Author’s Note: I read on another triathlete’s twitter feed that the level of activity on one’s blog is often related to how that person feels he or she is performing. Silence speaks volumes. I wrote the following post a month or so ago, but never got around to posting it. Since that time, I raced Oceanside and New Orleans 70.3 and somewhere along the way I lost my mind. I started 100 blog posts but completed none of them. Thankfully, I was able to locate my mind in order to put in a solid block of training for IM Texas and now I’m tapering and ready to battle it out next Saturday in my home state. I am excited to race my first long course race of the year!
A few weeks ago I found myself reviewing my eating history while consuming a piece of sourdough roll (I know I know...shoot me…. it wasn’t low GI extra gluten free wild rice) in bed at 3am. I had a particularly long training session the previous day and failed to fuel properly …hence the bread. Reflecting upon this late night snack made me laugh – I have truly come full circle in terms of eating issues.
I’ve noticed a number of blogs, tweets, and Facebook updates that mention food….how Bobby Sue only eats clean, that Mary Jane only eats foods blended in a Vitamix, why John Smith only eats meat, and how Ronin won’t touch meat with a 10 foot pole. I’ve also seen a number of “hey, admire the contents of my fridge” pictures. (If I posted such a picture you can be sure I would hide the poisonous Cool whip so as not to ruin my reputation). These snippets of conversation have reminded me of all the women/girls I know, both athletes and NON- athletes, that struggle with food due to body image issues. I think this is sad and have spent way too much time pondering why a vital staple in our lives has lead to so many problems. I’ve had my own food issues over the years but can honestly say that my foray into triathlon is helping me come to terms with this four letter word….
I first thought I was fat in kindergarten, when I compared my thighs to the girl next to me. No joke. I weighed 2 pounds….I HAD NO THIGHS! Thankfully I went to private school where said thighs were hidden 4 days a week under less than appealing maroon skirts. Casual Fridays, however, were always the DAY OF RECKONING. Throughout middle school and high school I played all the important female Texas sports including volleyball, basketball, and tennis. To keep my perceived “weight down” I fueled on lettuce and a sprinkling of Special K cereal and lemon juice for “flavor.” I was always the girl that avoided fat. FAT was of the devil. I was a crust –eater at pizza parties and thankfully most of my friends were not.
Photographic evidence of missing thighs. I'm the tall one.
Freshman year in college I followed the fat-free frozen yogurt and chickpea diet (with vodka sodas on weekends) until I was introduced to the Dr. Atkin’s Diet. Eureka. Now – CARBS WERE OUT and FAT WAS IN. While my friends ate normal breakfasts, I feasted on cans of tuna with squirts of mustard out in the hall, so that nobody would be bothered by the smell. Occasionally I’d have vegetables, but never carrots, as GOD FORBID they get my body out of ketosis – a state of fat burning that Atkins glorified. I quickly dropped weight on this diet (along with half my hair, but that was a small price to pay).
Now that I was “light” it was time to do something that I assumed all thin people did – run a marathon. I signed up for the Philly Marathon in the summer of 1999 and quickly downloaded a random running plan. I never understood why I couldn’t function after a long training day but I managed to qualify for Boston fueled on beef jerky and hardboiled eggs. I remember my mother questioning my fueling habits before Boston but I “proved” to her that my 3:14 Boston time was evidence that a fat/protein based diet was the key to athletic success…and even more hair loss.
After college I worked…a ton. I kept getting mysterious injuries that prevented me from running and my food issues grew. I tried everything that I thought would help me maintain this elusive desired weight, from going to Food Addicts anonymous (spinoff of AA) to signing up for new marathons to keep my weight down “naturally.” Granted, I did not have a weight problem…much of this was in my mind. Unfortunately my body couldn’t handle the abuse and I couldn’t perform. I also couldn’t shake my fear of carbs.
In grad school I met a girl who did triathlons and I decided to try one. I also decided that if I was going to do a long triathlon (as I called it) I better figure out how to eat again. How the hell would beef jerky and hardboiled eggs fit into my bento box? I found a nutritionist in the Bay Area who helped me address the carb fear. Her suggestion was to follow the much-maligned USDA food pyramid…focus on the fruits and veggies and lean protein, eat some grain and SEE how it affects me. I tried this for awhile and stayed healthy and surprisingly had the energy to finish my first triathlon – the Big Kahuna in Santa Cruz. (I was the girl that set up a pan of water near my transition to wash my feet.) Wow..maybe there is something to balanced eating?
Since that time I’ve improved my attitude towards food. From training I’ve learned that I must treat food as fuel and that my weight will manage itself. I still struggle with my perception, but I know that I just need to focus on what my body can do – swim, bike, and run. Granted, many of these lessons have come at a cost. Early on Matt would carry extra food during our long rides and as soon as I’d get the crazed look in my eyes, he knew it was time to feed me. Even as recent as my first pro year, I found myself wandering up Mt. Lemmon in Tucson under-fueled. I consciously remember choosing NOT to eat too much because I wasn’t feeling particularly athletic compared to all the other “ripped” pros around me. Yeah, that strategy didn’t work too well for me. I also remember at a race comparing my bike nutrition to that of one of the pro girls next to me. I had what seemed like 3 days of food compared to her small supply. The familiar conversation came back once again: “OMG. Am I eating too much? Does she have a secret that I don’t have? Am I going to get fat?” Thankfully, I put a beat down on the inner voice and reminded myself that what I perceive as my “trillion calories on the bike” actually fuel me to ride fast.
Last year coach Paulo began dictating how many gels I should eat and at what time on my long training runs. Again, at first inner Lauren started worrying about all the weight I’d gain on these training runs. “OMG - will I be able to fit into my race suit??” And again, I reminded myself to shut up and follow the plan. Miraculously, my long runs were faster. Imagine that.
In talking with others and from my own experience I realize that food issues do not magically disappear altogether. In a sport full of Type A, high-achieving perfectionists, I assume that there are many others with similar thoughts. People also have to find a way to deal with this in a way that works for them. Some people seek out the top sports scientists to create a custom plan for them, others count their calories and make note of everything in a spreadsheet which spits out every detail down to one’s daily sodium intake. As for me, I attempt to ignore all the people that over- evangelize their own nutrition and instead, try to eat each day so that I can do each prescribed workout and get the work done.
What I believe is common about most successful programs to deal with body image/food issues is learning to rid oneself of the external focus. When we worry about what others may be thinking about us, we blow our thoughts out of proportion and end up going down a dark mental hole that sets us back. This is similar to racing. If I spend all of my time before and during a race worrying about what Jane Smith pro is doing, I take the focus off what I am doing and end up wasting tons of mental and physical energy. In the same way that I cannot perform at my best when thinking about Jane three miles up the road, girls with body image problems cannot heal by comparing themselves to air-brushed Victoria Secret models. Yes, I still have bad days, but thankfully I have come a long way from shoving hard boiled eggs into my mouth right before heartbreak hill at the Boston Marathon.