The BWR: Let’s hear it for exercise-induced nausea!


My racing buddy Kevin and me, post-plunder, pre-chunder.

If you’ve been a member of the Nerd Herd for a while, you know I’m a Steve Edwards Birthday Challenge devotee. Every year on my birthday, I do something hard and fun, just to make the most out of this bag o’ beans before it gets wrapped up into that big burrito in the sky.

Last year, I celebrated with a day including a 43-mile bike ride with 4,300 feet of climbing. Still relatively new to cycling, I thought that to be fairly epic. So, in the grand tradition of all that is manly–and therefore pointlessly stupid–I decided that this year’s challenge needed to make last year’s challenge look like something out of Mary Poppins.

As luck would have it, my birthday coincided with the 2014 SPY Belgian Waffle Ride, a 135-mile race starting out of Carlsbad, CA including 30 miles of dirt riding, 11,500 feet of vertical climbing, and beer. The sunglass folks had assembled a challenge for me in a tidy no-muss, so-fuss, plenty o’ pain package. God bless ’em!

The bastards.

I don’t regret a minute of it, but the BWR was truly a beat down, from the 20+ MPH, 20-mile “warm-up” to the 3,000 feet of climbing in the last 15 miles. Being a nerd, I added a few of my own, personal mis-adventures to the day, such as when a perfect combination of water and fine dirt worked its way into my Speedplay pedals and dried into a hard clay, fusing my shoes to my bike. I had to ride through 5 miles of rocky dirt–on my road bike, mind you–knowing it was impossible to take my feet off my pedals. Finally, I arrived at a support stop, slowed to a crawl, and screamed, “Somebody grab me! Somebody grab me!” Three people held me up as I managed to pry my feet free and extricate a small Cameroonian village’s worth of hard mud from my cleats.

Oh, and also, I spent the entire post-race awards ceremony barfing into a trashcan–and that’s what I wanted to discuss with you today.

It caught me completely off guard. I felt fine finishing the race. I registered my time, collected my finisher’s shirt and bottle of “Bad-Ass Ale,” packed my bike in the truck, and headed for the feed tent for a big plate of traditionally Belgian moules-frites (steamed mussels and French fries) and a cup of Belgian beer. As my riding partner Kevin and I searched for places to sit, I noticed a table piled with crudité. As much as I love shellfish and nutrient-depleted potatoes, I’d just spent a whole day eating nothing but sugar, so all those phytonutrients and fiber were a sight for sore Nutrition Nerd eyes. I grabbed a handful of carrot sticks and moved on.

In case you’re wondering about the sugar thing, endurance event drain an enormous amount of energy. My estimated calorie burn was well past 6,000 for 9 hours of effort. In these situations, your priority is to get glycogen to your muscles as quickly as possible and the best way to do that is with simple carbohydrates, so you’re basically continually sipping sugary electrolyte drinks, wolfing down various gels and bars, and thanking [insert deity here] when you roll up to a support station and they still have something natural like bananas.

For someone who eats as clean as I typically do, forcing down all that sugar is almost harder than the cycling part, but I digress. Those carrots might as well have been laced with crack. I  half chewed about three and swallowed them down. Instantly, something felt wrong. They sat in my esophagus as I gag-burped repeatedly. Next thing you know, I’m sitting next to a trash can, yakking up blobs of stomach acid with the occasional hunk of carrot.

Twenty minutes later, I felt fine again. My moules-frites had gone cold and a heavy Belgian-style ale didn’t sound all that inciting, so I waited for dinner–but later that night, I ate the hell out of some grilled fish tacos, no problemo.

So why did I have to holler for Ralph in that Hefty bag? It’s hard to say. Typically, post-exercise nausea is brought on by bad food choices pre-exercise. Here’s an absolute head-slapper of a Japanese study during which subjects fed hamburgers before working out became more nauseous than those who abstained. Why this research was deemed PubMed worthy is beyond me. I hear the researcher are now investigating the effects of hitting yourself in the forehead with a rubber mallet.

Another reason for post-exercise vomit has to do with a combination of dehydration and lack of blood flow to your internal organs. Because you’re not drinking enough, your blood volume is low. Meanwhile, what blood you do have has gone to your extremities, where it’s needed. Therefore, your stomach can’t do what it’s supposed to do, resulting in nausea. The fancy term is “exercise-dependent ischemia-induced GI distress” and it’s not something you want to happen too often. It compromises your gut’s mucosal lining (the protective layer covering your digestive system) letting toxins get into your blood.

The best solution is to stay adequately hydrated with a solution of water, carbs, and electrolytes. (I’ll discuss exact amounts another time.) I’ve been dehydrated on long rides before and it sucks nuts, so I’m fairly certain this wasn’t the case, although there’s a slim chance I over-carbed, which can compromise fluid delivery.

I have a third theory that tucks in nicely with all the above science–and this is what I think was my problem. Our autonomic nervous system controls the bodily functions we don’t need to worry about. Basically, it’s divided into two parts. The sympathetic nervous system is the “fight or flight” part, handling all those bad-ass stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that allow you to deal with tough situations, be they zombie attacks or 135-mile bike races. The parasympathic nervous system is the “rest and digest” part, handling digestion, sexual arousal, stuff like that.

So, basically, I’d just spent an entire day with my sympathetic nervous system dialed to 11. It was Cortisol-Fest 2014–and one of cortisol’s jobs is to suppress GI system function so you can use those resources for the task at hand.  Any digesting I had been doing involved simple sugars, which practically digest themselves. Suddenly, I threw a fibrous half-chewed carrot down there. It stands to reason that my poor, beleaguered gut would freak out a little.

Luckily. even though I’m not sure which of those theories is true, they all have a common solution. Just as hard exercise requires a warm down, apparently, my digestive system requires a warm-up post-extreme event. Next time, I plan to start with something a little gentler–and I’ll chew it better. Typically, I aim for a 4-1 carb:protein recovery snack, like Results & Recovery Formula, which I planned to do, but simply forgot about in the moment. Drinking something like that first probably would have saved my esophagus an unplanned hydrochloric acid rub down.

But what I lost in moules-frites, I gained in increased body awareness, so all-and-all, it was a good race–and an excellent birthday.