I have a friend in Brisbane who has just taken up Ironmans, which I am over the moon about. At first glance, she has all the right ingredients to make a solid long course athlete: she’s tall, muscular, mentally pretty tough and she has the support of her family – her husband also does Ironman triathlons. And boy does she like to train.
Before her first Ironman she was understandably nervous, and wanted to skype with me to pick my brains about a few things; I was more than happy to help out. I had a lot of fellow Ironman athletes take me under their wing when I first started out, and along with my coach I felt extremely well prepared going into my first race and subsequently had a great time. I was excited to be able to do the same for her, and so I wrote down some key nutrition, pacing and training concepts that work well for me (mainly female-specific things).
So you can understand my shock when no more than 5 minutes into said skype date, she blurts out “well of course I’m only doing Ironman to keep my weight under control – for the same reason you and every other girl does it!” she laughed. I was not laughing. I was actually trying not to choke on my espresso.
Firstly, let me get this off my chest. Ironman is sacred. It is a place where you go to search the depths of your soul, to find out what you’re really made of in a way that daily life just doesn’t allow for. It is a celebration of the human body and mind, of the incredible things it can achieve. It is a magical place with a finish line that feels better than ecstasy. And when all is said and done – the months of discipline, the long, long rides with fellow athletes who become friends, the many memories made, the body chiselled and honed, the mind strengthened and the self-confidence firmly built one brick at a time – you become part of the “Ironman Family”. And THAT is what Ironman is about. Nothing short of a celebration of life in all its glory. Amen to that.
My second thought was “oh boy you are going to crash and burn in a big way, you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons”. (I didn’t say that out loud….). I do Ironman to celebrate my recovery, and to be around a couple of thousand people who don’t make excuses about why they can’t do things, they find a way to do things and be happy and loving and I am addicted to the joy and self-confidence that Ironman has brought to my life. I now respect my body for what it can do, NOT what it looks like or what the number on the scale is. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it has saved my life, by taking me away from Ana and onto richer pastures. I can’t believe how amazing this body now is, and also feel
mortified sorry for the things I have done to it in the past.
The third thought – and this is where the scientific nerd within kicked in – was “you’re not going to lose weight by doing what you’re doing, if that is your goal….”. She refused to take any nutrition other than water during any training sessions, scared that it would make her gain weight. Then she would try to restrict her calories during the day as well, to try to cut more corners. (Subsequently I am sure) she hated long rides because….well….she probably felt like crap, running on empty! Not surprisingly, she had a few niggles that she couldn’t settle and she wasn’t able to push the training up to the next level.
And sure enough, after her first Ironman, she didn’t enjoy the experience. She was too focused on trying to keep her weight under control, and stressing about not training in the couple of weeks after the race.
Here’s the thing. This may come as a revelation to non-athletes and to Anorexics, but our body responds to the messages we give it. If you starve yourself, it learns that food is scarce out there in the world and it better slow down its metabolism and store fat for the long cold winter (we still have the same DNA as our hunter-gatherer ancestors, remember). It learns that it better prioritise only the essential life-giving functions, like breathing and brain activity – so those niggles don’t heal and the muscles don’t repair from the hours of training. Minimal training adaptations occur, so you don’t really get fitter either, you just keep breaking down. Not to mention hating the training because, well, you never really feel good! In the short-term or if you get extreme about the starvation yes, you will lose weight (hello eating disorders). But eventually that weight loss slows down. And I can tell you from personal experience that after 10 years of it, your metabolism becomes very smart and very thrifty. I could go days on minimal food and not lose any weight. My body just knew it had to conserve to keep me alive.
On the flip side, if you train hard, and fuel your body, it will get the message that you want it to become fitter and stronger, and that since there is plenty of food around, it’s therefore safe to make those adaptations. You’ll lose fat, and gain bone density and muscle. Your mental health, sleep and mood will improve. You will have more energy through the day. And on race day, you will perform well and likely also enjoy yourself and the experience (which is the whole point, right?!).
And then the best part of all is the famous post-ironman “afterburn” phase, which lasts between 1-4 weeks depending on your metabolism and fitness and genetics. This is where you pretty much eat whatever you like, do minimal exercise, and lo and behold – you get leaner. It’s hilarious. Your body is working so hard to repair everything, and it’s still zooming from the 12-hour race, that if you feed it with A LOT of food, you will then set it up beautifully for the next phase of training and racing (or just life in general if you so choose). BUT if, like my friend, you decide to hardly eat anything at all after the race, you will actually halt that process and force your metabolism to really, really slow down. Your body is madly trying to repair and recoup, and if you don’t nourish it now, you will set it up for an ever slower metabolism and, unfortunately, you will likely actually lose muscle and gain fat. Which is what happened to my friend. And so the cycle continues, as she has signed up for the next race in order to “control her (now higher) weight”…..
I know it’s hard to get your head around the fact that eating more could result in losing weight. It certainly took me a long time to believe it. I tried it as a one-woman experiment and took all my measures weekly. Sure enough, over the course of 6-8 weeks I got leaner, stronger and my performance and recovery were better than ever (read: I was kicking my husband’s butt in training). The key is to keep the food as nutritious as possible, and to eat most when your body needs it most – before, during and after training. It still feels odd for me to do that, but it’s worth the mental discomfort in order to now feel like an athlete.
As a final disclaimer, I’m not saying that there aren’t people in Ironman who have eating disorders and abuse the system, and I’ve talked about this in previous posts. But they aren’t the ones succeeding in the long term. They’re the ones you see at one race, who look super fit and fast, but who end up walking the marathon because they have no fuel or endurance. They are the ones who, after 1 or if they’re lucky 2 years in the sport, you never see again. Or the ones who are one big chain of injuries one after the other – they never line up on race day 100% healthy. And they certainly aren’t the ones with the sparkle in their eyes, who will still be doing it when they’re 60 years old. Now those guys are the real superstars!
We all have one body in this life, and we all have a choice. We can nourish it and let it flourish to its true potential, or we can cut corners and watch it struggle.
I choose life!