Sunday, 15 September 2013

Carbs – a time and a place

Over the last couple of months I’ve learnt even more about my body and carbs – and about carbs and exercise.

My gym chain runs a challenge across all its gyms every 2 months, and from 1st July to 31st August they were running a Tour de France challenge in which members had to try and cycle 3,360km – the distance of the Tour de France. We could use any type of bike as long as it measured and recorded distance.

Putting in the kilometers, pushing the boundaries
As an avid cyclist in my younger days and a regular participant in Spin classes I knew that this would be a great challenge for me, and set about trying to do 55km a day, every day of the challenge. During the first week I found that I was getting hungry and snacking out on carbs – crisps, chocolate, biscuits, toast. I decided to just go with my cravings as my body was clearly telling me what it needed.

Two weeks into the challenge and I had a Personal Training session. I spoke to Stuart about my cravings and explained that I was eating a low-carb diet as normal, but that I was eating high carb foods as and when I fancied them. After discussing how low in carbs my normal low-carb diet usually is, Stuart advised that I increase my daily carb intake to 200g (which mean an increase of between 140g and 150g a day) but eat slow releasing carbs and target them to be eaten 2 hours before starting my intense cardio sessions. The idea of this was to provide fuel when it was needed, because eating the way I do my body would quickly use up the carbs I was normally eating and move on to use up any fat stores I have followed by destroying muscle rather than using the fats I eat – the body finds it easier to burn stored fat and muscle than fats from the diet if there is a shortfall of carb energy available.

For the final 6 weeks of the challenge I did precisely this. If I was going to the gym in the morning I would wake 2 hours before I planned on starting on the bike and eat a very high carb breakfast, if it was an afternoon session then I would carb load at lunch and on a Friday I would have an afternoon snack to set me up for the evening Spin class. The first surprise I had was just how much I needed to eat at these targeted meals in order to increase my carb intake sufficiently, despite the fact that I was returning to a ‘normal’ person’s levels of carb consumption.

High-carb breakfast, with homemade smoothie
At breakfast I would have a double serving of Porridge served with 50g of Sultanas and a tablespoon of Golden Syrup, plus one or two slices of toast with jam or marmalade, and a homemade banana and peanut butter based smoothie – using frozen fruits of various types, such as strawberries or blueberries to increase the carb count if necessary. At lunchtimes I would have a gluten free pasta meal, usually with tuna, peas and sweetcorn, maybe some oat cakes, and a homemade smoothie. For snacks it would usually be a bowl of museli, some toast with jam or marmalade, a homemade smoothie, and maybe some sweets while walking to the gym.

On my normal workout days I would have my breakfast and then head to the gym about an hour later, doing my workout before the carbs kicked in and sometimes starting on the bike before the 2 hours were up. When this happened I would often find that I could feel something like a second wind hitting me as the slow release carbs were kicking in. After the first week of targeted carb loading I was finding that I could do longer sessions on the bike and felt much less fatigued, so clearly the carbs were working.

A typical carb-loading lunch
But there was one thing that was going wrong through this challenge, I quickly reached a point where as hard as I tried I was struggling to keep my carbs to 200g and was frequently around the 250g-300g mark, and on particularly bad (or weak willed days) getting as high as 400g. The carbs that I was eating were making me crave more and more carbs. I was giving in to temptation and eating crisps and chocolate telling myself that it was ok because I was doing so much intense cardio.

By the end of the challenge I had put on 10lbs, despite reaching a point where I was regularly biking 70-100km a day over a 1 ½ to 2 ½ hour session. To me this was a clear reinforcement of the fact that my body simply doesn’t do well on carbs. If I had to do that much intense cardio and was still putting on weight then it’s clear that I can never return to what most people would call normal eating without putting a lot of weight back on – particularly if I was going back to a normal workout schedule. I’m convinced that the cravings increased over the duration of the challenge as my body got used to having carbs and started it’s cycle of sugar rush and crash, causing me to want to keep the rush so I could keep going.

Getting the right amount of post-workout protein without a shake
I also learnt the hard way what my body’s limits are, and just how important it is for me to consume protein straight after any sort of exercise – including intense cardio. For the first couple of weeks I was taking a protein shake, but I ran out and couldn’t get any more so I simply went without thinking ‘it’s only cardio, it won’t be a problem’. But my muscles were fatiguing and I started getting soreness in my right knee as my glutes weakened again under the pressure of the amount of exercise they were being subjected to. In the end I realised that I needed to do something about the protein consumption so I started to take boiled eggs, bacon, nuts and tuna with me to eat straight after the session. For the final 2 weeks of the challenge I was doing my best to battle against failing muscles and mental fatigue while the carb loading was still giving me plenty of energy. In the end, one session after completing the set distance, I had to quit with 2 days of the challenge left to run. I had done all I physically could – and more. I was not only struggling with my knee but the weakness had now progressed to give me ankle and shin pain and both were swollen. Even RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevate) wasn’t relieving the symptoms sufficiently.

It’s now been just over 2 weeks since I finished the challenge. Initially I just took time out to rest properly and recover from the strains and swelling I gained in those final 2 weeks of the challenge. I finally returned to the gym at the start of this week, returning to a TRX only programme to give me body weight exercises that should be less stressful on my legs. In the first week and a half of being back on my normal low-carb diet I lost 4lbs, and that was without going to the gym – the only exercise being a couple of hours slow walking a day. I can see the fat stores starting to go again, and based on previous experience I just need to be patient for another 4 or 5 weeks and my body will return to my optimum body weight and body fat. The TRX exercises are working everything and I’m feeling my abs tightening again, so as the fat shifts from my belly and love handles things are looking better already due to the muscles tightening up. I’m back on the protein shakes now too, and thankfully I don’t think that I particularly lost any muscle tone in my arms or upper body.

The Penultimate Leaderboard at Grimsby's Pure Gym
I’m glad I did the challenge, because it taught me the value of eating carbs the right way – that there is a time and a place for them, even for someone like me who has a protein metabolic type. In the end I finished in first place at my gym, the only member to complete the distance, and was so far ahead that the second and third places combined were still a little behind me. I was on the national leaderboard for the duration of the challenge and never dropped out of the top 25 nationally, finishing in 16th place, and I was consistently in the top 15 females nationally finishing as the 7th placed female. For a long time I’ve said that I’m not built for speed, I’m built for endurance. It was nice to have this borne out in this challenge, and good to know that I can do this sort of thing now – if I’d tried a year ago I know that I would have failed. It’s given me a boost of confidence that if I set my mind to do something, I can achieve it. And it’s taught me that I can push through the mental barriers and achieve incredible things – even pushing through the physical pain barriers to keep going, but I have to be careful that I don’t push too far through the pain. That level of pain is there for a reason. It’s there to stop you from damaging yourself. It’s also taught me just how gruelling these distance bike races are, and whilst the cyclists are trained for this and prepare and this is all they do, it’s really given me a much better appreciation of how fit and prepared they have to be – both physically and mentally – to go out there and do these long races.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Peanut Butter Protein Balls

I've recently started making protein snacks to fill the gap when I get the munchies, without having to reach for cheese, nuts & tuna every time! My favourite snacks are Peanut Butter Protein balls, but experimenting with these has led me to a couple of variations: Peanut Butter Kiwi Protein Bars & Almond Butter Protein Balls.

Peanut Butter Protein Balls

Ingredients (makes 14)
250g Chunky Peanut Butter (preferably organic as it contains more protein, be careful not to buy low-fat varieties as they are loaded with sugars!)
100g Chocolate flavoured Diet Whey Protein Powder (or your choice of protein powder & flavour - non diet ones will increase the amount of carbs)
25ml Semi-Skimmed Milk (approx)
25ml Water (approx)

Note: You may need more, or less, fluids depending on the quality of your protein powder and how fatty & oily your peanut butter is. You are aiming to make a firm, slightly squishy, dough that has a smooth texture.

Place the Peanut Butter in a bowl and add the protein powder. Using a spoon mix together thoroughly until the mixture creates large clumps, a little like making a dough. Gradually add the milk & water, mixing thoroughly until the mixture starts to come together in one solid, yet smooth, dough. Please don't leave out the fluids or your protein balls will have a dry texture inside and will be hard to eat, trust me this is the voice of experience!

Using your hands gently kneed the dough and ensure that there are no stray pieces in the bowl. Gently break the dough into 14 roughly equal sized pieced and roll between your hands to make small balls. If you want to, you can then coat these with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, drinking chocolate powder, or anything else that takes your fancy. Place in an airtight container and put in the fridge for half an hour. You can split the balls into two containers and freeze one if you wish.

Eat as a replacement for a sweet, chocolatey, snack or an hour before a workout to give you a protein & fat boost. For me these are great as the taste is chocolatey & peanuty and kills any cravings for my favourite chocolate bar: Snickers!

Nutritional Information - per protein ball

Fat: 9.52g (2g Saturated)
Carbs: 3g (Fibre: 1.8g; Net Carbs: 1.2g)
Protein: 10.91g

Calories: 146