Sunday, September 30, 2012

FASTING: Is It Beneficial For The Athlete?

"To Lengthen Thy Life, Lessen Thy Meals."  ~Benjamin Franklin

Often, around the spring and fall, athletes ask me this question:  "Almine, would it be beneficial for me to do a fast?"  Its like, at the crux of those two seasons, people instinctively know that a 'lil "R 'n R," or "deep cleaning" for the body is necessary.

The answer to this question is "Yes."  Fasting is beneficial for not just everyone, but in particular, the athlete.  Why is this?  There are a few simple explanations, but the easiest one I can articulate is that the athlete accumulates a lot of free-radicals in the body, on a constant basis, and that a "deep cleaning" is necessary from time to time, of these inflammation causing intra-toxins.

We all know there are "good stresses" and "bad stresses."  What is a "good stress" for the body?  Building muscle.  You must break muscle down to create stronger muscle (what a great metaphor for life, right?).  This process, however, does cause inflammation.  This inflammation has to go somewhere, and unless its "evacuated" promptly through one of the body's waste removal mechanisms (feces, saliva, urine or sweat) it will accumulate in the muscles and "hang out" there.  This is not what an athlete wants, or needs.  This is called DOMS ("Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness").  DOMS, if exponentially accumulated (workout after workout), without proper "housecleaning" through the body's waste mechanisms, can overwhelm the system.  This can cause nausea, headaches, hormone imbalances, premature greying of hair, dry skin & nails, constipation and/or diarrhea, gastritis, ulcers, poor training performance/recovery, to name a few.

As inflammation compounds, through multiple workouts, without the athlete assisting it to be removed from the body, free-radicals build-up.  Free-radicals are burdensome on the liver (a paramount organ in muscle building, metabolism and blood sugar stability).  Therefore, the athlete must place as much emphasis on free-radical elimination as s/he does to training.

Me, cranking out 100 back-squats for time at "CrossFit"

Hence, my emphasis of certain "power" foods and herbs (see previous blog posts) that aid in recovery, nourish the body, and increase evacuation of free-radicals rapidly.  In addition, I constantly tout the benefits of stretching in the heat (i.e. "Bikram Yoga").  You all must be thinking "Geez, Almine, enough already about the 'Bikram Yoga'."  The reality is, however, saunas & "Bikram Yoga" studios are invaluable in removing waste, rapidly from muscle tissue and fascia.  Stretching in heat (above body temperature) only increases free-radical elimination.  It relaxes muscle fibers enough for them to release inflammation/free-radicals, so that they can be excreted via the pores through sweat.

"Bikram Yoga" can aid elimination of toxins, built up by the body
through training.  This will accentuate your fast.

Want to play hard?  You must "deep clean" your body of the built-up waste that is accumulated from doing so.  Injury is soon to ensue if you don't.  Make stretching in heat a regular part of your training regime.  This should be a non-negotiable for every athlete.

Where does fasting fit into sports nutrition and training regimes for athletes?  When is it appropriate to do a fast?  What type of fast should I do?  Is there a better time of the year to do a fast vs. any random time one feels inclined to do so?  All good questions.  I will lay out a few "bullet points" for fasting that can be understood in a "101" manner:

-Fasting is best done at the crux of the season (spring/fall are the best times of the year) to ensure maximum immunity for the season ahead.  Have spring allergies?  Fasting at the beginning of spring should be a "must" for you.  In other words, if you're going to do a fast, consider doing it at/around the spring/fall equinoxes.

-Fasting is done best in either 1, 3 or 7 day blocks of time.

-Fasting during summer or winter is not recommended.  

-Do NOT exercise during fasting.  What I mean by exercise, in this case, is "cardio.," lifting weights, swimming, anything that requires your muscles to break down & cause inflammation.  "Active recovery" exercise during fasting is okay:  yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong.   As Bikram Choudry says "Yoga is the only exercise that gives the body energy vs. taking away from it.  Its the gas station, where the body fills itself up."

-The 3 best fasts:  air, lemon-water, vegetable broth.  Air fasts (no food or water) is the most powerful & deep-cleansing.  Lemon-water only is 2nd runner up & vegetable broth is 3rd runner up.  If you're choosing to do "Bikram Yoga" during your fast, you will increase the deep-cleansing attributes of the fast, but you will also lose valuable electrolytes.  Then, a lemon-water or vegetable broth fast is recommended to replace those electrolytes lost through sweat.  I would not recommend an air fast if you're choosing to sweat in saunas or at "Bikram Yoga" during your fast.

-The first 24 hrs. in a fast can be mentally challenging.  Your tummy will rumble for a couple of hours, but then it WILL settle down, & the mind will begin to become calm.  My favorite fasting period of time is 3 days.  By day 2, I feel like I can take on the world.  

-Fasting around the full moon is an ancient tradition to remove toxicity from the body.  Why does the full moon matter?  Is it just an "Old Wive's Tale?"  No.  It isn't.  Your body is made up of 70% water.  The moon governs all water on this planet, from the tides of the ocean, to the water in your body.  You are a microcosm of the macrocosm.  Water is a powerful medium used to flush out toxins.  Work with nature's cycles, not against them, & you will find your fasts more powerful and effective.  I would recommend doing a fast the day before/day of/day after the full moon.  When you become experienced at feeling what a fast can do for your body, you will notice the increased benefits, if you do it around the full moon.

The Full Moon Is A Powerful Time For The Water In Your Body 
To Assist In Cleansing Itself

-If you're a woman, do not fast while on your menses.  Your body is already cleansing.  Its too much to do both at the same time.  Also, do not fast while you're pregnant or lactating.

Fasting was a mandatory practice for warriors from the East:  Ninjas, Samurai and Shaolin martial artists.  It enforced discipline of mind, mastery over the body, and increased health benefits.  The first couple of hours of a fast your "monkey mind," as one of my teachers calls it, will go crazy.  "I want food, I want cake, I want broccoli, I want, I want, I want..."  This will settle down.  Your mind will begin to slow, and your breathing will become more calm within several hours.

Japanese Samurai Warrior

My advice is to set aside fasting for some type of retreat atmosphere.  Go to a hot springs, a secluded cabin, etc.  This is a time for rejuvenation and resting of the tissues, so that they may replenish themselves.  I would not recommend a "daily life" regime while fasting (work, picking up kids, training the way you normally do).  This would be retrogressive to the fast. 

There is some type of purification of the body amongst every warrior caste in various cultures.  Take for instance, the sweat lodge amongst the Native Americans.  To sweat, fast and purge the body was an annual ritual 1-2x per year (depending on the tribe).  They knew this enhanced longevity, gave vigor to the body for the coming season ahead, and quieted their minds to re-align themselves with the tribe's needs and goals.

Traditional Native American Sweat Lodge

In addition, there is not one spiritual tradition that I'm aware of that doesn't advocate fasting.  The world's greatest sages, from a variety of traditions, have fasted:  Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, John The Baptist, Ammachi, Paramahansa Yogananda, Mohammed, Anandamayi Ma,  Meera Bai, Lao Tzu, Ramakrishna, Milarepa, Hazrat Babajan, Hildegarde of Bingen, St. Teresa of Avila, Rumi, Joan of Arc, St. Francis of Assisi, Ghandi, Mother Meera, etc.   Each of these great masters have changed our world for the better, dispensed wisdom, and have been a beacon of knowledge to those of their era...and to us today.

~ Sri Anandamayi Ma ~
(This picture was not adulterated in any way.  It was taken of her, while she was fasting for 40 days & 40 nights.  Note the amount of "Chi" generated by her, commonly known in the West as an "aura."  This is often depicted in paintings of Christian saints or icons as well)

If you're new to fasting, and feel that you need some additional support/nutrition/electrolytes for the body, herbal teas can greatly assist.  Here are some herb suggestions for you, during your fast:

  -Amazon warriors fast on a strong concoction of yerba mate tea, 2x per year for 1 wk.

Yerba Mate Farmer, Paraguay

-Alfalfa leaf tea was used by medieval saints in Europe to assist with their fasting.

Ground Alfalfa Leaf Powder

-Tibetan monks fast on nettle tea, during meditation retreats.  In fact, Milarepa, the great Tibetan Buddhist yogi was said to have a "green hue" to his skin from drinking so many nettles.  :-)

Stinging Nettle

-Hindu sages have taken "Triphala" (see "Spring Detoxing:  The Ins & Outs" blog post), while fasting.

"Triphala"  (meaning "3 Berries")

We're at the beginning of fall now, this is a great time for a fast.  Remember to take the time to rest, soak in hot springs and/or do active recovery exercise to enhance your immunity for your coming fall/winter sports.  You do routine maintenance on your car.  Your body is more precious.  Treat it well, and allow it the time to heal itself.