Sleepy September revisited: Improve sleep with journaling and task listing

This blog post was intended to be shared in September, to round out my Sleepy September blog series.  But life happens – and I was side-tracked with final clean-out and maintenance work for the closing of my old townhouse sale last week, so this was put on the back burner.  (Have you ever sold a house? It was waaaaaay more work and stress than I’d anticipated!) 
Do you have trouble falling asleep at night, or wake up in the middle of the night unable to fall back to sleep, because your mind is racing?  Are you overwhelmed with how many things you need to do, and afraid that you won’t remember to do them in the morning?  If so, incorporating some weekly planning, daily task-listing, and journaling could go a long way to ease your mind and help you to sleep better.
When we keep our to-do list exclusively in our head, it prevents us from relaxing (and sleeping) because we’ve constantly got things bumping around in our heads such as, “Call the vet to schedule Shadow’s checkup… Draft and send out memo about new company policy at work… Ask my boss about extending the deadline for that big report… Register Joey for spring baseball before Friday… Stop at the grocery store after work tomorrow to pick up milk, apples and eggs…”  You get it…  the list can go on and on and on (and on and on…!).  And, if there’s any anxiety about any of these tasks (asking for a flexible deadline, perhaps), then some of us can really take up a lot of mental RAM worrying about what will happen and (over)analyzing every possible scenario.  (On a side note: Mental RAM… wouldn’t it be nice if this was something you could upgrade, like your computer hard drive?!)
The goal is to get these loose ideas OUT of your head, where they’re bouncing around, and INTO a reliable place where you can keep track of them.  By writing down your tasks in a trusted planner, notebook or phone app, you’re taking them out of your head and subsequently quieting your mind, which can help you to relax and get better sleep.
How do you implement this?  I’ve tried a few different methods, and found what works best for me.  I’ll share what I do, and you can tweak this as need.
Weekly level of planning:  Every Sunday, I open up my Google Calendar for the coming week, and block out specific times for all of my regular tasks/commitments.  As an entrepreneur with several different business streams, it’s extremely important that I keep myself organized for both success and my sanity!  I’ll look at my list of tasks to accomplish and block off an appropriate amount of time into Google calendar using different colored labels for different types of activities (ie, coaching activities, business development time, phone calls with clients, or personal activities).  I have tried using a paper-based planner with hourly increments to do this, but have found that I prefer Google because as my schedule changes, I can easily re-arrange the allotted timeslots as needed by dragging/dropping, shortening or extending, without cluttering up a paper-based planner.  I also include my workout time and dinner plans with friends, as well as some buffer time to account for travel, traffic, etc, between commitments.  It is ALL in there!
Daily level of planning:   I bought a basic monthly paper-based planner to use for this (yes – old school I know, and only $15 at Office Depot).  Every morning, I’ll look at the Google calendar and see what areas of work I’ve allotted time for that day, and then break things down into more specific tasks.  Maybe I’ve blocked off 2 hours for coaching activities, so I write down that I need to write weekly training plans for Elizabeth, Chris, and Lori, and review Training Peaks files, so those will each get their own line in the to-do list.  If I’ve blocked off 2 hour for business development in Google Calendar, I may further break that down into writing one blog and a social media post to share it, and working through a continuing education recertification module on stress and hormones.  As each item is finished, I check it off the list in my planner. (This is why I write out everything on it’s own line, vs simply saying “write training plans”).
The paper-based planner can be great for jotting down those to-do things that pop into your head at random times.  Over the course of an evening as I’m cooking dinner, cleaning up from dinner, watching some TV or doing chores around the, I may remember that I need to send some recipe ideas to a client, deposit checks at the bank, finalize weekend dinner plans with a friend, or finish and send my monthly newsletter the next day.  As those thoughts come to mind, I add those tasks to the next day’s list. Even though things like following up with a friend about dinner plans may seem non-stressful, it’s still something that your brain is using up valuable RAM not to forget it. The next morning, when I’m ready to get going for the day, I consult my task list to remind myself of what needs to be done and I immediately see that I need to send some recipes, email friend about dinner, plan a stop at the bank, and send my newsletter.  If a task isn’t finished, I re-write it in the next day’s schedule so I don’t forget to circle back to it.
Simply having a plan and keeping track of my to-do’s really helps me to relax and feel in control.  But what if task-listing and some schedule organizing isn’t enough?
If you find yourself unable to sleep because of a particular fear or worry, you can try what I call “worst-case scenario journaling”.  For whatever reason, the way I’m wired is that when something is uncertain, I  automatically assume/expect the worst case scenario to happen.  One of the ways I’ve learned to stop my mind from churning out the worries and worst-case scenarios is to write out what I’m worried about in a journal.  Sometimes, just seeing it on paper puts my worries in perspective.  You can take this a step farther and deconstruct your worries into worst-case scenarios.  For example, when I took the big leap in Feb 2016 and left my full-time salaried job with great benefits to pursue building my own businesses, not having enough money to make ends meet was a constant worry.  What if I had an unexpected house expense?  No wait – what if it was an unexpected house AND an unexpected car expense?  And what if I had an unexpected health expense on top of that?  Now, what if I had all 3 of these unexpected expenses, AND all of my coaching clients quit in the same month?!  (Now, can you see what I meant about being hard-wired to expect the worst?!)  While in my case, the first step may be acknowledging that it’s unlikely that all of these events would occur at the same time.  But, when a steady corporate paycheck wasn’t coming in, it was sometimes hard to shift my worries away from money, even when I did acknowledge how unlikely the above situation would be.  So, in my journal, I would write out that I was worried about unexpected expenses and not having a guaranteed steady paycheck, and some thoughts like… “what is the worst that can happen if all of these things happen or if I’m running low on money?  Will I be homeless?  Unable to eat?  No.  I may have to dig into my mutual funds, ask my parents for a short-term loan, or put more things on a credit card than I usually would, and deal with paying the interest over time.  But, those aren’t the end of the world.  If worst comes to absolute worst financially, I can look for another full-time salaried position.”  Deconstructing and journaling helped me to put things in perspective and get the worries out of my head so I could focus on other things (like sleep)!
I hope this blog, along with my last two blogs about sleep, have been beneficial this month!  If you’ve tried any of these tips, I’d love to hear if they worked for you.

Mighty Moraine Man Fall Sprint Tri Race Review

This race has been going on in my backyard (well, almost) for a few years now, and I finally got around to racing it!  I’ve heard lots of good things about this race and was excited to race my first sprint race since 2007.  One of the perks of a close-to-home race was avoiding the cost of a hotel and getting a good night’s sleep at home.  The race offers packet pickup on race morning, which made race logistics quite easy.  We woke up at 5am, left the house around 6am, and were at the race site shortly before 7am.  Plenty of time to grab my packet, set up transition, and do a quick warm-up swim.
The Mighty Moraine Triathlon is set in Moraine State Park, about 45 minutes north of Pittsburgh.  This race is offered several times per year, in different formats (currently Spring & Fall sprint distance, mid-summer Sprint and Olympic), and is a fun course for all levels of athletes.
Swim:  The swim (400m) takes place in beautiful Lake Arthur (isn’t the above picture soooo pretty?! I could sit by the lake all day…). Athletes start by standing in waist-deep water and the course is a straight-forward rectangular shape (turns are right-turns and buoys stay to your right).  No waves, no chop.  Visibility was pretty typical for a lake swim; ie, pretty low.  The water temperature for the mid-Sept race this year was 74 degrees, wetsuit legal.
Bike:  The Moraine sprint bike course is usually 13.6 miles, but for this event, it was shortened to 11.5 miles for this race.  The shortening cut out a few of the hills.  I think the best way to describe this course is gently rolling to hilly, with very few true flat sections.  There are a few nice straight sections that were great for using aero bars.
Run:  The run (5k) is on a paved trail that roughly follows the lake shoreline.  Similar to the bike course, it is rarely a true flat, but has lots of small undulations and no prolonged hills or steep grades.  Most of the run was shaded, which was nice.  It is an out & back course, which was nice for seeing where you are relative to the field, and also for high-fiving and cheering on friends and fellow athletes as you’re running.
Good for newbies?  Yes.  The volunteers were fabulous, the course was straightforward and well marked, and there is even a special “Novice Wave” that goes off last.  Overall, it’s a smaller race and people spread out fairly quickly on the swim and bike, yet due to the out & back nature of both bike and run courses, you’re always seeing other athletes to stay motivated.  As long as you’ve trained on some hills around Pittsburgh, you’ll be fine on this course.
Variety is the spice of triathlon:  There were quite a few offerings for this race: sprint tri, sprint tri relay, aqua bike (swim-bike), duathlon (run-bike-run), super sprint tri (200 m swim, 5 mile bike, 1.5 mile run), adventure race (kayak instead of swim), and even a reverse super sprint tri.
YUM:  Moraine had a generous spread of post-race food, including hot dogs, veggie chili, burgers, bananas, cookies (oh so many cookies), and other snacky things.
Thumbs up to this local race!

To run, or not to run?

My Great Race 10k bib went unused this year.  In the week leading up to the race, I came down with a cold. Nothing major – no fever, no chills, no decrease in appetite (the appetite is the key metric of how sick I am!), and only slightly lower energy than normal.
A question I commonly get is… “Should I still work out when I’m sick?”  Given my own situation with the Great Race, I thought this is an appropriate time to answer this one!
One of the more common philosophies when it comes to training when sick is the “above or below the neck” symptom question, which basically states that if your symptoms are mostly from the neck up (ie, congestion, stuffy nose), you may be ok to workout, but if your symptoms are below the neck (body aches, fever) you should rest.  I am completely on board with the second half of that statement.  If you’ve got the flu or something that has you down with a fever (strep throat, stomach virus), then rest… probably more than one day. It’s the first “above the neck” symptom part I’m a little wishy washy on, and I think it comes down to recognizing and respecting your own limits.
As a health coach and someone who has a huge interest in holistic wellness, my take on this may be a little more conservative than others.  I am a huge proponent of “listen to your body.”  You should not work out or race out of obligation to your training plan or training partner/group, or to avoid the guilt of a missed workout if your body is saying “no”.  Everyone hates to see those workouts on Training Peaks turn to red (for incomplete), or to know that a workout has gone unfinished.  People worry about the impact that a missed workout (or a few) will have on their training progress.  But, more often than not, taking a day or a few off will mean a faster recovery and a faster return to normal training than if you try to push through it.  Let’s say you aren’t feeling well on Monday, so you skip Monday and Tuesday’s workouts.  There’s a good chance that you may be ready to work out again on Wednesday.  On the other hand, if you are starting to feel the chills or sore throat coming on on Monday, and push through a workout, you may end up sidelining yourself past Wednesday.
Here’s a bit of the science behind it:  Did you know that exercise naturally increases cortisol production in your body?  It’s an evolutionary mechanism to help us deal with stressful situations, such as escaping predators or dangerous situations.  Your body doesn’t know that you are running (or biking, or cross-fitting, or whatever) by choice; it simply recognizes that you are in high activity mode and starts increasing cortisol to cope with the physical stress.  While cortisol has beneficial effects in the right doses (it is a natural anti-inflammatory and painkiller), one of the downsides of cortisol is that it suppresses the immune system and its ability to fight off illness.  If your immune system is already struggling to fight off a cold, the cortisol further suppresses your immune system, which often means you’ll end up making things worse by working out.  (Another downside: if you aren’t feeling your best, you may feel sluggish or not hit your target pace/power for your workout and feel disappointed about that!)
If you feel mostly over your cold/sickness, and you want to workout, I recommend shortening or lowering the intensity of a workout.  It’s better to test the waters with an easy, 30 minute aerobic run than a 5 mile tempo run.  One thing to be aware of when doing this:  You know how you get that post-workout endorphin blast (aka the runner’s high)?  That may kick in during or right after the workout, and you feel good – and think you are in the clear.  But a few hours later, or the next morning even, you’ll feel worse.  That’s your body’s way of saying, “Nope, I wasn’t ready to do that kind of workout.”  Maybe you don’t feel up to a long run or interval bike workout, but you DO feel like a walk around the neighborhood or a yoga class.  Both of these are a way to be active without putting the stress on your body of a hard workout.
So, back to my decision to skip the Great Race.  I’d had a few lousy nights of sleep due to nasal congestion and coughing leading up to the race.  I felt alright on Saturday, but when my alarm went off on Sunday morning, I knew my body was saying “no”.  While I’d been looking forward to the Great Race, it wasn’t a priority race for me this year.  I’m training for my first Spartan (obstacle) race in mid-October, and my main priority right now is training for that, which requires being healthy!  The Great Race will be there next year, and the risk of pushing myself through a 10k (even if a fun pace and not a race pace) and feeling worse wasn’t a risk I was willing to take.  I turned off my alarm and snuggled back into bed for a few more hours of sleep.
In a nutshell, it all comes back to “listen to your body”.  Athletes hate to be sick and miss workouts, but it is necessary to know your limits. Give yourself permission to miss a workout (or a few) and focus on resting so you can feel better and get back into the training routine sooner.  Ease back into your training, and don’t be afraid to shorten workouts or drop down on intensity. Working with a coach can help to guide you through training when sick, rearrange training plans due to illness, and reassure you that it’s ok to miss some training or scale back.

Sleepy September: Improve your sleep with herbal tea, magnesium and a bedtime routine

Last week, I published a post with 3 tips for improving sleep.  This week, I’m providing 3 more tips for getting more restful sleep.    Different things work for different people, so here are a few more things to help with sleep.
Incorporate a cup of herbal or calming tea at bedtime.  Maybe you can sit and sip on some tea while you relax with a magazine, book, family/roommates, or some music.  (Please take note that your relaxing night time tea is better if not accompanied by iPad, laptop or smartphone social media, web browsing, or email checking – remember that thing about blue light I mentioned last week?).  Herbal teas will help you to sleep without a groggy feeling in the morning.  Some of my favorite bed time teas are…
  • Chamomile (widely available, many brands)
  • Celestial Seasonings Sleepy Time and Sleepy Time Extra tea
  • Traditional Medicinals Nighty Night tea
Magnesium!  Many people today are magnesium deficient, which is bad because magnesium is needed for over 300 biochemical processes in our body.  From maintaining our muscles and bones to supporting nerve, immune and brain health, it is a much-needed nutrient!  Magnesium is also known to be a calming nutrient and can help to relax you before bed.  How can you incorporate it?
Magnesium is readily absorbed through the skin, so one of the cheapest options is to buy a bag of epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) at your drug store or grocery store (around here, it’s about $6 for a 6 pound bag, which will last you awhile!).  Dump 2 cups of epsom salts in a warm bath, sit back, and relax for 20 minutes (or longer if you’d like!).  If you’re really looking to go the extra mile, add a few drops of lavender essential oil, some relaxing music and/or candles.
Magnesium can also be taken orally.  (Remember: I always recommend that you check with your doctor before starting a new supplement.)  I recommend Magnesium glycinate or Magnesium malate for best absorption- these will be more expensive but have much better absorption rates than the cheaper forms.  Most magnesium supplements sold in drug stores/grocery stores are magnesium oxide, which has a very low absorbance by the body (and is subsequently the cheapest).  Magnesium Citrate is found in drink mixes like Natural Calm, which you drink before bed.  (A small warning about this one:  Magnesium citrate also acts on the digestive system, and too much may lead to diarrhea in sensitive individuals… So, you may want to start at a smaller amount for this and work your way up to recommended dose.)
My last recommendation for today is to develop a bedtime routine for yourself.  People are creatures of habit, and having a regular routine to follow at bedtime can improve sleep.  This can be as simple as setting out your clothes (and kids’ clothes, school bags, etc) the night before, washing face / taking a shower or bath, tucking kids in, making a cup of herbal tea and reading, and turning off the light at about the same time every night.  Setting a regular bedtime for yourself and sticking with it as consistently as you can is beneficial to maintaining good circadian rhythms.  Other things to incorporate into your bedtime routine may be some journaling (more on that in upcoming posts), meditation or restorative/relaxing yoga.  By doing the same thing every night, you’re training your body that it is time to go to sleep at a certain time.  Somewhere in that bedtime routine, you may also want to set a time when the cell phone gets turned to silent/off or put into “do not disturb” mode (which I think is available on most phones, to only let approved ’emergency’ contacts get through between certain times??).
Have you tried any of these things?  If so, I’d love to hear how they worked for you!

Sleepy September: 3 Tips for Restful Sleep


Too long since you’ve slept like a baby?

I’m going to start off this blog and blog series with a very blunt observation:  Not enough people (even me, sometimes!) prioritize routinely getting a good night’s rest.  Everyone is busy, and sleep seems to be the thing that is often compromised.

Did you know that being sleep-deprived can decrease your insulin sensitivity?  If you’re trying to lose weight, you could be eating the perfect diet and exercising the right way for your fitness level and goals, but if you’re sleep-deprived, hitting or maintaining your weight loss target will be difficult.  Not only does sleep mess with your insulin sensitivity, but it also increases cortisol production. Cortisol is the “stress hormone” that, when produced in excess, leads to weight gain around the hips and belly.  And for the athletes out there… sleep is when your body releases growth hormone to repair and rebuild your body.  If you’re not getting enough sleep when piling on the training, or you aren’t getting enough good quality sleep, you could be compromising your performance.
Here are my top 3 tips for improving sleep:
  • Avoid the blue light of computers, TVs, iPads, and smartphones for at least an hour before going to bed.  The blue light from these devices is the same blue light spectrum of the morning sky: it invokes the cortisol response.  (Crash course in cortisol, until I blog more about it in October:  In the morning, this is ok to have this response to using computers/phones, since our cortisol levels should be highest in the morning to wake us up and prepare us for the day ahead.)  But cortisol and melatonin- the sleep hormone-  are counter-regulatory hormones, meaning that when one is high, the other must be low.  So if you’re snuggling under the covers before bed with the iPad, the increased cortisol levels from the blue light will suppress melatonin, making it difficult to get a quality night of sleep.  Even if you feel like you don’t have issues falling asleep or staying asleep despite screen time prior to bed, you may not be getting the most deep and restful sleep as possible.  If you’re waking up and not feeling rested, try turning off devices a little earlier and see if you notice a difference. If you must be on your computer/phone prior to bed time, consider using the NightTime settings (Apple products) or downloading f.lux to adjust screen settings in the evening to decrease the blue light.
  • Make your bedroom is as dark as possible.  If there’s any light coming in from the outside – or if you’ve got lights glowing from various devices plugged in – that is enough to disrupt your body from getting optimal sleep.  Your eyes are closed so you don’t see the light, but your skin has photo-receptors that sense the light (even that little bit coming in through the slats of your blinds or from the power light on your electronics), and can prevent you from getting the most restful sleep possible.
  • Cut off the caffeine earlier.  Everybody metabolizes caffeine at a different rate.  I LOVE my morning cup of coffee… but sadly, I’m sensitive to caffeine and I’ve noticed that even a small cup after lunch leads to sleep troubles.  Just like I mentioned above with using electronic devices before bed:  you may be able to fall asleep easily enough, but your sleep may not be as restful as it could be.  Here’s a simple experiment:  Try avoiding caffeine after 12pm and see if you notice a difference in your sleep. If the idea of skipping a post-lunch or mid-afternoon coffee sounds unfathomable, then try tapering the amount; move your coffee to one hour earlier; or drink green tea instead, which will give you a gentler boost.
Give these things a try, and let me know if you notice any changes!  I’ll be continuing to talk about sleep tips and other ways to improve quality of sleep throughout September, so stay tuned.

Race Review: Luray International Triathlon (and Sprint, too)

Beautiful course?  check!

Good organization?  check!

Fun weekend destination? check!

The Luray Triathlon takes place near the Shenandoah National Park in Luray, Virginia.  It’s about a 4.5 hour drive from Pittsburgh, which may be a bit farther than some want to travel for a race, but for a fun weekend trip and a race, I highly recommend this race.  Luray offers Sprint distance (750 m swim, 27 km bike, 5k run) and International/Olympic distance (1500 swim, 41 km bike, 10 k run).  With about 360 people in the Olympic race and 370 in the Sprint, there are enough athletes around to keep you feeling like it’s a race but not so crowded that it gets overwhelming or congested.

Pre-race: standing in the lake with my friend Rob and his son. I love the mist coming off the lake!

The swim is set in cozy Lake Arrowhead.  By ‘cozy’, I mean it’s small enough that the International swim (1500m) required a “V” shape thrown to get the complete swim distance in.  This required a little extra sighting due to the turns.  This year, the water was 82.5 F, so it was not a wetsuit legal race.  (Between temperatures 76 – 84, an athlete may opt to wear a wetsuit but they will not be eligble for overall or age group awards).  The website states that in the 11 year history of the race, it was been wetsuit legal 55% of the time – a toss-up!  The swim goes off in waves (I believe there were 8 this year), so it doesn’t feel like you’re in the swimming equivalent of roller derby.  I started in wave 6, and after the first 100-200 yards, I didn’t have any issues with bumping into people or bottlenecking.

On a false flat in farm country. You can see the mountains in the distance!

The bike course is a “lollipop” style course.  Ride out from transition to a loop, do the loop once (Sprint, 27 km distance) or twice (International, 41 km) and ride back.  This is easily one of my favorite and most scenic bike courses I’ve raced… (after the race, I want to plan a weekend to go back to this area and just ride my bike!)  Lots of vibrant green pastures, farms, cows and horses, and the Shenandoah Mountains rising in the background.  The course is a mix of rolling hills, false flats, and one or two nice climbs and descents on the “stick” of the lollipop loop.  My GPS reported just under 1700 feet of elevation gain in 26 miles.

Taken near the top of the final, and longest, climb.

Tip for the bike course:  Don’t burn too many matches on the last long climb back to the transition area.  The last hill of the course is by far the longest/steepest, and if it weren’t positioned at the end of the bike ride, it may not seem so bad.  If hills aren’t your forte, you may want to consider going to a rear cassette with a low gear of 27-28.  You’ll have a short downhill coast into transition once you crest the hill.  Added bonus:  I do not recall seeing any potholes on this course – very smooth surface.

The run is an out & back (1.5ish miles – one out & back for Sprint, two out & backs for Olympic).  While it was a little monotonous to run the same out & back twice, it kept the group of athletes together so it was easy to use others as pacers, or to set a “rabbit” to try to chase down.  The run was rolling hills with one or two steeper pitches.  The outermost part of the route was all exposed to the sun, and you could feel a noticeable increase/decrease in temperature when you went from the thickly shaded portion to exposed and back.

I think the Luray races are good for athletes of all abilities.  They offer an Elite and Open wave for more experienced/accomplished triathletes as well as a special novice wave for newer triathletes.  Luray Triathlon also offers Aquabike, Relay, Clydesdale and Athena divisions.  The International race is on Saturday and Sprint is on Sunday, so there’s the option of a double challenge if you’re up for it.

As long as an athlete is comfortable with hills and possibly swimming without wetsuit, I feel this is a good first triathlon due to its size, smooth organization, relatively calm swim, and optional novice wave.

Unique Twist:  Luray Triathlon offers campsites to racers ~100 yards from the transition area for $20/campsite.  If you’ve got camping gear and don’t mind ‘roughing it’ a bit (only a bit — there are bathrooms and showers onsite), camping is a great way to save money and get a little extra sleep on race morning.

If you want to read more about my personal Luray Triathlon experience and what was going through my head while I was on the course, stay tuned!

Metabolic Efficiency, Part 1

Metabolic efficiency refers to the body’s efficiency in utilizing its internal stores of carbohydrates and body fat at various intensities of exercise and at rest. Our bodies constantly burn a mix of carbohydrates and fat to fuel us through our daily activities and exercise.  As intensity of exercise increases, the body naturally starts to burn a higher percentage of carbohydrate and a lower percentage of fat for energy; this is simply how the human body works.  After as little as 2 hours of moderate to intense exercise, the body’s internal glycogen (carbohydrate) stores may be depleted, causing a noticeable dip in energy levels or what endurance athletes commonly refer to as “bonking”.

But, did you know that with strategic nutrition and exercise adaptations, the body can actually learn to burn more fat at higher intensities of exercise, thus preserving our limited supply of glycogen and preventing or delaying onset of “the bonk”?  Eating a metabolically efficient diet can bring about other benefits such as decreasing the risk of gastrointestinal (GI) distress during exercise, improving body weight and composition, and improving health markers.

The standard American diet is very carbohydrate-centric, and many people are accustomed to over-consumption of breakfast cereals, bagels, muffins, bread, pasta, refined grains and starches, snack crackers, cookies, candy, and soda.  But, what most people don’t realize is how much added sugar is lurking in other foods, including foods often perceived as “healthy”:  flavored yogurt, salad dressings, marinades, soups, sauces, those fancy flavored coffee drinks, granola bars, energy bars, and bottled iced tea and fruit juice beverages, to name a few.

Over-consumption of sugar and carbohydrates is the basis of metabolic inefficiency; that is, a body that always, or almost always, burns more carbohydrates than fat as its fuel source.  Simply put, eating carbohydrates teaches the body to burn carbohydrates as its predominant form of fuel.  This in turn leads to poor utilization of the body’s fat stores; an increased need for supplemental carbohydrates during exercise; increased risk of GI distress during exercise; and higher body weight and body fat (which we know are linked to increased risk of various chronic diseases).

If you are interested in becoming more metabolically efficient, you can start now by decreasing the quantity of added (refined) sugars you’re consuming.  Become a thorough label reader: scan the ingredients and try to avoid savory products (ie, soups, sauces, marinades) that contain a form of sugar in the ingredient list.  Here are some easy swaps you can do now to decrease the added sugar in your diet:

  • Replace flavored yogurt with plain yogurt topped with fresh berries or fruit slices
  • Swap out your mid-afternoon granola bar for a handful of raw almonds, or celery sticks with peanut butter or almond butter
  • Replace soda and sweetened beverages with water (add a spritz of lime or lemon juice for some flavor) or unsweetened tea
  • Opt for plain rolled or steel-cut oatmeal topped with cinnamon, butter, berries and/or chopped nuts or nut butter instead of the flavored single-serving varieties
  • Make your own salad dressing by mixing equal parts of olive oil and balsamic, apple cider, or red wine vinegar; or olive oil and lemon juice (add salt/pepper to taste), and you’ve got yourself an easy, homemade option that is not only free of added sugars, but also free of icky preservatives/stabilizers.

More to come!  If you’re interested in doing a walk-through of your diet and learning how you can become more metabolically efficient, drop me a line!

The Nutrient Thief

In my recent posts about sugar, I discussed why sugar and excess carbohydrate consumption leads to fat storage (read here!) and places where sugar hides and some strategies to reduce the added sugar you’re consuming (read here!).  My first post explained how over-consuming carbohydrates and sugars raises your blood sugar above your body’s comfort level, and subsequently the body secretes insulin which transports the sugar into fat cells for long-term storage.  Consuming a highly sweetened beverage like soda, or eating a bag of Skittles, will instantly exceed that comfort level and turn on the insulin response and subsequent fat storage mechanism.

But, there’s another reason why excess sugar consumption is unhealthy.  Not only is it bad for your waistline, but it could also be leading to vitamin and nutrient deficiencies.

You’ve heard the old adage, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”, right?  Well, there’s no such thing as a free digestive process, either!  Digesting and metabolizing carbohydrates and sugar requires specific nutrients, including B vitamins, magnesium, iron, and zinc.

You can visualize your body as having a “nutrient bank” that collects and stores nutrients from food and vitamins you’re taking.  The body uses these nutrients for all of its processes, from hormone production and regulation to regulating circadian rhythms to your mood and ability to concentrate to athletic performance to repairing and maintaining your tissues.  When you’ve got a full nutrient bank, you’re feeling great! But when your nutrient bank runs low, you are feeling tired, irritable, foggy-brained and maybe you’re getting sick often.

Any time you eat carbohydrates, your body needs the specific vitamins and nutrients mentioned above to digest and metabolize them.  Often, fruits and vegetables contain the very same vitamins and minerals that are needed to digest and metabolize them.  How convenient!  And, fruits and vegetables provide additional vitamins and minerals in addition to what is needed for digestion.  By consistently eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, you’re making deposits in your body’s nutrient bank to build a foundation for optimal health.  On the other hand, consuming foods with added sugar that contain few or no nutrients (cookies, crackers, candy, soda) will force your body to make a withdrawal from its nutrient bank.  With time, overconsumption of sugar will lead to insufficiency or deficiency of B vitamins, magnesium, iron and zinc.

The best thing you can do is to be cognizant of how much sugar you’re consuming and try to reduce or avoid when possible.  The FDA has recently announced that it will be requiring changes to nutrition labels in the near future, and food manufacturers must report the added sugar content (vs naturally occurring in fruit, milk, and vegetables).  Many people are unaware of how much sugar may be hiding in foods, or how much sugar consumption can add up over the course of a day. Track how much added sugar you’re consuming in a day, and then think about which strategies from this post you can implement to cut back.

8 Ways To Reduce Sugar Consumption

8 Practical Ways to Reduce Sugar Consumption (Sugar Blog Part 2)

In my first blog post on sugar, I discussed the impact sugar has on our blood sugar and why consuming sugar puts us on the “blood sugar roller coaster” and is bad for our weight-loss goals.  Sugar turns OFF our fat burning mechanisms and turns ON our fat storage mechanism – not what we want!

How can you utilize this information?  You can be cognizant of how much sugar you’re consuming on a daily basis.  Reduce consumption of desserts and sweet snacks, sodas, sweetened teas and flavored coffee beverages.  Be especially wary of sweetened drinks delivering a sugar overload: A seemingly innocent 12-oz vanilla latte from Starbucks has 14g (3.5 teaspoons!) of added sugar in the flavored syrup, while the 12-oz white chocolate mocha packs a whopping 33g (8 teaspoons!) of added sugar.  (For the record: that’s more sugar than the World Health Organization and American Heart Association recommend consuming in an entire day, neatly packaged into a single beverage that you can consume in under 15 minutes.)

If you eat a lot of processed, packaged foods – even those that are not “dessert-like” or that you would suspect to contain sugar (granola bars, store-bought salad dressings, soups, marinades, sauces, flavored yogurt, cereal… to name a few), you are probably consuming more sugar than you realize.  Read labels and look for sugar or its many aliases (high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, agave, cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, rice syrup, corn syrup).  You’ll be shocked when you realize all the places where sugar lurks!

Here are a few ways to reduce the sugar in your diet:

  • Mix fresh fruit into plain yogurt instead of buying fruit-at-the-bottom or flavored yogurt (which carries added sugars!)
  • Eat plain nuts and sunflower/pumpkin seeds with fresh fruit instead of store-bought granola bars
  • Make your own salad dressing by combining olive oil with lemon juice, red wine vinegar, or balsamic vinegar instead of using store-bought dressings
  • Snack on veggie sticks with peanut/almond butter, hummus or salsa instead of cookies or crackers when you’re craving something crunchy
  • Replace soda and sweetened bottled teas with water (still or sparkling) with lemon, lime, or cucumber wedges
  • Replace flavored coffee creamers with half & half, milk, or heavy cream. Gradually cut back on the sugar you’re adding to your coffee.  Consider trying “bulletproof coffee”: blend coconut oil and unsalted organic butter into your coffee with a hand immersion blender for a frothy treat that will keep you feeling full ‘til lunch!
  • Have fresh fruit and cheese for dessert instead of sweets
  • Replace candy or milk chocolate with dark chocolate (70% or higher cocoa)

Interested in learning more about cutting back on sugar or reviewing what you’re eating to see where you can do some dietary “post-holiday cleaning”?  Contact me to see how I can help you!

Setting SMART Goals for 2017

Are you thinking about the 2017 Race Season yet?

I know I am!  I’ve got a pretty big race on the radar for July, but I’m keeping it under wraps until it’s officially confirmed.  Since that will involve a trip across the pond (hint!), I’m planning on doing more local, or relatively local races this year that can be done with only a one-night-away-from-home trip OR even better, sleep-in-your-own-bed races!

Here are my tips for setting goals to set yourself up for success.

First… Consider the following question:  What is your motivation for lining up at the starting line? Do you simply want to cross the finish line? Do you have your eye on a specific finish time, or are you looking to set a new personal record (PR)? Do you want to land a podium spot or win the race? Knowing what you want to get out of the race is crucial goal setting.

You’ve probably heard of “SMART” goals, right? SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-oriented. To simply say “I want to get faster” is not an example of a good goal. How much faster? Faster in a particular discipline? Do you want to be faster next month, next year or in the next decade?

Here is how to set up a SMART goal for yourself:

Specific: Does your goal apply to a specific distance, particular race or particular discipline?  (Examples: Half marathon, the Philadelphia Olympic Triathlon, or biking abilities – 20 min average power, for example)

Measureable: How will you know when you’ve reached your goal? Instead of saying “get faster”, which is very vague, you could say “I want to shave 3 minutes off last year’s 10k triathlon run time” or “I want to finish in the top 10% of my age group”.

Action-oriented: Your goal should have defined actions you can take to get there. “I will run 3 days each week” is an action-oriented goal that you could take in order to reach the above example of taking 3 minutes off a 10k run time.

Realistic: It’s great to shoot for the stars. But, your goal also needs to be realistic; something that with the right attitude, training and execution on race day, is within your grasp. If you ran your personal best-ever 5k of 25:00 in May, then setting a goal of a 19:00 5k in October is not probably realistic for most people (that’s 2 minutes off per mile!). But, an October goal of breaking 24:00 or even 23:00 is probably realistic for many people.

Time-oriented: Put a timeframe on your goal to stay on track. In general, by committing to a race, you’re establishing a time-oriented goal. Example: I want to run a sub-24:00 5k by October.

Goal setting can be tricky – especially if you’re a newer athlete, or if you’re taking on a new distance or a new course for the first time. Looking at past race times and recent workout metrics, as well as the course itself, can help you determine realistic pace and finish goals. Doing some workouts, or segments of workouts, at goal race pace can help you to decide if your goals are realistic. A coach who has access to your training data and recent race or workout paces can be very help with setting realistic goals and recommending pacing strategy for your race.  Want to learn how we can work together to help you reach your goals?  Fill out the contact form on my website to contact me to set up a complimentary phone consultation!