Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Going Against the Grain

Farewell my friend
A couple of months ago I bid farewell to my morning ritual of toast and eggs or toast and almond butter.  I also kissed goodbye my favorite go to lunchtime meal:  the age old sandwich.  And with a little bit of kicking and screaming, I let go of my standard evening meal accompaniment:  brown rice or quinoa. 
I’ve always been a fan of eating as close to nature as possible, and thought that my diet was fairly “clean,” until a nutritionist friend of mine offered to review a one week log of my diet.   Her advice, after I meticulously documented everything that went into my mouth in a seven day period, was that I had too much sugar in my diet.  I don’t eat a lot of processed sugars, - being only human though, an occasional cookie and maybe some ice cream make their way into my diet.  But that’s occasional, and I don’t sweeten anything with sugar, so how is it that sugars are getting into my diet?  Her answer:  grains.  Brown rice, quinoa, and whole wheat bread – all of these the body treats as sugars and is likely to cause a spike in insulin.  I know, I know, quinoa is a seed, not a grain, but my source informed me that the body treats quinoa similar to rice, and it causes an increase in blood sugar.  Her advice:  eliminate the grains, and increase protein intake and “good fats.”   I was not surprised to hear about the fats, as sometimes when I train hard, for my post workout meal all I can think about is mayonnaise …slathering it on sandwiches, dipping my roasted chicken in it.  I use olive oil generously, and although mayonnaise is not exactly what she meant by adding good fats, it made me realize I need to add more fat to my diet.    I was resistant to eliminating the grains.  Sure, whole wheat bread is easy enough to eliminate– especially here in Asia where most breads, even the “whole grain,” are high gluten sponges that have a similar texture to marshmallows.  But giving up brown rice and quinoa…tough!   How could I survive?  My friend suggested that I persevere, for two weeks only, and if I don’t like the results, go back to my former eating habits. 
Eliminating grains was a very difficult process.  In the first week, I felt like taking a nap on my runs as my body was trying to figure out its fuel source.   Visions of brown rice and quinoa danced in my head.   An apple and nut butter, or eggs on greens didn’t sound appetizing for breakfast when I am used to toast and eggs or toast and nut butter.  But now, I am a convert.    I have eliminated the grains, and quite frankly I feel great. My joint aches are gone, I have less muscle stiffness, and my system seems to be happy.  Once a doubter, I am now a convert.  But what then, I thought to myself, do I take while I am running ultras?  What should be my fuel choice?  Most packaged gels and endurance foods use fructose and or/ simple sugars as an energy source which can create two problems:  1. Spike in blood sugar (great when you are bonking, but may drop you off a cliff after the initial energy surge); and 2.  Can cause stomach issues if taken over a long period of time, something which I am all too familiar.
I went on a search for the right product – as it’s not really reasonable to carry around enough cashews, apples and avocados for fueling during an ultra.  I needed something portable which didn’t spike my blood sugar, and that helped me continue to tap into my fat reserves for fuel while not upsetting my stomach.    I was poking around the internet when I bumped into Vi energy gel.  http://www.viendurance.com
When I started reading about Vi Energy Gels, I reflected on how sometimes the stars seem to align, and how I suddenly was looking at a product that seemed to be exactly what I needed at the exact right time.  If Vi could deliver on its promises (of whichthere is a long list) , it looked like a full spectrum solution for nutrition while racing.    Unfortunately, actually getting my hands on the product while living in Hong Kong was a problem.  I went on the website and placed an order for a large quantity and put in the notes “will pay extra for shipping.”  We are somewhat desperate here in HK for good sports and nutrition products and it seems like most of the ultra running circle depends on the air mail link between HK and the US for stocking their inventory of necessary high quality running nutrition.    After I attempted to place my order, the website  informed me the company didn’t yet ship out of the USA.  I was crushed!  So I found a “contact us” button and wrote a pleading  e-mail.  Low and behold, this was the start of a great relationship. 
Once the first shipment arrived, I started using Vi on training runs and races.  I have now raced 50k-100k, including a stage race in Nepal, using only Vi.  Here is what I have experienced: 
Smooth energy – Not the energy ups and downs with other gels.  I am the type of person who will set my watch and take a gel on a regular basis – every 30 – 45 min seems to work for me.  With other energy gels, I can tell when I am getting close to the bell – as my energy will start to fade.  But I haven’t experienced this with Vi.  I am reminded by my watch, not my body.
No stomach issues! – I’ve taken 12 gels in a 6 hour race and had zero problems, and I am stomach issue prone.  This is HUGE!!  Cumulatively, I’ve wasted days in the bushes or hampered by nausea and low energy in my eight years of racing, so not having to even think about my stomach is enough to make me leap for joy. 
No muscle soreness – This was the hardest  one for me to comprehend…why was I not showing any signs of soreness after a long run or race while using Vi?    At first I thought it was just a coincidence.  I started used Vi for a weekend of double long training runs.  My first day was mostly steep hills totaling about five hours.  The next day, I went back out for a three plus hour hill intensive training run.  Both days I used only Vi.  My second day out, my legs felt as fresh as the first day.  Wow, I thought, my fitness level must really be building.  How can I not be the least bit sore?    If I solely used Vi then this pattern repeated itself.  As a point of comparison, I supported some friends in 50k of an 80k trail race.  In some races here in HK, support crew can actually run along with a team and carry their supplies.  One of the racers was having a tough day, so the team pace slowed.  Because of the slow pace, I started to get hungry for solid food, so I ate some dried fruit and granola bars.  Even though our pace was slow, it was a hilly, tough course.  The next day I was sore.  I suspect I would not have been sore had I just stuck to Vi. 
The true benefits of recovery when using Vi came through for me in a recent stage race in Nepal.  While I watched everyone around me hobble after each stage, my legs felt fresh.  I was a little stiff, as to be expected from racing hard each day, but no outright soreness.  In the final stage, I was able to run without tightness in my stride or soreness in my quads, which enabled me to tie for the overall win of the last stage and propelled me into second place overall amongst the men. 

Happy and well fueled in Nepal
I asked Michael Hodges, one of the founders behind Vi, if it was my imagination that I wasn’t sore after runs using Vi.  His response was that it is “…specifically the OKG, Citrulline, Magnesium Aspartate, and Potassium Aspartate. Those, working together, do wonders for your muscles. Long story short they reduce, recycle, and remove excess ammonia (created from burning glycogen), which becomes toxic and breaks your muscles down. Flushing this stuff out, especially during long runs or short, intense runs, makes a huge difference in recovery... able to get back out and push the following day.”   This is exactly what I experience when I take Vi.   
I don’t think one needs to be grain free in order to experience the benefits of Vi, but it was the grain free path that led me to this energy solution.  Regarding the grain free diet, as I approach everything else in life, I am not an all or nothing type gal.  I do occasionally have a piece of bread, especially when it’s fresh baked and steaming hot, and I do enjoy the occasional beer (thankfully wine is grain free).  However, I seem to have found a winning combination of eating minimal grains and using Vi for racing.

Update Post Oxfam HK TrailWalker 100k:   I used 20 + Vi gels, + 3 bags of sweet potatoes roasted in coconut oil, and I had no stomach problems!! No nausea, no GI distress,  and solid energy for 14 hours straight.  Could not be happier!  Well, I guess the fact that we as the Blister Sisters broke the ladies record by 2hrs + does make me that much more happy! 

Blister Sisters - myself, Jeanette Holmes, Janet Ng, Claire Price


  1. So have you now established yourself as a distributor in Hong Kong, Kami? It looks like something I need to give a try! Always have stomach problems and sugar highs and lows. Gone gluten free in the last week but not yet as far as you did.

  2. Hi - no I am not a distributor, but would love to see this product in HK!

  3. yes me to, dropped all grains, legumes etc about 10 months ago and feel like i have turned the clock back, follows the paleo diet of sorts!

    1. Hi Steve - Interesting isn't it. What about dairy. Do you eat yogurt or cheese? Kami

  4. What are my chances of getting them to ship to me in Malaysia? Am interested to give it a go. BTW, is it vegan friendly?

  5. Hi Sue,

    I would contact Vi (through their website), and/or ask your local running store to see if they can get a shipment.

    Good luck.


    1. Hi Kami,

      thanks for the article!

      I'm also experimenting a lot with my diet as it seems to affect my mental fitness a great deal. If I eat the wrong stuff everything breaks down and my head just won't work (it's not just about being tired). Having a big salad for lunch (together with eggs, potatoes, etc.) works quite well. Dairy is not problem at all. Like you said, proteins/fats in general seem important for my balance.

      What is your go-to diet now for dinner after having kicked out quinoa and brown rice?

      Have a nice day!

  6. Hi Lukas,

    Yes, I think protein is really important in mental clarity! I remember when I was a lower protein eater (bordering vegetarian), had run a 100k race, then was out climbing with some friends a few days later. I got up to the anchor point and was not crystal clear how to tie and and repel down, something I've done hundreds of times!! Was funny and scarey at the same time.

    For dinner - I incorporate potatoes and sweet potatoes into many meals - which helps me get the solid carbs but without the grains/processing. Any kind of roasted vegetable also works.


  7. This post is very interesting. I just finished a 30 day Paleo experiment and during the process I wondered if an endurance athlete could essentially eliminate grains. This is very insightful. I will post my final results and thoughts in the next two days, but I do agree that significantly reducing refined sugar and processed foods will improve your health.

    If you are interested in reading about my process and experience changing my diet, here is the link Like you, I was already a healthy eater, but I still had to adapt to the changes:

  8. Thanks for sharing this, Kami. I went Whole30/Paleo in March and have also appreciated the lack soreness/faster recovery and the way my stomach feels during races!