I decided to swim 2 km. After 1.8 km I had enough: the energy from breakfast was used and the shift to long-term energy source affected my mind. It was a kind of stress response: no energy – quit. Also, I knew that 1.8 km are enough for aerobic endurance work (I am not an ultra-marathon runner). However I also knew that sometimes you just have to keep on working. It is no more the issue of aerobic capacity, energy mechanisms or endurance…it is the intro to mental toughness and overcoming adversity in any situation.
Wolves hunt when they are hungry, often after periods of starving. Their body fat level drops and it results in release of adrenaline, the stress hormone that makes them act. Mark Mattson, the current Chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging and a professor of Neuroscience at The Johns Hopkins University gives a Ted Talk on how can fasting improve our brain function and health.
Mark says that we could slow down the degeneration of some brain neurons by reducing the energy intake. Fasting does a good thing for the brain due to neural changes: it reduces inflammation, stress across the systems and the energy metabolism shifts towards burning fat.
Fasting is a challenge and the brain responds by adaptive mechanisms. Some of the changes that happen during fasting also happen during exercise, when depletion of glycogen gets us into the same state as no food (ever tried exercising on an empty stomach); and also during cognitive challenges, when we are using our neurons to the full potential (food cravings while studying hard?). Brain consumes up to 20 percent of the whole energy intake. The stress forces the neural cells to adapt and change their content and this state adaptive response can improve the performance of our body functions.
Hungry wolves keep on the go for days, their senses are sharpened and focused on the source of meat. Once they feed themselves, their activity drops. We all experienced feeling lethargic and drowsy after a big lunch. It is because the blood is needed in the digestive system and cannot supply energy to the brain and muscles. Hormonal activity also falls. We can prevent this by the right food choices. Never eat to full and avoid meals with lot of carbohydrates. Choose a source of protein (meat, fish, soy product and vegetables). I prefer eating more often but smaller portions.
Wolf can afford to sleep after a successful prey. However, people should have evolutionary higher aspirations than mere pleasing of the basic physiological needs. I already know that after a big lunch I cannot focus properly on my work or activities. During years I learnt myself to that point.
Sometimes I work out hungry, after 16 hours of fasting, (not recommended for performance athletes, this is just a mental tool). The negative feeling comes always after a few sets and I try to overcome it. This is the main benefit of the workout. Personally, I do not see linear relationship between energy intake and increase of performance. Contrary. For me it is enough to take a banana and a protein drink to perform well. Before swimming, I usually eat cocoa pastry at my grandmother – more than my typical breakfast. I feel full of energy but negative mind-set always comes after about 1 800 metres.
For over 10 years, my body fat level is around 10 percent or less, maintained by genetics, regular movement and food choices. Normal level for a man of my age is between 13 and 21, for women 16 to 25, I think. It puts me in the state of a hungry wolf, focused on the goal or the task. I can work really thoroughly on tasks that are close to my interests or that have potential. I observed it even better recently, when I was working on my physique for photos and my body fat dropped to about 7 percent due to diet. I felt that I was lacking energy but the ability to focus on crucial things (my work) was even stronger.
On the other hand, I felt bored even irritated with routine tasks that did not have meaningful outcome. Sometimes I had problems to keep my aggression inside – like a hungry wolf. Nevertheless, the theory of hungry wolf helped me to identify my ideal state for performance. That´s why I never eat to full. The body would by occupied by digestion, all the blood from the brain and muscles would be needed in the digestive system and my mental and physical performance would drop temporarily. I try to avoid this especially during the working days, in order to fully use my time.
Mark encourages people towards tying intermittent fasting diet, when you eat every day only within an 8 hour window, or consume only 500 calories for two days in a week. I agree to some point. Of course, this is not suitable for everyone and change cannot come dramatically. Moreover, the modern lifestyle and food industry force us into eating the wrong stuff. Therefore we have to make compromises. Good start is to measure everything I eat during a day and compare with the recommended daily intake. However, Mark points out to the fact that our organism is highly adaptive machine that does not need to be fuelled by excess of food.