My Dysfunctional Relationship with Sugar, Salt, and Protein: Chasing Fitness, Sacrificing Health

For much of my adult life, well over 30 years, I have spent a significant portion of my time as a serious recreational cyclist, endurance cycling. Most of those years, I rode my bicycle about 5,000 to 6,000 miles a year, but for many years from about 2004 until 2016, I rode about 9,000 to 10,000+ miles a year.

While I found myself well suited to endurance and intense cycling because I have a high ability to suffer even though I am physically limited, to ride at the higher levels I wanted to achieve, I often dealt with being prone to cramping, and struggling to keep up with energy reserves (carbohydrates) and fighting to maintain enough protein in my diet (I was for almost 30 years not eating beef) to make up for how much intense cycling tears down the body.

As I was approaching 60, I had to change insurance companies for the first time in almost 40 years. My university requires blood tests and screening when you choose new coverage. Late in 2019, my blood work labeled me pre-diabetic and pre-hypertensive.

In that moment, I was forced to admit that I had spent much of my life chasing a level of fitness that sacrificed my health in ways that may not be recoverable.

Sugar and salt, especially, had dominated my life purely for performance on the bicycle; I have never been one much for sweets in my normal diet. But cycling food, sports drinks, and supplements were pervasive parts of how I navigated fueling and refueling around my riding, often 5 or more days a week.

High-intensity cycling and training have kept me in a constant state of physical discomfort since the 1980s. Sore muscles, tight muscles, a general state of fatigue—these became what I considered normal.

After a serious car/cyclists accident on Christmas Eve 2016, I was forced to reset my life, especially my cycling life. I was 55, about to turn 56, and the few years since then have included exponential physical decline, both in my abilities as a cyclist but also my daily life.

For about a year, I semi-retired from cycling, no longer riding on the road and mountain biking fewer days a week than I had ridden most of my life until then. The troubling health warnings from the blood work a few months ago has forced me to acknowledge those physical declines—almost constant fatigue, muscular soreness and stiffness, far less agile and stiff hands, weak and aching shoulders.

To be honest, none of these aches and pains are new; they have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. But with less and less intense cycling, they haven’t improved; they have in some cases gotten worse and more intrusive in my life and happiness.

I live a life now that includes avoiding added sugar in my food, eating one or two vegan meals a day, and lowering dramatically the intensity and amount of exercise I do.

But it remains very discouraging since I often do not feel better and likely am dwelling on those discomforts and changes more now since I am not distracted by my excessive cycling and relentless training. I also think I am recognizing that decline due to aging combined with decades of abusing my body and health is exponential, the consequences are magnified and cumulatively more noticeable than the expected decline I experienced in my 40s and early to mid-50s.

What may also be contributing to the discouragement is that my peak as a cyclist quantifiably occurred from my mid-40s into my early 50s, when I had some of my top finishes in key cycling competitions and events. That achievement helped mask that I was sacrificing health for fitness, but it also lulled me into thinking I could experience endless improvement (not a rational belief, of course).

So I was struck by the opening paragraph of Haruki Murakami’s newest short story, “With the Beatles”:

What I find strange about growing old isn’t that I’ve got older. Not that the youthful me from the past has, without my realizing it, aged. What catches me off guard is, rather, how people from the same generation as me have become elderly, how all the pretty, vivacious girls I used to know are now old enough to have a couple of grandkids. It’s a little disconcerting—sad, even. Though I never feel sad at the fact that I have similarly aged.

Like this narrator, I too am often thrown off when I see someone from my youth after many years without contact; their having aged is very jarring. Unlike the narrator, I have such jarring moments about myself from time to time—looking in the mirror, seeing an older photograph, simply rolling over to get out of bed.

These moments are not just “people age, people die,” but “I am aging, I will die.”

Cycling provided me for more than three decades proof that I could demand more of my body than it was willing to concede. I was quite good at pushing myself beyond the margins and seemingly willing my body beyond its capacity. In the moment, this made me feel good about myself, quelling my low self-esteem and my fears that I would never be the athlete I had always aspired to be (that I had imagined my father wanted me to be).

There is, however, another capacity that would have served me better—the ability to recognize those margins, those limitations as part of who I am and to accept that instead of trying to push beyond them.

Fewer days now find me on the bicycle, almost none riding at high intensity or long distances.

Instead, I walk into the grocery store, pulling items off the shelf, slipping on my readers, and checking for added sugar.

Today I bought sparkling water, no added sugar, and found new protein bars, also no added sugar, my new Holy Grail in a life seeking better and longer health and no longer hyper-focused on fitness.