Imagine yourself cruising (or hobbling) along during the last leg of your race. You think the worst is over, but in fact it’s the distance between you and the finish line that is the hardest. Everything seems go be going well until your legs feel a little bit heavier, your eyes a little out of focus, and your mind is continually debating with itself whether you should stop or keep going. All of a sudden there is a brick wall sent down from the heavens. Pink Floyd starts playing “All in all you’re just another brick in the WALL.”
You have officially bonked. Why has this happened? Why me! If it is during a shorter event, the reasons are usually because your body is not sufficiently using fat for energy. This is where your dinner, nighttime snack and breakfast play critical importance. Did you consume a high glycemic index meal like spaghetti without protein or fat for dinner and bagels without protein or fat for breakfast in a misguided attempt to emulate the sports dietetics of yesterwrong? If you are bonking, the answer is possibly yes.
Protein Isn’t Just for Bodybuilders; It’s Needed for Endurance
When I’m analyzing a client’s food dairy, a common mistake in the morning is having a breakfast that lacks protein. This comes from the poor advice of having cereal and orange juice for breakfast, or it’s grain equivalent. Many of these people also rely on coffee. I once had a long distance runner question me about the importance of protein in the morning, and here is how I explained it: Protein converts to glucose more slowly than carbohydrates, while slowing down the absorption of carbohydrates in a meal. When healthy fats like avocado and fiber-rich vegetables or fruits are added to the meal, the absorption rate is slowed down even more – which helps maintain blood sugar and energy levels. When you pour straight carbohydrates in the tank, you have the gas mileage of a SUV. You combine protein, fat, carbohydrates and fiber correctly, and you’re driving a Prius.
Muscle cells rely on insulin to quickly move glucose, blood flow and amino acids to the muscles that are working overtime. Insulin also conveniently blunts cortisol, which is your enemy at this point. Protein however appears to make this process work even better than carbohydrates on their own, which led to the 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio for drinks and post-workout shakes within 30 minutes. The study that is often cited goes as follows: Cyclists were divided into three groups. One took a normal sports drink, some drank a four-to-one carbohydrate-protein solution, and the rest had plain water. The protein-carb beverage enabled the cyclists to go an average of 27 minutes, the carb-only sports drink group’s 20 minutes, and the water group only lasted 14 minutes.
A theorotetical example I like to use with athletes is Bear Grylls. If you have ever watched Man vs. Wild, you know that he is only eating what the enviornment is providing, which is animal protein, fat and perhaps some wild plants. He is on the move all day, often in extreme weather. He isn’t setting up camp in a wheat field and making bread. In other words, we have evolved in an environment that prizes protein and fat for stamina, not just carbohydrates.
Is the Key to Preventing Bonking in the Brain?
But what if you are eating perfectly and still bonking? Ah, this is where it gets interesting. Let’s say you have been training hard, maybe too hard leading up to the race. Your cortisol levels have become elevated, leading to catabolic effects on your muscle and creating unstable blood sugar levels, leading to a premature bonk. Or let’s say you are a season veteran, and your adrenal glands have taken some serious hits in your life and aren’t functioning optimally. Now you step up to the line, and nerves have hit. What if I can’t finish? The stress signal is sent and cortisol is once again released, breaking down your precious storage levels of fuel and thwarting your efforts before you even begin. Or maybe, the problem is your brain.
The brain is of particular interest to me when it comes to bonking. Let’s say your muscles hold between 300 and 400 grams of glycogen and the skeletal muscles needed for running hold 100 grams. Your skeletal muscles have a burn rate of 2x your brain. Your brain burns primarily liver glycogen, while your body eventually begins to rely on fat for fuel. The combination of the two start draining resources fast, and it’s this point that your brain’s feedback mechanism is to tell your legs to stop moving.
The problem is, that studies have found that glycogen depletion isn’t the reason for the bonk. In fact, it has shown there there is enough glycogen in the muscles to keep going. But the brain is the foreman, and what he or she says goes asking questions like “what’s the temp? where do you think you’re going cortisol? Does anyone else feel a draft? give me a hydration level check stat! It is busy overseeing the entire construction site of the body, and if someone looks like they have hammered their sleeve to a frame and is now hanging in the balance, the brain is going to yell out “not on my watch!” and shut everything down. Maybe the brain foreman hasn’t been sleeping well, is overworked, stressed out and lacking confidence that everything is under control. Maybe, he could use some help from an expert in the field to train everyone to work better and more efficiently. This expert goes by the name “Adaptogen.”
Adaptogens for Bonking? A Possible New Field of Research
Adaptogens increase the body’s resistance to physical (heat, cold and exertion), chemical (toxins and heavy metals) and biological (bacteria and viruses) stressors. What makes them special is that they help modulate the body’s stress response so that it does not overreact to extreme physical, mental, emotional or chemical stress which depletes cells of vital energy. Sounds exactly what the brain needs right?
While many studies for adaptogens are looking at things like VO2 max and endurance, I have a new suggestion for research; adaptogens and bonking. What I want to know, is the following:
1. How well they are controlling the cortisol response to stress, which can wreck havoc on your blood sugar, breakdown muscle, affect hydration and lead to a complete psychological meltdown with hallucinations of little men in the distance.
2. How much farther can an athlete go mentally while taking adaptogens? If we can measure the point of psychological stress and extend that point to better match the body’s reserves, then we can see a major advantage for those taking them above the physical threshold.
3. How are the athletes recovering? Are they recovering faster with adaptogens? This is important information because if they are recovering faster, this means the body is able to rebound faster from external stress therefore more able to withstand it for longer durations, leading to less bonks.
From the current research, I could only see a benefiical response from adaptogens helping prevent bonking. This is an area of sports nutrition that is simply not discussed enough, and those who discover it first will already be ahead of the competition.
Top Adaptogens to Prevent Bonking
If you want to read more about the following adaptogens and what will work best for you, check out the article Adaptogens: The Secret Weapon for Athletes.
5. Wild Chaga