A Gut Feeling

June 9, 2015
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Draped Seated Woman, Henry Moore, 1957-58


“What is my perfect weight?” is a question which has vexed me ever since I started to train for competition. If you ask the weightlifters, they will tell you to train heavy, since more mass can push and pull more volume. If you ask the gymnasts, they’ll claim featherweight makes it easier to move through space. And the endurance people say, forget weight: body-fat percentage—fuel on board and the capacity to tap into it—matters most. So the answer, like everything else, falls to the individual athlete to decide.

My instincts tell me that I should lose 5 to 8 pounds before the Games. I don’t think it is an amount so great that my barbell PRs will suffer, it will make pull ups and track work significantly easier, and if I can do it by losing fat, not muscle, my endurance should be improved as well. But the only way I know how to lose weight is to drastically cut calories. In my case, that would be from 1800 per day — a number calculated by a test of my resting metabolic rate taken several months ago — to, say, 1200. Considering the intensity and duration of my daily workouts as I train for the CrossFit Games, this diet plan would almost certainly have me passed out on the floor at about 3:00 every afternoon.

I asked my coaches for referrals to nutritionists who might counsel me on optimal diet for performance and weight loss, and it was Sean Waxman who introduced me to his former classmate in grad school, Chris Talley, and his company, Precision Food Works. Chris has been working with elite athletes for years, using his experience as an aerospace physiologist (studying how to keep astronauts from losing muscle mass and bone density while in zero gravity) to come up with a unique nutritional approach to increase those same measurements for those of us who remain earthbound.

Chris’s work begins with an analysis of blood and urine samples, said to be the most comprehensive such evaluation out there. Mine looked at possible food allergies, cardiovascular health indicators, amino acids profiles, nutrients and vitamins, fatty acid profiles, and more, all of which affect rate of fatigue, mental and emotional states, metabolic syndromes, digestion, and toxicity. My report took almost four weeks to prepare .After carefully reviewing its 18 pages with Chris, the short answer is that it’s not that what I’m putting in is wrong; it’s that my body hasn’t been able to process it properly. My gut flora is out of whack.

That the microbiome—the countless tiny organisms that call our bodies home—plays an important part in human health has been a big story in the past few years, but I’d somehow missed the memo. Chris suggested a broad spectrum probiotic (with more than 35 live strains) to reinvigorate the beneficial flora in my intestines.

Another suggestion he made: stop wearing lip gloss. I apply the stuff at least fifteen times a day, and am constantly biting my lips in concentration while training, effectively eating it. My blood tests detected toxic metals in my system, and Chris hypothesized it might be from the cosmetics. If you look closely at the clear gloss, you can see tiny sparkles of chromium. Even these tiny amounts accumulate over time.  To clean it up, he asked me to toss some cilantro into my evening meal for about three weeks.

He strongly advised against changing my diet in any substantial way, being just 40 days away from game day, but predicted that these tweaks will have me running so much more efficiently that I will likely lose weight anyway.

Walking Man I, Alberto Giacometti, 1960

Walking Man I, Alberto Giacometti, 1960

Our bodies are machines, and I’m trying to fine-tune mine to the highest pitch I can before the Games. Luckily, these are easy fixes: an oil change, instead of an engine replacement.

Prep Work

May 29, 2015
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Rudolf II of Habsburg as Vertumnus. Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1590.



I love food. When I look at my fridge, I want to see pleasure, not obligation. Not antithetically, training also demands that I eat thoughtfully. I need to eat not only for taste, but for performance.

I follow a plan that ensures that I have energy when I need it, in balanced proportion (more or less 40% carb-30% protein-30% fat) without the sluggishness that follows a heavy meal (I eat about 1800 calories per day). But I’m often traveling between gyms during the day, which means I don’t have time to get home to prepare a sit-down lunch for myself. And my days are usually so packed that when I come home hangry, I won’t be forced to make a desperate choice, because what I need and want to eat will already be there waiting for me. I need good food, fast.

Local farmers’ markets take place on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Shopping at the Santa Monica farmers’ market is one of my greatest pleasures—a sensual and aesthetic abundance and a chance to talk with the farmers who grow my food and to meet up with friends who shop there, too. But for now, I use a service, Good Eggs, to shop for me, since I don’t have the time to do it myself. They drop off a cooler packed full of locally grown vegetables, fruit, and meat.

Thursdays and Sundays are my rest days, and a perfect time to think about my meals and prep them. This is what’s in my fridge for the next four days:

Thursday

Dinner:

  • Roasted Squab with morels, roasted broccoli and kabocha squash puree
  • Mara De Bois strawberries

Friday

Breakfast:

  • Halibut with braised collards and kale
  • Oatmeal with roasted plum jam

Pre-Training:

  • Bone broth
  • Carrots with sesame and cilantro

Post-training:

  • Roasted sweet potatoes and golden potatoes with Herbs de Provence
  • Braised beef short ribs with peach salsa

Dinner :

  • Opah with tarragon, roasted asparagus and sautéed English peas with lemon
  • Papaya

Saturday

Breakfast:

  • 4 eggs
  • Chicken patties with beet top pesto
  • Sautéed red cabbage with caraway seed, mustard seed, and champagne
  • Apple-cinnamon oatmeal

Pre-training:

  • Bone broth
  • Roasted Celery root with orange, cumin, and coriander

Post-training:

  • Baked sweet potato
  • Blackened Chicken breast
  • Nectarine

Dinner:

  • Duck breast with cara-cara orange glaze
  • Roasted purple cauliflower with balsamic and basil
  • Kiwi

 

Sunday

Breakfast:

  • Pork sausage, asparagus, zucchini, and broccoli saute
  • Oatmeal with almond paste and stewed blueberries

Lunch:

  • Bone broth
  • Roasted rutabaga with lemon zest
  • Chicken breast with chili sauce, cilantro, chives, lime, and basil with tomato
  • Roasted sweet potatoes with herb scented salt

Then I prep. Chopping, zesting, dicing, sautéing, and cooking everything I can: a working meditation. By mid-afternoon, I have a pleasingly stocked refrigerator, organized into labeled containers. In the following days, when I get home, mind and body fatigued past the ability to make decisions, dinner is ready. Voila.

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A Good Egg

April 14, 2015

 

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Five Color Frame, 1985. Robert Mangold

I love to wake up early. I can linger over coffee and a little bowl of Overnight Oats while I get all my reading done—the New York Times, the New York Post, and the blogs that have aggregated overnight on my Feedly reader—write a bit, and finally, transcribe my Invictus programming, which sometimes requires time-consuming math to work out my barbell percentages. Like most people, I don’t respond well to an alarm, but I’ve learned to make rising pleasurable. I go to bed at 10:00 p.m., and I sleep with my windows and blinds open. First light and the sounds of an emerging day rouse me naturally. By 10:30 a.m., my head filled with news and ideas, I am ready to have my “real” breakfast, which on most days consists of some kind of meat, some green vegetables (spinach, zucchini, Brussels sprouts or cabbage), and eggs.

I have always liked eggs, even during the decades they were at the top of the no-no list. I ate them anyway, because it never seemed to me like there could be anything so wrong about eating a food that felt so right. Contemporary nutritionists have since exonerated (eggs-onerated?) them by recognizing that eggs are a perfect protein for training—they contain all twenty amino acids and vitamin B12, which helps maintain metabolism of carbohydrates.

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For years, I almost exclusively poached one or two of them, perfecting a fat-free technique that requires several kitchen utensils and some careful monitoring to get them just right. Occasionally, I would make them into an omelet and fill it with vegetables and meat. But I almost never scrambled them, and only then when I was hosting a crowd, because I could never seem to get the combo of pan size, temperature and relative number of eggs working together before they became tough, leathery, and lost their essential egginess. Then I watched how Gordon Ramsay prepares scrambled eggs.

He treats his eggs delicately—no brisk whisking in a bowl, no sprinkle of salt while still raw, no butter heating up separately in the pan. Constant stirring, heat alternating with no heat, a healthy pat of butter, and a finishing dollop of crème fraîche. What results is creamy, delicate, delicious. It’s like spending your life stargazing in Central Park, and then seeing the night sky in Wyoming—the same raw materials, but a world of difference in between.

How I make them:

I break four eggs into a cold, heavy-bottomed pan, then add a good chunk of butter—Kerrygold is the brand I prefer. Using a rubber spatula, stir together over low heat until the butter melts, then move off the heat for a few moments, stirring constantly. Move back onto heat, removing occasionally if the eggs start to cook too quickly. Never stop stirring. Just as the eggs start to set, remove from heat and continue to stir for a moment. Then add a (totally optional) spoonful of crème fraîche, some sea salt and pepper, chives if you have them, and stir to combine.

I can’t remember the last time I poached an egg.

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Untitled, from Couples, 1996. Brice Marden

 

 

The Morning Routine

March 6, 2015

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I woke up this morning feeling exceptionally calm. Perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that I have done this before: it was the second workout in the Open in 2014 as well. Every three minutes, athletes are tasked with completing two rounds of a set of overhead squats and pull-ups: the first set of ten each, the second of twelve, and so on, until you fail to complete both rounds. Last year, I got a score of 122, which means I got about ¾ of the way through the round of 14’s.

Over my morning coffee (an Americano, with two shots and frothed apricot kernel milk—recipe below), I calculated the number of reps I want to aim for today. I believe I can make it through the 14’s now, since I am stronger, and at least halfway through the 16’s. So 175 seems to be a reasonable goal.

As I scrambled my eggs, I looked at the Games’ leaderboard and noticed that a few women in the 60+ Division reached nearly 200 last year. Tough to beat. I try and put their scores out of my head, and to focus on what I think I can do.

With breakfast on a plate in one hand—oatmeal, the eggs, and a quarter-pound of prosciutto—and half a cup of the coffee in the other, I crawled back into bed like I usually do, to eat and read newspapers on my iPad. Then, I listened to one of the guided visualizations Invictus has tailored to each of the workouts in the Open.

Hunger satisfied, caffeine kicking in, sated with news, and mentally clear, I got dressed—in compression tights and a tank—and found myself flummoxed over footwear. The overhead squats will be easier in lifting shoes—they help me keep weight on my heels and to maintain a tight midline, which will be critical as fatigue sets in during the later sets. But since the chest-to-bars are jumping for Masters 55+, maybe my regular sneaks—Inov-8 F-Lites—are better, since they are lightweight and springy. I looked in my notes from last year, and found that I had not written anything down about which shoes I wore. I decided to take both.

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Apricot Kernel Milk (makes one quart)

You will need:

  • A quart-size wide mouth canning jar and lid
  • Pure filtered water
  • Several cups of organically grown apricot kernels—I order mine in bulk online, from Sun Organics
  • 5-6 dates, pitted
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon Madagascar vanilla
  • A nut milk bag

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Using a wide mouth quart-sized canning jar, fill ¾ of it with apricot kernels. Then fill the jar with pure filtered water, almost to the top. Place the water and apricot kernels in the refrigerator for 2-3 days, adding more water so the kernels remain covered as they soak and swell. When you are ready to make the milk, discard any water that remains in the jar. Pour the apricot kernels into a VitaMix blender along with two quarts of pure fresh water and blend at high speed for at least 30 seconds. Add the 5-6 pitted dates and blend for another 30 seconds.

Pour the blended mixture through the nut milk bag into a bowl, and squeeze as much of the liquid out of the solids as you can. Discard the solids (and if anyone has a suggestion for ways to use this besides as compost, please share in the comments). Transfer the milk into the original jar. Add salt and the vanilla, put the lid on the jar and shake hard to dissolve salt. Store the Apricot Kernel Milk in the refrigerator (it will keep for about three days). Use it in coffee, just like you would regular whole milk. I have found that it froths equally well using either a milk steamer or a battery operated whisk, just don’t let it get too hot, or it will get clumpy.

What I Eat

February 12, 2015

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How I Eat

February 3, 2015

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I have eaten “clean” my whole life. I grew up in the Santa Clara Valley of California, when it was predominated by large family-run farms, and access to fresh fruits and vegetables was a fact of life.  Except for the few years during which my mother bought canned peas—motivated, no doubt, by convenience—everything green on our table was no more than 48 hours from the ground. There were no fast-food spots in my town then, so I didn’t try a Big Mac until, when I was 22 years old, I revealed I’d never had one to a boyfriend while we were out in his car. He promptly hung a U-ey and remedied that.

Later, in the late 1980s, while living in New York and just after I had taken up bird hunting and fly fishing, I decided to try an “Eat What You Kill” diet. I owned a small farm in Connecticut where I raised sheep, goats, and chickens, grew my own vegetables and fruit, and it was close enough to several fish and game preserves that it was possible to shoot pheasant, partridge, and quail, and to fish for trout. Needless to say, when I announced this at the “ideas” meeting at Allure, where I contributed at the time, I became the punch line for many an office joke.

I have always deeply valued the ritual of eating. I think it starts long before you actually sit down to the dinner table, at the moment when you are procuring the food—whether by hunting, gathering, or driving to the grocery store and shopping for it. Cooking is, for me, a meditative process. And setting the table is, for most meals, like preparing for sacrament, even in simple ways like using a linen napkin or a favorite piece of silver flatware to eat a lunchtime salad. So by the time everyone finally sits down to eat at my house, it’s with a hallelujah chorus. During the 2000s, I owned a ranch and vineyard near Santa Barbara, California. I wrote a book about some of the more memorable meals and parties I held there, often paired with wine made from grapes grown on the property.

Fast-forward to the present.

My commitment to CrossFit training meant rethinking my whole way of eating. First, I had to give up alcohol, which I did about 18 months ago (this is neither total abstinence or, necessarily, forever; but since that time I have had about 10 glasses of champagne or tequila on as many occasions). And, since becoming a full-time athlete, I started to appreciate just how closely related what I eat and when I eat it are tied to performance. For the first few weeks, I’d felt weak and depleted, so I ramped up my protein intake. It seemed to help, but maybe the slight uptick I felt was because I was getting used to the intense training days. It seemed like I could get more from my food.

Enter Matthew Walrath. He’s a top athlete (and, like me, an aspiring Games competitor) who trains at my gym and is also a nutrition coach. In his email signature, he identifies himself: “Speaker – Coach – Ball of Energy.”

After I gave him the results from my Resting Metabolic Rate test (RMR), he made me a diet plan (to be shared in a future post). The biggest surprise was learning that I was not eating enough. He recommended four eggs for breakfast. I usually ate one. Oatmeal? I had sworn off it when I jumped on the Paleo bandwagon.

Since starting Matthew’s plan (back in the fall) I have reduced my body fat by 4%, but I have not lost weight—I’ve built muscle.  All I can say about eating this way is that it sure makes pull-ups easier.

 

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Liquid Gold

January 15, 2015

Making broth

My Grandma taught me to how to cook (and to eat, but that is a story for another post). Her parents were French immigrants, and, as much as French food is known for its tasty complications, economy is the true hallmark of French home cooking. The modern trend for “nose to tail” is ancient and Gallic in origin.

Grandma would buy a chicken on Saturday, roast it on Sunday, and serve the sliced breasts in a rich cream sauce. On Monday, the dark meat was turned into something with a carb bolster, like a potpie or a goulash over rice. On Tuesday, the pickings became the backbone for chicken salad sandwiches, and when she was left with nothing but a carcass, that went into a stockpot with some vegetables and simmered for days, until the next Saturday, when another whole chicken was bought. Out of all the deliciousness Grandma could wring from a single bird, I think it was the stock she savored most. She called it liquid gold.

The bones from one chicken made enough stock for her to drink a small cupful every day, about two quarts.

For as long as I have been cooking for myself, I have been making chicken stock like Grandma did, but I froze it in ice cube trays to have on hand when a recipe called for it.

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Ever since I started training in the afternoons (sometime between 1:00 and 5:00PM), I have had a problem figuring out a workable solution for lunch. Here are the givens: I eat (a good-sized) breakfast at 7:30 every morning (more on that, too, in a future post). I am hungry by noon but cannot workout on a full stomach. So I have to wait for a few hours between eating and training; noon lunch means a later start time. For a while, I made fruit smoothies (coconut water, banana, and some greens) spiked with protein powder, and they were filling and fine on my stomach, but I hated having all that sugar at midday and in one hastily consumed cup (17 grams in the banana alone, which is just about all I’ve allocated for myself daily). So, I wondered, how could I make a liquid lunch without sugar?

Savory smoothies, that’s how. A cup of homemade broth (my repertoire has since expanded to include beef, veal, and partridge) paired with almost any roasted vegetable and whirled in the Vitamix for thirty seconds. This is faster than any fast food and I can train comfortably about thirty minutes after drinking it.

I read in the New York Times about a trend called “brothing,” and now I have learned that there are amazing health benefits to drinking a cup of broth every day. If it is made right—I brown carrots, celery and an onion in the stockpot first, then add the carcass and some juniper berries, peppercorns and bay, and enough purified water to cover the bones and four extra pairs of chicken feet that the butcher throws in with a knowing wink, spike it with a little vinegar, cover and simmer, but never boil, for at least 72 hours—it is loaded with minerals, amino acids, collagen, and proteins nearly impossible to get in any other foods.

Don’t you love it when you can solve a problem with a solution that makes life even better?

 

Bone Broth