Monday, September 2, 2013

Portrait of a Nutrition Nerd: Preparing for the Whole Life Challenge

As part of my CrossFit box community, I am participating in the 2013 Whole Life Challenge. This challenge is a nationwide challenge spanning 8 weeks, starting on September 7. It is paleo-friendly but not 100% paleo; for example, only the highest level of the challenge excludes grains entirely. I have chosen the intermediate level of the challenge.

This makes nutrition challenge number seven that I have done with my CrossFit box. While I did have a large chunk of the last year taken up with recovering from a tweaked back (including a 3 month hiatus from CrossFit last winter), I still find myself frustrated that I have never been able to bust below a certain body fat percentage/weight; twice in the last year I have come into the mid-180s and 27% body fat. It results in an uncomfortable dynamic where I can go from feeling majestically strong (say, on a day a couple of weeks ago when I set some nice personal lifting records) to seeing a picture taken of me on vacation from an unflattering angle and feeling simmering frustration at my body composition inertia all over again. To be clear, 27% body fat is "average" for younger women. My hope is to reach the "fitness" category by the end of the challenge, which I believe is a sane and reachable goal.

Besides the frustration over body composition humps, I still have many CrossFit elements that seem to remain just outside my reach: handstand pushups, a single dead hang pullup, toes-to-bar, and double unders. I am already fairly strong, but I am hoping that dropping more body fat would make many of these easier to master.

I hope that this 8 weeks will be a sustained enough period of nose-to-grindstone to really help me bust past that plateau. (To be clear, I'm not planning on going from Cheetos-and-Oreos to 8 weeks of clean eating back to Cheetos-and-Oreos...I just appreciate the extra focus and accountability that 8 weeks with also-striving friends will provide.) However, I think that instead of doing the traditional "balls to the wall" of eating less, exercising more, restricting food groups more, I hope to avoid burnout by going all nutrition nerd on myself.

Yup, I'm going another level into hacking my food intake and exercise.

I'm going to take a customized multi-pronged approach. Here's my plan:

More Rest and Recovery
  • Earlier bedtimes, less time online. I've made a semiserious pact with my friends that if we catch each other on Facebook past a certain time at night, we get to post Rick Astley on each other's timelines.
  • Strategic CrossFitting. I'm going to take a step back from my 4-5 WODs a week pace. Instead, I'll probably go 3-4 times per week, and fill in the other time with different kinds of exercise, mobility work, or sleep.
  • Mobility work. I'll keep up my routine of hot yoga, which has proven integral to my back's recovery and increasing my shoulder strength and mobility.
  • Naps. If I get my 3 year old to nap, I'll be napping!
More Low-Level Non-Intense Activity
  • More autumn sunshine. Playground trips. Discovering more local trails and parks.
  • More low level exercise. Going for casual runs and longer walks. Swimming every now and then. 
Eating to Perform
Here's a screenshot from my
FatSecret logs earlier this summer.
  • Intentional fueling. I've been soaking up a lot of Paul Nobles, Jr.'s Eat to Perform lately. One startlingly logical central premise is that fueling exercise conscientiously naturally leads to better performance and improved body composition simultaneously.
  • Number crunching. ETP's calculator has a lot to offer folks who want a clearer baseline for fueling requirements. It uses total body mass OR lean body mass, activity levels, and other factors to offer up potential templates for how to fuel.
  • Keeping protein high. I carry somewhere between 135 and 140 lb. of lean body mass, and to sustain that muscle (and stay strong), I need to eat a whole. lot. of. protein. The ETP calculator suggested around 137 g/day. This is consistent with recent research that shows that at least double current recommended daily allowances of protein intake are necessary to retain muscle mass when trying to lose fat. In any case, my meals and snacks will be protein-centered.
  • Not fearing carbs. I have a storied history with carbs. However, when I'm at top activity levels of CrossFitting, doing some hot yoga, and even throwing in a modest run in a week's timeframe, carbs are essential to recovery and rebuilding. I'll be keeping carbs in rotation conscientiously as part of my workout fuel.
  • Calorie/carb cycling. Higher activity level days (sometimes I even two-a-day with CrossFit and a 90 minute hot yoga class) I will be shooting for more calories and carbs, and low activity level days (like my rest days) will have much lower intake of both.
  • Documenting. I dislike food logging and usually find it tedious, but in honesty it is super effective for me, so I'll willingly trade the annoyance for the results I desire. I use as my food logging resource because I enjoy the web interface compared with other logging resources - and because it has a decent smartphone app. With FatSecret I can input my meals and snacks and get a quick summary of my fat, protein, and carbs intake, particularly paying attention to protein and carb intake around my workouts. I also believe that doing this will also lock in some automatic sense of what a decent post-workout meal looks like.
I am hoping that taking exercise and food intake will propel me over my hump and find me on the other side a few fat percentage points less when the 8 weeks are up!

What are you planning to challenge yourself this autumn?


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