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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

One Foot in the Grave? No Way!

Paddling on After 50—
Beating the Bonk!

By Tamia Nelson

September 9, 2008Dead in the Water

I’m no Energizer Bunny®, I admit, but I’m not a quitter, either. That’s why I take it personally when my body lets me down—as it did not long ago, when I found myself struggling to keep going during the final hours of a trip. The combination of hard work and hot sun took its toll, and though I’d been drinking and snacking all day, my batteries had definitely suffered a voltage drop. Then the Old Woman got in my face in a big way, slowing my progress to a crawl. So I did what I had to do. I headed for a sheltered cove, put my paddle down, and had a little something to eat and drink. Then I took a short break till I got my second wind. It meant that I’d be running behind schedule, but I really had no choice in the matter. The alternative was…

The Bonk

Also known as “hitting the wall,” this is shorthand for complete physical collapse. (A word of warning is in order here. Bonking often means something quite different on the other side of the Pond. Context is everything.) The signs are unmistakable. Your muscles go slack—in the unforgettable words of legendary sports commentator Phil Liggett, you feel like “the elastic has snapped.” Worse yet, your mind wanders repeatedly from the task at hand, leaving you with an eerie and not altogether unpleasant sense of detachment. This can be dangerous, particularly when your life’s hanging in the balance. “I don’t care what happens next” is not a mantra for survivors. The bottom line? Bonking can ruin your day, and—it hurts to say this—if my experience is anything to go by, the danger increases as you get older. In short, the elastic gets a little less resilient with every passing year. OK. Life’s unfair. But what’s the alternative? A long snooze in the La-Z-Boy®? That’s not for me, thanks. So after my elastic snapped a couple of times, I figured I’d better get to know the enemy. Two urgent questions headed my list: Why do we bonk? And what can we do about it?

A little research yielded some answers. Let’s take the first question first. In simple terms, bonking is the physiological equivalent of an empty gas tank. Your muscles just run out of fuel. Of course, it’s not really that simple. Most of us carry enough fuel around with us (as fat) to keep us going for days. But our muscles can’t use fat as fuel. They need glucose. Call it fast fuel, if you like. And luckily, muscles can store glucose right on site, in the form of glycogen, a glucose polysaccharide. That’s where the luck runs out, however. Our fuel tank has definite limits. Even trained athletes can only store about 2000 calories worth of glycogen. When this has been burned up—around mile 20 in a marathon, for example—they bonk. Of course, not too many of us are trained athletes, are we? Our fuel tanks are smaller. So we hit the wall that much sooner. Bad news, indeed.

The upshot? We have to make our own luck, starting by getting regular, moderate exercise. (What’s “moderate”? That depends on you. Talk to your doc.) Regular exercise helps us make the most of our stored glycogen. You could say exercise improves our fuel economy. It may even help us tap our abundant stores of body fat. This won’t work when an all-out effort is required, but fat can fuel our engines during the easier times, saving our glycogen for the Big Push, if and when the need arises. Here’s the deal: Go slow whenever you can. You’ll cover more miles—remember the story of the Tortoise and the Hare?— and you’ll see more, into the bargain. And that’s just the beginning. There are other things you can do to…

Beat the Bonk

Here are a few:

Eat Frequently  Paul de Vivie (aka “Velocio”), 19th-century silk merchant turned endurance cyclist, said it best: “Eat before you’re hungry.” You won’t go far without fuel in your tank. Start by eating a good breakfast, but don’t stop there. Lunch begins 15 minutes after your breakfast ends. Nibble as you paddle. If you’re like me, you’ll want to go heavy on carbs and easy on fat and protein, and you’ll prefer “real” food (fruit, homemade cereal bars, nuts, and chocolate) to store-bought “energy bars” and fitness gels. But not everyone is like me, of course. Eating shouldn’t be a chore or a penance. Eat whatever floats your boat. Just don’t wait till you’re hungry.

Drink Often  Because, as Jerome K. Jerome rightly observed in Three Men in a Boat, “Thirst is a dangerous thing.” And to paraphrase Velocio once more, drink before you’re thirsty. You’re mostly water, after all. (Don’t take this personally. We all are.) But what about hyponatremia. or water intoxication? Isn’t it possible to drink too much? Yes, though if you’re replacing the salts you sweat away, and if you avoid truly heroic intakes of fluid, the chances that you’ll get into trouble are pretty remote. Snacking regularly helps, as do electrolyte-replacement drinks, either homemade or store-bought. I mostly stick to plain water under way. Then again, I’m always eating.

Take a Break  In truth, the Energizer Bunny® is in a class by himself. (Or is it herself?) The rest of us need to…well…rest from time to time. Even the tireless voyageurs stopped paddling every hour or so for as long as it took to smoke a pipe of tobacco, and those little guys were professional Ironmen, whose workday began at three in the morning and didn’t end till nine at night. (No, I’m not recommending tobacco as a performance-enhancing supplement. No way! But the idea of an hourly break is a very good one.)


That’s it—a straightforward prescription, and one that’s not hard to follow. Eat before you’re hungry, drink before you’re thirsty, and take a break before you’re exhausted. What could be simpler? Of course, it’s easier to eat if you like what’s on the menu. Want some ideas? No problem. Here are some of my favorite…

Fast FuelBonk Busters

Lesson Number One: When you’re working hard, calories do count. And—within reason—the more, the better. You may be on a diet, but your muscles aren’t. They want fast fuel, and plenty of it. That means carbs. Gorp (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts, heavy on the raisins and light on the peanuts) is one solution, though you’re free to vary the mix to suit your tastes. It works for Farwell, but not for me. I’m just not a gorp person. Instead, I top up my tank with…

Bananas  A road-racer’s staple, these are also great for day trips on the water. They’re loaded with potassium, they come prepackaged, and they’re easy to eat on the go. It’s a winning combination.

Apples and Oranges  These hold up better than bananas in your food pack, making them better choices for weekend outings. They quench your thirst, too, and they aren’t as cloyingly sweet as some bananas.

Oatmeal Bars  You can buy these in the HyperMart or make your own, freezing them till you’re ready to hit the trail. Care to guess which alternative I prefer?

The Venerable PBJ  I favor whole-grain bread, with raspberry jam instead of grape jelly. I also cut each sandwich into four bite-sized triangles to simplify snacking under way.

Bread, Crackers, and Pretzels   Got an overnight ahead? Bag a baguette! Ritz® crackers, Triscuits®, or mini pretzels are handy, too, and the extra salt is welcome on sweaty days.

Potatoes  It’s possible that these were the original fast food, though there are lots of contenders for that title. Still, generations of peasant farmers took boiled potatoes with them as they trudged out to their fields, and you can do the same when you go paddling. Just put a boiled or baked potato in a plastic bag along with a generous pinch of coarse kosher salt. Then eat it right out of your hand, skin and all. It’s a great snack, even if your grandmother wasn’t born in a potato field. (Mine was.)


You get the idea. Fast fuel, and plenty of it. But what if, despite your best efforts, you still hit the wall? What then? Here are a few ideas for…

Bouncing Back From the Bonk

It’s more of the same, really. You could call it the “Three Rs”: Refuel, rehydrate, and rest. Replenishing your glycogen stores is Job One. The literature is a bit muddy, but the current consensus seems to prefer carbs to fats and proteins, although a little of these can’t hurt, either. Chocolate milk is a favorite in cycling circles, and cocoa goes down well in a riverside camp, with a big bowl of pasta (or potatoes) to follow. Whatever you do, don’t delay. And while you’re refueling, make sure you rehydrate. If it’s been awhile since you “pumped ship,” the need is urgent. So drink up! Lastly, get some rest. A good night’s sleep is probably best, but if that’s impossible, at least give yourself time to digest what you’ve eaten. A couple of hours is probably the bare minimum. More is better.

What happens if you don’t bounce back? A full day off should do the trick. But just to be on the safe side, see the doc. You don’t want the Bonk to become a way of life, do you?

Most of us in the Over-the-Hill Gang hit the wall from time to time. But it doesn’t have to happen. It is possible to beat the Bonk, and the prescription is as easy as it is palatable. Eat before you’re hungry. Drink before you’re thirsty. Rest before you’re exhausted. That’s all there is to it. Simple and good. And that’s the whole idea, isn’t it?

Copyright 2008 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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