Friday, February 26, 2016

A Chat with Aunt Flo: How Does the Menstrual Cycle Affect Training

Over the past year, I've gotten really interested in hormones and cycles and all that fun (okay, sometimes annoying) lady jazz.  After being introduced to the concept that our hormonal fluctuations due to our menstrual cycles can affect our athletic performance, I got hooked on understanding my own cycle.  

As our cycle progresses, our hormone levels fluctuate, which means different things for how we need to fuel our bodies, how we recover, how we tolerate heat, and how we perform overall.  Estrogen levels begin to rise about 5-6 days post-period and around 12 days after the period, estrogen peaks, which is coupled with the beginning of a rise in progesterone.  The highest hormone levels of both estrogen and progesterone occur about 5 days before the period.  If we consider the typical cycle to be about 28 days, that means the second half or weeks 3 and 4 are the "high hormone" phase. This Training Peaks article describes the phases and their effects in greater detail.

Fueling and Hydrating During Your Cycle

I was initially introduced to the concept of hormone fluctuations effect on performance by Osmo Nutrition.  Dr. Stacy Sims, the founder of Osmo, created the Osmo line precisely because women have different hydration needs from men based on their hormones.

During our cycle, the variations in estrogen and progesterone mean that our ability to process carbs and protein change.  When estrogen levels are low, in the first half of our cycle, we need more carbs for optimal performance.  When estrogen levels are high, women tend to conserve glycogen stores and use more fat for fuel.  This makes the second half of our cycle the prime time for endurance activities and means we don't require as many carbs, though we may need to supplement with carbs to reach higher intensities.  

Additionally, women may not experience the same results as men on an extremely low carb diet, because when women go into a carb deficit, our body starts to go into a more masculine reproductive state and we begin to conserve fat. At certain times during our cycle, this means that we need to ensure that we are getting enough carbohydrates to prevent menstrual dysfunction. See the full explanation on the Osmo blog

Now, I've been attempting a higher fat-lower carb diet for a while now, trying to teach my body to use its fat stores more efficiently, but I definitely don't shy away from carbs, particularly for refueling post-workout.  For women especially, that 30-45 minutes after a workout is done is critical for refuelling and repairing our body.

Women are more predisposed to hyponatremia during the this phase as well because progesterone increases total body sodium losses.

Training and Racing During Your Cycle

This article from Breaking Muscle "breaks" it down in terms of what hormone fluctuations might mean for training (it's mostly focused on non-endurance training, so I've adapted somewhat below). 

In the early stages of your cycle, you will see the greatest benefits from doing high intensity workouts, think intervals or speed work at the track.  

For optimal performance, you'd want to be in a low hormone phase (so the first 2 weeks post-period) on race day! 

On your day of ovulation, you could see breakthrough performances.  Head out for a time trial or do a test set at the pool. Just be careful around this time as the increase in estrogen (peaking at ovulation) can interfere with collagen synthesis and neuromuscular control, meaning our bodies can be more prone to injury. Fuelling and hydration needs are also critical here. 

In the later part of your cycle, you will benefit most from long, steady aerobic training and / or rest!  If you're using a 3 week on / 1 week rest cycle for your training program, think about planning your rest week in the week before you get your period.  The day or two pre-period can be a great time for yoga or low-intensity exercise. Then as your period starts, your body will begin to normalize and will actually be ready to get back to work! 

Now, in my time as an athlete I have heard of women using their birth control to specifically alter their cycle in order to be prepared for key events (e.g., who wants their period on teh day they do their first Ironman?)  From what I understand, this can be fine; however, I highly encourage you to consult with your doctor well in advance of your event if you are curious about this option (think at least 6 months out). 

Every BODY is different, so how well do you know yours? And can you use your own cycle to your advantage?

How well do you know your cycle? 

Wouldn't it be great to have some help in tracking your cycle? Well, there's an app for that!  One of my Team Coeur teammates, Katie, shared a video with us recently about the Clue app.  Clue is a scientifically based app for tracking your cycle.  With the app, you can track not only your period and PMS, but also things like: your sleep patterns, digestive health, exercise, moods, energy levels, bowel movements, appointments, sexual activity / desire, skin health, cravings, whether or not you took your birth control, pain, etc.  After one full cycle, Clue can provide you a helpful analysis, because it gets smarter as you use it.  (The app creators point out that you should not be using Clue as a method of birth control.)

Addressing the Female Triad

As endurance athletes, we have a higher chance of experiencing irregular periods or lack of period caused by high training loads - amenorrhea.  We are also at risk of developing the Female Triad - disordered eating, amenorrhea and osteoperosis.  These three combine to have significant negative impacts on performance.  Please talk to your doctor if you think that you are experiencing any of the three.  

Tracking your cycle can be a useful tool for us female athletes.  Knowing our bodies is one step to maximizing our performance!

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or a health professional in any sense.  Please talk to your doctor about your reproductive health, including any abnormalities, as well as the fact that you are an athlete! 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Training and Life Update: Mid-February and Magic Turmeric Milk

After my little meltdown/breakthrough last week, I'm feeling really good about where I am and where I'm going in my training.  I felt a bit of weight lift off of my shoulders, and I'm working hard to keep that weight away!  The goal is to keep a tight hold on the "FUN" aspect of training and to listen to what my body and soul are telling me to do in terms of trainng. It will be a work in progress throughout the season.  And again, no comparing and no self-handicapping!

Swimming:  I got in the pool last weekend! I only swam 1200m, but it went well.  I had imagined that getting back in the pool would be somewhat frustrating, given how long I've been off of swimming, but it was surprisingly good!  I felt strong in the water, and most importantly, I enjoyed being there.  Success!  Now I just have to keep going back.  The goal is to swim a few more times on my own, and then gradually add my ROCS practices back into the mix.

Biking: I've kept up the Eurosports rides with power, and have been having a lot of fun coaching our Wednesday night High Performance Squad at OTC. We've been gradually building the endurance of those rides, building the workouts in a sort of "slow burn" way.  The combination seems to be great, and while I'm still biking at a low heart rate range, I do think I'm improving and getting stronger!

A cold run home from work leaves me with mascara raccoon eyes!

Running: My work commute has become a bit less tedious as my fitness has come back, though I do enjoy my Friday walks or the occasional ride to the office. We had 50 cm of snow this week, which has made running outside a bit more challenging, but I've found that my YakTraks work really well in these conditions.  Before the snow arrived, I did my last MAF test, and am happy that my pace has dropped down to about 9:35/mile at my heart rate. There is still a way to go, but I'm thrilled with that progress!

Just the start of our 50cm snow day!

Skate Skiing:  Learning to embrace winter has kind of felt like winning the lottery.  We've had some absolutely gorgeous weather (it's all relative, to me "gorgeous" is now sunny and -30F lol!).  And through a lot of patience and sticking with it (and the help of my handsome "coach"), the skiing has been "clicking" lately.  My balance has improved significantly, and my fear of going fast is diminishing.  I'm really enjoying my weekly Thursday night ski lesson, and have had the opportunity to get out for a few longer skis on the weekends.  Now that we have a lot of new snow, I'm excited to ski in better conditions (the past few weeks have been icy and too cold to get a good glide going). Now that my technique is improving, I'm definitely starting to get a better workout when I ski as well!

Because I love you all and I can't keep this good stuff to myself, I'm also sharing a recipe for "Magic Turmeric Milk" with you.  I started drinking this concoction nightly last week, and I feel amazing.  I had initially felt like I was coming down with a cold, but after two nights of drinking the milk, I felt 100% again.  And last night, I drank some before bed hoping to get rid of the raging headache I had and again, it worked like a charm.

Turmeric has many amazing qualities - it is an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-septic.  It has been known to help with colds, sore throats, indigestion, menstrual cramps, arthritis, etc.  It detoxifies the body and boosts immunity.  For triathletes, this has the potential benefits of helping us stay healthy and recover from our workouts.  Inflammation in the body causes a great host of issues, and this drink will help to reduce that inflammation.  It also tastes pretty good and is supposed to help with sleep!

For the milk, don't forget the black pepper as it helps to activate the carcumin in the turmeric.  Try to source organic turmeric powder (I found a large bag at whole foods in the supplements aisle that was way cheaper than the small container in the spices aisle) and make sure your honey is local, raw honey (lots of benefits to that as well!!).

Magic Turmeric Milk

1 cup full-fat coconut milk
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 inch fresh ginger (peeled)
Sprinkle of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon raw honey

In a blender, combine all ingredients except honey.  Pour the mixture into a small saucepan and heat for five minutes over low heat until hot, but not boiling.  Stir occasionally as the fats in the coconut milk can start to stick to the bottom of the pan.  Transfer the milk to a mug and stir in the raw honey until it melts into the drink.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Self-Handicap and Comparison Trap

I've been giving a lot of thought to this topic lately, and am posting for two reasons, 1) because if I put this promise to myself in writing, maybe I will stick to it and 2) because it's something I see all the time among my peers (in all contexts, athletic, work, love life, etc.) and maybe reading about it will help someone dig themselves out of this negative cycle as well!

The Self-Handicap Trap

A few weeks back, I read an excellent article on Ditching the Psychological Safety Net from Life With No Limits Coaching.  The jist is that often athletes "self-handicap" in order to create an opportunity to excuse future failure by neglecting to prepare.  That allows the athlete to use the excuse of circumstances rather than lack of ability when the outcome of an event is negative.  This behaviour often stems from a fear of failure.  We do sneaky things and make "rationalized" excuses all the time when we self-handicap.  I'm hugely guilty of this.  

Now, I'm not saying that we aren't allowed to listen to our bodies or that we have to hit every single prescribed workout.  I'm just saying that we have to put ourselves out of our comfort zone if we want to reach our goals.  That doesn't mean going hard every workout.  That just means patience, dedication, hard work, owning our mistakes, and revising our goals if we get off track.  It means recognizing when something is a legitimate reason not to train and when our mind is playing tricks on us to open up room for excuses when our later performances don't go as hoped.

The Comparison Trap

I'm surrounded by amazing, high-performing, happy, fit, athletes all the time. Whether it is my two lovely, talented roommates or the friends that I have made through OTC, Team Coeur or through social media, I am constantly at awe at how dedicated everyone around me seems to be. Now, I've come to learn that 1) appearances can be deceiving (especially in social media life, but also in real life), 2) I probably seem dedicated, over-achieving, etc. to someone else, and 3) where someone else is in their training / life experience / etc. has ZERO effect on my personal performance and abilities.  There is no reason to compare myself to others!  And there is no reason for me to not believe in my own abilities.  I know my own story and I know that I should believe in myself and only compare myself to who I was yesterday.  BUT, somehow it is still really easy to fall into the comparison game.

When you add the comparison trap to the self-handicap trap, you have a perfect storm of lack of confidence, feelings of being not good enough, and lack of motivation.

The Perfect Storm and What I'm Doing About It...

So, how did this post come about? Well, as we know, I've been avoiding the pool like the plague.  I don't really know why, but I've been using my old, "I don't like swimming" excuse.  Yes, I used to swim so much that I got burnt out and actually got to the point where I dreaded going to the pool.  But that was a long time ago!  I ended up having some fantastic swims last season, so I don't really know why I've been dreading the pool again so much. I've accepted my coach's determination that I shouldn't swim until I feel ready and actually WANT to swim.  But while he is certainly right to an extent (training should be fun)... realistically, I need to get my butt back in the pool. It won't be surprising if my swims don't go the way I want them to this season if I keep not swimming.  I need to stop the self-handicapping.

In general lately though, I've been really enjoying my non-triathlon-specific life. I've loved learning to cross-country ski (even though I fall into the comparison trap there too sometimes) and I've also enjoyed having free time and not being tired all the time.  I've been having a lot of FUN! And I think part of me is worried that I will lose that fun if I dive too hardcore back into training.

But as much fun as I've been having, I've also felt guilty for not being super motivated to train and for not being hardcore in my training when it seems like everyone else is.  I keep saying to myself, "it's only February," but deep down, I am comparing myself and worrying that I won't be ready when race season comes around in May.  The comparison trap is in full force.

It hit me on the head the other night when I returned home from a run.  It was the first run in ages where I had clear sidewalks, no work back-pack to carry, good nutrition pre-run, etc. and it showed.  I felt great!  I tested my MAF pace and it had improved so much.  I was happy and feeling really good about how the run went.  But then I walked in the house and one of the roomies asked how the run went.  "Fine, I guess."  That was my response. What!?!? Where did that come from? Then I started making excuses. It was weird.  I went up and showered, and while I washed my hair, I said to myself, "What the hell, Kels? That run was great! You had fun. It went really well."  I realized that I was worried that my run wasn't good enough and I was comparing myself and self-handicapping myself all at the same time.  If I said the run wasn't great and my performance later sucked, then I had an excuse.  After my shower, I went down and retracted my "fine" and replaced it with "really great," and then had a good, though rather emotional chat with the roomie about how I've been feeling guilty about not wanting to train and comparing myself.  It was a good, cathartic episode.

So now, I'm committing to stop the comparing and the self-handicapping! I'm committing to stop saying things like, "oh, well that was so slow for me," or "it was only x pace," or "well, it was snowy, so I couldn't x, y, z," or "I don't feel like swimming." I know when I say these things they help no one.  They don't make me feel better, and sometimes they don't make others feel very good either.  I'm going to own my training, whether it's actually getting out to run or whether it's deciding that going for a ski sounds more fun.  I'm going to celebrate my progress and focus on the things that are going really well, instead of what might be going wrong.  And I'll continue to smile through all of it!

Do you self-handicap? Have you fallen into the comparison trap? How did you get out of it?

Friday, February 5, 2016

Race Report: Polar Hero Obstacle Course Race

My first obstacle course race was a success! I had a great time at Polar Hero Ottawa and was surprised at how easily I dealt with many of the obstacles.  It is amazing what your body can achieve if you put aside fear and doubt.  I certainly held some preconceived notions that, "I couldn't do that!" when seeing some of the walls and things we were going to have to climb and hoist ourselves over.  Now, I do have some things to work on - like learning how to properly climb a rope and increasing grip strength to hold on to the rings - but overall, it went pretty well.

The course was in the snow (duh, it's winter) and held at the Lansdowne complex.  The organizers used the "terrain" which included the football stadium, which meant we had lots of stairs to run up and down.  The complex also has a big hill that we got to slide down on a magic carpet, as well as a huge jungle gym.

Here I am crushing the "Atlas Wall" 

And Mike, powering up the wall like a boss!

The rings were my nemesis. I struggled to get about 3/4 of the way across, only to fall off.  At that point, I decided to call it a day and head to the finish. Out of the 25 obstacles, I successfully completed 22 (skipped the teeter totter and the rope climb completely).  I would call that a good first attempt, especially considering that I thought I would have to skip way more than 3!

Thankful to this guy for the awesome Christmas gift (the race registration was part of my present)! It is so fun to try new, challenging activities that push me outside of my comfort zone a bit and show me how strong I am!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Checking in on 30 Before 30!

I thought I would check-in on my 30 Before 30 list to let you know how things are going!  It's also a good time for me to think about what else I would like to accomplish before my 30th birthday (in April).  The items with descriptions beside them are the ones that I've "checked off the list."

30 Before 30

1) Say "yes" more often - This one seems to be going well! I've said "yes" to a new book club, to a new job, to going on a first date with a handsome man, to a trip to Cartagena, to a spontaneous trip to Tremblant, to rock climbing with my family, to trying Crossfit again, to coaching triathlon, to a new coach, to a lot of awesome things!

2) Compete in a snowshoe running race

3) Paint a picture

4) Do a 30-day yoga challenge - I did about 2 weeks of yoga, before realizing that life is way too busy to make yoga-everyday work. It was a nice attempt though and I do love yoga.

5) Play on an intramural team

6) Swim sub-1:10 for a 100m freestyle

7) Break 20 minutes in a 5k

8) Learn to skate ski - Wooo! I'm getting there! Thanks to Mike's patience and encouragement, I am definitely on my way to being a skate skier, and possibly even a good skate skier!

9) Learn how to knit or crochet

10) Read 6 books (1 per month) - I've read one book so far, and started 2 others. Thankfully, I've joined a new book club. So I'll get at least 2 more finished before my 30th birthday.  I highly recommend the book we've read so far, "A House in the Sky."

11) Take an online course

12) Learn some Italian or Spanish for my birthday trip - I've downloaded Duolingo (step 1) to start working on some Spanish for my trip to Colombia in April.

13) Make a soufflé

14) Build / make / refinish a piece of furniture

15) Learn how to drive stick - So far, Mike has taught me how to shift gears. We may need to wait until the snow melts to finish the lessons!

16) Take a spontaneous road trip

17) Visit somewhere new

18) Go camping

Skiing along the river in Mont Tremblant
19) Ski at Tremblant  - I cross-country skied at Mont Tremblant! Tremblant is beautiful in the winter and so much fun.  I mostly had the trails to myself since it was also a gorgeous day for downhill skiing.

20) Be at tourist in Ottawa - Since posting this list, I've been to the Nature Museum to see the bugs exhibit, National Art Gallery for a Monet exhibit, and the War Museum! I've also skated on the canal, another quintessential touristy activity in Ottawa.  I've also tried a few new restaurants / cafes.  And I've explored new trails in Gatineau Park.

21) Plan an epic solo trip

22) Find a cause to lend my time to

23) Volunteer at a soup kitchen

24) Manage my finances and save some money - I've been working on a new budget and trying to save more money (to be fair most of it is going to my new bike, but hopefully the savings plan sticks!).

25) Totally unplug for an entire weekend

26) Help rescue a puppy

27) Send letters and postcards to my friends and family - I sent a few Christmas cards (and accidentally left a few in the glove compartment of my sister's truck).

28) Call my sister and grandma once a week

29) Fall in love with myself - A work in progress.

30) Practice gratitude - Another work in progress. I'm certainly thankful for the countless wonderful things in my life.