A particularly difficult workout session the other day, along with the holiday fast approaching (not a holiday fast, mind you – really, who would fast on a holiday?), prompted this post.
As is typical of many mornings for me, the other day I bagged breakfast and just had a big cup of really strong coffee with a splash of heavy cream and nothing else. Figured I’d eat later at a business lunch. I had a full schedule and not a lot of time, so I decided to do a quick set of modified burpees, where instead of simply jumping, landing, and doing a pushup, I would toss a pull-up into the mix. Nothing but a rotation of squats, pushups, and pull-ups – and lots of them. I did this for twelve minutes straight with intermittent breaks, which got progressively more frequent as time went on (admittedly). It’s an ass-kicker if you are ever pressed for time. By the end, I was feeling all the typical effects I’ve come to expect from my occasional hard workouts: throbbing legs on the verge of giving out; arms that don’t seem to work anymore; sweat pooled around my feet; and a pretty high heart rate. But I was also incredibly nauseated, which is unusual for me – almost to the point of vomiting. I didn’t feel like moving for about five minutes, and I quite frankly wasn’t myself for the next hour. If it hadn’t been an early morning workout on an empty stomach, I probably would have emptied its contents. This got me to thinking – is too much intensity (to the point of nausea and vomit) a bad thing? Or is the nausea that comes with a particularly intense workout telling us that maybe we’re doing it right?
In certain fitness circles, reaching the point of extreme nausea in a workout is viewed as desirable, but that’s mostly as a badge of honor and “manliness.” Among some body-builders, a leg day just isn’t a leg day unless you’ve driven the porcelain bus (called Ralph on the white telephone?). Crossfit – with whose ideas about fitness I generally agree – even has a mascot called “Pukie.” Their idea is that if you haven’t met Pukie, you haven’t truly worked out like a Crossfitter. An interesting idea, to be sure, but in Crossfit, puking is more of a symbolic goal, rather than an objective with inherent benefits. I prefer to look a little deeper.
Art de Vany sees mild nausea as a natural byproduct of the morning workout  on an empty stomach, which in and of itself is a Primal time of day to workout (although there’s no “wrong” time). Consider that Grok  probably wasn’t a conscientious fitness buff, doing circuit training sets of pull-ups, mammoth tusk deadlifts, and python squats; rather, the realities of his world mandated that daily exercise was necessary to survive. Sure, there were undoubtedly moments of leisure and play (since he had to conserve energy whenever possible, too), but the bulk of his exercise probably revolved around the acquisition of food, especially the hunt. And when’s the best time to hunt game? Probably early morning when your stomach is empty and food is foremost on the mind.
Hunting on a full stomach isn’t just counterproductive and uncomfortable (leading to cramps and general malaise). It’s also counterintuitive to the human condition. We’re always told never to grocery shop while hungry, because we’ll be ravenous and desirous of everything (troublesome for modern man, who can have almost anything with the swipe of a credit card). But for Grok, being ravenous and desperate for food on the hunt would only push him further and faster. In a life and death situation (which Grok probably faced on a regular basis), desperation was his fuel to continue the hunt. Whatever it took. A fat and happy Grok would just end up frolicking in a dewy meadow somewhere, instead of tracking that buck to the ends of the earth.
Of course, there is such a thing as working out too intensely, and sometimes extreme nausea and vomiting definitely aren’t okay. When I was a marathoner, I used to hear tales of guys who dug too deep and went into exercise-induced rhabdomyolysis, or rhabdo for short. Rhabdo is the rapid breakdown of muscle tissue due to acute muscle injuries. The exercise-induced variety is caused by extreme over exertion, and it can lead to the shed muscle flooding your bloodstream and shutting down your kidneys. Ugly, possible life-threatening – stuff. What’s the first sign of rhabo? Intense nausea and vomiting. Reading comments  from people who’ve suffered exercise-induced rhabdo, it seems most cases were exacerbated by improper hydration and “workout arrogance” (a lot of them were older guys attempting to come back from a period of relative inactivity and resume their workouts at the old intensity, without accounting for a warm up period). It seems pretty extreme and fairly uncommon, but it’s always good to be hydrated and physically equipped for the workout you’re attempting. Also, if you’re vomiting and doubled over in pain, it’s probably a good idea to call it a workout.
With that in mind, I suppose most post- workout nausea (at least, the type that I experienced) is completely natural. And I must admit, despite that first hour of discomfort and wanting to jettison the non-existent contents of my stomach, I felt pretty awesome the rest of the day (post-workout glow, release of endorphins, etc), and I’m no worse for wear today, so I figure getting a little nauseated once in a while is okay. On the other hand, it’s not something I will regularly choose to pursue.