Rowing and Nutrition: The Importance of the Tortoise and the Hare

  Everyone knows Aesop’s fable of the Tortoise and the Hare. The hare boasts of his jackrabbit speed, agility and athletic physique to a crowd of animals in the forest. The shorter tortoise is among the crowd listening from below. He is always prepared as he always carries a place to sleep or hide when trouble is afoot. But the hare is too quick, eyeing the tortoise as an easy competitor and taunts the more sluggish tortoise into agreeing to race. The hare as one might expect has a fast start, almost immediately out of vision before the tortoise barely crosses the start line. The arrogant hare stops to nap confident in his superiority to the short-legged tortoise weighed down by his heavy hard shell. But while the hare snoozes, he also loses to the tortoise who slowly, steadily passes the hare by to win the race.

The moral of the story is that slow and steady wins the race. But what about before the race? What did the tortoise and hare eat for breakfast? The tortoise was slow so maybe he had a big breakfast of flies, or some other insect. Maybe the tortoise absconded some soft-shelled eggs from Chicken Little. But one thing is for sure the tortoise ate protein. Maybe the tortoise carried his shell because he snacked along the way. Maybe he always carried his shell because he always ate small meals throughout the day. In contrast, the hare may have eaten some hay and oats. More than likely the hare ate some carrots, both the tops and the bottoms. Maybe some bok choy or cilantro. But even though carrots are good for one’s vision, the hare never saw the tortoise coming. And while colorful and full of good stuff like vitamin C and beta-carotene, the sudden sugar rush gave the rabbit the energy to get his head start. As complex and as crafty as hares are known to be, his diet of carbohydrates, especially his carrots, caused the hare to peak and crash, so he took his famous nap.

Too Many Carbohydrates

It’s simple really when one thinks about it. The hare’s diet of too many carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates without added fat made him snooze to eventually lose. If the hare had added some fat, just a little olive oil he would not only have had a really nice salad, but would of lasted longer because carbohydrates need fat to bind them. This would slow down the process of absorption. The hare would not have crashed so quickly in the race and needed to nap. Ironically the hare should have known better as he and his rabbit kin are essentially a higher source of protein with less cholesterol than chicken, pork or beef. Then again, maybe the tortoise had his own reasons to keep moving. The tortoise has always been in demand as a delicacy in many parts of the world and places like Malaysia have imposed harvesting quotas on turtle eggs.

Are you a Tortoise or a Hare?

Like most of us, I can identify with both the tortoise and the hare having my own experience with racing, not on foot, but rowing in a boat. And like all of us, I have had a lot of experience with carbohydrates and protein. In high school I munched throughout the day from baggies filled with crunchy Cheerios and peanut M&Ms. After school I always ate pure protein, a piece of cold salmon or roasted turkey as I changed in the car on the way to practice, moving back into the front seat at the same stop sign every drive. I was ready to row by the time I reached the dock in my spandex with my hair tied in a pony tucked under my lucky baseball hat that I still wear today. After practice I would eat something warm and toasty on the way home in the car like pizza or cheeseburgers. Only to crash like the hare causing countless blurs of homework filled all-nighters.

It was more of the same in college craving carbs and coffee all day, throughout the day especially after my 5am practice. It felt good to be out in the quiet cold. But by seven I would be back on campus shivering and wet in the dining hall with the rest of the team giving in to my favorite French Toast and a steamy cup of hot coffee mixed with cocoa. It didn’t help that my roommates were still asleep when I returned to my dorm room. I would crawl back to bed intent on a twenty-minute power nap but would fall into carbohydrate comas despite set alarms just like the hare.

Protein and Hydration

For races I am more disciplined eating only cold grilled chicken. A quick protein will not sit in my stomach making me sluggish by race time like the tortoise. I carefully stay away from complex carbohydrates like donuts before heats because I do not want to jeopardize my performance to crash and burn like the hare. And most important of all, I hydrate with electrolytes from Gatorade or PowerAde and lots of water, a resource that both the tortoise and the hare maybe didn’t have or think about.

Lessons Learned from the Tortoise and the Hare

In rowing you exert yourself beyond what you know is possible because at the finish line tenths of seconds count. Be ready for a race and life’s long haul heeding the importance of the tortoise and the hare. My baggie of Cheerios and Peanut M&Ms were a nice try as Cheerios are made from oats direct from the hare’s diet but the sugar from the M&Ms is an empty stretch comparison to the nutritional value in carrots. Even better would be to forget the candy shell altogether. The chocolate has antioxidants but plain roasted peanuts would be better. While the tortoise may never have eaten a legume, the peanuts pack protein. The smarter option would be to eat smaller meals throughout the day. Colorful veggies, nuts, a multigrain dressed in a little EVOO and maybe some lean salmon or chicken combine the best from both diets to net the best results. Then again, has anyone ever wondered about why the Big Bad Wolf is so moody? Does he need to be on a gluten free diet? 

R2R Quick Tips

  • Get a good nights sleep and limit power naps to twenty minutes
  • Always eat at least one hour before practice and two hours before erg workouts
  • In between racing heats fuel up by eating some light protein
  • Always hydrate, even when rowing in rain you still need to hydrate
  • During Regattas stay away from parent tents filled with sugary treats and pasta until after the race
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