I am what I eat

 

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I finished the Beijing Sportive duathlon (50k ride and 5k run) but it was tough.

A recent bout of illness forced me to take a critical look at my dietary habits in the last couple of months.

For the last two weeks, I had swollen tonsils and runny nose. I took a myriad of Chinese herbal medicine to treat colds for a week, but the symptoms didn’t subside. I cut out red meat, caffeine, dairy and gluten for a couple of days, just to see if the symptoms were caused by inflammation. My sore throat and runny nose subsided but was replaced by swollen gums and an outbreak of acne on my forehead. After spending most of the day slumped over my desk drifting in and out of sleep and suffering a headache, I went to my trusted Chinese massage therapist and asked for ‘guasha’, a Chinese treatment that involves scraping the back of my neck, shoulder blades, spine and other parts of my back with something resembling the edge of a spoon to release the ‘fire’ (i.e. the cause of my discomfort) in my body. The treatment usually left dark scrape marks on my back that would dissipate after three or four days. My mother used to administer this treatment to me when I experienced similar symptoms as a child, and I’d feel immediate relief afterwards. This was how I came to know about ‘guasha’ in the first place.

This time, I felt relief about three to four hours later. My swollen gums subsided enough so it didn’t hurt when I chewed. After a good night’s sleep, I felt brand new.

After suffering from this ailment on and off almost all my life, I’ve narrowed the causes down to these usual suspects:

  • air-conditioning (but it’s impossible to function in Beijing summer without it)
  • untreated heat stroke (I was quite sunburnt during the trail run in Lingshan)
  • lack of sleep
  • poor diet

 

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Oily Chinese food is unfortunately not the best recovery food.

If there’s anything I’ve not been pleased about this year, it’s how I’ve let my diet slide. I can’t remember when exactly I began drinking more coffee and alcohol, and eating more sweets and junk food. It started after I stopped recording what I ate in MyFitnessPal because the app stopped working for some reason in Feb. After not recording what I ate for a couple of weeks, I stopped doing it altogether. I figured I exercise regularly enough to burn whatever food I ate and the calorie calculations were not accurate anyway. In the process, I also stopped paying attention to the quality of food I was putting into my body, ordering more and more take-out (the cheaper the better!) instead of cooking.

It took a couple of weeks of feeling very unwell to make me realise my error. I eliminated caffeine, dairy, gluten and meat from my diet for two days in a desperate bid to detox. After just one day, my body felt lighter and my head was clearer. I kept this up for the next two to three days, not so much to detox but more because I physically felt better.

I’ve since re-introduced caffeine and white meat into my diet, but at a lesser amount than before. It helps that the Starbucks in my office building closed earlier this month, making it harder for me to get my afternoon shot of caffeine. I consciously drink more water and green tea when I’m at work, and have cut down on soda and take-out. I haven’t resumed my food journaling probably due to lack of motivation. I can feel my body responding positively to these changes, especially when I’m exercising. I no longer feel sluggish or easily tired when I run. Now I just need the discipline to keep this up for the next couple of months as I train for my first half Ironman race.

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My first half marathon of 2016 – Guishui River Women Half Marathon

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Enjoying the view

After running my first trail half-marathon in Inner Mongolia last year, I’ve been looking forward to running another race for a while. I signed up for the Guishui River Women Half-Marathon while I was in Washington D.C. for work and feeling very sorry for myself that I’d missed out on the Beijing Run. I also needed motivation to work on my running in preparation for two triathlons (one Sprint and one Olympic distance) in June.

I was really looking forward to this race for a number of reasons. Since March this year, I’ve been training with a triathlon club in Beijing, learning new running techniques, and upping my running mileage, so I was keen to put it all to the test. After cycling in the mountains of Yanqing on many previous occasions, I wanted to experience what it’s like to run in a park situated at the foot of these mountains.

On race day, I woke up a little after 5 am and cycled over to the bus stop to take #919 express to the starting point of the race, Xiadu Park. After an hour and a half, I got off the bus and walked for 20 minutes, following the signs to the starting point. The park was awash in various shades of bright pink and other neon colours and there were queues in front of both the fixed and mobile female toilets. The race organisers had set aside a number of spots for male runners accompanying their partners on the race, and they were kept very busy taking pictures and minding bags before the race.

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What is it with Chinese runners and neon pink?

Planning

At 9 am sharp, the gunshot sounded, and we were off! I made a conscious effort to run at a slower pace than usual, heeding the advice of both my running coach and a colleague who’s an avid marathon runner. I had no intention of repeating my mistake last year by running too fast in the beginning and bonking at the 15-km mark, right when I needed to speed up. It took all of my self-control to maintain my pace and let the other participants overtake me. I kept reminding myself to run my own race and trust my training and strategy. I checked my heart rate almost religiously to make sure I wasn’t pushing myself too hard for the first half of the race.

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We were escorted on the race by members of the China Police Marathon Club (yes, they wore those hot pink heart balloons the whole way)

The almost completely flat course turned out to be as pretty and pleasant as I’d expected, with half of it along the river and the other half through the forest. I enjoyed the scenery so much I hardly paid attention to my heart rate or my pace for the first 10 km, as long as I was still breathing comfortably. My plan was to gradually pick up my speed from the 15-km mark and hopefully go as fast as I can for the last 4 km.

Hydration and fueling

As forecast, it was a very warm day with the highest temperature hitting 27 degrees Celsius. Instead of carrying my own water bottle (like I did for my first half marathon), I decided to drink as much water as I could stomach before checking in my water bottle with my bag, and rely on the water stations, the first being at the 5k mark and the latter stations about every 2 km afterwards. The race pamphlet indicated they would provide some beverage in addition to water from 7.5 km onwards, which I’d assumed would be a sports drink. To my dismay, it turned out to be Vitamin Water. I began worrying I might get cramps, and drank at every water station, whether or not I felt thirsty. Fortunately the leg cramps only came after I finished the race. I told myself never again will I run a race without my own bottle and electrolyte powder/tablets.

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Can’t do much about the ugly tan lines on my legs (from the Beijing Sportive)

After seeing Vitamin Water being served, I was relieved I’d made the last-minute decision to bring an energy gel (secured on my race belt) and an Oaty Slice (in the back pocket of my brand new Adidas running shorts) for the race. I’d had my breakfast of a homemade muesli bar and three peanut butter Rice Crispy treats on the bus ride up. Even though I didn’t feel hungry, I decided to heed my coach’s advice and took my energy gel after running for 45 minutes. The first fueling station was at the 10-km mark. The table was laden with trays of cut-up bananas, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. Not a piece of energy bar or chocolate in sight. *Cue dismay* I took half a banana even though I wasn’t hungry or tired and continued running. As I passed the 15-km mark, I debated briefly whether or not I should take my Oaty Slice. I still felt full from all the liquids I drank but I knew better than to wait til I was hungry to eat something. I took a couple of bites of the Oaty Slice, shoved it into my back pocket and upped my pace, determined to hit my goal of finishing within 2:30.

Finishing well

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The very feminine looking finisher medal


Despite my best intentions, my legs seemed to have a mind of their own after running 15 km. I hunkered down, increased my speed gradually, and ran as fast as my legs would take me for the last 4 km.

After crossing the finish line and picking up my finisher medal, I checked my mobile phone. As I was checking my time on Strava, I received an sms from the race organisers, informing me my chip time was 2:26:38. I finished my second half-marathon 4 minutes within my goal! Yay!  I also achieved a 10k PR of 1:06:06. Later, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw on my certificate I was ranked #560 out of 2019 participants. Not bad for a newbie runner.

It felt good to see that my hard work and prep over the last 4 months had paid off. I felt especially grateful for my running coach’s training and advice on race strategy and fuelling.

Armed with this very positive experience, I feel ready for the next challenge — my first Sprint distance triathlon on 10 June.

 

 

prepping for my first Sportive

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The things we do to cope with Beijing’s crazy pollution and blanket of willow catkins

My German cycling buddy, S, and I still don’t quite agree on who initiated the idea of signing up to the second Beijing Sportive race on 7 May. I’m standing by my version of events — she asked me first.

Admittedly, I was already examining closely the long (186 km) and short (116 km) courses, and asking friends who’s done the previous Sportive race about their experience when S’s WeChat message popped up. S and I didn’t take long to convince each other to register for the short course. Before I could change my mind, I’ve filled in and submitted the online registration form and paid the fee.

That was when I realised I’d given myself less than two weeks to prepare and train for the race.  A particularly painful realisation especially when I hadn’t put in many cycling miles due to my overseas trips.

Cue *hair-pulling, nail-biting* anxiety.

Training

I took an extra day off, so I could get four consecutive days off for Labour Day public holidays and rack up some miles on my bike. My original training plan had looked like this:

Friday – Ride 40 km in the city and run 10 km in Chaoyang Park.

Saturday – Ride 130 km to the top of Miaofeng Mountain and back with S and a few others.

Sunday – Rest day (because I had to see The Prodigy at Strawberry Music Festival).

Monday – Join Serk‘s 70 km social ride.

As with all best laid plans, the execution is seldom perfect. I woke up Friday morning determined to ride, even after seeing the AQI was hovering closer to 200 than 150 (which is already three times higher than what’s considered healthy). I rode the short route from my home to Wenyu River and back, and forewent the run in the park after seeing that the AQI remained high. I comforted myself by saying at least I did my ride.

On Friday evening, we were exchanging screenshots of AQI, weather and wind forecasts, discussing if we should still proceed with the 130k-ride. The general consensus was if the AQI was uncomfortably close to 200, then some were definitely not doing the ride.

30aprrideSaturday morning arrived, but the projected wind and rain didn’t come the night before and AQI had shot past 200. Around 10 am, the diehards among us donned our anti-pollution masks and rode the long Wenyu River loop (68 km), determined to get some mileage under our belt. The AQI had dropped to below 200 by then but there was an obnoxious amount of willow catkins the closer we got to the river, and they got into our noses and mouths. We didn’t do any climbing, and this was our last opportunity to train our climbing stamina before the race. Sigh.

I woke up on Monday, looking forward to the Serk ride but was greeted with rain and strong winds instead. I sat on the fence about doing the ride all the way until 15 minutes before the ride started and decided not to do the ride, when it was clear the wind and rain was not stopping any time soon. I had no intention of catching a cold again after just recovering from one.

Nutrition

 

Immediately after the long weekend, I met up with my endocrinologist (for my hyperthyroid) and triathlon coaches. I found out I lost another 3 kg in the last month even after my condition had stabilised. The endocrinologist cautioned me against exercising too much, which left me in a funk for the rest of the day.

Then I met up with my coaches for triathlon prep training and found out I haven’t been eating enough or the right food when I’m cycling. In the past, I’d have a breakfast of a fruit smoothie and a peanut butter jelly sandwich or oats, then take a muesli bar or energy gel halfway through a three- or four-hour ride in the mountains. I told my coaches I’d often push myself to the limit riding uphill, only stopping when I’m out of breath or feel like I’m about to pass out. My coaches, with a look of mild horror, told me I haven’t been eating enough during my rides, that was why I had no energy on my climbs and that I needed to eat at least one energy bar after every hour, or two energy gels after every 30 minutes of exercise. They also advised me to load up on carbs in preparation for the Beijing Sportive this Saturday.

So for this week, I’ve gone against my inclination and eaten more carbs and meat than I normally would, hoping to build up reserves of fuel to burn on Saturday. I’ll know very soon if my last-minute carb loading strategy works.  Watch this space for a write-up of my first cycling race.

How cycling changed my life

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Left picture taken in April 2015. Right picture taken last week in Yangshuo (阳朔) in Guangxi province.

While on a cycling holiday in Yangshuo over Chinese New Year, my German cycling buddy, S, told me how her life had changed dramatically after she bought a road bike and took on cycling as a serious hobby. Incidentally I met S on a summer bike ride in the outskirts of Beijing organised by Serk.

Her comment got me thinking about how my life has changed since I took on cycling as a serious hobby about two years ago, riding in the outskirts of Beijing almost every weekend initially on my Merida mountain bike, and later on my Giant road bike.  I’d weighed myself at the hotel a couple of days before and was surprised to discover I lost another 4 kg since last September (i.e. throughout winter when I’d typically pile on the kilos). In total, I’d lost 7 kg over the last 12 months. This explains why my winter pants have all been slipping off my hips.

Being an avid reader of health and fitness blogs, I’m fully aware that sustained weight loss can’t just be attributed to doing one form of exercise. Here’s a list of changes I made to my lifestyle over the last 12 months that, I believe, contributed to me achieving and maintaining my target weight:

Getting a Garmin vivofit

I began wearing a Garmin vivofit activity tracker since last January after hearing several of my friends sing the praises of wearing activity trackers. I was on medication to get my hyperthyroidism under control, and one of its side effects was weight gain. Despite exercising regularly and eating sensibly (or so I thought), I was piling on the kilos.

After the first sync with Garmin Connect, the app suggested I record my food intake on MyFitnessPal (MFP). I was initially resistant to the idea of using MFP, thinking there’s no way an app could accurately calculate my calories intake, especially since I live in Beijing and eat out quite often. How can MFP possibly know the number of calories contained in a a bowl of Malatang (麻辣烫)?

After using the app for a year, I’m still not convinced the calorie count for most foods (especially exotic Chinese dishes) are even vaguely accurate in MFP, but I also learnt that’s not the point of using the app. The point of using MFP is about recording and tracking rather than counting. Before using MFP, I’d never paid much attention to the calories in my daily Starbucks coffee habit, a slice of marble cake, my favourite Kettle chips, an 11-inch Hawaiian pizza or a fruit smoothie. I remember my mind being blown when I saw that my tall soy hazelnut latte contained a whopping 190 calories! I immediately changed my regular order at Starbucks to plain soy latte, and eventually reduced my visits so I’m not tempted to order the sweets as well.

Recording my food intake has kept me mindful of not only how much I was eating but also what I was eating everyday. Over the course of 2015, I’ve cut down on my intake of carbs (especially after 7 pm), alcohol, coffee, junk food, sugary drinks and desserts without specifically setting out to do so and my body has responded well to these innocuous adjustments in my diet.

Exercising with others

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All smiles after a 57-km ride in Changping

Since my university days, I’ve always been quite disciplined when it comes to exercise, making sure I either hit the gym, attend an aerobics or yoga class, swim, cycle or jog. The primary difference between my exercise regime in 2015 and that of previous decades was company. For almost every weekend last year, I rode with other cyclists in the mountains surrounding Beijing, who cheered me on when I was out of breath and contemplating if I should do the next climb. Riding with stronger, seasoned cyclists also motivated me to improve my technique and increase training so I could ride faster and longer. But most importantly, I’d gotten out of bed at ungodly hours on the weekends when I knew my cycling buddies were counting on me to show up for rides.

For someone who enjoys solitude as much as I do, I grudgingly admit that exercising with a community has made a huge difference to my exercise regime. And to make sure I keep at this habit as well as train for the Beijing International Triathlon (BIT), I’ve invested in a Serk ride pass.

Training for a race

Having always been quite average at every sport attempted, I’d never dreamed of signing up to do anything more difficult than a 5k fun run. The idea to do a triathlon was put into my head by a cycling buddy who wanted to try it last year. The Sprint race was already full by the time I checked the BIT website, and there were only spaces left  for the Olympic race, which looked daunting for us novices. I began training, ran the Genghis Khan Grassland half-marathon to get a taste for racing and talked to others who’s done triathlons before. In the end, my buddy and I both chickened out of doing the triathlon last year.

Breaking my arm made me realise life is short and I should fulfil my dreams when I’m still able to do so.

This year, I signed up for the BIT Olympic race once registration commenced and persuaded the guys in a local cycling club to register as well, so I wouldn’t have an excuse to back out. I’d originally planned to sign up for the Sprint which would be well within my comfort zone, but since all my cycling buddies signed up for the Olympic, I followed suit with an awkward mixture of excitement and trepidation. I’m excited by the prospect of going way out of my comfort zone while fearful that I might not have enough time to train and prepare well for the race. Most of all, I’m grateful for the looming deadline, because I no longer have an excuse not to exercise.

Dear readers, did you hit a fitness or life goal you set for yourself in 2015? If you did, I’d love to hear how you did it and be inspired.