Lunch, Revisited

Hurling is no longer a badge of honor. Here's how to avoid it.
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Lunch Revisited

For many in the CrossFit community, a visit from Uncle Pukie is unofficially viewed as a sign of maximal effort and dedication to the WOD. CrossFitters have even come up with their own pet names for the reappearance of their lunch during or after a workout, complete with T-shirts commemorating the event.

However, exercise-induced vomiting should be viewed as a kind of shock reaction, and athletes would do well to avoid such a stress to the body. Not only that, but for those who see vomiting during or after a WOD as a sign they’re hardcore, expelling all those nutrients works against any goal to grow stronger.

Here’s what CrossFit athletes should know about this adverse response to physical stress.

The Physiology Behind the Round-Trip Meal Ticket

There are three reasons the body experiences exercise-induced nausea.

1) Blood Flow

During exercise, working muscles require an increase in blood flow because they need a greater influx of nutrients and have a surplus of waste products to be carried away. This means blood is shunted away from noncritical areas of the body, or those that are not presently engaged in the stress — such as the gastrointestinal system — and toward the exercising skeletal muscles.

In other words, the blood vessels surrounding the working muscles dilate, while the blood vessels leading to the gastrointestinal tract constrict. With a significantly reduced blood supply, the GI tract simply can’t function as designed, and if the exercise continues, the stomach may reject its contents — and in some cases, the intestinal tract may even jettison its contents (which happens in the form of diarrhea). Eating lunch immediately before a WOD is begging for a visit from Uncle Pukie.

2) Lactic Acid

A second reason one might experience nausea during a WOD stems from the production of lactate, a byproduct of energy production during exercise. When the body isn’t able to produce enough fuel to keep up with the demands of working muscles (i.e., during high-intensity exercise), the body resorts to breaking down carbohydrates, a process known as fast glycolysis, to produce the needed energy. As a result of that process, lactate builds up. The presence of lactate drops the pH of the blood, thereby making it more acidic, and an acidic environment interferes with the body’s ability to perform optimally.

For instance, enzymes, which regulate metabolic reactions, only work within a specific pH range. If muscles become bathed in blood that is too acidic, an enzyme known as phosphofructokinase is unable to do its job,anaerobic energy production shuts down and maximal muscle contraction stops. But it gets worse.

As the high-intensity exercise continues, the athlete’s body tries to rid itself of lactate, primarily by converting it to glucose in a process known as the Cori cycle. But if the athlete persists at an intensity too challenging for his or her fitness level, lactate cannot be cleared and converted at the level it is being generated, thereby causing blood lactate concentration to rise. High lactate levels in the blood in turn aggravate the vagus nerve, which links the brain to the esophagus and the GI tract. And, as one might guess, when the vagus nerve becomes aggravated, the body usually responds by vomiting.

Just know that throwing up doesn't get rid of lactate, so even after wiping your mouth and heading back into the box, you may still be susceptible to another round of toss the cookies.

3) Wrong Foods

Another common cause of exercise-induced vomiting is eating the wrong foods before a WOD. Foods that are rich in fat or protein can take a significant amount of time to leave the stomach, depending on their volume. Therefore, if such foods are eaten immediately before the WOD, discomfort (the diaphragm can’t drop completely to let the lungs fill because a full stomach is in the way), nausea and vomiting during and after a workout can occur.

How to Avoid Puking

If you’re serious about taking care of your body and pushing it to perform at its best, then you can understand how throwing up can throw off that process. Not only is vomiting a violent act that can irritate the esophagus and mouth — and make you feel miserable — but it also means that all the food that was still in your stomach is now … not. That means that you’ll be missing out on valuable nutrients, not to mention fuel for your workout. Here are some tips to help avoid hurling in the gym.

Be Smart About Intensity

CrossFitters aren’t exactly known to quit or even back off when challenged in a WOD, but this is one situation in which the intensity level needs to be dialed back. If an athlete who feels nauseated responds quickly enough, he or she may be able to restore adequate blood flow to the GI tract and better manage circulating lactate. Once the nausea has passed, that athlete must be careful to slowly increase intensity when resuming the WOD.

Minimize Direct Stomach Pressure

Avoid placing more direct pressure on the stomach by avoiding bending over with the lungs full (after having taken a deep breath). Athletes should squat instead of bending during heavy breathing. Be conscious of any external pressure between the bottom part of the sternum and the top of the shorts.

The Eyes Have It

Don’t close your eyes when you exercise. Always attempt to keep your focus on the horizon, assuming that can reasonably be done (especially if there is any tendency toward motion sickness). This is particularly important when performing work on the core.

Eat Lightly

To reduce the likelihood of vomiting during or after exercise, try to eat a small snack about an hour before arriving at the box. Studies have shown that nausea is exacerbated by fasting before exercise and by eating the wrong foods immediately before the WOD. Exercising on a completely empty stomach could bring about nausea as a result of low blood sugar, while eating foods that do not digest quickly creates more internal stomach pressure when blood flow to the stomach is being reduced.

Pre-WOD Carbs

Make your small preworkout snack carbohydrate-laden. High-volume meals or foods with high fat and/or protein content could take up to two and a half hours to completely move from the stomach to the small intestine. Eating fruit is a great way to ingest good carbs with liquid that will leave the stomach quickly. 

Drink Your Protein

Consider drinking a whey protein shake about half an hour before you work out. Whey is a fast-digesting protein, so it won’t remain in your body by the time you’re getting warmed up, and fueling the body with protein before workouts is the best way to ensure that muscles have the nutrients they need to perform at their best.

Sip, Don’t Gulp

Fluid intake during exercise, particularly in a box without air conditioning, is critical to maintaining the body’s ability to cool itself. Yet that intake should come in small amounts. Gulping copious amounts of water may help you feel better, but it also may trigger the body’s natural defense mechanism against having a full stomach during intense exercise (as blood is shunted away from it), meaning vomiting is soon to follow. Also, athletes who are prone to low blood sugar should consider mixing a sports drink with an equal quantity of water to ensure stable blood glucose levels.

Avoid Carbonated Drinks

Drinking beverages with carbonation only adds to the pressure in a person’s stomach. In fact, even shaking a water bottle can produce gas in it. Athletes are also often surprised to learn that drinking from a glass produces less gas than drinking from a water bottle.

If you regularly experience exercise-induced vomiting or if the intensity of the activity was not high, consider consulting a physician. However, by following the guidelines above, you can easily minimize the risk of calling for Ralph during or after a WOD.

A Complete and Total Barf-a-Rama

We got in touch with our inner third-grader and came up with this extremely thorough list of common (and not-so-common) euphemisms for vomiting.

  • Appetizing the audience
  • Barf 
  • Bark like a seal
  • Bending and sending
  • Blow chow
  • Blow chunks
  • Blow groceries
  • Blowing liquid kisses to the china goddess
  • Bowing to the yuke of earl
  • Bring it up for a vote
  • Buick
  • Burpin’ solid
  • Calling to Ralph
  • Chewing backward
  • Chortle up the wrong tree
  • Chuck your Cheerios
  • Core dump
  • Drop the carpet pizza
  • Feed your young
  • Flash your hash
  • Getting bitten by Count Barf-ula
  • Going to Europe with Ralph and Earl in a Buick
  • Gut dumping
  • Hack
  • Lateral cookie toss
  • Launching the food shuttle
  • Leggo yer eggo
  • Lob liquid hand grenades
  • Looking for O’Rourke
  • Lose your lunch
  • Making a puke pizza with everything on it
  • Organic output
  • Perform the liquid cough
  • Power chuck
  • Puke
  • Ralph 
  • Release the lions
  • Retch
  • Ride the regurgitron
  • Riding the chum bus to yak town
  • Round-trip meal ticket
  • Spew your vittles
  • Spill the groceries
  • Talking on the commode-a-phone
  • The Brooklyn mating call
  • Throw up
  • Toss your tacos
  • Un-eat
  • Upchuck
  • Whistlin’ a solid tune
  • Yell at Ralph in sign language

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