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Preventing the Bonk In Life

Preventing the Bonk in Life
By B. Imei Hsu, BSN-RN, MAC-LMHC, Artist

A professional trainer described a recent race involving a young athlete who ran out of steam just before the finish line. Slated to win, her body went from flight to a sudden near stand-still, while her competitors sprinted past her. Trainers and athletes call this response a bonk, when the athlete experiences a depletion of muscle glycogen or a brain depletion of blood glucose. This usually happens when the athlete either did not eat properly before the race, or in the case of an endurance race, the athlete did not replace the necessary protein-carbohydrate ratio needed to replenish glycogen stores. In this case, the young girl simply stopped running because there was no more “giddy yup” left in her leg muscles. As I’ve been reading about the kind of training and nutrition I will need to comfortably run my first 10K race and begin training for my first half-marathon, I’ve noticed similarities between a mild physical bonk I experienced after running more than 10K, and life experiences and challenges that can set you up for what I’m calling a life bonk. Here are a few ways to look at a bonk and how you may prevent a life bonk.

Watch this video to see runner Jonathan Raymond hitting the bonk just 100 meters from the finish line in the 2009 Canberra Marathon

Why Athletes Bonk
You could spend an entire weekend reading articles, perusing the latest books, and interviewing sports nutrition professionals as to why athletes bonk, but you may end up with a giant headache! This blog post isn’t designed to give you all the details about the latest arguments on sports nutrition, but you are free to read more detailed articles about insulin, glycogen stores in the body, and pre and post sport nutrition for recovery. My brief overview of why athletes bonk:

1. Inadequate preparation. If you don’t eat the right foods before the activity, you can bonk. If you don’t train properly before the activity, you can bonk. If you don’t get enough rest and recovery time after the last endurance activity, you can bonk. Bonking happens. It is no respecter of persons.

2. Too much speed, not enough endurance. Basically, the speedster starts a race well, burns up his or her glycogen stores with both activity and nervousness, and finishes the poorly because s/he can’t push farther, even with glycogen replenishment.

3. More endurance, not enough speed (so the race takes longer). This athlete can finish the race, but s/he takes longer to complete it. Without replenishment, s/he poops out and bonks (typically after the second hour). Some who have bonked have reported hallucinations, seeing strange colors, and mistaking inanimate objects such as trees for other people.

Bonking is more than a fall when it occurs in life. Learn what you can do to either prevent a life bonk or move through one with strength and courage.

4. Brain bonk. A brain bonk is a drop in blood glucose. Instead of the only the body experiencing the bonk, the brain is not getting enough glucose. As a hypoglycemic person, I’ve experienced this many times, and it can be frightening in its swiftness. Tunnel vision, jello legs, and fainting easily occur.

5. Low motivation. For some, the bonk is more psychological than it is physiological. If you gave yourself a million excuses to not complete a race, or to not challenge yourself for a faster or more satisfying finish, your mind may feed all those excuses back to you during the months of training that precede your race or event. During the event itself, you may simply play those tapes back to yourself on an endless repeat loop.

6. Poor or inadequate support and resources. Closely tied with #1, the bonk is a partial response to poor training and support. If a coach overlooks your injuries, if your training group follows unproven or unhealthy practices, or if your home and social life feels like hostile ground towards your goals, you may be setting yourself up for both a physical and a psychological bonk. Negative feelings can weigh you down when you should be looking to become stronger and leaner in more ways than can be measured with muscle mass and performance.

What Is a Life Bonk?
While there’s no definition of a life bonk, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the similarities between a physical bonk as an athlete and a potential life bonk as a member of the human race. Going down the list above, here are some examples of the six points of the bonk in life:

1. Poor preparation for life in the form of communication and social skills set you up for relationship bonks, where you don’t know how to handle strong emotions, work drama, or a difficulty in your marriage or long-term relationships.
2. Being quicker than others teaches little to nothing about learning patience. Patience is often required to stick it out through challenging situations that occur in our workplaces, marriages, families, and communities.
3. Having patience but no initiative (speed of action) can mean you come up with great ideas that no one will hear about, or that you present them after it’s too late. Lack of speed (such as paralyzing anxiety, shyness and hesitancy, a tendency to distraction and idleness) can also limit you from making decisions in a timely manner, or saying the right word at the right time.
4. Failing to feed your mind can lead to feelings of stagnation, boredom, and restlessness. Becoming a student for life addresses the life version of the brain bonk. At the same time, feeding the brain through dreams, rest, and the art of doing nothing for short periods of time are the stuff of feeding the mind for a lifetime.
5. Low motivation can look like a person who never takes a risk to stretch him or herself. Workers report this phenomenon when their jobs become routine, and they get paid just enough to be comfortable. When there is low motivation to grow because of comfort without satisfaction, a life bonk can feel like a strangely empty experience of watching oneself going through the motions of living without feeling particularly alive.
6. If you lack friends, family, or colleagues who support your endeavors in life, you can experience a life bonk where it feels like few things really matter. Loneliness can feel like its own kind of dis-ease, and otherwise enjoyable activities feel less so when you feel isolated.

How do you prevent a life bonk? Think carefully about the aspects of your life that bring you joy, meaning, and purpose, and the activities that help you put food on the table and a roof over your head. Essentially, you want to look for elements that have you taking responsibility and care for your body, your home, and your family, while including the activities that grow and maintain your emotional, mental, recreational, and spiritual health. Work to adjust and balance these elements in order for them to feed and nourish all the parts of you: academic/intellect, social/relationship and connection, sex/romance, physical health, emotional wellness, and spiritual/purpose.

Sometimes you cannot prevent a life bonk. But you can learn how to get up after a fall, and create a new life. Resources, support, and preparation can help.

If it were only that easy, I could declare you “bonk proof”, and everything would be well. But you suspect it doesn’t work that way. There are life bonks that you cannot foresee, nor prevent. Our parents age and die, and we can’t always control how we respond to such a loss. Children can get sick, our finances wiped out by tragedy, our homes destroyed by nature or taken through misfortune. A spouse can decide to journey through life without you, leaving you without a chair to sit upon. The point is not to have every “i” dotted and “t” crossed, but to have built your emotions, character, friend support, and personal resources to respond to the bonks that come with life which cannot be avoided or prevented (unless you chose to live in a box and do nothing but breathe in and out, I suppose).

While there are always exceptions, my guess would be that if you found an area in your life that has garnered little attention in the last couple of years (such as your sexual health and connection, or your sense of responsibility over yours and your partner’s financial future), that is the area you are most vulnerable to experience a life bonk that can leave you at a stand still. Life bonks are painful, physically, emotionally, and existentially. At Seattle Direct Counseling, we are here to help you look thoughtfully at your life, taking stock of your skills and areas of improvement to help you step into the process of creating a more satisfying way of living. While some life bonks cannot be deterred (such as a chronic, genetically determined illness or medical condition, or being left by a spouse against your own will), the way you live with and face your life bonks can affect your level of happiness and satisfaction. Preventing the life bonks you can, and courageously working though the life bonks you cannot prevent, is a way of prepping and training for the biggest event: your BEST life.

    By Imei Hsu

    Imei Hsu is a mental health counselor, active retired RN, writer, triathlete and arts promoter in the Seattle area and through online services. With 29+ years in healthcare (20+ years in mental health), Imei has a commitment to helping people discover insight into their health, relationships, and connecting. She is the owner of Seattle Direct Counseling and the blog, a presenter and speaker on a variety of psychological topics, and a positive force on the Internet. She is launched her personal project, My Allergy Advocate, in 2018. Imei is two-time Ironman Finisher (Mont-Tremblant 2016, Ironman Canada 2018), and is currently training for her third Ironman in August 2020; she also finished her first ultramarathon in 2017 and has gone on to race the 100K distance while preparing for two separate 100 Mile trail races in 2020. You can find her running everywhere and eating all the thingz, watching movies, and cooking real food.

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