Burning Runner: Kicking The Coffee Habit

Week 4: T.J. overcomes an old addiction and tries a new take on strength training.

Written by: T.J. Murphy

Last Monday I traveled back from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicago Half Marathon benefiting The American Cancer Society and spent time that day getting squared away for my cannonball leap into a plant-based, vegan diet. In addition to interviewing several nutrition experts, I’ve been reading about the positive reasons of why such a dietary overhaul is beneficial and learning how to go about it.

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My key concern was breaking away from my coffee habit. I’ve taken breaks from coffee before and the withdrawals have always floored me. I recall once going off coffee and at an ensuing work meeting–an editorial planning session with my fellow editors–it felt like someone had taken an ice scoop to my brain. I couldn’t begin to think through the splitting headache and dulling sense that I had been unplugged.

I battled those feelings for the better part of a week, so when I started my day this past Tuesday without a towering cup of bold coffee, I was expecting to have a rough one. But it wasn’t so bad, and I think by plunging into a nutrient-dense diet I somehow may have mitigated a severe coffee withdrawal. I’m writing this column on my fourth day without coffee and I’m beyond it. The last two days have been fine and today I feel great. And the key benefit: I’m sleeping deeply and waking up feeling truly refreshed.  The difference between how I’ve slept this week compared to just about every night I can remember as far back as I can remember is fantastically drastic.

I’ve been reading Dr. Neal Barnard’s book, “Breaking the Food Seduction: The Hidden Reasons Behind Food Cravings—and how to stop them.” I’m finding the information within this book excellent—it has helped shed bright light on why I was struggling to lose excess weight and spending a large amount of time fighting my way through fatigue and generally feeling awful.

Dr. Barnard is the founder and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit based in Washington D.C.  In his book, Barnard details the findings of the group’s research, indicating the chemical relationship at work between cravings for junky food and the food itself. The first chapter is called “The Seduction Begins: How Foods Addict You,” and in it he describes how the mechanism involved that addicts you to an item like coffee, cheese, meat or wine is similar to one involving narcotics—when the pleasure center of the brain gets stimulated it locks in a memory that has you coming back for more. So, if you’re someone who teasingly says, “I need my chocolate fix for the day,” you’re nailing it pretty well. Dr. Barnard explains how chocolate touches off opiate receptors in the brain, the same receptors triggered by heroin.

“Addicted to chocolate?” he writes. “Sounds like an overstatement, doesn’t it? But the attraction to chocolate is not simply due to its taste and creamy texture. Chocolate hits the brain and causes a habituation that is as real and physical as addiction to narcotics—albeit not so destructive.”

In addition to teaching the reader about the chemistry and physiology at work within food addictions, he reports on the steps he’s found to be effective in breaking negative food addictions. He outlines seven, from “starting with a healthy breakfast” and “choosing foods that hold your blood sugar steady” to a strategy that helps you break craving cycles.

I’ve pointedly been doing three of his key steps this week: exercising, eating a super healthy breakfast and the critical step of keeping blood sugar high. I was able to do this because I made the time to think up, plan for, shop for and prepare my meals, and always have a healthy snack at hand.

My results this far: I feel more energy, less stress, the energy is sustained, my moods more even, I’m sleeping deeper and I’m clearly losing weight. The combination of a focused, healthy diet and my first week of training for the Zappos.com Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon appears to be a powerful one.

Here’s an example of how I’ve been eating this week:

Wednesday

  • Plenty of water throughout the day.
  • Breakfast: Steel-cut oatmeal with blueberries and strawberries, brown rice toast with almond butter, an orange, and green tea.
  • Lunch: Salad loaded with vegetables, fruit salad and water.
  • Afternoon snack: Apple and handful of almonds.
  • Dinner: Vegetarian chili with black beans, cornbread, large green salad, and cantaloupe for dessert. Water and herbal tea.

A Note on Training:

In addition to some easy recovery running this week, on Thursday I met with Frank Alvarez, the 24-Hour Fitness personal trainer I’ve been working with. Along with overhauling my diet I’m overhauling the ancillary parts of my half-marathon training, and Frank, a certified trainer with a deep marathon background, has been showing me the light when it comes to answering the question: How should a runner properly strength train? (especially when out to burn off some excess weight)

Talk about eye opening. As I mentioned in an earlier column, the strength training I’ve done for decades now is the same kind I did when I played high school football. Bench press, lat pulls, leg extensions and all. Back then it was all about how much you could lift. And to be honest, I have never let go of that connection between ego and 45-pound plates. Until now.

Like yesterday, the most weight Frank loaded me up with were a couple of 15-pound dumbbells. Often, it’s nothing at all. Exercises are sometimes performed on a Bosu ball or other destabilizing device that puts you in a state of unbalance. The benefit is that muscles surrounding the core are activated. As I told Frank yesterday, I have experimented here and there with core strength work but only now, working with someone who knows what they’re doing, do I get it. There’s an exercise he has me do with a large balance ball where, lying on the floor, I dig my heels into the center of the ball and roll the ball backward underneath me. Twenty-five years I’ve been trying to figure out how to strengthen my hamstrings and this exercise is the one that finally worked an area that I’ve been prone to injuring for years.

Running is the heart of properly preparing for a long-distance race. But being aggressive on the part of preventing injuries is equally of value. Like a running coach I used to know often said to me, the one thing you don’t want to be at a marathon is the fittest guy standing on the sidelines.

Frank also gave me some good advice on my foray into being vegan. “The thing about a large salad is that it’s very filling. If that’s all you’re eating be sure to add some protein to it.” Frank mentioned tofu as an additional ingredient that will bolster the protein content of my salads.

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T.J. Murphy is a contributing editor to Competitor and the Editorial Director of Triathlete and Inside Triathlon magazines. Previous installments of his Burning Runner column can be read here. He can be reached by e-mail at burningrunner@gmail.com.

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