Monday, 21 September 2015

Rules for the journey

The art of training well is to take it seriously, with full commitment and professional discipline, whilst retaining a lightness of spirit so as not to take it too seriously... obviously not an easy line to tread! All athletes are at risk of the dreaded plague of over-training, none more so than those who have a tendency to seek perfection, which is a large proportion as sport naturally attracts high achievers. Saying that however, some of the world's best swimmers (Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte) have barely taken a day out of training in years, while many other pros have missed entire seasons with burnout.

I put a lot of pressure on myself this year because I've taken physical, emotional and financial risks to try to reach my goals. Had I known I was getting sick with hypothyroidism and anaemia, I wouldn't have pushed so hard to make every training session. Now it's time to redress the balance.

So as I start up my training again I have some new rules to continue my journey;

1) Train softly - let my body command when to exercise and when to rest. Often it's bleedin' obvious when I need a rest day, but for the days when I'm not sure I'll keep track of my heart rate variability which shows whether I'm under stress or not. I can take time out guilt-free.

2) Food is medicine - eat wholesome, nutritious homemade food whenever possible

3) Feed up, not down - now that I'm on a gluten and dairy-free diet I need to be careful that I'm eating enough carbs and protein to fuel my training. That means careful planning around training sessions; more carbs in the morning and higher protein at night

4) Gratitude - when I'm grateful I find my grace. Be happy for every day I can train and accept with kindness the days I need to rest

5) No pride, no shame - I'm not defined by how far I swim, how heavy a weight I can lift or whether I win or lose. My diving is about exploring my own potential. It's about being the best I can be, and no comparisons with anyone else. It doesn't need to be perfect, but it does need to be 100% right for me.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Night terrors

One of my most frustrating symptoms is waking up at 3am, feeling hungry and needing to eat before I'm able to go back to sleep. This was quite acute earlier this year before I was diagnosed, but still blights my nights at the moment, especially after an evening training session.

After some research online and in books I've discovered that we wake in the early hours due to increased cortisol hormone. Normal cortisol levels are highest in the morning and lowest at night. This is supposed to wake us at a normal waking time, but sometimes kicks in way too early, often because we're low in glucose. This hypoglycemia can be due to not eating enough earlier in the evening, however I think it is also linked to poor blood sugar balance and adrenal fatigue.

Courgette spirals
I'm like most people in enjoying my carbs through the day - oats for breakfast, grains at lunch and maybe some potatoes in the evening. Add in my usual sugary snacks and it can lead to a blood sugar level that spikes up and down through the day, resulting in peaks at inconvenient times like the middle of the night. That's the theory at least. I could get my cortisol tested by a private lab but I'm not sure the expense justifies the result. The solution would be the same whether I do the test or not - what I need to do is balance my blood sugar a little better during the day. That means cutting out the refined sugar snacks, replacing them with protein, and always eating carbs with protein and fat. It also means planning meals that are nutrient-dense rather than carbohydrate-heavy. So instead of grains, pasta or potatoes I choose mashed root vegetables or make spaghetti with courgette spirals instead. It's taking a while to re-train my body as it's craving the sugar it was used to, and maybe that where the 'terrors' fit in... it's just my body in the final throes of defiance!

Adrenal fatigue also messes with cortisol levels - in the early stages of fatigue, which is commonly caused by chronic stresses such as work and overtraining, our cortisol levels might be high for far longer than they should, meaning we feel a bit wired and can't sleep well. However as the condition worsens, cortisol drops low and stays low so we struggle to get up in the mornings and remain in a brain fog for most of the day. I've no doubt that earlier this year my adrenals were getting a battering along with the rest of my body, so fatigue could be a factor in my symptoms however the solution is to rest and eat well so I'm on my way to recovery already. There are some herbs worth taking to support adrenal function, such as ashwaganda, which are featured in the green supplement I take daily from Nuzest.

Although many nutritionists advise not to eat within 3 hours of bedtime, I'm finding that a small protein and low GI carb before bed is proving useful in keeping me asleep, especially after a session in the pool. My favourite is sliced apple with peanut butter.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Overcoming mental blocks to training

One of the most obvious symptoms of burnout or over-training is low motivation to train, especially in your competitive sport of choice. As exercise addicts we can often keep training in another sport if the fatigue isn't so bad, mainly to keep the buzz of being fit but steering clear of the mental block around our main sport. That perfectly describes my summer!

Haunted by the black line!
I've enjoyed many swims around the lakes local to Bristol, runs along the harbourside and under Brunel's bridge and a few stand-up paddleboard sessions. What I've been avoiding however is the pool - any brief thoughts of the black line have been quickly followed by excuses to do something else.

So I've decided its time to get back to it. I've been freediving to depth for most of the summer so it's not as if I haven't been holding my breath. What I'm facing is purely a mental block - a bit of fear, uncertainty and shame leftover from June's major disappointment.

A friend of mine contacted me to say they'd be training alone at the local pool and did I want to come down for a session. After a bit of procrastinating and grumbling I accepted. I continued grumbling as I slipped into my pool suit but strangely as I put on my neck weight and nose clip I stepped into a familiar role and suddenly it felt as if I was back where I belonged. A couple of 25m lengths later, which felt super comfortable, I had a smile on my face! Even 50m lengths didn't feel so bad, despite my CO2 tolerance probably being pretty low now after several months break. I particularly enjoyed dolphin swimming in my fins, re-engaging with my inner mermaid!

So that's the hardest step done now, time to start adding a few more training sessions depending on how I'm feeling day by day. I'm still struggling with fatigue so 2 - 3 days in every week I find going to work enough of a struggle so I'm crashed out on the bed or sofa by the evening. But otherwise things are looking positive.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

A testing time in Cornwall

I have to admit to not feeling any difference after two weeks on the gut healing diet; however I’ve thoroughly enjoyed cooking all my meals from scratch and trying out new recipes with offal and bone broths. Ideally what I want is to be bouncing with energy after cutting out gluten as so many people seem to describe in their experiences… what I’m starting to accept is that gut healing may take many months and unless I cut out everything that could be irritating my gut and immune system that the magical day of leaping out of bed may never arrive.

For the Bank Holiday weekend we went to Cornwall for some scuba diving and surfing. I took some of my own creations with me, but inevitably I ended up stuck with a small caravan cafe at a dive site with little except burgers and pasties on offer (delicious though!). So I decided this was a good test to see how my tummy would fare after two weeks break. Eating gluten again seemed to have no obvious immediate reactions in my gut or anywhere else in my body. I ran along the coastal path for an hour each way and felt pretty energised, yay!

However four days later I experienced the worst hypothyroid symptoms I’ve had in months - extreme mental fog, fatigue and generally feeling quite unwell. Now it could be a complete coincidence or it could be a delayed/secondary immune response. Is two weeks enough to have made a difference? I’m left with so many uncertainties and questions I’m not sure where to go next with my diet. What I’ve decided for now is to continue with gluten-free and stick with the gut healing foods I’ve introduced. I’m not currently inspired to embark on a full elimination diet like the Auto-Immune Protocol (AIP) - cutting out pretty much everything nice to leave me with steak and carrots to eat!

I do have one issue to resolve with my gluten-free diet at the moment and that is to ensure I’m eating enough carbohydrates to fuel my training. During the Gut Gastronomy programme I had a couple of days where I effectively ‘bonked’ (ran out of energy) on a run and had to walk home. Although I’m eating huge plates of food for each meal, sometimes if it’s mainly salad or vegetables, meat or fish I burn through that energy pretty quickly and I’m not left with much to train on. So I’m working on planning better pre-exercise snacks such as oat cakes/apple and nut butter or a homemade oat/date/seed bar. Although some auto-immune diets refrain from even having brown rice, quinoa or buckwheat I currently can’t see how I’m going to survive without these in my diet. Having a plentiful supply of clean pea protein from NuZest has been a saving grace to ensure I’m getting adequate protein around each training session.