I hesitated for a moment but decided I needed to do this. Before my swim on Saturday, I stepped on the scale at Equinox Bethesda.
Down 6 pounds.
I was having lunch with my colleague Sarah Budds the Tuesday after D.C. Rock n Roll when Sarah told me about an article she had just read in the New York Times about a guy who starts every day with a cold shower.
We were reviewing every detail about the race and regretting that we hadn't yet had that burger that was on both of our minds at the half marathon finish. I was thinking about The Tombs and her brain was at Burger Tap & Shake.
The idea of starting your day with a cold shower came up because when we were talking about food I mentioned that I was Day 2 into experimenting with exercising on a fast to try to chip away at the stored fat in my abdomen.
"I always wake up hungry," I told her. "Thinking about heading to my kitchen for a steamy cappuccino, freshly squeezed orange juice, and even just a half a banana is enough to get me out of bed and into my workout clothes at 5 in the morning."
I know there are people who exercise in the morning on an empty stomach. I’m not one of them.
14 days into my new exercise regimen and a cold shower would seem so much easier. Seeing results on the scale on Saturday was a big boost.
The idea of the cold shower, Sarah said, is that by starting your day with a challenge you set yourself in a better place to face challenges all day long. I’ve been starting my day with a workout for the past 2 years, but until now, it wasn’t something I dreaded or needed to view as a challenge.
It's not that I'm unhappy with my weight. I'm fine with my weight. I feel great, my clothes fit comfortably, and although I've still got toning to do, I just don't let the scale affect me one way or the other.
Mostly I get on the scale before and after a long run to see if I’ve lost any water so I can re-hydrate. I’m usually wearing my running shoes and all the rest of my gear so I don’t actually register the number as my weight – it’s just a number.
Yet especially because I have a small frame, I often feel like the fat around my abdomen is another obstacle to performing the way I want to during a race or even during a long run. I know endurance exercise is not enough to break down fat and I’ve been incorporating strength training into my regimen for at least a year. But by the time I hit my 5th half marathon, I was starting to get impatient for results.
I was already thinking about this when I decided to listen to one of Tina Muir’s podcasts on RunnersConnect during my 4-mile recovery walk the Sunday after the half marathon and the topic of exercising on a fast came up. She was interviewing fitness guru and Get-Fit Guy Ben Greenfield who said that the idea in general is to get your body to use fat as fuel instead of glycogen. One way to do this is by exercising when you’ve already depleted your glycogen stores. While it can take between 6 months and a year to train your body to do this efficiently when you exercise vigorously or when you race, you can start gently and still begin to see results.
As in 6 pounds in 13 days.
I know this doesn’t sound like a big deal, especially if you’re that person who doesn’t wake up hungry or if your weight fluctuates 6 pounds daily, but for me both the weight loss and the idea of exercising in the morning in a fasted state are clutch. The weight loss because I’m a tiny person and 6 pounds is a lot of weight loss and the idea because it’s messing with my sense of a routine. If you've got an exercise routine - and I know how difficult it is to get one - one of the nicest things is that exercising then becomes, well, routine, like brushing your teeth.
But like your teeth, there's stuff you have to do to maintain your regimen. For me, planning my fueling before and after exercising is one way to keep my routine interesting and enjoyable.
For the first year, as I was establishing my early morning exercise routine, I would turn off my alarm and put on my workout clothes, all the while thinking about my pre-workout meal. I knew this was a lot of sugar first thing in the morning, but the few times I skipped this, I would poop out within 20 minutes.
And for my long runs on Sundays, I only had to experience what runners call “bonking” – or hitting a wall – once before I got strategic about fueling my runs. That meant incorporating the right amount of carbs every day, loading up on carbs 3 days before my long run, and re-fueling every 40 minutes on the trail. I don’t have any complaints about this nutrition plan because it’s worked for me. I did my 4-hour timed run in November and my Jamaica marathon in December without ever coming close to bonking.
And with all this attention to fueling my workouts I’ve been happy with my weight and my level of fitness, so the idea of exercising with depleted glycogen stores is a paradigm shift.
Starting this just after D.C. Rock n Roll was smart because I needed to deload before training for my next race. As it turned out, I’m deloading for 3 weeks because I strained one of the adductor muscles (yeah I know really) in my right leg, and running any distance greater than 3 miles is not in the picture for now.
Other than eliminating the pre-workout meal, I haven’t made any significant adjustments to my nutrition except perhaps swapping out whole wheat bread for naturally fermented sourdough bread. Sourdough is acidic and thus low glycemic compared with other breads so it doesn’t cause a spike in blood sugar. That means I’m less hungry throughout the morning and less likely to eat a midmorning snack or go crazy at lunch. The truth is my family was visiting from New York City the weekend of the race and we went to Union Market for Sunday brunch. I walked past Lyon Bakery and could not resist the sourdough bread. I’m hooked now and will need to make a trip back there soon.
And I'm sleeping in because I don’t need the extra time it takes to digest food. I’m waking up at the last minute before warming up and exercising, either on the bike or in the pool or at the gym or even going for a walk. The key is you want your fasted workouts, at least in the beginning, to be between 30 minutes to an hour. Once my adductor heals, in order to keep this up, I’ll continue to do fasted workouts in the morning and do a vigorous workout or longer run after work. Apparently once your body gets accustomed to using fat stores for energy and you’re not too uncomfortable you can go back to working out once a day on a fast, either in the morning or later in the day if you fast after breakfast. (For me, that’ll never happen.)
And here’s another thing I noticed, which I think backs up the ideas in Sarah’s article.
After challenging myself to get up and out of the house to exercise in a fasted state, I’m doing everything better and possibly faster and more efficiently.
In the pool I’m swimming harder longer and making turns without touching at the end of each length.
During my 5-mile run with Micki a week after the half marathon, it was Micki who first noticed I was running faster.
"For someone who's running in a fasted state you're movin'," she said.
During fartleks I’m having more fun than ever.
Even on my workout day off and I’m doing a walk, like this morning, I’m concentrating as I listen to the news and podcasts, and I'm picking up the pace.
Like I've got purpose.
As in getting back to my kitchen and toasting an awesome slice of sourdough bread to serve with a poached egg or smashed avocado, a handful of blueberries, maybe a small glass of orange juice or pomegranate juice, and a cup of excellent coffee with steamed milk or sometimes unsweetened coconut milk.
First challenge of the day, check.
See you next time!