Do You Bonk During Your Workouts? Here's What to Do
Most athletes recognize the term "bonking." Doesn't ring a bell? You may know it as "hitting the wall," "hunger knocks," or even "hunger flats." The name you give it isn't important, and not all athletes will experience it. But if you do, you'll know it.
What Is Bonking?
Simply put, bonking is a feeling of severe weakness, fatigue, confusion, and disorientation. When the bonk hits, it usually comes over you without warning. You're into your workout, doing your routine at a manageable pace when, without warning, your legs feel like they're made of a ton of lead. Dizziness and confusion frequently accompany a wave of fatigue that washes over your entire body — so severe that moving may be impossible. In some severe cases, athletes have reported hallucinations.
When you hit the wall, you have no choice but to stop.
What Causes Bonking?
Your diet provides the glucose your body burns for energy. After eating, glucose enters your bloodstream. Any glucose that you don't use for energy right away is stored as glycogen in your muscles, liver, brain cells, heart cells, and kidney cells. When your body runs out of stored glycogen, you may feel a bonk coming on.
Using all the energy stores in the body leads to glycogen depletion. When this happens, your body instinctively knows it has reached its physiological limit. Your brain signals your muscles to back off on your activities to avoid muscle damage. It isn't an instantaneous reaction but creeps in slowly when you continue to engage in high-intensity exercise.
Warning Signs of an Impending Bonk
It's important to listen to your body because some symptoms of bonking are the same as symptoms of hypoglycemia or low glucose levels. If you're naturally prone to abnormal glucose levels, this is especially important. Here are some symptoms to watch out for if you think you are vulnerable to a bonking episode or want to prevent it from happening.
- Feeling light-headed
- Physical weakness
- Extreme fatigue
- Lack of coordination
A bonking episode can negatively affect your training and overall health.
Potential Negative Effects of Bonking
Anyone can suffer the effects of bonking, but it tends to be more prevalent in high-intensity athletes if they don't properly fuel, rest, and recover as part of their training routine.
- Muscle loss. If you don't consume enough sources of glucose, such as carbohydrates, your body will turn to fats and proteins for energy. This can lead to the loss of muscle tissue.
- Dehydration. Athletes may not always be able to drink adequate amounts of water during training. This can lead to severe dehydration, which can lead to fatigue, cramping, and bonking. Chronic dehydration can result in a decline in cognitive function.
- Impaired immune function. Over-training to the point of triggering a bonk can negatively affect your immune system. Intense exercise over a prolonged period can suppress your natural anti-inflammatory response.
- Physical pain. Fatigue and stress set in when your body reaches the point of exhaustion. Stress can increase physical pain within the body and aggravate existing health issues.
- Cognitive issues. Hitting the point of bonking means you've emptied your body's glycogen stores. Since your brain uses glycogen as its energy source, you may temporarily lose the ability to focus, lose motivation, and be unable to make any decisions. Though temporary, this can be a dangerous situation, depending on your surroundings.
Bonking isn't inevitable if you're a serious athlete. There are steps you can take to prevent it.
You can avoid a bonk during your workout if you take some steps to ensure you have plenty of carbohydrates in your body that can produce the glycogen you need.
Eat Small but Often
If you're planning a physical, strenuous workout session, you'll need more carbs in your body. If you're spending the day at work or relaxing at home, you won't need many carbs. But on high-intensity workout days, you'll need approximately 100 grams of carbohydrates every hour. To get the carbs you need, eat small, high-carbohydrate foods before, during, and after your workout.
Change Your Diet
You may need to make changes to your overall diet if you're going to be working out four or more times a week. Cook meals high in protein and carbohydrates to adjust your total carb consumption. Some great choices are lean meats, starches, and pasta salads that include low-fat meats.
Start a Week Ahead for Specific Events
When you have a specific event like an endurance bicycle race or a marathon coming up, start adjusting your diet about a week before the event. You'll want to start "carbing up" about five days before the day of the big event. Get in 3.6 to 5.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight two days before. That's a lot of carbs, but you'll need them to ensure you don't bonk out in the middle of your big activity.
Carbohydrate powder, which is similar to protein powder, is an easy, quick way to digest carbs. Simply mix your carb powder in water, and you can drink your carbs on the way to your workout and have plenty of glycogen onboard when you get there. Be sure to check with your primary healthcare provider before starting any supplement.
Glucose tablets are nice to have on hand in case you suffer an emergency glycogen depletion. Discuss taking them with your primary healthcare provider for information on when to take them and the best dosage for you before stocking them in your emergency kit.
Make Your Workouts Bonk-Free
Bonking is a real phenomenon that is avoidable with a bit of effort. First, learn all you can about it, from what it is to what causes it and how to prevent it. Second, make the necessary adjustments to your routine — before your workout, during it, and in your post-workout phase. Third, seek the professional help of a sports dietitian or your primary healthcare provider if you are having frequent episodes of bonking.
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