After the Lord Mayor’s show: Diets, Cramps and Serotonin

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If ever you’re wondering what’s possible on a bike – and just how crazy some cyclists are – consider the friend of mine currently racing from Belgium to Turkey. He’s doing it unsupported, with the clock never stopping. Sleeping under hedges. Going over the Alps. He did the same last year – a massive event – and talked about, not only the tiredness afterwards, but the mental and emotional “flatness”. The post-Olympic low. Most people are probably familiar with this sensation immediately after a peak of adrenalin or stress; or a major event: if you’ve been focussing on a given moment, or goal, and when it’s gone, normality suddenly seems a bit slow (or empty?) because you’ve become so attuned to being ‘driven’.

I’ve returned from a relaxing family holiday in the beautiful Alps (ps I want to live there now…), but in cycling terms, and in cyclingwithms terms, flatness is where I’ve found myself. The week before the Alps I’d been geeing up my MS-ing body, pretending (both to it and to myself) that cycling in the Alps would be possible. Persuasion through adrenalin (and excitement) got me so far… but the result was that I only just crawled over the line and (see my last couple of blogs) I think I’m still wearing a psychological (and emotional) cycling-scar from the “Etape du Tour”. I feel that I stretched (on tip-toes) up to an event – which had been inspiring me to get out of bed every morning – but now, without all that anticipation, I’m now struggling to overcome the MS-lethargy I’m currently suffering. (Athletes and cyclists need rest and recovery (yes, I know) – but I feel that this current lassitude, buzzing with pins and needles (and other lower body issues), is more than just physical tiredness). Earlier this year, I was riding my bike with entry to the Paris-Brest ride on my radar – but, after very careful consideration and discussion with my audaxing ‘wingman’, I’ve decided not to go for it. Despite all those efforts to qualify, I just don’t think it’s what I’m should be looking for right now. My friend and I are going to do something else in its place…. something that will hopefully be less nocturnal; more scenic; and less crowded. It’s only 4 years until the next one anyway.

Feels to me like I need a new source of serotonin.

An MS diet

I have my suspicions that the MS diet I’m pursuing is not helping my tiredness. I’ve been exercising a lot – and struggling to keep my weight on – under a regime of near-vegetarianism and abstinence from all saturated fats. I’ve been disciplined about it and rotate my way through a set of meals that fit my needs (of which I’m getting increasingly bored!): usually some combination of white fish, pasta and salad/veg, followed  by fruit. But I also feel hungry too much of the time. My wife finds me, what she calls, “snaffling” – which essentially means me staring at a food cupboard, or fridge, craving “a little something” to satisfy my appetite, even after I’ve eaten.

Since I was diagnosed on 23 March 2015, 128 days ago, “Strava” tells me that I have cycled 5,259 miles. This averages out at 41 miles a day… which, very roughly, means that I’ve been burning up about 2,200 calories…  every single day. This is the recommended diet for “an under-weight man looking to put on weight”. So every day this year, I have been needing to eat, not only my own recommended calories intake, but also, in addition, the number of calories recommended for someone actively looking to put on weight. If one day I only eat a “normal” diet, the next day I need to eat three “normal” days worth just to catch up.  I’ve been doing my best. I’ve read blogs written by hard-core ultra-marathon runners who are vegan, so I know that this approach must be possible, but I can’t eat more volume (I’m eating mountains of food) – I need to work out more densely-packed, high-energy intakes. It’s been suggested that I go and see a Dietician (sounds pricey…) but my suspicion is that this might just lead to a recommendation of ‘high protein’ vegan foods and I’m already aware of these – Quorn, pulses, seeds etc. Unless I start drinking flaxseed oil out of pint glasses, I feel as though I’m going to turn into a (very thin) broccoli (although, admittedly, it would be nice to return to having such a full head of hair…)

Cramps

One factor on my bike that I thought might be related to all this, is the (very unwanted) appearance of pretty dreadful leg cramps during some rides. This is what really killed me on the Etape when I ended up having to ride over 70km with every pedal stroke driving cramp in both legs – it was a killer. I had suffered these once in the past – but this year they’ve cropped up maybe 5 or 6 times. Anecdotally I’ve heard much about dehydration and electrolyte deficiencies (or magnesium, or salts…) being a primary cause. And under training (or over-exertion). But these don’t seem to tally with my experiences this year. Another proposed cause, “overheating”, maybe tallies more so (especially on the Etape when the temperature in the valleys hit 40 degrees). So I did some internet research (always dangerous…):

Remarkably given all of the anecdotal conviction, there is no proven scientific link between dehydration (or mineral-deficiency) and cramps (arguably, this is because such a complex link is very difficult to “prove”, even though it may well still exist). Consensus seems to be that there are multi, varied causes – and rehydration and better training do seem to be the most reliable defences; and stretching is the best short-term, emergency cure. But then I started reading words that set my MS alarm bells ringing: “neuromuscular fatigue” – fatigue which contributes to a breakdown in the normally efficient neuromuscular pathways that control the movement of our muscles. This rings more true to me: “Neuro” (again). Is this just another gift from my MS friend? Or just another opportunity to use MS as an excuse for everything? Is there a bodily function left which it’s not going to touch?

I don’t think, however, that there’s such a thing as “neuro-hunger”. I stand by the opened fridge and look at another bag of spinach.  And low fat Soya Milk.

And broccoli…

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