runner’s World, the hosts of Good Morning America, or (heaven help us) Dr. Oz would have you believe, you simply cannot burn enough calories to achieve meaningful (that is, healthful and sustainable) bodyfat loss through exercise. In truth, at least 80% of body composition — the ratio of lean to fatty body tissue — is the result of what you put in your mouth.
But wait…is that news actually bad? If body composition is mostly about food choices, maybe it’s more important for me to pay attention to my meals than to pound out 90 minutes per day on the treadmill. Maybe, even if I’m injured or have other limitations on exercise, I can still make significant progress.
Notice that we’re talking about what we eat, not how much. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it is that food quality is immensely more important than food quantity. You see, body composition isn’t the result of the simple calories-in vs. calories-out equation with which we’re all familiar. It’s more complicated than that. Different foods induce different hormonal responses in our bodies, and different hormonal responses direct our cells to do different things — like to store bodyfat, or to release it.
Here’s one of the best allegories I’ve ever heard to explain why calories-in/calories-out is, at best, an incomplete model:
Think of your body like a bathroom sink. When a sink functions properly, water that comes into the basin through the faucet goes out through the drain at about the same rate. If you turn up the volume of water, it simply drains out faster, so the basin never overflows.
This is how your body is designed to work. When more energy (food) comes in, a healthy hormonal response directs the body to send more energy (bodyfat) out, and your pants don’t get tighter. Why doesn’t this always happen? Let’s go back to the sink:
If the drain gets clogged, the incoming water from the faucet has nowhere to go. It pools up in the basin. Turning the faucet up or down will influence how quickly the water accumulates, but it won’t remove the clog. The level in the basin will still rise, even on a restricted incoming flow.
That’s why going on a restricted-calorie diet doesn’t work. You might slow the rate of bodyfat accumulation, but you haven’t changed the unhealthy hormonal response — that is, removed the clog — to restore the naturally occurring balance between intake and outflow. So, the next time you indulge in Christmas cookies or a tailgate party, BAM! Bodyfat lands right back in your basin because your drain is still blocked.
If you want to win the battle, you must remove the clog. (Isn’t it nice to know that you’re not a huge failure because all those attempts at calorie restriction didn’t work?)
How do you remove the clog? By changing your hormonal response to food. How do you do that? By changing the foods you choose to eat.
Yikes. This is a huge topic. There are scores of books and blogs and podcasts and websites and articles on the subject. I’m not going to even attempt to cover all the territory here. Permit me to simply summarize what I have implemented, to great effect, in my own life. If you’re interested, you can chase down more information through the resources below.
This is the way I have eaten for 3 years now:
1. I eat for maximum nutrient density. This means vegetables (preferably organic), meats and fish (preferably grass-finished and wild-caught), some fruit, a little dairy, and plenty of healthful, naturally-occurring fats.
2. I avoid all grains. Yes, even “healthy” whole grains. Despite what the USDAgriculture (ahem) would like us to buy, grains actually offer relatively low levels of nutrition when compared to vegetables and quality animal products. And, they come with a number of downsides, including a wallop of carbohydrate that, as far as the body is concerned, is just sugar.
Excessive carbohydrate consumption induces a hormonal message to store bodyfat. Most people do well on 75-150 total grams per day, as compared to the American average of 300g or more. Relying on too much on poor quality carbohydrate comes with a variety of health impacts in the short term (hunger crashes) and long term (cancer, Type II diabetes).
Gluten grains also cause damage in the guts of a high percentage of people, leading over the long term to a broad range of health problems from Alzheimer’s to gout.
I also avoid legumes, including peanuts, for similar reasons.
3. I’m not afraid of fat. Cutting calorie-dense, nutrition-poor whole grains from my diet left quite a calorie gap. When you remove that much carbohydrate, you need to replace it with something. Your options are protein and fat. Our bodies place powerful, natural limits on the amount of protein we can consume (1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day is good for most people), and many of us simply can’t eat enough protein to meet our caloric needs. That leaves fat.
This may be even scarier than ditching the “healthy whole grains.” But do your homework and decide for yourself. Is fat really dangerous? Yes…if you’re eating the unnatural, processed fats that clog our restaurants and grocery stores. All those fats chemically forced from non-fatty products — soy, canola, “vegetable,” etc. — are extremely detrimental to human health.
Natural fats, however, are an extremely efficient and nutritious energy source. As a bonus, the hormonal message they incite is one of satiety and safety. (Hey cells, we’re in good times. There’s plenty of chow. No need to pack on emergency stores.) So what fats do I eat, to the tune of about 60% of my daily caloric intake? Avocado, palm, coconut, tree nut, and grassfed animal fats (butter, some cheese, meat, fish).
Mind you, the transition from being a sugar-burner to a fat-burner can be rough for a while. Your body will demand carbohydrate, which for years has been its primary source of fuel. Most people get over the “carb flu” in 2 days to 2 weeks, though it took me a good 6 weeks to hit the crash-free cruising altitude that I now enjoy. I attribute this to the fact that I was coming off several years of what I thought was a healthful, mostly-vegan diet composed primarily grains and legumes!
But I digress…
4. I avoid all sweeteners, both natural and artificial.
5. I avoid all processed foods.
6. I don’t make this a religion. I eat this way at home. I take my own meals to the office. I’m pretty darn good at finding acceptable restaurant meals. But if I’m a guest, or it’s Thanksgiving and Great Aunt Millicent made her special pie, or I’m in ridecamp between two 50 milers, I’ll eat what’s served. No big deal. But that’s the exception — I don’t let it creep into becoming the rule.
Some of you will recognize what I’m describing as being “primal” or “paleo.” Indeed, those are the popular names for the kind of nutrient-dense, hormonally-healthful way of eating that I prefer. If you want to know more about it, here are some of my favorite resources:
I really appreciate that all of these sites are run by professionals who give away massive amounts of valuable information for free, because they care about the ability of the truth to help people live better. Equally impressive, they have shown over the years that they are willing to update their recommendations based on new research. It’s not about who is right, but about what is true.
A word of caution: most of the sites offer user forums. I recommend avoiding those until you understand what the experts are saying. The forums are packed with people who talk more than they listen, and are therefore rife with misinformation.
Years ago, I wrote a blog series called “Fit to Ride,” on the subject of why endurance riders ought to be as fit as possible and how they might accomplish such. I offended a few people who misunderstood me. They thought I’d insulted the riding skill of some people who are overweight or dealing with other physical limitations. In fact, here is what I said:
“I believe that an ideal endurance athlete — the human half — must be both lean, that is, have a low body fat [percentage] and strong… (Note that, as discussed in the comments precipitated by this post, “lean and strong” looks different on different people. I’m not talking about preparing for a beauty contest here. This is about contributing my fair share in a team event.)”
Note that I was talking about the ideal endurance athlete. Most of us can’t be “ideal.” We can, however, be our personal best.
Admittedly, I did throw down the gauntlet with some tough love in the Straight Sailing post to which the above quote refers. Maybe I wouldn’t put it quite that way today. (Maybe I would. Depends on my mood.) But even in that post, I went on to say this:
“In fact, one of my favorite things about endurance is that it’s a rare sport in which kids can compete alongside their grandparents, and some of its top riders excel despite physical ailments that make them look like everybody’s last idea of a champion athlete.
What I am saying is that if you’re settling for mediocrity, you’re failing your horse. Even if your fitness level is “not that bad.” Even if it’s “above average.” If it’s not your personal best — and that’s a moving target, ladies and gentlemen, so keep striving — it’s not good enough.”
Now, I know some endurance riders who are heavier or weaker than their ideal. Some of them are much better riders than I. But here’s the thing: That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t work on their fitness. It means I should work on my riding. We can all improve, and if we want to be the best partners for our horses.
Thankfully, none of us have to be supermodels or superheroes to do well in endurance. Many of us, including me, have some physical issues that prevent us from achieving our ideal bodyfat percentage, range of motion, balance, straightness, or whatever. Horses are generous animals that put up with our many shortcomings. Still, wouldn’t you agree that it’s our job to minimize the impact of those shortcomings?
I got to thinking about all this again when Dennis Summers, on his 4th Gear – Power Up Your Endurance Horse Facebook page, challenged fellow riders to join him in setting measurable fitness goals and holding each other accountable. Dennis talks about rider fitness in 4th Gear, too.
I’m always glad to read what other riders have to say on the subject, not least because nutrition and fitness are major passions of mine, right up there with horses and endurance. I’m forever digging up more information on the subject, and I’ve learned quite a lot that has changed my personal habits for the better since the original Fit to Ride series posted.
Hence this redux. I’ll keep it short — just a few posts to cover nutrition, exercise, and some miscellaneous other topics that I’ve found surprisingly helpful. I hope you’ll read along with an open mind, gather up scraps of information, and consider them as one opinion of many as you reach your own conclusions.
Well, that was depressing.
Earlier this week, I redeemed a voucher for an hour’s massage. I was hoping to get some relief from the lower back pain that I reluctantly admit has been more or less constant since my first 2-day ride of the year. Which was Pink Flamingo. Which was in early August.
Time flies when you’re having Advil for breakfast. And sleeping on a heating pad. And letting yourself believe that it’s just muscle tension, because wouldn’t that be nicer than an actual injury?
You might recall that the lower back pain — which actually dates back at least to my high school era — became a real issue on multi-day rides. The stiffness of a single endurance ride transformed into gasping pain by Day 2. Trotting downhill was agony. My lower back was by far the worst, but my upper back wasn’t all sugarplums and roses, either.
I rode anyway. Sucked it up. Gutted it out. This is *endurance* after all. We’ve all seen each other out there with colds and flus and sprained ankles and bruised ribs and broken arms and cheery grimaces that say “Hell, yes, I’m riding today!” A little pain never stopped us.
(Except Ashley of Go Pony, who recently wrote: “[T]he bottom line is, I don’t really feel like giving myself permanent damage for the sake of a hobby, something I’m supposed to be doing for fun.” Which I’m pretty sure proves she’s smarter than I am.)
Anyway, my massage came with a detailed chiropractic evaluation. The good news is that my body composition is excellent (low-normal bodyfat, high-normal lean mass, ideal hydration, etc.). The bad news is that my back pain diagnosis looks like this:
- Cervical Kyphosis
- Severe Pelvic Unleveling
- Convexity – Lumbars
- Lumbar Hypolordosis
- L5 Disc Degeneration
- Plantor Fascia Collapse
Oh. Right. That explains it.
The doctor didn’t ask me to ride less. He works with too many athletes to try something that stupid.
Just in case, I made my message clear: “The riding is non-negotiable. It’s what I do.”
Don’t get between me and my passion.
He says I’m fixable. More or less. In exchange for an ungodly quantity of money and time, the good doctor should be able to restore me to painless function. After that, we’ll come up with some kind of maintainence regime. I’ll probably have to drop by his office after endurance weekends for mitigation of the acute banging-up I’ve incurred.
I won’t deny that I went home and sulked for two days. I cried some. Angry, mostly, because I feel betrayed. I am so healthy, so strong, and now this? I didn’t ask to have orthopedically challenged feet, which apparently precipitated most of the problems. I give my body more nutrition, exercise, and sleep than just about anyone I know — which, as the doc points out, is probably why my inflammation has remained under control and allowed me to get this far. Hmph.
When it comes right down to it, though, I reckon I’m lucky. The damage isn’t going to stop me from riding. I’m not that far gone. But I might have been, had I ignored this for another year. Even strong, well-nourished bodies can’t take a structural beating forever and come out unscathed.
And so, here’s my scrap of advice to all you other tough riders out there:
Quit being so tough. If you hurt, find out why. Do everything you can to heal. Your ability to keep riding is worth more than a boatload of cash. Find a way.
I still consider myself a beginner in endurance. If all goes well this weekend I’ll boost my total to AERC miles 675 (plus 140 LD). That’s not many, but it has been enough to help me refine a few details that make my rides easier and more comfortable:
Feldenkrais ~ Raise your hand if you’ve heard of it. The Feldenkrais method of creating “awareness through movement” was introduced to me by Naomi Preston and Karen Bumgarner during the Connected Riding seminar they offered last spring. Feldenkrais lessons, or “floor exercises,” talk practitioners through a series of movements intended to break down the mental barriers that we unconsciously set up as we progress through a life of repetative motion, injury, etc. You’d be amazed at how addressing the brain can free the body to move as it should. You have to try this! Ancestral health experts like Chris Kresser also note that Feldenkrais offers the same set of benefits as do other mind/body practices like yoga, meditation, and prayer. My favorite set of Feldenkrais lessons is this vintage collection by Bruce Holmes.
Strength Training ~ I got serious about strength training about 3 years ago. By “serious,” I mean the regular lifting of increasingly heavy weights. Real weights. As in barbells and plates, not pink-plastic-swathed dumbbells or little iron bricks hung on cables. I can’t tell you how much chronic pain –particularly back pain — disappeared when I started lifting. Over the summer months, when I lift less because I focus my time on working with horses, the pain creeps back. (I think my lighter lifting schedule of late is a major factor in the low back pain I experienced at Pink Flamingo. Hello, dummy, do we see a solution here?) Aside from giving you a sexy butt and arms, classic lifts such as backsquats and bench presses are fantastic for building core strength, which is critical to good riding. They also build bone density, which comes in handy when you fall off. 😉
Paleo Nutrition ~ A few years ago, after extensive reading on the subject, I took a sharp turn off the vegan highway and headed down the road to paleo. Dumping grain from my diet (especially gluten grains) and remaining clear of all processed foods and sugars dramatically improved my leanness, strength, and overall feeling of well-being. My metabolism is now conditioned to run primarly on fat rather than carbohydrate, which means that I don’t experience hunger crashes. I can comfortably go 20 hours or more without eating, and nearly always fast for 14-16 hours between dinner and breakfast.
It also makes packing ride food quite easy: Pre-cooked meat (for Old Selam, it’s roast leg of lamb — yum!); clotted cream (an English product similar to butter, but nicer to eat right off the spoon); nuts (raw macadamias when I can get them); home-dried fruit (in limited quantity — too much sugar otherwise!); coconut water (natural electrolyte source); and canned fish (tuna, salmon, and kippered herring). Simple. I especially appreciate the calorie density of the clotted cream and nuts during holds, because riding with too much volume on my stomach is no fun. I don’t recommend trying to get through an endurance ride on mostly protein and fat until you’re accustomed to it, though! It does take 2-4 weeks for most people to adjust to eating less carbohydrate. If you want to learn more about paleo eating, check out the links provided here. Trust me, paleo meals made at home are much more exciting than the ones I take to rides.
Coconut Water ~ I mentioned this above, but it deserves more attention. The pure products (just coconut water, without additives or sweeteners) provide an astonishing electrolyte whack, and they taste great. I consume them only at rides because I don’t need that kind of support for my daily activity (or even tough heavy-lifting workouts), and they surely help me recover from long, sweaty days on the trail. I drink about 1/3 of a bottle during the ride and save the rest for afterwards; too much during the ride seems to upset my stomach.
Chocolate Covered Espresso Beans ~ I usually ride cavalry (without crew), and there’s not time to make coffee in the morning. Besides, coffee = having to pee on the trail. What’s a girl to do for her caffeine fix? Eat a handful of the espresso beans from her Christmas stocking, of course!
Magnesium and Potassium ~ I’m not a huge fan of isolated nutritional supplements, but I do pay attention to this pair. Magnesium helps prevent muscle cramping and fatigue (among other things, such as aiding with sleep quality), and potassium is part of the electrolyte mix that contributes to hydration, proper muscle function, and more. I drink Natural Calm nightly for magnesium, and include potassium salt (aka “lite salt) in my cooking.
Advil ~ I rarely take drugs, even over-the-counter NSAIDS. (They’re proven to compromise the gut lining, which leads to all sorts of complications over time.) However, pre-loading with a couple Advil tabs before a 50 does cut down on inflammation and discomfort. So I do it. But only at rides.
Long Sleeves ~ I’m not in the sun-coward camp. I firmly believe that sunlight — unhampered by chemical sunblocks — is extremely good for us. However, sunburning is not. I consciously work on graduated sun exposure in order to get a protective tan, without burning, throughout each spring and summer. Even so, an endurance ride puts me out in the sun all day. That’s bit much. So, I wear lightweight, longsleeved shirts with mock turtlenecks. Voila! No need for sunscreen. No sunburn. Earlier this year, I found some good shirts made by 10,000 Feet Above Sea Level in the bargin barn at Sierra Trading Post. Can’t beat that!
Handwarmer Packets ~ The days might be hot, but Northwest nights are often quite cold. (Someone posted on Facebook that it was 26 degrees at the Old Selam ridecamp last night. Ack!) Those of us without generator-warmed living quarters in our horse trailers have to get creative to stay warm. My favorite method is to wear double socks to bed, with those shake-to-activate handwarmer packets stashed between the layers. On really cold nights, I wear a fleece vest with more handwarmers in the pockets to keep my core warm. Works great.
Ok, your turn. How do you take care of yourself at rides?
Over the past two months, I’ve done a tremendous amount of reading about the paleo/primal lifestyle. Though I don’t agree with every aspect of the primal blueprint and its premise, my experiments with it thus far have been particulary beneficial in terms of fuel intake (I’m already there on the activity side). I’m leaner, stronger, and more energetic than ever before — and loving every minute.
I’m signed up for the challenge as BarbeyGirl. Anybody want to come along for the ride? (If you do, feel free to share your user name in the comments here so we can follow each other over at MDA.)
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One of my many, annoying traits is curiosity. I am intensely, incessantly curious about almost everything. Fortunately, I am also on the shy side — a characteristic that spares the rest of the world from what would otherwise be my natural tendency to behave like an overgrown three year old, tugging their sleeves and insisting on knowing, “Why? Why? Why?”
The downside of inquisitiveness is that there will never be enough time for me to cover all the material that interests me. The upside is that I can still cover quite a bit and put it to good use. Nutrition and fitness, perennials in my self-guided researches, offer myriad opportunity for testing theories on my favorite guinea pig — myself. Over the past few years, I’ve intensified my focus on these issues and made discoveries that led to dietary changes that most of society considers fringe at best — and often downright barmy.
Well. Call me crazy if you like, but there’s no question that I’m leaner, stronger, and fitter today, at thirty-one, than I’ve been since the day I was born. Good thing, since I believe that as an endurance rider, I’m honor-bound to be every bit the athlete I ask my equine partner to be.
I’ve already shared three of the significant, dietary shifts I’ve implemented, in the form of three rules for eating clean. These are the non-negotiables:
As I said before, Eating Clean Rule #1 is almost enough, all by itself. Remove all barcoded (that is, processed) “foods” from your diet, and you’ll be left with the fuels your body was designed to ingest: Vegetables, fruits, meats, grains, dairy, eggs, nuts, seeds, and plant oils. If 95% or more of your daily intake comprises these foods, you’ll be better off than 95% of Western civilization.
However, for those who are really serious about eating clean and getting lean, there are many issues among these non-barcoded foods that merit discussion. I’ll touch the surface of the most prominent here, then hook you up with sources for additional research. Let’s start with dairy:
Now, I just included dairy in a list of foods our bodies are designed to ingest, and so they are…or at least, they were. But when was the last time you saw a yearling foal nurse? A three-month old kitten? A six-month-old lamb?
Hmm. Seems they grow out of it. In fact, a little research reveals that their bodies — and ours — are clearly meant to grow out of it. Lactase, the enzyme that enables digestion of lactose, ceases to be produced in animals over weaning age. Continued consumption of milk, formerly the perfect food for Junior, thereafter results in gastrointestinal distress ranging from bloating to diarrhea.
Many of you know exactly what I’m talking about; those who don’t are the lucky (?) recipients of a mutant gene that permits continued lactase production. Being one-quarter Swedish, a heritage that predisposes me to said mutant gene (and perhaps a few others as well), I am not lactose intolerant — unlike about 25% of the U.S. population and 75% of people whose heritage is African, Asian, or American Indian.
But, I still avoid dairy.
Why? Well, let’s go back to our fellow mammals: How often do you see a rat drinking hamster milk, a bear cub nursing from a cougar, or a goat suckling a fawn? Yes, photos of such anomalies make their way around the web periodically. The last one I saw involved a mama dachshund and a litter of piglets. (Or was it the other way around?) Regardless, the only reason photos like that are so popular is that cross-species nursing is downright weird!
Surely I’m not the only one who finds it bizarre that we humans habitually consume large quantities of a substance custom-made to transform an 80-pound calf into a 1,800-pound bull. (And we’re supposed to believe that drinking milk will make us lose weight? Excuse me?)
Besides that, the vast majority of the dairy products in your local grocery store are highly processed remnants of what might once have been a marginally acceptable food. Factory farms don’t squeeze milk right out of the cow and into a carton, you know. Not by a long shot. First, they heat the milk to kill off bacteria (including the beneficial kind), a process which also reduces its vitamin A, C, D, and E content and destroys B6 and B12 outright. Then, they force it through a strainer with tiny holes, breaking up the fat molecules to prevent separation — and bastardizing the natural hormonal delivery system of the milk, whose steroids and proteins are now able enter the bloodstream in a manner that nature never intended, triggering unnatural growth the body is unable to control.
Sounds to me like a recipe for cancer.
Those are just a few of the crazy reasons I rarely consume dairy. Feel free to pop a couple Lactaid pills, fetch a bowl of (barcoded, sugar-laden) ice cream, and take potshots at them at your leisure. When you’re finished, I dare you to go read this series over at Fitness Spotlight. Allergens, antibiotics, and osteoporosis, oh my! (If you’re horrified at the prospect of sacrificing dairy, be sure to check out the section on raw milk, wherein you may find some consolation. The nuances of aged dairy products such as yoghurt and cheese may interest you, as well.)
Okay. Take a moment to digest the truth about milk — which, thanks to the Dairymen’s Counsel and its well-funded friends in government, may be even more difficult than digesting the milk itself — and in the next post, we’ll move on to meat and eggs. (Don’t worry. I promise not to advocate giving them up.)
Fit to Ride, Part One: Going for the Goal
Fit to Ride, Part Two: Vice and Advice
Fit to Ride, Part Three: Eating Clean
Fit to Ride, Part Four: Sweet Surrender
Fit to Ride, Part Five: Eating Green
Straight Sailing: Thoughts on Fitness for Endurance Riders
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Whew! It’s been a long week. My apologies for the delay in continuing this series. You may recall that we’ve been talking about the importance of fitness for endurance riders in particular. My goal, as I stated in Part One, is to achieve leanness, cardiovascular endurance, and a high level of functional strength supported by whole food nutrition.
In Parts Three and Four of this series, I posted the first two rules for eating clean, which I defined as fueling your body with the substances it is designed to ingest. Since I interrupted myself with a few days’ worth of unrelated posts, here’s a quick reminder:
Eating Clean Rule #1: Don’t eat anything with a barcode.
Eating Clean Rule #2: Sugar is the devil.
Between these two rules, we eliminated the vast majority of what most people in western cultures eat, leaving behind a short list of foods that can be mixed and matched in an astonishing array of delicious, healthful meals: Vegetables. Fruits. Legumes. Meats. Eggs. Nuts. Seeds. Plant oils. Grains. Milk.
Obviously, this list can be divided into two, major categories: plant matter and animal products…which leads me to…
Eating Clean Rule #3: Eat Mostly Plants
Many of you know that I’ve spent the last three years as a “flegan.” That’s a contraction I invented in a facetious moment to describe my diet of flexible veganism. (Hey, the flexitarians are allowed their oxymoron!)
As I explain in this post on Nightlife, fleganism was a lifestyle into which I fell somewhat by accident. When a summer’s bounty from my home garden crowded most other foods off my plate for nearly three months, I experienced such obvious improvements in my health that I never felt the need to return to my old habits of basing meals on meats, poultry, and cheeses.
What health benefits, you ask?
Improved body fat ratio, for one. Compare these photos again:
Both represent times in my life when I had a farm full of horses and a house full of pets to keep me active. However, the first photo was taken when I still based two meals a day on chicken, pork, beef, or pasta; the other was snapped after about a year of fleganism.
Note that the second photo was taken last summer, six months before I started bodybuilding (NOT the steroid-ridden, appearance-based, fake stuff you see in magazines, but genuine body conditioning to increase my functional strength — a topic I’ll address later in this series.) Now, I’m not preparing to make a case for vegetarianism, but I will tell you this: About 80% of leanness (and the muscle definition that goes along with it) is the result of diet, not exercise, and certainly not endless cardio routines!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to those health benefits I experienced when I started following eating mostly plants. My new practice of basing meals on vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains — to the exclusion of all animal products, including dairy and eggs, with rare exceptions — resulted in total elimination of my seasonal allergies, which had been severe, and dramatic reduction in the frequency and intensity of the arthritis pain caused by my bunions.
Miraculous? Unbelievable? Not really. (Hell, allergies are nothing. Some people have cured cancer through nutrition alone!) All I did was give my body the nutrients it needed to heal itself.
Note that the key point here is what I added to my diet (piles and piles of produce)…not what I removed (animal products). There are plenty of strong, lean, healthy people who eat animal products, and plenty of strong, lean, healthy people who don’t. Depending on what one is trying to accomplish with regard to strength, however, the latter can be a challenge. I’ve recently found it necessary to add two eggs per day, plus some seafood, to my diet in order to meet my body’s protein and energy demands in the face of ongoing body conditioning.
Regardless of one’s opinion on vegetarianism, the point is that a healthful diet must be primarily plant-based. “Primarily,” of course, is a relative term. Opinions abound on what percentage of one’s daily calories should come from plant foods — vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, and plant oils — let alone from each of these sub-categories.
Proponents of Primal/Paleo eating, which I think has a lot of merit if followed correctly and consistently, particularly with regard to the reduction in carbohydrate consumption, emphasize a considerably higher percentage of animal products than I tend toward, but still maintain a foundation of plenty of vegetables and some fruit. I also agree with the Paleo People’s emphasis on fats (natural fats, that is, from real foods — not the man made fats that, along with man made sugars, turn processed “foods” into poisons.) For those who want to know more, Mark’s Daily Apple and Fitness Spotlight are excellent blogs that will tell you all you need to know about going Paleo.
One thing is certain: the diet that is best for one person is not necessarily appropriate for another. However, any predominantly plant-based diet that also complies with Eating Clean Rules 1 & 2 is beneficial. Do your homework, experiment with what makes sense, and choose the diet that best helps you achieve your goals. Just be sure you’re basing your decisions on physiological needs, not psychological desires. “I can’t live without ice cream” is not a good reason to insist upon dairy as a regular feature on your table! (No more is “I avoid dairy” a valid reason to avoid the very-occasional scoop of Moose Tracks.)
As you experiment with your personal diet, here are a few things to bear in mind:
- The great benefit of plants is found less in macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, all of which plants also provide), than in micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients). Micronutrients are critical to survival; they’re the necessary components that enable the body to identify and rectify those external threats and internal errors that will, if left unchecked, lead to disease. The more micronutrients you put in your body, the better it will be able to defend and heal itself. In the process of obtaining all those micronutrients, of course, you’ll taking in most of the macronutrients you need as well.
- Plants shouldn’t have barcodes. Fresh vegetables, fruits, herbs, legumes, and grains are vastly superior to their canned, dried, or frozen counterparts. Grains should look like they were just shaken loose of their chaff, and maybe run under a roller. They should not reach your mouth in the form of loaves, rolls, wafers, or flakes (check out that link for the alarming history of your breakfast cereal!) Nuts and seeds should be raw, not roasted and salted. Plant oils (which most of us cannot obtain outside a barcoded bottle) should contain no additives.
- Fresh is better. As soon as a plant is picked, its nutrient density begins to decrease. Therefore, it is ideal to concentrate your produce consumption on varieties that are locally grown and in season. Organic produce, which generally has the opportunity to grow in richer soils than does conventional produce, and which is proven to contain more nutrients (which comprise the plant’s own defense system and are therefore more concentrated in plants unshielded by man made pesticides) is preferable as well. That said, conventional, out-of-season produce grown in a different hemisphere is preferable to no produce at all…for nutritional purposes, anyway. See Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life for an engaging and intelligent discussion on the merits of eating locally produced foods.
- Fresh and raw is best. (Some would argue this point. See this post for details.) A bit of creativity is all it takes to ensure that you consume at least half your daily produce in an uncooked state, without overdosing on garden salads. I’ll share some of my ideas for doing so in a future post.
Speaking of my personal eating habits, anyone who has spent significant time in my presence knows that I eat a lot, in terms of both volume and frequency. You’ve heard the USDA’s recommendation that you eat 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day? Yeah. It’s not uncommon for me to eat that much produce before lunch.
Indeed, one of the benefits of a smart, plant-based diet is that it’s almost impossible to overeat. Your body’s satiation center will stop you before you can consume an overabundance of vegetables, fruits, or legumes, particularly if much of the produce is raw. (It is wise, however, to remain attentive to the volume of whole grains, nuts, seeds, and oils in your diet.)
For those who are already lean and are working on building strength, the inclusion of some animal products is likely to prove beneficial. Part Six of this series will cover some of the issues related to meats, dairy, and eggs. I’ll also discuss grains in further detail, as they are the source of much debate among the lean, the strong, and those endeavoring to become so.
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You all know by now what I’m up to.
I’m in the middle of a series spawned, somewhat accidentally, by my belief that an ideal endurance rider is one who does his or her best to achieve leanness, cardiovascular endurance, and a high level of functional strength. Only by being committed athletes ourselves can we be worthy partners for our horses. Endurance is a team sport. Play it lean and strong.
While strength is primarily the result of exercise, leanness is about 80% diet. In Part Three, I introduced “eating clean” as a major factor in a rider’s ability to attain and maintain a low body fat ratio. Eating clean means fueling your body with the substances it was designed to ingest — a lifestyle so simple that maintaining it requires only that you follow a few, simple rules. Eating Clean Rule #1, you’ll recall from Part Three, is: Don’t eat anything with a barcode. Today, we move on to Rule #2.
Eating Clean Rule #2: Sugar is the devil.
Uh-oh. You knew I was going there, didn’t you? Congratulations — you guessed it. I’m going there, and I’m going all the way. Sugar is the devil. It is poison. You shouldn’t eat it. Despite what those ludicrous HFCS promotions say to the contrary, sugar is not acceptable, even in moderation. Except in its natural combination with fiber and multitudinous nutrients, such as in fruit, sugar is nothing but bad for you. Period.
I could end this post here. You’ve already read the critical information. But, I suspect a number of you, like me, aren’t satisfied with what when you could have why. So, I’ll carry on a bit and give you some resources with which to follow up on your own.
First of all, since we’re discussing leanness, you need to understand that sugars are simple carbohydrates. The body converts all carbohydrates to glucose, which is a useful fuel. Unfortunately, most people eat far too much carbohydrate and wind up with an overabundance of glucose in their cells. Because glucose is toxic in large amounts, and because your body is designed to store energy in case of later starvation, you come equipped with a means of dealing with unburned glucose: you turn it to fat.
“It’s not fat that gets stored in your fat cells,” explains one of my favorite nutrition blogs, Mark’s Daily Apple, in this post, “– it’s sugar.” The post goes on to explain how too much carbohydrate (sugar) in the diet eventually leads to insulin resistance, which everyone knows is half a click away from diabetes (read: obesity, cardiac disease, nerve damage, blindness, and early death). High price to pay for that afternoon Pepsi.
Prefer an alternative method of payment? How about cancer? As Dr. Patrick Quillin explains in his inexpertly-written, but highly informative, book Beating Cancer with Nutrition, “sugar feeds cancer.” It’s the perfect meal for mutant cells. Considering that cancer cells form regularly in all our bodies throughout our lifetimes (and are usually conquered by our immune systems) I am disinclined to offer them a welcoming buffet.
I should clarify here that sugar, like processed food, is found in more than the obvious sources. As far as your body is concerned, simple starches are virtually indistinguishable from those white granules you put on your (barcoded) Wheaties. White flour and its many children (pasta, breads, crackers, etc.) are all, essentially, sugars. You’ve heard that “muffins are for people who don’t have the balls to order cake for breakfast?” I’m afraid it’s necessary to extend that statement to encompass your morning bagel, English muffin, and toast as well.
Then, there are the hidden sugars. Variously labeled as high fructose corn syrup, rice syrup, dextose, fructose, glucose, sucrose, and everything else gross, an astonishing quantity of sugar hides in supposed “health foods” such as yogurt, fruit juices, salad dressings, smoothies, energy bars and beverages, frozen entrees, soy milk, peanut butter (of the Jiffy and Skippy variety), and just about everything else with a barcode. Even whole grains impact the body as sugar, though in a less dramatic fashion than do the dreaded “simple carbs.” Low-fat and fat-free products are almost always packed with sugar, not to mention a horrifying array of additives that don’t come from anything so natural as sex or seeds.
By the way, you don’t still think you’re getting away with anything by choosing diet drinks and other products featuring artificial sweeteners, do you? Good. Because saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, and their evil cousins are well-documented carcinogens, allergens, and wreakers of general havoc on organs from skin to kidney to brain. As a special bonus, many of them enhance your appetite. Just what you need when trying to get lean! (For an excellent discussion artificial sweeteners and other food additives, check out a book called Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills by Russell Blaylock.)
Note that your friends at the FDA, who are well aware of the complications associated with artificial sweeteners…and the USDA, who are acquainted with the damaging effects of over consumption of carbohydrates…still merrily approve and recommend their use. Just another reason I don’t take Big Brother’s advice.
Here’s the good news: While sugar and its man made relatives are addictive substances, addictions can be broken. All it takes is a healthy dose of willpower applied without exception for a sufficient period of time. For most people, 14-28 days’ effort will break the strongest bonds, leaving you free, over time, to transform into one of those annoying people who is genuinely un-tempted by the office chocolate bowl, Friday donuts, and the Coke machine down the hall.
Incidentally, much of these health nuts’ seemingly-ironclad commitment is based in their bodies’ heightened insulin sensitivity due to low sugar consumption over the long term. That’s a fancy way of saying that they know a small slice of birthday cake will leave them feeling like crap for the rest of the afternoon. (It’ll make everyone else feel like crap, too, for different reasons…but most of them won’t realize they feel like crap because, sadly, they always feel like crap. And to make themselves feel better, they ‘ll buy another soda. Which will make them feel like crap. Recognize yourself? Check out Dr. Neal Barnard’s book Breaking the Food Seduction to better understand — and conquer — food cravings.)
Of course, if you’re following Eating Clean Rule #1, you don’t need to worry about any of this. Nature doesn’t overload you with sugar any more than it prints barcodes on itself. Some would argue that fruit is an exception. While it’s true that sedentary people should not overindulge, as the carbohydrates in fruit do need to be burned lest they be stored as fat, fruit offers myriad nutritional benefits and is, by far, the best source of sweetness in a clean diet.
Right, then. Many of you have made the clever observation that these two Eating Clean Rules eliminate almost all the products that fill most westerners’ grocery carts and kitchen cupboards. Some of you are staring at your screens in horror, wondering what in the name of Kellogg’s Frosted Pop Tarts is left to eat. Surely, you say, if she really lives by these rules, she’ll drop dead before finishing this post!
Not so. I assure you, eating clean (and getting lean) has nothing whatsoever to do with starvation. “Eating clean,” you’ll recall, means fueling your body with the substances it was designed to ingest. Here they are:
Vegetables. Fruits. Legumes. Meats. Eggs. Nuts. Seeds. Plant oils. Grains. Milk. Period.
Science and human nature being what they are, there’s plenty of room for debate even within the above categories. I’ll address a couple of the most prominent issues in upcoming posts, and then we’ll move on to the strength part of the equation. For now, suffice it to say that most honest nutritionists and researchers would agree that following Eating Clean Rules #1 and #2 would eliminate the vast majority of our collective roadblocks on the path to leanness and longevity…and as endurance riders, isn’t longevity what we’re all about?
Fit to Ride, Part Six: Milk Got You?
Straight Sailing: Thoughts on Fitness for Endurance Riders
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