Before the “Iron Lung Challenge” was presented, I had determined for my own health to row a minimum of 20,000 meters per week from Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day. (Attempting to row 150K was not on my radar.) I was looking for a way to maintain my cardiovascular fitness as the weather got colder, the days got darker, and I would typically feel my motivation wane. I thought this was a reasonable addition to my usual CrossFit schedule: simply picking up an extra 20 mins of rowing a few times per week.
Lo and behold, shortly after I began my endeavor, Decima Crossfit announced the challenge. The stakes: the athlete that gets the most meters on the rower during December will win $100. All meters must be at Decima, and the daily WODs don’t count towards the score. As a bonus, the first athlete to get a marathons worth of meters (that’s 42,195) will get $50.
When I read the details, I wasn’t immediately in. I thought, “well, that complements my rowing goals … but I’ll probably just keep to myself.” The rowing AT Decima was a big drawback for me, since I enjoy rowing at The Facility separate from daily workouts.
The first day I stayed after class to row was December 2. It felt good. The rowing is mindless, repetitive, and so soothing for an anxious brain. On the rower, I’m able to tap into a place of peace and zone out.
For the most part, I keep my competitive drive in check. I am sensitive to overtraining and Crossfit has historically not been the best on my hormone balance. Therefore, I must not let my ego run wild or I get burnt out very quickly. I LOVE CrossFit and the community, so it’s a very humbling balance for me.
However, I couldn’t hold it in with this challenge. I MISS being competitive. I MISS finding that inner drive to WIN. And THAT REALLY FELT GOOD.
It only took a few days for me to realize I had this one. By day four, I had the month mapped out in my head – 20,000 per week, I’d be at the marathon mark somewhere in the third week – simple. During the first few days, I even had a few competitors to outwork. Thank you to Phil, Sharon, and Tim for the initial spring.
I just rowed. And kept rowing. 42,195 came A LOT quicker than I planned. At some point, Megan offhandedly upped the stakes, “So, you’re going to row 100K this month?”
—-Yes, Megan, I GUESS I AM.
The competition changed from a competition amongst members (sorry, friends) to a competition within myself. I let the fire burn and upped the stakes week-to-week. I’m proud to have kept going, and I’m really looking forward to a break from that seat.
Here are a few things that helped me row 150K meters in December 2020…
Protecting my gut, adrenals, hormones
Endurance training has been demonstrated to cause an increase in pro-inflammatory cytokines such as TNF-a, IL-1, and IL-6. This inflammatory response is thought to contribute to dysbiosis, modifications of the microbiome, gut mucousal changes and ultimately increased gastrointestinal permeability. This is what is commonly referred to as “leaky gut.”
Leaky Gut, or Intestinal hypermeability, can lead to a number of downstream problems. It is a vicious internal cycle of the worse the leaky gut, the more susceptible you are to the causes of the leaky gut, and so on.. (See “Your leaky gut didn’t cause your leaky gut..”)
However, exercise-induced hyper permeability (documented by LPS) can be decreased with a sensitive diet and the addition of probiotic species. I chose to combat the likelihood of leaky gut complications by following a strict diet and consuming strain-specific probiotics for gastrointestinal health.
In this case, I adhered to a largely nose-to-tail carnivore diet. Yep, it may seem extreme for many.
For optimal GI health, an elimination diet avoiding grains, corn, low-fat dairy, peanuts, and soy may be sufficient. However, I have found that I feel my best when avoiding ALL plant fibers.
When I am eating a carnivore diet, I use animal sources to get all the nutrients I need. To do so, I include organ meats, bone broth, connective tissues, oily fish, and occasional full-fat or fermented dairy. [Note that I believe every diet needs to be very individualized. MY “carnivore” diet will look very different than someone else’s because I understand where my tolerance lies. See more about other foods I included below].
Because I am particularly sensitive to overtraining with history of hormone dysregulation; I had to put some measures in place to protect my adrenals. I chose to eliminate caffeine for the month of December. Endurance exercise is a particularly taxing (read: stressful) activity; so it was important to minimize other avenues of stress. While in the correct dosage and timing, coffee can be particularly anti-inflammatory, I found that the positives were not greater than the influence of caffeine (especially early morning) on my cortisol rhythm. Decaf December it was!
Nutrition for 150K of Rowing
In bouts of rowing 5000 to 10000 meters (on average) I likely burned somewhere between 300-500 calories. Unlike strength training, the calorie burn from cardiovascular exercise is largely isolated to the time spent on the machine. This doesn’t put me in a huge caloric deficit, but it was something I wanted to stay on top of to maintain my energy, strength, and stamina since I continued with normal CrossFit WODs as well.
Weight loss was not a goal of mine during this month of rowing, so I adding in supplemental nutrition to account for the additional calories burned. Most days, this was in the form of a high-quality grass-fed protein shake immediately after exercise. My go-to shake was coconut milk (homemade, using The Almond Cow) + Equip Protein + Blueberries (depending on WOD).
In addition to protein, I also consumed raw honey daily. I prefer this animal source of simple carbohydrates. I typically had a spoonful (somewhere between a teaspoon and a tablespoon?) pre-workout.
Recovery from Rowing
I have to say, my recovery is really my competitive edge. I was able to continuously log longer bouts of rowing because I took very good care of my body between sessions. (Aka, daily). I am fortunate that I work with some pretty great doctors at The Facility Denver.
I received regular chiropractic and soft-tissue care on my back, neck, and shoulders. Neil, our massage therapist, took care of my aches (with bodywork and fire cupping) and refocused my mindset (with some directed mindfulness) when I started questioning “WHY” around 100k meters. [Some 50,000 meters away from rowing 150K]
In addition to hands on care, I made time for Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (PEMF). The PEMF machine uses a magnetic field to restore the charge of cell membranes so that they may function well for taking in and disposing nutrients. (Read: HEALING). The PEMF has been FDA cleared since the 1970s for tissue and bone healing. It’s applications are widespread and we’ve since incredible results on both acute and chronic conditions.
I committed to two-three sessions per week of PEMF; I think this really helped my recovery to maintain my regular workouts while also rowing extra.
I’m also fortunate to have a great partnership with CYL Sauna in Cherry Creek. Once per week during December, I used infrared sauna to recover. I particularly liked using this on rest days from Crossfit and Rowing as a true recovery modality.
Lastly, I supplemented with Rightful’s Liquid Formula for Pain and Recovery. This is a powerful blend of adaptogenic herbs and CBD. If anything, it truly helped me fall asleep and stay asleep every night. (Yes, my bedtime is around 8pm and I wake up around 4am.)
I regularly recommend this supplement for anyone struggling with sleep issues, pain, or inflammation based on the anecdotal evidence we’ve seen in the clinic. Rightful is a game changer. [They also make a topical formula which Neil used for my massage. 10/10 Relief]
…And then I got COVID while trying to row 150K
Despite thinking I was doing something helpful for my lungs and my overall health… I came down with COVID-19 (Pretty much the day I hit 100K). It rocked me.
I spent 10 days in isolation over the Christmas holiday. I don’t think anyone can prepare for the mental aspect of this virus. I was exhausted all the time, I lost all sense of taste and smell, and I felt like I had nothing to look forward to.
Indeed, I am a self-described independent introvert and I cherish my alone time: but this was HARD to get through.
Clearly, I should’ve spent more time protecting my immune health, instead of my gut and adrenal health. As I discovered, endurance exercise has demonstrated implications for immune tolerance:
“These findings have led to a theory that an “open window” of impaired immunity exists in which viruses and bacteria are more likely to take over and increase the risk of subclinical and clinical infections in endurance athletes.” –Impacts of endurance training on immune response
Alas, I came out on the other side. There’s definitely some lasting fatigue (my post-COVID pace was a little slower) and I don’t bounce back from workouts as quickly. I was able to log another 25K in the last few days of the month to keep Tim at a distance.
My finisher was a 25,000 meter row at The Facility on New Year’s Eve. Yes, technically this doesn’t count towards my Iron Lung Challenge meters.. but it was a personal goal to finish with 150,000 meters of rowing in the month of December. I did just that: I was able to row 150K in one month. I thought I would only row a half-marathon on NYE, but I had to go for the 25K.
Final Thoughts on what it takes to Row 150K
December was a doozy. I’m happy I finished this row 150K challenge strong, but I’m really looking forward to a break from the erg. Thanks for the push, Decima Crossfit Family.